Thomas Rath in Berfrois:
On 26 September, the municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero, shot dead three trainee teachers from Ayotzinapa. One body later turned up with the eyes gouged and skin flayed. Later, the police kidnapped 43 other students and, reportedly, handed them over to a gang of narcos (drug-traffickers) who executed the students before incinerating their bodies and throwing what remained into a river. This crime disgusted Mexico, and national and international protests soon mushroomed. The events in Iguala have made me, like many people, alternately sad, angry and – once protests began – oddly hopeful. As a historian I’ve also been fascinated to see interpretations of the event slowly emerge, and think about the different versions of Mexico’s recent past underpinning them.
The events certainly undermine the florid boosterism of the Peña Nieto administration. President Peña Nieto is a member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico through a careful blend of co-option and violence from 1929-2000. The PRI finally lost a presidential election in 2000, but was then voted back to power in 2012. The president portrayed himself as an economic modernizer unlocking Mexico’s latent potential with sweeping market-driven reforms, dumped the militarized rhetoric of his predecessor Enrique Calderón, and downplayed levels of violence.
Much of the international press lapped this stuff up. In The Economist, Peña Nieto claimed it was “Mexico’s moment“. The cover of Time magazine announced that Peña Nieto had “changed the narrative“, a weird, but appropriately vapid headline. All of this sounds pretty hollow now; perhaps it always did in Mexico, at least outside of Los Pinos, gated communities or, say, Monterrey’s hi-tech business parks. What good are 44 free-trade agreements or renewed oil production if your loved ones rot in one of the hundreds (probably thousands) of mass graves perforating the country?
But the stakes are larger than one administration’s rhetoric. The Iguala scandal has engulfed the entire political class: Iguala’s mayor, suspected of ordering the killings, is a member of the nominally left-wing opposition party; the disastrous war against narcos was launched in 2006 by the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in which at least 100,000 have been killed or disappeared. These are levels of violence comparable to those in Iraq over the same period. It has also raised larger questions about where Mexico has been in the last few decades and where it’s going.