A Country Disappeared

As Mexicans reach a breaking point in their tolerance for the drug war, the Mexican government reaps the legacy of presidencies lost to guns and drugs. 

A few months ago, 22 people were allegedly executed by Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya, a small community southwest of Mexico City. They were told to kneel facing the wall, and then a bullet was sent through each of their skulls.

The news and shock came a few months later, when the Associated Press published an interview with a witness. There were women and children among those who had died.

Before that, the official explanation prevailed: a skirmish between the Army and criminals, in which a few soldiers were injured while the “bad guys” got what they deserved. Sometimes it feels that the only time Mexicans react anymore is when the day-to-day atrocities that go on in our country make it to the news elsewhere around the world. If someone outside Mexico hadn’t noticed, perhaps we wouldn’t be angry. Perhaps just wary.

A couple of weeks after the news about Tlatlaya came out, something unusual, even by our current standards, occurred. Around 50 students at a Teacher’s College in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states, were traveling by bus overnight through the city of Iguala. The account is muddled at best: They were leaving the city to take part in a protest for the remembrance of a student massacre that took place in 1968, but they were also collecting funds for their studies. Some vehicles were abandoned in front of their buses, essentially creating a barricade. Gunfire ensued. Six people died. Witnesses—and now, the federal investigation into the shooting—say it was the police that opened fire. The officers then escorted the students out of the buses, but instead of handing them over to the local state’s attorney office—supposing there was something to charge them with in the first place—they were handed over to other people. A local cartel, according to media reports. Days after, four mass graves were found near the city. It seemed as though the bodies of the 43–yes, 43–kidnapped students were there.

When the graves were found, the governor of the state–who would step down weeks after–, in a bizarrely joyous tone, declared that some of the bodies–tortured, then charred–did not belong to the students. Who were they then? It didn’t matter. Not right now. If there was time in the future, maybe then he’d try to figure it out.

The story first broke out in El País, a daily from Spain. We had to learn about what went on in our country, again, from the outside press.

In order to understand how 43 people could disappear in one single swoop, it’s necessary to tell the tale of the town of Iguala, and how, in essence, it could be any other town in Mexico.

José Luis Abarca was elected as mayor of Iguala in 2012. He ran under a leftist coalition of parties, even though he hadn’t formally registered in one until a month before the campaign started. He was known as a local businessman; he owned the city’s main mall and 18 buildings in the area. His wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, had a lonstanding relationship to the Mexican criminal underworld. Two of her brothers had died in 2009 and were part of Mexico’s most-wanted criminal list at the time. Her father was arrested that same year and her other brother was also thought to be part of the business: the Attorney General’s office suspected (and later confirmed) that were part of the local cartel called Guerreros Unidos (“United Warriors”).

How this went unnoticed, or at least ignored during Abarca’s and Pineda’s affiliation to the party, during the campaign, and most importantly, during his tenure as mayor, is egregious at best. Once elected, the government was essentially handed over to the cartel. They also ran the police, and most importantly, the federal budget assigned to the county (around 18 million USD per year).

During Abarca’s first year in office, his main rival for the party candidacy the year before, Justino Carvajal, was gunned down outside his mother’s house. As of today, there’s no motive and no suspects.

Four protestors who called the mayor out in public at a town hall meeting, accusing him of taking money from the budget, disappeared a couple of days afterward. A witness emerged later on, and he stated that the mayor himself had shot one of them in the face and killed him. He also said that he saw at least seven other people bound and gagged, kneeled before open graves, when this happened. The message was clear: If you complained, you died.

A party leader then claimed to have brought the information to federal officials, only to be ignored. The testimony that blamed Abarca for the killings sat in a dusty file in the local State Attorney’s office. It was as if everybody knew but no one wanted to do anything about it except let it lie.

In short, there was information that he was involved with the cartels, that he was giving them public money, that he was killing people who opposed him, and nothing happened. Until he crossed a threshold that previously had seemed hypothetical: he went too far when he ordered the police to kidnap and hand the students over to the cartel.

The first signs of trouble appeared in 2004. Although drug trafficking has been a Mexican mainstay since the early 20th century, when marijuana and later bootlegged alcohol were exported to the US, cartels remained mostly quiet. Common knowledge based this on the theory that the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party negotiated with the cartels. As long as they didn’t cause trouble, no one would persecute them. Under Vicente Fox, the first non-PRI president of Mexico, elected in 2000, that changed. It’s still unclear whether he decided to stop dealing with the cartels, or whether the cartels thought they had more room to operate. Whatever the case, violence, and drugs, went mainstream.

