A Wave of Protests in Mexico
On the night of October first, all the members of our collective house crammed ourselves into a breakfast nook converted into a bedroom in order to plan for the march the next day. Piled onto the fold-out bed occupying most of the room, we cleared enough space in the center for a whiteboard. Alejandro1 was drawing a map of the route from Tlatelolco square to the Zócalo – the central plaza of Mexico City. Every year on October second, young people march from Tlatelolco, where up to 300 student demonstrators were murdered by a government hoping to suppress public unrest 10 days before the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. The ritual of marching annually both commemorates the dead and manifests the refusal of students to remain silent in the face of government violence.
Alejandro marked out the streets that the police blocked in past years. “If you’re going to join the march late, you should get in by this point here. Otherwise you probably won’t get past the puercos [pigs].” In past years, police have used violence to suppress the annual march, stopping it before it reaches the Zócalo. My left ankle was still wrapped in bandages from a recent sprain, and I was worried I couldn’t make it the whole way. But I wasn’t going to try to join at the halfway point if it meant I might miss it entirely: “Well, no actually, fuck it – I’ll just do the whole thing.” Alejandro laughed. “Ok, cool! Then you can meet us tomorrow at UNAM at two and we’ll go from there.” (UNAM, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, is Mexico’s largest university, with over 300,000 students.) Someone in the room speculated that this year’s march could be especially big and chaotic – we should make sure to stick together. Students at IPN, the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, had been protesting against their administration for weeks and had just occupied a collection of buildings on campus. IPN would be out in force. Plus, some college students had apparently just been kidnapped in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.
Student repression and resistance
On October 1, the story of the 43 students from the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, referred to as normalistas was only a few days old. In the next few days, details began to emerge – they had been kidnapped by the State, the police brutally murdered three of their classmates, and those police acted on the order of the mayor of Iguala. But the case had yet to gain political momentum. Since then, the association between the case of Ayotzinapa and Tlatelolco has become clearer in the public consciousness. Before the State violently intervened, their destination was here, Mexico City. They were on their way to march on October 2 to commemorate the massacre – to march with us.
Photo by Gastón Espino.
Like the 300 students that were murdered in 1968, the “normalistas” have become icons in the history of Mexican state violence. But this is not the only connection between the two cases. The protest in Tlatelolco square in 1968 was just one particularly notorious incident of Mexican political repression. During the Dirty War waged by the Mexican government in the 1960s and 70s, the State disappeared over 1,000 activists and students opposed to the one-party rule by the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Conflict was especially heated in Guerrero, where rural students and the indigenous population were fighting for land reform in what remains one of the poorest states of Mexico. The Rural Normal Schools, a network of teaching colleges, acted as both centers of radicalism and became targets of state repression. The Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa is one of them. The meaning of student identity in Mexico necessarily includes this history of radical struggle and state brutality.
At 2:00 pm the next day, I joined my friends in front of the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras (humanities department) at UNAM. From there we marched to the metro station, organized into contingents by academic department. Among dozens of political chants, this one struck me: “Arriba, Arriba, La Facultad de Filosofia!” – roughly translated as “Arise, arise, humanities department!” I spent the past year as a graduate student in a humanities department at the University of North Carolina. Whatever we do as individuals, under no conditions could I imagine that my department would ever arise for anything as a unit, let alone chant about it with sincerity. And placed seamlessly between chants calling for revolution and the fall of the bourgeoisie were those used to cheer for the football teams of UNAM and IPN, juxtaposing radical politics and college sports pride as if they were two sides of the same coin. “It’s the same thing, we use our porra [chant] for both,” a protester insisted to me at a more recent march.
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when thousands of UNC students stormed Franklin Street, burning trash in the street and climbing streetlights to celebrate victory over Duke University in basketball, I imagined what the political possibilities would be if the enemy had not been Duke, but the police, or the prison-industrial complex. The idea seemed ridiculous to me – the discourse of radical politics and the discourse of college sports pride are about as distant they could be in the United States, even if they overlap in the form taken by their most intense manifestations: the riot. A previous Mask Magazine article analyzed the potential for “party riots” to give way to moments of radical insurrectionary actions, if this gap is bridged. This is precisely the thought that had brought me out to Franklin Street – I don’t give a shit about basketball, but I’m curious about any mass of people large enough to defy a police department. But here there’s no need to connect the theoretical dots between political action and student revelry. The two discourses are already bridged, at least in those contexts in which Mexican students confront their historical foe: the State.
