Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images

Don’t expect an Aztec Spring with Mexico protests, analysts warn

Although thousands took to the streets in Mexico City, experts doubt the status quo of violence will change

MEXICO CITY — After weeks of protests over the disappearance of 43 students in the southern state of Guerrero, many thousands of demonstrators converged on Mexico City. Their demands were no longer simply to learn the fate of the missing students or to bring those responsible to justice; instead, they also called for the resignation of President Enrique Peña Nieto. But despite such revolutionary demands and such dramatic imagery as the torching of the doors the national palace last weekend, analysts are not predicting that dramatic change in Mexico is imminent. 

The pageantry of revolution pervades much of politics in Mexico. The missing students from Guerrero had been trying to raise funds for a trip to the capital to observe the anniversary of yet another revolutionary tragedy — the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of protesting students in Mexico City. The march to protest their disappearances was staged on the anniversary of the 1910 revolution, and along the way marchers received a message of support from the Zapatista Front, which had launched a brief armed insurrection in the southern state of Chiapas on New Year's Day in 1994.  

The current upsurge reflects deep-seated revulsion shared among wide sectors of civil society at the pervasive corruption and drug-war-related violence of the status quo. But there are no signs yet that this protest wave is any different from a number of other eruptions of mass anger over the past two decades that have failed to transform that status quo despite its stark failure to deliver security and justice to the citizenry.

Click for more coverage of Mexico protests

“It’s really important to temper expectations,” says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego and a scholar of the Mexican justice system. “This is another terrible event, but Mexico has turned so many corners of this kind that it seems to be still going in the same direction.”

Ernesto López Portillo, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a Mexican think tank, agrees. “This is not the Aztec Spring,” he says, adding that street protests alone are unable to tackle the underlying problem of the a lack of accountability for those in power.

Neither protests nor the promises of politicians have achieved the institutional changes he says are essential to changing life in Mexico, he says. Moreover, despite the intensity of the protests, they have not so far drawn the active support of a majority of Mexicans. Portillo is more inclined to favor strengthening the rule of law and the mechanisms that enforce it. 

Previous similar protest movements over the past decade have not resulted in any curbs on the onslaught of violence sweeping through Mexico.

A catalogue of horrors

In 2004 nearly 250,000 people dressed in white marched quietly through Mexico City’s most emblematic thoroughfare, Reforma Avenue, demanding security. Two years later, then-President Felipe Calderón unleashed a war on drugs that led to more than 47,000 deaths during his six-year term, including the massacre of 15 youths at a party in the Villas del Salvarcar neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez.

In 2008 after the teenage son of Alejandro Martí, a well-known businessman, was kidnapped by men dressed as federal police officers and killed shortly thereafter, anti-crime marches streamed through the capital, and a debate over the return of the death penalty was reignited. Martí founded Mexico SOS, a civic group that seeks to halt insecurity, like dozens of others that have sprouted since.

And Javier Sicilia, a poet whose son was killed by a drug cartel in 2011, has led several peace caravans throughout Mexico and across the United States, galvanizing thousands of people in favor of ending the war on drugs. Their slogan, “Estamos hasta la madre” (We’ve had enough), was a precursor to the current rallying cry, “Enough, I’m tired,” which the attorney general muttered after a lengthy press conference about the missing students.

During these episodes a single question, revived in recent weeks, loomed over Mexico: “What is enough? I don’t know. No one knows,” said López Portillo. “We might haven’t had had enough.”

The latest horror, in September, saw the mayor of Iguala order police to round up a group of students he feared would disrupt a speech his wife was giving. Six people were killed in the initial confrontation, and according to witnesses, officers handed the remaining students over to a local drug gang known as Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors.

As authorities dug up a series of mass graves containing the remains of 38 people, none believed to be the students, the governor of Guerrero resigned, and the mayor and his wife — who authorities believe has family ties to a large drug cartel — went on the lam for several weeks before being arrested.

In the latest investigative lead, Austrian forensic experts are analyzing ashes believed to be the students' remains. 

But the fate of the students — male, indigenous and poor — remains unknown, and anger continues to boil, exacerbated by Peña Nieto’s efforts since taking office in 2012 to shift the conversation, both at home and abroad, away from security issues toward his package of constitutional overhauls and reform in the education and energy sectors.

Further deepening the collective indignation among Mexicans was the revelation by Carmen Aristegui, a respected Mexican journalist, that the first lady’s previously undeclared mansion, worth more than $6.5 million, was purchased from the subsidiary of a company that won several multimillion dollar contracts from the government, including a recent $3.7 billion high-speed rail line. That contract was canceled after opposition senators called the bidding process unfair.

Experts agree that the case of the missing students is unprecedented. It shows the shifting nature of the symbiotic relationship between local politicians and organized crime, in which the latter imposes its dominion over the former.

The challenge of power

Recent history demonstrates, if anything, that citizen outrage does not easily translate into political change, analysts say.

“I’m not terribly confident. I’ve seen so much improvisation,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch Americas, referring to the government’s response to the Iguala case. “If it is up to the current government, I don’t see any evidence that suggests that anything will change.”

The protesters appear to share that view, demanding the ouster of the government as part of their campaign for justice for the disappeared students. Vivanco says the current administration's overwhelming priority is protecting the president's image, noting that it's special unit for tackling cases of disappeared people has produced minimal results. 

In a 176-page report published in 2013, Human Rights Watch documented 149 disappearances from 2006 to 2012 in which state agents most likely participated. The army, the navy or federal or local police were held responsible for the disappearances, according to the report.

And yet the army continues to carry out abuses. In June soldiers killed 22 people, including a 15-year-old girl, in what they described as a gun battle with an armed gang. The Associated Press found evidence that the victims were killed execution-style. Three soldiers have been charged with aggravated murder.

A number of security-related reforms over the last decade, including a 1996 law against organized crime and the creation in 2012 of the Federal Ministerial Police, have yielded negligible results. “Reforms have not modified practices so far,” says López Portillo.

The reality on the ground is that citizens remain distrustful of authorities. Families of the missing students brought in the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to analyze remains found in multiple mass graves. This is the group's second Guerrero task: In 2001 the same team trained a group of medical and legal professionals investigating the 1995 killing of 17 peasants by the army in Guerrero.

Most of the protesters who headed to the capital on Thursday had been peaceful, though some temporarily closed down the airport in Acapulco, a tourist haven 130 miles southwest of Iguala, and set government buildings on fire in recent weeks, including the doors to the National Palace.

“The challenge here is taking this outrage, this frustration and channeling it in a constructive, longer-term agenda to strengthen the rule of law in Mexico,” says Shirk, adding that Mexico's problems are complex and varied and therefore require many changes for which there is no single overriding solution. “That will not be easy.”

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter