Mexican officials confirmed on Tuesday that the 43 students who disappeared in the southern state of Guerrero on September 26 are dead. Citing confessions and forensic evidence, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam concluded that the group of students was murdered and incinerated by a local gang who mistook the students for a rival gang.
The state’s extensive investigation—which involved 39 confessions, 386 statements, 16 raids, 487 forensic examinations, and 99 arrests—provides evidence that “allows us […] without a doubt to conclude that the students were deprived of their liberty, killed, incinerated and thrown into the San Juan River,” Murillo Karam announced at a press conference. The attorney general also denied the involvement of the federal army in the attack.
Relatives of the missing students and thousands of others marched on Monday—marking the fourth month since the students’ disappearance—demanding government action and concrete proof of what happened. Many remain skeptical of the government’s announcement, including fire experts, the lawyers representing the families, and the Argentine forensic anthropologists who were hired by parents to work with federal investigators to verify the fate of their children. The remains of only one student have been identified.
So far, authorities have arrested 99 people for suspected involvement in the students’ deaths, including the mayor and first lady of Guerrero. The Iguala mass kidnapping has sparked protests in Mexico and abroad since September, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized for his mishandling of the case. Peña Nieto responded to protests on Tuesday by saying that “[Mexico] cannot remain trapped [in Ayotzinapa].”
More than Christmas, Three Kings Day on Tuesday was the holiday to celebrate if you come from Latin America. Starting in Mexico and going south, the holiday—the Dia de los Reyes Magos—commemorates the New Testament story in Matthew that describes the visit of three wise men to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby Jesus. Each one bears a gift for the Christ child. It is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
So I wondered whether Tuesday's meeting between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto bestowed anything more than symbolic gifts during this first official visit by Mexico's leader to the United States.
Can Peña Nieto's offer to prevent a surge of illegal immigration from Mexico actually be implemented? The Obama administration fears that with the president's recently signed executive action, many Mexicans may be falsely lured into thinking that they can now enter illegally and get a work permit. Did Obama's offer to help Mexico with a new public relations campaign to protect its southern border from migrants from El Salvador and Honduras symbolize another gift on Three Kings Day? Did both leaders promise to help finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement that presents economic opportunities for both nations? The answer to all these questions is yes. They are important steps forward in the bilateral relationship with our neighbor and third-largest trading partner.
But the real gifts that Mexico needed on this holiday of giving were not in hand, in spite of the willingness of both countries to work together to improve economic gains and better cross-border relations. The gift of democratic governance is something that cannot be bestowed from the outside. This is something that the United States has learned the hard way, from Iraq to Afghanistan to other parts of the world where we have been generous with our assistance but more often disappointed by the results.
Mexican President Peña Nieto laid out his ten point plan to tackle injustice and corruption in the country last month as part of his response to the murder of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico. Although the plan has been derided for lacking true punch and political support, one less discussed, but significant, piece of the plan is the proposal to create Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in three of Mexico’s poorest states.
Mexico is still a country of have and have-nots. With a Gini coefficient of .48, Mexico is the second most unequal country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This inequality becomes self-evident as one drives from northern Mexico to the country’s southern border—cities give way to the rural countryside, factories turn into crop fields, and paved roads turn into gravel.
Guerrero, Chiapas, and Oaxaca are among Mexico’s economically worst-performing states. GDP per capita is less than a quarter than that of the capital in all three states, and they score lowest on the human development index. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), approximately 80 percent of the labor force in each state is employed in the informal sector, compared to the national average of 58 percent. More than twelve million people live in poverty or extreme poverty in just these three southern states.
Two years ago, Enrique Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s president, under the banner of a renovated Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and with a promise of a brighter economic, social and political future.
Only two months after he took office, Thomas L. Friedman remarked on that promise in an article titled “How Mexico Got Back in the Game.” And who can forget Time magazine’s February 2014 cover, featuring Peña Nieto with the headline “Saving Mexico”? In that feature, author Michael Crowley said that on the security issues, “alarms are being replaced with applause” and that the social, political and economic reforms package steamrolled through a PRI-dominant Congress were preview of great things to come.
The media prematurely started calling this era “Mexico’s moment.” Granted, we are living quite an interesting moment in Mexico’s history, but not for the reasons the 2012 optimists foresaw.
A recent series of events and decisions stemming from the political elite at local, state and federal levels has detonated into what could evolve into a Mexican version of the Arab Spring. In Friedman’s piece, he quoted the president of Monterrey’s Center for Citizen Integration saying that “Once a citizen feels he is not powerless, he can aspire for more change. [...] First, the Web democratized commerce, and then it democratized media, and now it is democratizing democracy.”
