The week of January 18, 2015

Mexico’s moment of clarity

By Ramon Ramirez

There are miserable gaps in the narrative. These deleted scenes double as reverberating cliffhangers. They mean hope to grieving families and widespread indignation for their countrymen.

Here’s what we know: In September, six people were killed and 43 college students disappeared in the rural state of Guerrero, Mexico.

These particular students were from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa, located in the Guerrero town of Tixtia. They were politically minded and had chartered four buses down to the town of Iguala, Guerrero. There, they’d protest a speech by Mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez’s wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa. They were protesting discriminatory government hiring. 

Local police intercepted the buses. The confrontation got heated on Sept. 26, around 9:30pm CT.

The Iguala police blocked the highway and opened fire on a bus, killing two students. They also fired on a traveling soccer team by mistake, the Chiplancingo Yellow Jackets, and killed the team bus driver and one of its players. They fired on a taxi and killed its passenger. Another student was found dead the next morning; he had attempted to flee the scene.

The 43 missing students were arrested shortly after the confrontation and handed over to police in the city of Cocula. They were then taken to the town of Pueblo Viejo, where they were almost certainly handed over to a local drug-trafficking gang, the Guerreros Unidos, and murdered.

It’s believed that the mayor ordered police to intercept the students so that they wouldn’t meddle with his wife’s speech. He and his wife turned fugitives in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 26, and they were arrested on Oct. 4. Director of criminal investigations for the attorney general in Mexico, Tomas Zeron, obtained an arrest warrant on Jan. 14 for the mayor, and 44 others, on kidnapping charges in connection to the arrests. 

Almost four months later, the students are still missing.

Mexico is no stranger to human rights atrocities happening, unfortunately. Despite the horrendous facts, there is a cyclical blueprint for how these matters tend to play out domestically with the populous at large: First come the mind-numbing headlines, then the mass protests in Mexico City in response. After the news cycle spins and cab drivers grow tired of the downtown traffic—after fringe, presumed anarchist protesters toss Molotov cocktails at the National Palace—the protest movement will splinter and fade.

“This is so much more of an insult to a large number of people than past atrocities were.”

In 2011, Mexican author and poet Javier Sicilia’s 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco, was found bound and murdered alongside his friends in the resort city of Cuernavaca. He wrote a heartbreaking poem for his son and retired from writing. Then he led protests in Mexico City. “What my son did was give a name and a face to the 40,000 dead,” he told the New York Times three years ago, speaking to the national estimated death toll from cartel violence since 2006. 

Three years earlier, teenager Fernando Marti was found lifeless in the trunk of a car. His family owns the Marti sporting goods stores that litter Mexican malls, and Fernando was murdered despite the family’s procedural following of his abductor’s ransom requests. Outraged followed. Then protests. Then resigned acceptance that institutional problems are too prevalent and powerful to substantively take down from the cheap seats.

This time around, however, after the attacks in September, things are going differently. Thanks to the organizational structure afforded to Mexican citizens by the Web, the disappearance of these students has been a tipping point. 

The social media lynchpin

The new age of hashtag activism is not restricted to the United States. Twitter and Facebook have evolved beyond echo chambers that validate feigned interest in passing issues to full-blown start menus that organize the masses out in the streets. In Mexico, citizen journalism is becoming irrepressible.

Since 2012, Llalo Velasco has been involved with Más de 131, a mobilizing collective of reporters, photographers, and videographers with an active social media presence (30,000-plus Facebook subscribers and slightly more Twitter followers). The collective began during Mexico’s #YoSoy132 hashtag protest two years ago, itself a viral movement fueled by YouTube.

When then-candidate (now President) Enrique Peña Nieto stumped on the campus of the Ibero-American University, he was asked about a controversial move he made as governor of the state of Mexico to send police to a local, residential protest. The crackdown left a child dead. Nieto gave a remorseless answer about his thought process at the time and said that he did not regret his order to send in police. Students filmed his apparent gaffe, several jeered, but Mexican news outlets incorrectly reported that the dissent had come from fringe, non-students. It felt state-sanctioned and intentionally manipulative on the media’s behalf.

In retaliation, 131 Ibero-American University students posted a clip of the whole thing, and it went viral on YouTube. The “I am 132” angle and hashtag slogan were spread by like-minded citizens as a sort of 12th-man drumbeat of support. Más de 131 means “more than 131”—signifying that those initial protests were not a niche, time-sensitive cause. 

The new age of hashtag activism is not restricted to the United States.

Más de 131 has produced crisp documentaries not only about the protests that erupted after the disappearance of the students but at the human-interest level—concentrating efforts on putting names and faces to the poor, rural Mexicans that bear the brunt of drug-trafficking violence and other general injustices.

Velasco was a communication studies major with a film minor at the Ibero-American University, and he volunteers his time as a photographer and video editor with the Más de 131. Despite its robust media presence, he says the site has no funding or advertising revenue.

The site’s three-point biography translates to:

1) We want Mexico to renounce indifference; we look for actionable and conscious issues, and meaningful participation from all Mexicans.

2) We want Mexico informed by a plural truth that isn’t just reproducing the traditional voices of a select few. The truth will set us free.

3) We want, and we’re going for, a real democracy.

“When [Peña Nieto] won we decided to be a communication hub that connects across platforms,” Velasco told the Kernel via Skype from Mexico City (translation by the author). “The idea is to tell stories of what’s happening in Mexico and not lose the human element in these miserable, small-town headlines. That it’s not just ink, but that it’s accompanied by photos, videos, and podcasts.” 

He says that—perhaps unsurprisingly in one of the world’s most dangerous places to practice journalism—Más de 131 has been on the receiving end of thinly veiled threats over its efforts.

