It is now seven weeks since the police attacked students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college and then kidnapped 43 of the survivors and handed them over to a drug cartel. The brutal incident in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, acted as the proverbial last straw, opening up a wave of mass protests which continues to grow and spread.
The attack on the Ayotzinapa students brought to light what many Mexicans already knew about the complex web of relations linking the three main political parties (PRI, PAN and PRD), the state apparatus and organised crime. It also acted as a catalyst for all the pent up anger against a government which, with lightning speed, has been destroying any of the remaining gains of the Mexican revolution. This included the counter-reform of the labour law, the smashing of the militant Mexican electricians’ union, the education counter-reform, the counter-reform of the pensions and social security system, etc.
The government of Enrique Peña Nieto, of the PRI party which ruled Mexico for 70 years, then proceeded to implement the so-called “opening up of the oil industry” which means reversing the revolutionary measures taken by general Lazaro Cardenas in 1938 when he expropriated the British oil companies.
An article in the Washington Post aptly described this boiling over of accumulated anger:
“The demand to find the students and punish those responsible for their disappearance has broadened into a more diverse fury about corrupt politicians and their drug-trafficking cronies, the economic and education reforms pushed by Peña Nieto, and the enrichment of the political class as poverty persists in states such as Guerrero. The outrage reflects deep distrust of the new government.” (Outrage in Mexico over missing students broadens into fury at corruption, inequality)
What happened on the night of September 26 to 27 is clear: on the orders of the local mayor of Iguala, Abarca, the municipal police, without prior warning, opened fire against students from the Ayotzinapa Normal Rural (teacher training college). Six people were killed on the spot and 43 of the survivors were then taken by the police and handed over to a drug cartel that the mayor, his wife and his head of police are linked to. The regional governor Aguirre, from the formerly left wing PRD party, like the mayor, was forced to resign over his complicity in the attack.
The reason why the students were attacked? The mayor feared that they were in Iguala to protest at a political meeting his wife was speaking at. In short, they were killed and disappeared because of their proud traditions of revolutionary militancy.
The anger of the comrades and relatives of the disappeared students was first directed at the local mayor and the governor of Guerrero. But it took the national government 10 days to issue any public statement and to intervene in the matter. The more details emerged over the matter, the clearer it became that state collusion with organised crime was not something which affected just one region or one political party, but the whole of the state apparatus at all levels (municipal, statewide and federal). In one way or another everyone knew or suspected it, the inescapable conclusion of six bloody years of so-called “war on drugs” under president Calderón (Peña Nieto’s predecessor, from the PAN right-wing Catholic party) which left over 120,000 people killed according to official figures. The case of the Ayotzinapa students crystallised it all into a mass movement.
The campaigners realised, ever more clearly, that the national government was not really interested in solving the case, but rather in delaying any announcement so that the families would become tired and give up. First they spread rumours about alleged links between the kidnapped students and organised crime. They tried to say that they were really to blame as they were “radicals” and “guerrillas”. But none of this worked.
The struggle for Ayotzinapa became a rallying cry for a growing student movement, starting at the UNAM and IPN universities in Mexico City, but then spreading to over 140 institutions of higher education all over the country. This is the largest students’ movement in Mexico since 1968 and in its national spread it has already become larger than that.
There have been a series of national days of action, 48 and 72 hour national student strikes, demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Mexico City and tens of thousands in state capitals across the country. Of course, the movement has been stronger and more radical in Guerrero and in other Southern States like Michoacán and Oaxaca, with a tradition of revolutionary struggle and strong sections of the militant democratic teachers’ organisation CNTE. But significantly it has also spread to the North, traditionally more conservative and under the firm control of the drug cartels. There have been big demonstrations in Sinaloa, San Luís Potosí, Sonora and other states in the north of the country.
A much publicised meeting between the families of the students and president Peña Nieto did not go according to plan, as the relatives came out of it in a fighting mood instead of being appeased by the words of the president.
On October 7, in a desperate move, Peña Nieto decided to try something else to attempt to defuse the protests. In a televised statement, the State Prosecutor Murillo Karam, announced that they knew what had been the fate of the students. They had been executed by the drug cartel, their bodies burnt and their ashes thrown into a river. The mayor of Iguala and his wife had already been arrested that same week. This was supposed to put an end to the case. It was tragic, unfortunate, but there was nothing else that could be done and the case should be now closed.
The government knew that this announcement was going to provoke angry demonstrations but it was prepared to pay the price. This was also supposed to prepare the ground for the delayed presidential visit to China, which was rescheduled for November 9.
