The Mexican Revolution, which launched on Nov. 20, 1910, was the first major political and social revolution of the 20th century. It brought an end to Porfirio Díaz’s 34-year dictatorship and transformed Mexico through land reform, the implementation of presidential term limits and the nationalization of natural resources.
Today, on the 104th anniversary of the revolution, Mexico faces another defining moment.
Since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón launched a war against Mexican drug cartels, more than 100,000 people have been killed and more than 22,000 have disappeared, according to conservative estimates. While the Mexican government is responsible for the violence and carnage the drug war has wrought, the United States is complicit: It has provided a market for drugs north of the border, sent guns south of the border and funded the drug war by sending $3 billion to the Mexican government through the Mérida Initiative and other programs.
Though drug-war-related violence has not let up during the first two years of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term, he has largely ignored it. What’s more, his administration has changed the narrative to focus on Mexico as an economic success story. This, of course, has done nothing to reduce the killings and forced disappearances.
But now Peña Nieto, as well as the foreign investors he has worked so hard to court, can no longer avoid acknowledging the pervasive violence, corruption and impunity that continue to plague Mexico. The Sept. 26 abduction of 43 students in the southwestern state of Guerrero has eliminated whatever credibility his pivoting to economic issues might have had.
The students came from the town of Ayotzinapa, where they attended the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School — a rural teacher-training school with a long tradition of social activism, born out of the revolution. What happened to them is still unclear, but officials have claimed that the politically ambitious mayor of Iguala and his wife — both of whom had ties to organized crime and are currently in custody — feared that the students were going to disrupt an event later that day and ordered local police officers to stop them. When confronting the students, the police opened fire, leaving two students and three bystanders dead. A sixth person turned up dead the next day, his eyes and the skin on his face removed — a sign of a cartel-style execution.
Police then reportedly turned 43 students over to Guerreros Unidos, a local drug gang. According to the government, members of the gang killed the students, chopped up their bodies, added branches and trash to the pile, doused it in gasoline and set it aflame. They kept the fire burning for more than 14 hours, until all that remained was ash, some bone fragments and some teeth that “turned to powder” when touched, said Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. Three of the men who supposedly carried out this heinous, unthinkable crime provided information that helped authorities recover black plastic garbage bags filled with human remains.
Officials have yet to confirm whether the remains in those bags belong to the 43 students. The students’ families do not believe the government — with good reason, based on history and how the investigation has gone thus far — and demand proof. (A special lab in Innsbruck, Austria, will test the remains in hopes of providing a conclusive answer, although it is unclear if it will be able to do so.)
At a Nov. 7 press conference, Murillo Karam emphatically denied that what happened to the 43 students of Ayotzinapa was a state crime. But the state has played an important role in creating the political culture in which something like this could occur. The Mexican Revolution was progressive in that it toppled Díaz, but it gave way to an authoritarian political culture via the formation and rise of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which Mario Vargas Llosa famously described as “the perfect dictatorship.”
One-party rule under the PRI during the last 71 years of the 20th century created a Mexico in which corruption runs deep through all levels of government and impunity reigns. What happened in Ayotzinapa is obviously not an isolated incident or a lone act committed by a few monstrous individuals. Consider the 72 migrants killed in the San Fernando massacre of 2010, the slaughter of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya in the state of Mexico in June and the dozens of unidentified bodies that have turned up in mass graves in searches for the students, to name just a few examples.
But the disappearance of the 43 students seems to have been the breaking point for many people, sparking angry protests across the country and around the rest of the world. Some observers wonder whether this horrific incident might even lead to revolutionary change.
Peña Nieto (who is embroiled in a separate, growing scandal related to a real estate deal his wife made) and his PRI are the objects of particular scorn. Many Mexicans, however, argue that the entire bankrupt political system is to blame. The solution, they say, lies in a Mexico free from the existing major political parties — from the PRI to the conservative Partido Acción Nacional to the left-leaning Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) to the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, a new party founded by former PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador — since the problems of corruption and impunity plague them all.
A complete revamping of Mexico’s political system is unlikely, and the people calling for it have yet to put forth concrete, viable alternatives. But they are right that nothing will change unless drastic action is taken that compels those in power to step down. Protesters have proved that online activism and the use of social networks are useful organizing and public relations tools, but they cannot replace people in the streets. Hashtags certainly are not going to convince the political class and those who benefit from the status quo to act.
A small faction is calling for armed revolution, which is neither a preferable nor a viable option, and it is not being seriously considered. Other possible ways to spark meaningful change — continued international media attention that results in geopolitical pressure and economic sanctions, mass marches on an unprecedented level and extended national strikes that bring the economy to a halt or some combination thereof — appear equally unlikely.
Yet a complete revamping of Mexico’s political system is not impossible. Extraordinary events that alter the course of history do happen, on occasion. Felling Díaz may have seemed as implausible 104 years ago as a Mexico with a restructured political system and highly functioning rule of law does now. But as the revolution proved, nothing is inevitable.