A delayed response in Mexico City
As the station filled with thousands of students, we leapt over the gates and streamed onto the platform. We crammed ourselves into the train car, a few people climbing on top and forming a sparse second layer of bodies. With 15 metro stops to go, the students took out markers and started writing political slogans on the walls as the heat from hundreds of people accumulated in the overstuffed car. There were statements recognizing the Tlatelolco massacre, some calling for a student movement, and one rather uncharitable alteration of a political advertisement for PAN, the party of the former president who started the militarized drug war in 2006.
Restricted by the bodies squeezing me in from every direction, I craned my neck to the left and watched a girl write “Justicia Por Ayotzinapa” at the front of the car. This was the first moment in which I saw concretely the connection between Ayotzinapa and student political action in Mexico City. From outside of Mexico, it would seem inevitable that the state-sponsored disappearing of 43 people would spark political action. But these 43 are the latest at the end of a list of 25,000 or more who have disappeared since 2006. With corruption so ubiquitous it would be absurd to suppose that the State wasn’t complicit in many of the kidnappings. But as we came out of the metro at Tlatelolco and the contingent of the Facultad de Filosofia joined the main body of the march, I saw and heard more references to Ayotzinapa. It floated between the sound of raindrops, university porras, and cries for a popular government of workers and peasants. It continued as the rain receded and the route of the march passed through a highway tunnel, and the echoes of the protest reverberated over a weaving, snaking festival of political rage.
In the confusion of the tunnel we were separated from the contingent of the Facultad de Filosofia, and instead wound up marching in front of a black bloc of several hundred people. It was at this point, nearing the historical center of the city, that I realized that my friends’ predictions were wrong: the police were not stopping us. In fact, there were no puercos whatsoever. When we reached the Zócalo, I had not seen a single police officer on the entire route of the march. In a city where it’s hard to walk two blocks on a busy street without spotting a police officer, this was unusual. My friends agreed: normally, getting to the Zócalo is an accomplishment for a march, a test in avoiding police repression. But a few days later, in the first march for Ayotzinapa – much smaller than that of October 2 – it was the same: a complete absence of the police. Once we had reached Zócalo, we listened to a few speakers and shuffled away, the relief of arriving unimpeded tempered by the strange sensation felt when an expected conflict never materializes.
“If there is no justice for the people, there should be no peace for the government.” Photo by Jaqueline Ruiz
A week later, on October 14, a protest convened in front of the office of the Procuraduría General de la República, Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General. A few office workers remained inside the building, watching us through glass walls and the locked outer gate. A group of students struggled to enact a political performance in a space too small to fit the mass of demonstrators, calling out the names of the missing students one by one, each time responding with “ausente!” (“absent!”). A stage was erected, where the mother of one of the disappeared expressed her gratitude for the outpouring of popular support and her rage at the Mexican government. There were a few more speeches, after which most of the people started to disperse.
A small group of demonstrators had thrown pieces of trash and balloons with red paint at the entrance of the Procuraduría. They had also thrown a few rocks, but they bounced off the thick glass and only cracked the surface. Then, a rock went off target, hitting an office window a few meters to the right of the entrance. The window shattered completely. Only the front entrance was built to withstand attack; the rest of the windows were ordinary glass. Suddenly, there were dozens throwing rocks. The space directly in front of the building was cleared as shards of glass and stray rocks showered down. A toddler watching on her dad’s shoulders chanted and cheered for more rocks. With the sun still out, some covered their faces with masks to remain anonymous as a crowd of journalists snapped photos. Some didn’t bother. In a moment that seemed more hallucinatory than real, the sound of shattering glass and shouting was interrupted by the sound of a throttling engine. As the way was cleared for him, a man dressed in racing gear rode his motorcycle up to the front of the Procuraduría, parked his bike directly in front of the protesters, and took off his helmet. Face uncovered, with an expression that mixed anger and self-satisfaction, he took a rock from the street and hurled it at a window, and the others resumed the barrage. In a few minutes all the windows on the first few floors were broken. Still, no police. Perhaps, in an attempt to avoid escalating a delicate political situation, the city government had decided on a deliberate strategy of recalling police from marches.
Over 50,000 people marched in Mexico City on October 22 protesting the disappearing of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. By APF
The pattern continued in a march a week later, on October 22. The indignation over Ayotzinapa had gained momentum, with the number 43 and other references showing up spraypainted on walls in public places all over the city. Beginning just before dusk, we carried candles and improvised torches a few kilometers from the Ángel de la Independencia to the Zócalo. Occasionally we were hushed to a murmur before we began to count slowly from one to 43 to represent each of the disappeared students. There was a particular eeriness to those moments of relative silence. The light of tens of thousands of candles and torches flickered while groups of protesters covered their faces and rushed to spray-paint the walls with messages condemning the State. The strategy of avoiding escalation had incidentally created a temporary autonomous zone. But at this point, the only result of police absence was a trail of leftist graffiti left wherever the march passed.