Again, the plans of the government were disrupted by the militant spirit of the parents who had no trust in the authorities. They pointed out that the government had not provided any proof of what it was saying. They had already been fooled before, when the government announced that remains found in a series of shallow graves were those of their sons, only to be disproven by DNA testing.
The relatives insisted that the search for their children and their mobilisation, would continue until there was conclusive proof of their fate. A few days later the government story started to unravel. Someone pointed out that on the night when the government alleged the bodies had been burnt for 15 hours it had been raining torrentially. An Argentine forensic team said that none of the DNA recovered in shallow graves in Cocula and Iguala, nor any of the samples taken from the rubbish dump in Cocula (where allegedly the students’ bodies had been burnt) matched those of the students. DNA samples from ashes recovered had to be processed through special means and samples had been sent to Austria.
Karam made a further blunder at the end of the press conference when he refused to take any more questions saying “Ya me cansé” (“I am tired, I’ve had enough”). This was rightly taken as an insult. The government, which was at least partly responsible for the disappearance of the students and was widely seen as not being really interested in finding their whereabouts, now was saying that it was “tired” of the whole affair!
The reaction from the masses was justifiably one of anger. In Guerrero’s capital Chilpancingo, furious demonstrators set fire to several official cars and the state palace. In Mexico City tens of thousands marched on Sunday, November 9 and then set fire to the door of the National Palace. Quite clearly there were provocateurs amongst the protestors and allowing the door to be set on fire was designed to brand the demonstrators as violent anti-Mexican thugs. At the same time there was a deep feeling of anger and frustration at the behaviour of the government. Thousands of youth were prepared to fight back against the riot police, not just the usual minority.
The president’s trip to China, far from putting an end to the protests concentrated the fury even more on himself. He was criticised for the callous comments of his daughter, for having taken his wife’s personal makeup artist with him, for the cost of the presidential plane, for the cost of his wife’s residence, etc. etc.
In both Guerrero and Michoacán, protesters had taken over town halls and in many towns and villages the armed people, through the organised “community police”, are the only recognised authority. In Michoacan, where the state had managed to co-opt and disband the self defence organisations created to defend the communities against the state forces and the narcos alike, they are now starting to re-arm themselves.
Just to give an indication of the massive character of this movement amongst the youth, on November 11 there was a mass meeting involving 5,000 people, students, lecturers and workers of the Azcapotzalco campus of the UAM university. They voted for an all out strike for the Ayotzinapa 43. This was not a full strike with an occupation of the campus, but rather a state of permanent mobilisation with assemblies, activities, discussions, etc.
The Secretary of State, Chong was booed at the inauguration of the Central American Games in Veracruz on November 14, when he mentioned the name of the president. This was the more surprising because the overwhelming majority of those present would have been loyal PRI supporters bused in (“acarreados”). There were protests by the public at minute 43 of the first half and the second half during the Mexico-Holland football match.
Then on Saturday night, November 14, just as the president was landing on his way back from China and the G20 summit, another incident poured petrol on the flames. A group of police officers entered the UNAM university and started taking pictures of the students outside the Che Guevara lecture hall occupied by the students. This was a clear provocation (carried out under the excuse of following up on a mobile phone theft) and when the students confronted the police, one of the officers opened fire wounding a student in the leg.
That night hundreds of students clashed with riot police which had entered the UNAM (in violation of university autonomy). Peña Nieto’s response as he was getting off the president plane was an ominous warning that “the state has the legitimacy to carry out repression if necessary”. As if the state was not already responsible for opening fire on unarmed students and kidnapping 43 of them! As if there had not been already 23,000 disappeared and countless abuses on human rights carried out by the state!
The government of Peña Nieto appears to be increasingly isolated as a national movement grows demanding his resignation. But a beast is most dangerous when it is wounded. We should not forget that Peña Nieto was the governor of Mexico State who used brutal police repression against the village of San Salvador Atenco in 2006. Hundreds were arrested during the occupation of the village, and 26 women were sexually assaulted amongst other violations of human rights.
Behind the façade of Peña Nieto as a nice modernising reformer, which the world capitalist media has cultivated, he has in fact been carrying out the counter-reforms which international capital has been demanding, and is in reality the same old brutal face of the PRI regime of old which never went away.
Peña Nieto’s threat, for this is not a “warning”, could be the prelude to the unleashing of a wave of repression against the movement as a whole and also selectively against its most prominent activists. The only thing which has stopped him from going down this road so far is the fact that even the ruling class understands that at this point government repression would simply have the effect of further inflaming the situation.