“There have been mostly threatening phone calls,” Velasco said, though he doesn’t know where they came from. “But there’s a net of solidarity that’s watching when we’re out in the streets or out of the city. We know that journalism, with the assassinations of journalists, is a tough bet, but we’re constantly checking in with each other, and we’ve been fine thus far.”

British journalist Duncan Tucker is based in Guadalajara. His blog, the Tequila Files, delves into the incongruent loose ends of news bleeding out of the country. Chatting via Skype, he admits that as an active reporter in Mexico, he’s occasionally guarded. But he says Mexican and Spanish-speaking reporters are at considerably more of a risk of drawing the ire of organized crime. Tucker also says that social media is a critical, organizational lynchpin and that, more importantly, has helped bring about more middle-class participation than ever before in Mexico’s protests. 

“There’s been a huge bump in indignation and people that are mobilized,” Velasco said, responding to Tucker’s point. “I wasn’t even politically active until 2012.”

“The idea is to tell stories of what’s happening in Mexico and not lose the human element in these miserable, small-town headlines.”

Velasco is likewise clear that this particular human rights violation has struck a resonant tone with Mexicans and Más de 131 in particular: “Those students were constantly the same that had been mobilizing these last two years alongside us, that would respond to us and protest. You’re seeing more people marching, because of this indignation. … There’s just no transparency in terms of what and how things happened.”

Moreover, Velasco says, Más de 131 has found its voice on a global platform. By tapping into the conscious corners of the Web, he says, the network has become an international sounding board that leans on mutual solidarity. 

“Social media has facilitated contact with similar-minded activist groups in Brazil, Spain, Turkey,” he said. “Seeing the masses out in other countries, like France right now or for the kids that were killed in the United States few months ago. Of course we’re thinking of them, and in some way we can learn and we see ourselves reflected in them, and you see that it’s a global crisis.”

 ‘I’ve had enough’

In November, activist group Ya Me Cansé (which literally translates to “Now I’m tired” but means “I’ve had enough”) made an emotional appeal to the English-speaking world. It remains the premier explainer about the disappearance and how it spurned an ocean of public anger in Mexico.

There has been palpable reciprocity in the U.S., and the Web-based infrastructure helped organize simultaneous protests in Washington, D.C.; New York; Los Angeles; Seattle; St. Louis; Salt Lake City; Houston; and Portland, Ore., this month when Peña Nieto visited the White House. The D.C. protest was corralled by American activist groups SOA Watch and #USTired2, going so far as to disseminate a digital, informational packet ripe with PDF-bundled talking points.

There’s a Vice documentary percolating now. There are easily searchable images like this one taken at the front door of America. 

There’s information that Americans can’t disassociate with and ignore as if Mexico City was an alien planet and not a two-hour flight from Houston.

#USTired2 cofounder told Fusion that American protests were about more than the disappearance of the 43 students: “Two years into his administration, it’s now abundantly clear that instead of ‘saving Mexico,’ Peña Nieto and his failed policies are destroying Mexico to the point where it is disgraceful that our president is even meeting with a Mexican administration that, under U.S. law, should have its funding cut for massive human rights violations.”

Sustaining the movement

Dutch journalist Jan-Albert Hootsen is the Mexico City bureau chief for Vocativ. Hootsen has lived in Mexico City for the last six years and has yet to see this level of national outrage and activism. But he has sustainability concerns about these headline-driven mass demonstrations. 

“The Mexican protest movement, [and] the Mexican social movement they’ve never really been united: students, unions, etc. All of them have different grievances and they used the Ayotzinapa tragedy as a sort of catalyst,” Hootsen said. “They setup their own little hashtag, their own little protest groups on Facebook, etc., and they organize their own groups which later come together to bring marches, but basically it’s sort of disparate.”

Hootsen says that in recent years, the government has swept in and “co-opted” the protests, neutering them in the process: “The government offers to collaborate with the movement and then you get some infighting and they fall apart. It happens very often here.”

“There’s been a huge bump in indignation and people that are mobilized.”

Hootsen also mentions the possibility that the government intentionally disrupts protests by way of bringing in intentionally violent protesters. While there’s no way to prove that right now, it’s a commonly held belief by activists he says. Either way, that presence is effective and losing the room.

“There is always going to be a small group of anarchists, or troublemakers, or infiltrators whatever you want to call them,” Hootsen said. “They’re always going to be there and they’ll always end up fighting with police for a little bit. It discredits the larger movement, a lot of people feel uncomfortable with large masses in Mexico.” 

He also notes why the student disappearance has not easily been washed out of the news. With the wealthy Marti and Sicilia, or with the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants from Central America, there was just enough of a cultural disconnect for Mexico as a whole to be observationally docile once the left-leaning university crowd waved its banners downtown. 

“They were students, many of them were indigenous, they were from the countryside,” Hootsen said of the disappeared. “Working-class Mexicans in the countryside they can very much relate to. … Maybe not so much in the big cities, but in the predominantly indigenous regions they were considered heroes, they were considered people that were fighting for the betterment of their communities.

“This is so much more of an insult to a large number of people than past atrocities were.” 

Perhaps most stunningly, Hootsen says, all of Mexico’s big, class-driven universities—the public U.N.A.M., the public Instituto Politécnico Nacional, the public Colegio de México, the private Ibero-American University, the private Tec de Monterrey—are on the same side of the issue. “I’ve never seen that much unity from student groups,” he said. 

As for the disappearance itself, Hootsen says at this stage it’s impossible to say what really happened. 

“Not all the information that we should have has been released yet,” he noted, “I do believe that we haven’t heard every single element of the story, and there’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered, but we should be careful drawing conclusions because we simply don’t know.”

For countless people in Mexico and around the world, that’s all the more reason to stay vocal.

Illustration by Max Fleishman