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Mexican mass graves point to failure of national reforms

Massacre appears to be the product of state brutality intended to silence dissent

October 11, 2014 6:00AM ET

On Oct. 4, mass graves were discovered outside the small industrial city of Iguala in Guerrero state in Mexico, holding at least 28 unidentified bodies. Then late Wednesday, more clandestine graves were reportedly discovered. Though authorities have said it will take some time to determine the identities of the badly burned and dismembered bodies, many in the area fear that they hold some of the 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in the nearby town of Ayotzinapa who disappeared two weeks ago — apparently at the hands of the municipal police. Though many questions remain unanswered, one thing is clear: The project of President Enrique Peña Nieto to prioritize investor security over the security of the Mexican people has had deadly consequences.

Peña Nieto was elected in 2012 with just 38 percent of the vote, but international media have heralded him as Mexico’s savior. A member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years before being ousted in 2000, he put together an alliance with opposition parties from the right and left called the Pact for Mexico, which helped push through a series of market-oriented reforms of the education, telecom and energy sectors. The reforms were designed to convince international investors that Mexico was not a failing state in the midst of a deadly, unwinnable war against narcotraffickers but a hot emerging market — and a good bet for Wall Street. Peña Nieto’s approach to the drug war raging in his country was to scale down the highly militarized, U.S.-backed war on the cartels waged by his predecessor in an attempt to “change the conversation” about Mexico, as he told Time magazine earlier this year. Despite his legislative reforms and public-relations victories, state corruption and violence keep intruding on the storybook Mexico he’s trying to depict.

Mexicans have sadly become accustomed to grisly violence, as more than 60,000 people have died in the drug war since 2006. But the Ayotzinapa case is galvanizing thousands across Mexico and around the rest of the world because it can’t simply be dismissed as narcoviolence between warring cartels. Instead it appears to be politically motivated state violence intended to silence dissent. In the early hours of Sept. 27, municipal police opened fire on buses carrying dozens of students from a nearby teaching college, killing three of them and three others. Witnesses say the surviving students were herded into police vans, and 43 students remain missing. After the discovery of the mass graves, local people fear the worst.

But why were these students targeted? Some international media outlets have portrayed the students as provoking violence from the police, in part because the students apparently took over local buses to take them back to their school from Iguala (a tactic they regularly use for both transport and civil disobedience). It’s hard to understand the unarmed commandeering of buses as sufficient provocation for deadly machine gun fire. But the story is more complicated than that. These students and others like them in the normales, as the teacher-training colleges are called, have a history of radical activism. The students from Ayotzinapa, who attend a school dating back to the Mexican Revolution that has been called the cradle of Mexico’s rebel teachers, have been particularly active in protesting the Pact for Mexico’s education reforms, which overhaul how teachers are hired, evaluated and fired. That puts them in direct opposition to the current political process in Mexico and may have put them in the crosshairs of the local government.

These brutal attacks are not isolated incidents of local corruption but part of a larger pattern that is exacerbated by Peña Nieto’s reform strategy.

Iguala’s Mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez and Guerrero’s Gov. Ángel Aguirre Ribero belong to the moderate faction of Mexico’s left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD); it’s this faction, known as the Chuchos, that brought the party into the Pact for Mexico with Peña Nieto. Abarca, whose in-laws have ties to the bloodthirsty Beltran Leyva cartel, disappeared shortly after the killings and is now a fugitive. While Aguirre was quick to distance himself from Abarca after the attack on the students, he previously supported the mayor. More than a year ago, there were public accusations of the mayor’s ties to cartel leaders and of his direct involvement in the deaths of three members of a rival PRD faction, but the governor declined to investigate. Given what they perceive as Aguirre’s protection of his Chucho comrade, student leaders have accused the governor of being the intellectual assassin of their murdered colleagues. There is thus no official political channel through which the students could express their dissent. At the local level, members of all three of Mexico’s main political parties have ties to the cartels, and at the national level, the parties have formed a political alliance to push the very reforms that the students oppose.

While the details of the discovered graves will take time to determine, this massacre has made clear to the thousands of Mexicans who marched in support of the Ayotzinapa students on Wednesday that these kinds of brutal attacks are not isolated incidents of local corruption but part of a larger pattern that is only exacerbated by Peña Nieto’s reform strategy. With officials of all political stripes harboring strong ties to drug cartels, local corruption is widespread and increasingly violent. And with no room for dissent within the alliance of political parties, any political opposition is represented as a dangerous threat to Mexico’s future as an emerging market economy, to becoming the so-called Aztec Tiger that Peña Nieto is seeking to create. After Ayotzinapa, it is now painfully clear that what some are calling the narcostate is all too willing to violently repress any such threats.

It is a cruel irony that when the police opened fire on the students, they were returning from raising funds to participate in an annual march in the capital that commemorates the 1968 massacre of hundreds of students by police forces in Mexico City. The shocking state violence of 1968 opened Mexicans’ eyes to the authoritarian nature of their one-party state and became a watershed moment in the country’s history. Despite his best intentions to tell a different kind of story about Mexico today, Peña Nieto may be repeating one of his country’s darkest chapters. 

Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of history at Rowan University and a board member of the North American Congress on Latin America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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