This held for two more marches until the night of November 8 when police arrived to dispel a group who had set fire to the door of the National Palace in the Zócalo.
Creeping confrontation and interference
The government’s apparently hands-off approach to political demonstrations in Mexico City is unlikely to continue. During the last march I attended, on November 16, our route was diverted away from the Zócalo after we were told about a concentration of police a few blocks ahead – we instead turned left toward the nearby Monument to the Revolution. On November 15, four officers from the Attorney General office of Mexico City were discovered taking photos outside the Facultad de Filosofia and OkupaChe Auditorio, an anarchist squat that has occupied an auditorium in the Facultad de Filosofia for the last 15 years, serving as a space for radical political activities. A group of students confronted the officers and demanded that they stop taking photos. In the ensuing argument, the officer shot a student from the Facultad in the leg, then fled on foot, also shooting a dog before escaping into a police patrol car outside of campus. (Both the student and the dog received medical care and are doing fine.)
Later that night, hundreds of riot police marched onto campus and fought with students. On the other side of the city, in a neighborhood near the airport, two activists from UNAM were arrested by a group of federal police on the absurd charge of trying to rob 500 pesos (about US$40) from a police officer, using a knife. The accusation is contrary to both common sense and video evidence, and their friends and attorneys are describing it as an attempt to disappear them. All of this follows the discovery on October 30 of a camera recording an assembly of students from the Facultad de Filosofia, along with a tape containing videos of student assemblies and activist meetings going back to September of 2013. The camera was placed there by members of the UNAM administration, who defended the action as a “precaution to ensure student safety.” But the use of hidden cameras to clandestinely and systematically record political activity is more traditionally described as spying. Facebook has exploded with indignation and accusations over the presence of police infiltrators and the cooperation of the university administration with state forces trying to control student unrest, and there have since been protests calling for the resignation of José Narro Robles, the president of UNAM.
The conflict between the State and demonstrators has every chance of escalating in Mexico City. On Thursday, November 20, there will be marches from three different directions convening at the Zócalo, and I have heard rumors of other planned actions I have been unable to confirm. This will be part of a worldwide day of action, with protests internationally and in every major Mexican city. Activists have also called for a national strike beginning that day, demanding the renunciation of Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. On Sunday, November 16, Peña Nieto hinted that the government may use violence to suppress the wave of protests around the country, but that he “hoped” it wouldn’t come to that. He reiterated that “the state legitimately holds the authority to make use of force” to restore order in the country.
The (il)legitimacy of the narco-estado
But it is precisely the legitimacy of the Mexican state that has come increasingly into question. Outside of the capital city, in Guerrero and Veracruz, more radical actions have taken place. In Chilpancingo, Guerrero, protesters have burned down state capital buildings as well as the regional offices of the PRD and the PRI, the parties in power at the state and national levels, respectively. The regional PRI offices were vandalized and set alight in Xalapa, Veracruz. In Acapulco, Guerrero, students and professors from the Rural Normal Schools occupied the international airport. The actions of the police against students in Iguala were characteristic of an occupying army, and the response from the citizens of Guerrero reflects this reality. Here protesters in Chilpancingo not only battle with police in the streets with police, but capture an officer; and here a group of girls from a high school in Guerrero take rifles instead of books to school, to protect themselves against a government that marginalizes and threatens them.
The direct participation of police in the kidnapping and murder of students from Ayotzinapa is a particularly egregious case of state violence and cooperation with cartels, the most explicit example of why “estado” in Mexico is short for “narco-estado” (the “narco-state,” a way of referring to the cartels and the government as a single entity.) But the narco-estado has existed before Ayotzinapa. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the investigation into the disappearance of the normalistas is the uncovering of a number of mass graves in Guerrero that didn’t contain the missing normalistas, but did contain the bodies of dozens more victims, including high school students and a Catholic priest. And with what we know about the Ayotzinapa case, we have to wonder how many of these victims were murdered with the complicity or participation of the government.
Popular resistance against the narco-estado is not new, either. Last year, there was a proliferation of new fuerzas autodefensas (autonomous self-defence forces) as a way to fight cartel violence independent of, or in opposition to, the state. The autodefensas have arrested police officers as well as cartel members – unsurprising, given the implication of the state in the escalation of violence in the last eight years. The homicides and disappearances since 2006 are not the random eruptions of a Hobbesian state of nature lurking wherever the Mexican government has failed to penetrate. They are a predictable result of the deliberate choice by the administration of Felipe Calderón to engage in a militarized drug war, a war a continued by the current president, Peña Nieto. With corruption so endemic, the inevitable consequence of militarization of the police is militarization of the cartels, both as a response to the government, and because many of the police forces literally work for the cartels already.