To give an idea of the mindset of the PRI leaders let us just quote from Beatriz Pagés, the party’s Culture Secretary: “the disappearance and probable killing of the 43 Ayotzinapa young students is part of a trap against Mexico. Several elements are part of it: organised crime, guerrilla groups, trade unions like the Guerrero Teachers’ Coordination, anarchist groupings like those who burnt the National Palace door, and political parties - like Morena - which have banked on profiting from instability”. Significantly she adds to the conspiracy “the students of the Polytechnic, who are no longer interested in solving their demands but in artificially extending their strike in order to add to the lawlessness”.
Of course there is no such conspiracy. The real cause of this explosion is the accumulation of economic counter-reforms, repression, electoral fraud, etc. As for Morena, whole it is true that its members are involved in the movement, its leadership has been notable for not having given any lead whatsoever to the protests.
She then goes to the crucial point which worries the ruling class, both in Mexico and abroad: “There are those who are clearly operating against the interests of Mexico, and the youth - be they those in Ayotzinapa or those at the Polytechnic - have been chosen in order to create conditions contrary to investment and the interests of Mexico”.
This is what really matters. It is not a question of the need to put an end to the domination of the criminal gangs and their collusion with the state apparatus. That is fine, as long as nobody protests against it, because then it hurts “investment,” that is, it destroys the “business friendly” environment created by the capitalist counter-reforms of Peña Nieto. It makes the country less safe from the point of view of the interests of the multinationals and Mexican big business.
And in an admission that the majority of the people sympathises with the movement of the youth and could take the step of joining in she concludes: “It is imperative that the criminals cease to gain space in the streets, but above all amongst public opinion”.
There is no doubt that a wing of the state and the ruling class would want a section of the students and the peasants and teachers in Guerrero and Mexico City to take the road of isolated actions of terror and guerrilla struggle. That would help them isolate the more advanced elements from the general movement and justify using the full might of the state against them.
On Sunday, after the provocation at the UNAM, there was a big demonstration on campus. A small group of masked youth attempted to take over the Rector’s building. The crowd opposed them and instead called for mass assemblies to take place in the schools, so that any occupation would be the decision of the movement as a whole. This is the correct way forward to maintain the movement united and strong. Of course, what we are concerned with here is not the fate of a Palace door, but rather the fate of the movement as a whole and what is the strategy that can make it stronger and how it can best deliver blows against its enemy in order to achieve its aims.
In Guerrero for instance, any violence and destruction of property which has taken place has been carried out as a result of the decisions of the movement as a whole involving the students, the relatives of the Ayotzinapa teachers, the CETEG teachers’ union and other mass organisations.
However, what would really shake the regime - and we should not forget that Peña Nieto, like his predecessor Calderón only came to power as a result of electoral fraud - would be the entry of the working class into the movement in a decisive manner. The students already understand that and are working in that direction.
On November 20, Mexico’s Revolution Day, there is a call for a national student strike and a national day of action. In Mexico City the call has gone out for the occupation of the International Airport. All this is to be followed by a mass demonstration combining with the four columns of the Ayotzinapa students’ relatives which have been touring the country gathering support for their cause.
On November 29, the Ayotzinapa student teachers have called for a national students’ congress to meet in the premises of their college in Guerrero. Finally on December 1 there is a call for a 24-hour general strike. It is difficult to know what will be its impact. On the one hand, the unions calling for it are only a minority of the organised working class, mainly concentrated in the teaching profession (primary, secondary and university), together with the telephone company workers and perhaps some sections of the miners in the north of the country. The mood is such, however, that the actions on both the 20th and on the 1st could go far beyond the scope of the organisations calling them.
Events in Mexico show how quickly a situation, which seems apparently calm on the surface, can turn into its opposite. Barely a few weeks ago, at the beginning of September, this appeared to be a strong government, which had smashed all opposition to its wide ranging programme of capitalist counter-reforms and was about to top it all by introducing the “opening” of the oil industry. The Economist, the Financial Times and the Washington Post, in fact the whole of the capitalist media worldwide, were praising Peña Nieto, who was finally “bringing Mexico into the 21st century”.
Then two apparently accidental events, the Polytechnic Institute strike which started on September 25 over an apparently minor issue and the attack on the Ayotzinapa students on September 26, combined to unleash a mass movement which unravelled the whole situation. The movement is far from having won already, but it is on the ascent, gaining strength and support by the day and has widened its scope into a movement against the whole regime with a clear demand: Peña Nieto must go.