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Mexico's acceptance of mass murder

Every major Mexican political party has been damaged by the recent crisis

November 30, 2014 3:00AM ET

Mexico is struggling through its deepest crisis in years. The protest movement triggered by the Sept. 26 disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero has unsettled Mexico’s political establishment more deeply even than the student movement of 1968, or the Zapatista uprising of 1994, because this movement touches the entire political spectrum.

Fue el estado” (“The state did it”) is the slogan on the lips of many. But what this means is unclear.

When the scandal broke out, responsibility was confined to local officials. Obeying orders from Iguala’s municipal president, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife María de los Angeles Pineda — both leaders in  the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel — police shot and killed six students and captured 43 others.

According to taped confessions, the abducted students were then handed to gang members who later executed them and burned their bodies in a municipal dump.

At first, then, the portion of “the state” that was responsible was the municipal government of Iguala, a town of 118,000 inhabitants, that was run from top to bottom by a drug cartel. Statements issued by one of the students’ alleged killers also suggested the possibility that other nearby state organizations — including the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School , the teacher-training school that the students attended — were infiltrated by competing drug organizations. Indeed, it appears plausible that municipal governments and police forces of much of Guerrero state are controlled by drug organizations, the more so because the Iguala region is the center of a thriving opium-producing region.

Had this been the only fact uncovered by Iguala’s tragic events, the stain of the massacre might have damaged just the parts of the Mexican state run by drug organizations, and not the legitimacy of the state as a whole. But party politics have turned events into a national crisis.

Both the Iguala and the Guerrero state governments are run by the most established party of the left, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), while the presidency is in the hands of the centrist Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). This initially encouraged President Enrique Peña Nieto to assume a low profile, and to try to let the Guerrero state government take the rap for attrocities committed in their jurisdiction. Indeed, the political fallout of the scandal appeared to open vistas for the PRI to re-take Guerrero state in the next election.

Passing responsibility between federal, state and local governments has been a tradition of Mexican politics since the country’s democratic transition. During the worst years of scandal over feminicide in Ciudad Juárez, for instance, the country stood aghast as the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, the governor of Chihuahua, and the federal government blamed each other for the crisis. 

At the early stages of the current drama, the PRD imploded under the weight of its undeniable responsibility, leading to the resignation of state governor Angel Aguirre and to the fragmentation of the party. But the event’s stains did not stay neatly on the PRD or in Guerrero, and moved quickly to the National Palace in Mexico City.  How did that happen?

When Mexico’s attorney general’s office stepped into the investigation, the Federal Police found a mass grave with 38 bodies in it. Naturally, they initially believed that they had found the missing students, but it turned out that there were other, unidentified, occupants in that particular mass grave. The public now had to account for 43 missing students, plus an additional 38 vicitims of another atrocity. Then another mass grave was found, also filled with unidentified bodies, followed by yet another.

Mexico’s federal, state and local governments have been shown up as either complicit with mass murder, or too self-serving or incompetent to deal with it squarely.

The image of Mexico as a giant clandestine grave, decried by human rights champion and priest Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, has haunted public opinion. Even if the Federal Police operated in as transparent and effective a manner as possible, the facts demonstrated the complacency — if not complicity — of the country’s justice system with mass murder. 

To complicate matters even further, Mexico has a colorful history of botched federal investigations. These are not the responsibility of the current government, but they do have an effect on state credibility. Around the time of the 1994 unresolved assassinations of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colossio and of PRI Secretary General José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the federal prosecutor dramatized the investigation by inviting a witch known as “La Paca” to help resolve the murder. La Paca led the prosecutor to a body that had been planted especially for the investigation. Since then, there have been more scandalous cases of staged investigations, including that of Florence Cassez — a French citizen who was convicted for her participation in the Mexican kidnapping gang Los Zodiacos. The case particularly tarnished Mexico’s international image because it created tensions between France and Mexico over extradition.

The recent discoveries of multiple mass graves fit this pattern of general incompetence and impunity, which shifted discontent onto the federal government. This sentiment was compounded by the fact the missing students were enrolled in a school that is part of a network of teacher organizations that militantly opposed President Peña Nieto’s recent neoliberal education reforms.

As a result, rather than outrage being directed solely at the PRD, Iguala and the Guerrero state, the president soon found his own office under fire. Peña Nieto tried to demonstrate his concern in a number of ways, but by then he could not easily shake a public image of indifference: the students were abducted on Sept. 26, but the president didn’t meet with their parents until Oct. 29. 

Then matters got even worse for the president. In early November, Aristegui Noticias reported that the $7 million house President Peña Nieto occupies has shady origins. Part of the property was bequeathed to his wife by her former employer, the media giant Televisa, in a fashion that suggests influence peddling. The other portion was based on a loan from a builder that has received lucrative government contracts, including partnership with the Chinese in a $3.7 billion rail project.

President Peña Nieto rescinded the contract and went to the Nov. 8-10 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing to mend fences and garner substantial new investments. But his timing was poor; he left Mexico at the moment the rallies for the missing had gone viral. The image of the president traveling to China while the doors of the National Palace were being burned in protest conveyed the sense of a state that had lost touch with the people.

The scandal did not tarnish just the president and his party; all the establishment political parties have been touched by the scandal. The PRD is in disarray.  The center-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) is not in position to step into the void, because it was responsible for launching the drug war in the first place. Even firebrand Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who recently left the PRD to form a new party, has kept a low profile because of his connections to tarnished Guerrero politicians. Meantime, the administration has lost its legitimacy only two years into a six-year term.

This is what “The state did it” means: Mexico’s federal, state and local governments have been shown up as either complicit with mass murder, or too self-serving or incompetent to deal with it squarely. 

Claudio Lomnitz is director of Columbia University’s Center for Mexican Studies. His latest book is “The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón.”

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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