In 2006, Fox’s last year in office, the fight to succeed him was fierce. In the end, among allegations of fraud, Felipe Calderón, the candidate from Fox's party, beat Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate, by only .56%. If you care to google the word “war” in Mr. Calderón’s speeches before he was elected, you’ll get zero results. But a few weeks after assuming office, and without giving any inkling of what was to come, he declared an all-out war with the cartels.

The Army would lead. Mexico would fight. Eight years later, the conflict is far from over.

At least 60,000 people have died since Calderón had taken office in 2006, and around 22,000 are presumed missing. The government stopped releasing figures in 2011 and put a 30-year lock on them, meaning that we’d never really be sure what the toll was. This had to be something the other parties would exploit, I assumed. The road to victory would surely be a platform that promised to stop the violence. I was wrong; the war was not mentioned once.

2012’s presidential campaigns took place within a vacuum. The dead and the missing were not the subject of stump speeches. Only the left made veiled references; the campaign was about the economy and job creation. It was as if what went on in the violence-ravaged regions was not a national business. It was as if, to paraphrase president Calderón “the bad guys were killing each other” and there was no need to pay attention to them.

Peña Nieto, with heavy backing by Mexico’s main television network, Televisa, won comfortably by a six point margin. His immediate plans were the so-called structural reforms, which meant passing the laws deemed needed to “move” (in his choice of words) the country. He would change voting laws, the governmental structure (from a presidential democracy to a semi-parliamentary regime), reform the lagging education system (controlled by the teacher’s union) and open PEMEX, the state-owned oil company and Mexico’s main source of income, to private investment. Buried under these sweeping structural adjustments, and not as clearly delineated as the rest of reforms, was everything regarding security and the drug war.

The message echoed throughout national and international media. It was “Mexico’s moment,” according to the Economist. Peña was “Saving Mexico,” according to Time. We were part of the new acronym that would replace the BRICs. The war, the dead, the missing: All gone from public discourse within a matter of months.

The war left anywhere between 40,000 to 80,000 dead, and tens of thousands more missing. And it also left a contracted economy–which, coupled with the worldwide economic meltdown in 2008, created one of the worst economic crises in recent history. President Calderón, whose original campaign banner was “jobs for everyone” became a war president by the middle of his term, and ended up defining his six years in office as a health-care focused presidency (irony notwithstanding). The word “war” was scraped from his vocabulary, and he insisted he never used it in the first place. He left his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto with a stagnant economy and a generation lost to drugs and gunfire.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to be the most profitable market for Mexican drugs. Although marihuana is now legal in some of the states and demand for Mexican supply has dropped, Mexico is still a top opium and meth producer –the area around Iguala, where the students disappeared, is where poppy is grown–, and the main through point for South American cocaine. As long as there’s consumption across the border, there’ll be production and traffic on the other side and with it cartels and violence too.

A month has passed since the students disappeared. Federal authorities have taken over the police in Iguala and 11 other counties and over the investigation regarding the whereabouts of the students. But they still don’t know where they are, what happened to them and whether they are alive or not.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in several states and have demanded action from the government. Other students from the same school, family members and social leaders have protested endlessly. Buildings (the governor’s offices, the mayor’s offices, and many others) have been burned down in the process.

Even the parents of the students have met with the president himself. But after a six-hour meeting, the only answer the government could muster was a promise of “renewed efforts” to find the missing students. 34 days after they first disappeared. The parents, meanwhile, in a press conference that will be remembered for years to come in Mexico, have said that they don’t believe in the government anymore. That on September 26 it was their sons who disappeared. But tomorrow it could be someone else’s, and the results would be the same.

The executions at Tlatlaya, the disappearance of students at Iguala and all the other stories we hear today are a symptom of something bigger: The violence that never went away. It’s now been eight years since president Calderón said that he would bring the army out from the barracks and wage all-out war with the cartels. And although we grew jaded and the government tried to deflect attention from the issue by pushing its head into the sand at first, then waving shiny objects to make us look elsewhere, the problem was too big to be ignored away. The hard truth is that Mexico is still part of a violent spiral. And the worst part is that no one, especially the government, is sure of how to stop it.

Until the government can figure out how to deal with a war that wasn’t theirs originally, Mexico will still be a country full of missing people, a country disappearing into an unmarked grave.