This is exactly what’s happening. A newly empowered Mexican civil society is reacting and saying enough is enough.
This was supposed to be a banner year for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. In the last quarter of 2013, his party was able to push through what were then called historical structural reforms to modernize the Mexican education system and boost the national economy and energy sector. If 2013 was the year for lawmaking, 2014 was supposed to be the year for implementing reforms and beginning to reap their benefits.
However, instead of the anticipated stability, the end of 2014 has proven to be one of most politically turbulent times in Mexico’s recent history. There are no stories of a buoyant economy or a modernized education system to speak of. On the contrary, a flurry of disturbing stories have dominated the Mexican news cycle: the state-sponsored mass murder in Guerrero; strikes at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (National Polytechnic Institute—IPN); protests and police violence at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico—UNAM); a railway contract scandal implicating Peña Nieto; and waves of viral videos showing police repression, abuse and violence throughout the country.
Against this clamorous background, the $4.7 trillion peso federal budget approved last week by Mexico’s Lower House of Congress allocates 188 billion pesos to police and security projects—a 3.3 percent larger investment than the government made in 2014. Congressman Pedro Pablo Treviño Villarreal, who presided over the budget committee, specified that a portion of these additional funds would help harmonize the police and security forces among the different states and municipalities of Mexico.
Thousands took to the streets across Mexico on Wednesday over a group of 43 students that have been missing since September 26, when student protestors clashed with police in the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero. The incident left six dead—including three students and three locals—and 56 students reported missing. As a result, the Peña Nieto administration has faced increasing criticism domestically and internationally.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the government in an 11-page letter to Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, Mexico’s Interior Minister, saying that despite attempts by the president to find missing persons and aid their families, success has been marginal, not only in the case of Iguala but in recent years with increased numbers of disappearances and an inadequate system for dealing with and preventing such cases. “Mexico is facing a national human rights and security crisis that demands a far more serious response from the federal government,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of HRW’s Americas division. The Organization of American States and the United States government have also put pressure on Mexican authorities to locate the missing students.
Although 13 students have since returned home, the whereabouts of 43 are still unknown and some claim to have last seen those missing being driven away in police vehicles following the September clash. On Saturday 28 bodies were found in shallow, mass graves outside of Iguala, but were burned too badly to be identified, although many believe they are the remains of some of the missing students.
Earlier this week, President Enrique Peña Nieto deployed federal troops to Iguala and 30 people have been detained in relation to the incident. “Like all the Mexican society, I am shocked by this situation and I can assure you that there will be no impunity,” said president Peña Nieto on Twitter.
In his first address to the UN General Assembly, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced yesterday that Mexico is prepared to participate in UN Peacekeeping Missions. He noted that Mexico’s collaboration would be limited to “humanitarian work,” nevertheless qualifying the announcement as “a historic step in [Mexico’s] commitment to the UN.” According to the Mexican news site Animal Político, such collaborations could involve deploying military or civilian personnel. In a separate announcement, the Mexican Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs—SRE) said the country will step into this new role “gradually.”
The announcement marks the clearest reversal so far of Mexico’s decades old policy of non-intervention in foreign matters. The last time the country participated in a UN Peacekeeping mission was in Kashmir in 1949. Since then, Mexican forces have been deployed abroad to aid in humanitarian crises, such as after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. However, until now, the idea of Mexicans donning the UN’s blue helmets has been practically taboo.
In an editorial in El Universal that coincided with Peña Nieto’s announcement, the former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan called explicitly for Mexico's participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Framing the issue in terms of Mexico’s role as an emerging world leader, he wrote, “we cannot chart the future of our foreign policy out of a foreign policy from the past.” Meanwhile, the president of the Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Senado (Senate Human Rights Commission), Senator Angélica de la Peña, warned that, “a decision such as this cannot be taken unilaterally, and should obligate us to promote a public discussion about its ramifications vis-à-vis our pacifist tradition and vocation.” The senator also noted that any future participation in a UN Peacekeeping mission would require the Senate’s approval.
Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Coordinator of Education Workers–CNTE), the powerful teacher’s union, took to the streets of Mexico City yesterday to protest President Enrique Peña Nieto’s educational reform, including a 3.5 percent increase in teachers’ wages. The leaders of the union sent a message to the president calling the increase “a joke.”
