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Within twenty-four hours of protestors setting fire to the National Palace door in Mexico City, Mexico, I phoned a close friend. I cannot say much about him; however, I can say that he is from Mexico City, lives there, and that he works with elected officials who respond directly to the head of state. I asked him what the back-story was regarding recent polemics surrounding the protests and missing/murdered 43 students. He told me that nobody knows the official story, but that the popular perception of the tragedy undergirds the current commotion.
Everything allegedly started in Iguala, a town in the State of Guerrero. The mayor’s wife is fairly outspoken politically, and she planned to give a speech. In the past, however, she had trouble with confrontations and protestors—especially students of “normal” schools. Normal schools are for students who want to become, or are studying to become, teachers. My friend said:
There are all these things going on in terms of education. They are cutting the budgets of different schools; they are diminishing the amounts of credits or courses that students have to take. For example, you can graduate, but you will no longer be an engineer, you would be a ‘technical engineer’ because of how the curriculum works out now. However, in Mexico, people are very big into their titles. Everywhere you go, people call you licenciado, or maestro, or doctor. They are really into their titles.
The roots of the current unrest go deeper than titles; not only does a change in professional title demote students’ and teachers’ socially, but it also places them at a lower market value for the workforce. This “changes a lot in terms of salary,” my friend said, “which, in Mexico, is nothing. So, you go from nothing, to even more nothing. So, students and teacher are fed-up, and protesting.”
My friend could not stress enough that the now missing/murdered “[43 students] wouldn’t have done anything. They wouldn’t engage in any violence; they would just be there making noise. But [the mayor’s wife] told the police—which she controls—to ‘take care of them.’” For that matter, student protests take aim at issues of education in the hopes of it shaping their future work, not to diminish the state. In Mexico, however, my friend explained that to “take care of someone” does not mean to put up roadblocks, or to arrest people unduly. He said, “What it means is, kidnap them, dismember them, and burn them alive. So, that’s essentially what happened. She told the police, ‘Hey, don’t let them come near me.’ So what they took that as, was, ‘let’s kill them off.’” The Mayor of Iguala’s wife apparently did not want any rabble-rousing during her speech.
A question remained regarding popular opinion, though. Did denizens of the Distrito Federal (D.F., or Mexico City) believe the 43 missing students to have been killed this way? Was public perception clear about dismemberment and burning? After all, it is largely atrocious and unthinkable. “Yup,” my friend said, and he explained why:
There are a few theories, but this one is in line with what ‘they’ usually do. They take you out to a forest, or a mountain, and then they tell you to start digging ditches. So you dig. Then they kill you, chop you, and they light you on fire. Now there are all these mass graves. Victims dig their own graves and are killed.
This perfunctory model for murder seems a large part of the social storm that currently simmers. Many people are investigating and searching for the missing students, all with the intention of finding something. My contact put it curtly: “Anyone is wrong who thinks the students are still alive. In Mexico, you don’t live; you get killed. Instantly.”
The violence is more pernicious than politics. “There is no mercy here,” my friend said, as he explained that investigators “keep trying to find the students, and then they keep coming up with new mass graves, which have nothing to do with the incident.” Now, people are growing more and more upset that this tragedy has metastasized, and it reveals even more misery and state violence.
My friend also warned about the foreign perception that narcos (narcotraficantes, or drug-lords) are the only ones involved, and the ones destroying the country. He said, “It’s the people that rule the country; the people that are supposed to protect you from the violence are the ones that are causing violence.”
Along the same lines, we discussed reports that tell of the government handing the 43 protestors over to the gang in order to eliminate the problem. Was it a lie, though? “I think so,” he said, adding that what is most likely happening is that “they’re trying to do is cover-up by saying they handed them off to some narcos, rather than blame the police, or the mayor’s wife.”
Was the Mexican national government afraid of swelling populist violence and uprising? “Violence is not a populist threat,” my friend said, excepting that if “someone starts something, many of people are so impressionable that they will follow suit. So, I don’t think violence is really a threat unless quite a few start doing it—and then it might become a big problem.” He informed me that other property, and not only the National Palace, had been subjected to arson: “That’s why they burned a bus station three days ago, here in Mexico City as well. I just drove by it.”
Was there any way the protests right now could explode into something bigger, despite the threats of retaliation and political suppression? What about the popular perception of this protest momentum in particular? Was it enough to push Mexico past the brink? My friend postulated that it is:
Unlikely things will get bigger because the populists don’t have the weapons to do much damage. Were it the US, where everyone can have a gun, things would be different. But the narcos are not with the populists; they are with the government. They have the guns. And that’s where the power is. Even if the populists might cause a riot, they’re not going to overthrow a government.
Like perhaps many Mexicans, my friend was upset by the fact that protesters had set fire to the National Palace door. “Some want to blame Peña Nieto, the President,” he said, “but, he has nothing to do with it. It’s the governors, and all the state governments that are so corrupt.” Yet, this is not the opinion Americans see in news, or especially in the images that filter in showing fuera peña on large banners. What happens is that many of these scandals, and not just in the case of the missing 43, get covered up by other things. Yet, they are all somehow related to the state governors who are corrupt with power, and who have ties to the narcos. “What happens,” explained my friend, “is that, if you cross someone, they’ll just kill you off. Whatever you do, you’re going to get killed off—there is no negotiation. The mentality is: anyone who gets in my way is going to get killed. That’s the governors.”
So, is it clear that Mexican political power sustains itself through murder and violence? “Unfortunately,” my friend admitted. Well, what effects does that have on political progress? He said:
Nothing happens politically because of the threat of being killed—or of your family being killed. It’s very real, and it happens all the time here. You get to the point where you can’t do anything about it, and there are people who are going to suppress you or your thoughts or ideas by killing you. And they’ll do it ‘just like that’—no hesitation.
I assumed not to use my friend’s name for this informal interview, but I wanted to give him a choice. His response was sobering: “Please don’t. I would rather not get killed-off.” His closing comments were also telling: “Seriously…I’m worried. And I don’t know what the solution is. I just have to get out of here.”
Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. Follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at guerrillaprose.info.