With a sense of hopelessness about the Mexican government, it’s not uncommon for activists to reject the idea of solving Mexico’s problems through the existing state apparatus in favor of direct action. This is particularly true since the hopelessness extends to all three of Mexico’s major political parties. The mayor of Iguala and the governor of Guerrero are both from the ostensibly left-wing PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution). The current President is from the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution), whose 70-year domination of Mexican politics is irrecoverably tarnished with corruption and repression. And the drug war was begun under the rule of PAN (the right-wing National Action Party).
“The state has died.” Photo by Jaqueline Ruiz
At one protest for Ayotzinapa, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas – an ex-mayor of Mexico City from the PRD – tried to join. Although Cárdenas is one of the more respected members of the PRD, he wasn’t allowed in. Protesters threw water, rocks and bottles at him, yelling “traitor!” and “No PRI, No PAN, no PRD!” The reaction illustrates the feeling of repudiation and outrage towards all political parties, a feeling that has been building for a long time, but has intensified since the 2012 elections. The last student movement in Mexico City, #YoSoy132, was an effort to bring attention to the PRIs manipulation of the media and electoral mechanisms in Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign against his opponent from the PRD, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Even those skeptical about López Obrador (or electoral democracy in general) supported his campaign in an effort to keep the PRI from returning to power. That the same party that so recently took its political momentum from leftist student activism is now implicated in the murder and kidnapping of leftist student activists signifies a betrayal so grave that it undermines whatever legitimacy the PRD once had, and with it, the legitimacy of the electoral system in the eyes of students who had tentatively supported it.
So it was no surprise when, at the most recent march in Mexico City, I heard an older women shout “Fuera estado!” (“Out with the state!”) after others had shouted “Fuera Peña!” Last month, when students in the Facultad de Filosofia went on strike, they occupied a campus building and someone draped an enormous anarchist flag over the entrance, a flag I’ve seen countless times during demonstrations in the last six weeks. Anarchist rhetoric permeates the graffiti covering the walls around campus. On the blue line of the metro every morning, alongside venders selling chocolate bars and pirated CDs, students sell revolutionary Marxist magazines – and people actually buy them.
Part of this ideological radicalism may ironically reflect the effort of the Mexican government to canonize the heroes of the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920 in the national mythology, regardless of the ideological differences between them and the modern Mexican state. Streets and neighborhoods are named after Ricardo Flores Magón and Emiliano Zapata, and their faces adorn the sides of metro cars and official buildings. Magón was the unrepentant anarchist writer and editor of Regeneración, an illegal newspaper whose articles helped to spark the initial uprising. (Indeed, once he even suggested that the Mexican people should “cut off the heads of the bourgeoisie and the tyrants.”2) Zapata, inspired by the writings of Magón, started a revolutionary peasant movement for land reform and rural autonomy, and now serves as the namesake for the Zapatistas in Chiapas. But the two were betrayed by opposing forces in the revolution, the former ideologically and the latter through assassination. The forces that eventually prevailed became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI of Peña Nieto), a blatantly Orwellian moniker that reveals the contradictory legacy of a revolution made with promises still unfulfilled a century later.
Javier Sicilia, a prominent Mexican poet and writer who led a series of protests against the drug war in 2011, published an essay on November 14 in Proceso magazine entitled “Lo que quizá viene” (“What may come”). In it, he expresses skepticism toward the form of social organization known as the State:
In our country, those institutions that we call the State have arrived to a point of deterioration so profound that they have become counterproductive: constructed to provide security, justice, peace, and democracy, they have been converted into their opposites. They generate insecurity, injustice, violence, and crime.
Given this deterioration, Sicilia concludes that our next step must not be to perpetuate the Mexican state in the hopes of reforming it, but to build new forms of social organization alternative to it. When the parents and classmates of the disappeared students formed a caravan to meet with activist groups around the country, they started in the highlands of the state of Chiapas for exactly that reason – to work with the National Zapatista Liberation Army, who have maintained autonomously organized indigenous communities there since 1994, in forming a political movement “from below”. With the call for national day of protest on Thursday, November 20, activists here hope to maintain enough momentum to build the movement from below that they have requested. This is what Peña Nieto is afraid of.
Name changed to protect privacy. ↩
Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magón Reader, 2005, AK Press. ↩
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