The education reform seeks to professionalize Mexico’s teachers, some of who have been accused of being "maestros aviadores" (aviator teachers) because they regularly fail to attend class. The protests in the capital come a month after local governments in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán, Sonora, Zacatecas and Baja California were taken to court by the Peña Nieto’s administration for not adhering to the rules of the reforms, and the laws of the “Servicio Profesional Docente” (Professional Teaching Service).
The educational reform project began with an agreement among Mexico’s three main political parties, known as the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico). The reforms have faced stiff opposition, especially in southern Mexico where protests in Guerrero have turned violent and over a million students in Oaxaca missed nearly two months of class in September and October of last year. After taking to the streets on May 15, teachers threatened to call for more powerful protests and mobilizations against the Peña Nieto government.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed new rules yesterday aimed at increasing oil production and boosting the economy.
The proposed legislation includes the creation of eight new laws and the modification of 13 existing laws. Mexican Secretary of Tax, Luis Videgaray, and Secretary of Energy, Pedro Joaquín Coldwell, have said that, with the exception of public gasoline sale, the new rules would open the sale of energy resources to foreign and private firms while keeping them under state control. Videgaray maintained that the laws will reduce Mexico’s high fiscal dependence on oil revenues.
If the rules are approved by Congress, it would end a 75-year monopoly by the state-run oil company Pemex, which was created by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) under President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938. While giving new businesses the opportunity to invest in Mexican oil, the laws would also lower taxes on Pemex from 79 percent to less than 65 percent. Pemex would also be guaranteed at least a 20 percent stake of business in oil deposits in defined territories.
Political opposition parties, the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PDR) have both pushed back against the reform. The PAN has made its support of the new rules conditional on the passage of electoral reform that would weaken the PRI’s influence. The PRD is hoping to overturn the proposed reform altogether.
On March 24, Enrique Peña Nieto presented the Mexican Senate with a bill for a new telecommunications law that complements the constitutional reforms he approved in 2013. The legislation proposes, among other things, to promote competition in the sector, improve telecom services, and regulate the radioelectric spectrum through the new telecommunications regulator, the Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (Federal Telecommunications Institute—IFETEL). The bill is now being revised, and is expected to be approved in the coming days.
However, the proposal is already raising eyebrows and creating waves in the digital sphere, where it’s being labeled as a form of government censorship.
According to Article 2 of the bill, the legislation is intended to “protect the nation’s security and sovereignty,” and the most controversial articles in the initiative are preceded by mentions of criminal prosecution and promoting the public interest. There is room for discussion on the potential effectiveness of this objective, but much like the current debate in the U.S. over the NSA’s capabilities vs. individual freedoms and privacy, citizens in Mexico are worried about ceding too much power to the federal government. The far-reaching legislation has created a number of trending topics on Twitter, under hashtags like #EPNvsInternet #ContraElSilencioMx and #NoMasPoderAlPoder (roughly translated to #PeñaNietoV.Internet, #AgainstSilenceMx and #NoMorePowerToTheOnesInPower).
One of the most popular bloggers in Mexico, “Sopitas,” criticized Peña Nieto’s proposal by stating that social media has been the only widespread communication channel where the public can express its dissent with the current government. On April 21, #EPNvsInternet became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and, as these words are being written, “netizens” in Mexico City are organizing a massive demonstration at the Ángel de la Independencia monument in downtown Mexico City, which also hosted many of #YoSoy132’s protests against Peña Nieto’s alleged alliance with Televisa in the 2012 presidential elections. When the neutrality of the largest news media conglomerate in the country is in question, citizen journalism becomes crucial.
Attempts to control speech on the Internet are not new. One need only consult Global Voices’ Advocacy project to see that, when given the power to do so, governments unequivocally use Internet restriction as a means to block and control dissent.
But how would the president’s telecom law proposal trample on free speech? What are netizens protesting against? Here are some highlights:
Supporters of the proposed telecom law might argue that these new attributions would allow government to better combat organized crime, but the other side of the story shows that if the legislation is approved as-is, any government would be legally awarded the power to read emails exchanged between its detractors, know their location and cut off their communications.
Would the government consider a mass protest on Avenida Reforma to be an event against public security, and thus block cell phone communications in the area? Those opposing the new law seem to think this is a possibility.
This developing story has caused outrage on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Will this outrage help write a different conclusion—one in which the proposed telecom bill is overturned? Or will Mexico join the ranks of censorship-friendly countries such as Cambodia, Turkey and Venezuela?
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.