Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

The year in Mexico: Citizens step up and demand security

Sweeping energy and economic reforms were eclipsed by 43 missing students and outrage over corruption and impunity

After signing sweeping energy, telecommunication, education and banking reforms into law in 2014, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s “Mexico moment” was eclipsed in September by the disappearance — and probable massacre — of 43 teaching students in Iguala in Guerrero, a poor rural state in southern Mexico. The shocking brutality and clear signs of government collusion captured the world’s attention, sparked massive protests and cemented security and federal government accountability as concerns that will dominate Mexico’s agenda in 2015.

The year started with two momentous 20th anniversaries — of the signing of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has boosted trade among Mexico, the United States and Canada to $17 trillion annually, and of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) uprising, when Mayan peasants in Chiapas, led by the enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos, donned black ski masks and rifles and demanded their right to indigenous self-government in response to the NAFTA signing. Their memory was also invoked this year when as many as 20,000 farmers, ranchers and professionals from Michoacán state organized themselves into vigilante militias, or self-defense groups, to expel the Knights Templar criminal organization from their towns. The tense standoff in Michoacán, while no longer in the international headlines, still needs a resolution.

The breakup of Mexico’s state-run oil company, Pemex, after seven decades is nothing short of revolutionary. Late this year Pemex opened up bidding for the country’s oil and gas fields to foreign and private investors. Oil revenue makes up a third of the federal budget. But mass protests inspired by Iguala, perhaps the largest since the Mexican Revolution, will likely overshadow any credit Peña Nieto will take for privatization. Meanwhile, plummeting oil prices — which experts predict to stagnate through the first half of 2015 — will restrict the government’s operating budget and Peña Nieto’s plans to modernize the country.

In Mexico’s ongoing drug war, the Peña Nieto administration scored what was assumed to be a big win early in the year when U.S. and Mexican federal forces arrested legendary drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the mighty Sinaloa Federation. While Mexico’s criminal organizations are more fragmented than ever, there’s no evidence they are any weaker in 2015. Despite slowing demand for marijuana because of legalization efforts in the U.S., criminal groups are increasingly diversifying their drug-trafficking enterprises to include kidnapping, prostitution, human trafficking, extortion and theft of commodities like oil and copper.

However, not all the violence in the country is caused by the drug gangs. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2014 detailed widespread use of disappearances, human rights violations and torture — often by the military. According to an Amnesty International report released in September, torture in Mexico rose sixfold over the past decade, with little being done to combat or even discourage it.

But no event in 2014 epitomized Mexico’s entrenched criminal violence and corruption more than the case of the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ school and the subsequent searches, which uncovered multiple mass graves with dozens of unidentified remains. The outcry over Iguala forced Peña Nieto to announce a 10-point security plan that would replace Mexico’s 1,800 municipal forces with 32 state forces and give the federal government the green light to dissolve local governments infiltrated by organized crime. The world will be watching how police overhaul plays out in cities like Juárez and Tijuana, where violence has been brought under control in part by municipal police forces considered by many to be better than their state counterparts. An investigation by Proceso magazine and the University of California at Berkeley — which alleges Mexican state and federal forces were also involved in the Ayotzinapa horror — will only heighten that scrutiny.

Mexico’s outrage with boundless violence was aptly captured by the #YaMeCansé (“Enough, I’m tired”) hashtag, which went viral in the wake of an off-the-cuff response from the Mexican attorney general, who wanted to end a difficult press conference about the missing students.

“This has definitely been a year of citizens stepping up and demanding their basic rights,” said Jeremy Slack, a University of Arizona researcher who studies violence against migrants. “From the armed citizens groups in Michoacán fighting drug cartels to outcry around the corruption scandal for the president's Casa Blanca, Mexicans have made clear that they are not going to take it anymore.”

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