From “Mexico’s Moment” to Mexico’s Massacre: How (Not) to Get Away With Murder

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The disappearance of 43 underprivileged students at the hands of the municipal police and a local criminal gang in the state of Guerrero, Mexico horrified the country. In a place where kidnappings and massacres are troublingly common, this came as a surprise. Since December 2006 when then-president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels, over 100,000 Mexicans have been murdered, at least 30,000 have disappeared, and kidnappings have skyrocketed—with 132,000 kidnappings taking place in 2013 alone.

Yet the outpouring of anger and grief for the incident that became known as “Caso Ayotzinapa,” after the town where the students attended college, has shaken Mexico to its core. Why, though, in a country so inured to violence, did this particular event capture the public’s attention and set it apart? The answer lies in the confluence of factors surrounding Ayotzinapa: the students’ identity, the role of the police, the government’s involvement and mismanagement, the persistence of the students’ families and community, and the emptiness of the government’s “Mexico’s Moment” narrative. While the students’ kidnapping and likely murder have already created a national and international movement, their effects could very well prove to be a turning point in Mexico’s history.

The Disappearances

On September 26, 2014, about 80 first year students—training to be teachers at the Raul Isidros Burgos Rural Normal School in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero—headed off to the town of Huitzuco.[1] These students planned to fundraise for their chronically underfunded college and to commandeer buses for an October 2 march in Mexico City that would commemorate the 1968 Tlatlelolco student massacre.[2]

The students, also called normalistas because they study at a “normal”—or teachers’—college, stopped a bus outside Huitzuco and convinced its driver to take them back to Ayotzinapa after dropping off his passengers in Iguala, a nearby city of about 110,000.[3]

When they arrived in Iguala, the driver of the commandeered bus got off and began talking to the bus station’s security guards. The students became nervous that he was not going to re-board and called their compatriots, who arrived on two buses commandeered in Chilpancingo (the capital of Guerrero) a few weeks prior. Together the group seized three other buses from the station and quickly departed.[4] Two buses made straight for the highway while the other three passed by the Civic Plaza.

What the students did not know, however, was that the Iguala mayor’s wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, was hosting an event in the city’s Civic Plaza near the bus station on that same evening. At some point, either Pineda or Mayor José Luis Abarca learned about the students and gave an order for the local police to “do something” about them, as to not interrupt their event.

The local police responded. They chased down the three buses that had neared the plaza and opened fire, catching the students by surprise and shooting one of them in the head. This student, Aldo Gutierrez Solano, was later pronounced brain dead at a local hospital and is still in a coma more than 150 days later.[5] The 25 to 30 students aboard the third bus were taken into police custody, never to be seen again.

The fourth and fifth buses had avoided the Civic Plaza, but became separated from one another en route to the highway. Alex Rojas, a student aboard the fourth bus, says that he saw the fifth bus parked below as his group crossed an overpass, surrounded by police trucks with mounted machine guns.[6] The 10 to 15 students aboard this fifth bus are now among the missing. Soon after, the police also stopped the fourth bus, but the 14 student passengers were able to escape into a field.[7]

By the end of the night, six people were killed and 25 were wounded. Among the 43 students who were taken into police custody, 42 remain missing; one victim’s body was found in a field the next morning with his face cut off. Their fate remains somewhat uncertain, though the Attorney General’s office reports that the police arrested the students and handed them over to members of a local criminal group, the Guerreros Unidos (the United Warriors), who murdered them.[8] Their bodies, according to official sources, were burned, stuffed into trash bags, and thrown into the nearby San Juan River.[9]

The Victims’ Undisputed Innocence

This jarring case attracted national attention not just for its brutality, but perhaps most importantly because the victims were students. The common narrative is that the country’s violence is often among criminals and does not affect innocent Mexicans. A 2013 Wilson Center study acknowledges, “Some of the rise in violence can be attributed to fights among the major Mexican organized-crime groups.”[10] Of the 26,121 people who were registered as forcibly disappeared during Calderón’s presidential term (2006-2012), 20,915 had faced preliminary investigations themselves—meaning 80 percent had some kind of run-in with the law.[11] Though these statistics do not confirm that kidnapping victims are involved in organized crime, they do illustrate why victims are often labeled as wrongdoers themselves.

Government authorities do not view the Ayotzinapa students as completely innocent. Though the students are not hardened criminals, normalistas participate in less serious illegal activities, most notably the commandeering of public buses for their transportation and the use of highway tollbooths to collect funds for their schools.[12] Some Mexicans consider them hoodlums, but others view them as victims of poverty in Mexico—the normales rurales take in the country’s most underserved youth.[13]

Since statistics show that violence generally affects criminals more than law-abiding citizens, Mexico is somewhat desensitized to bloodshed. Innocent victims are considered the exception, rather than the rule. The disappearance of 43 impoverished students was thus still able to shock the Mexican public.

Police Role

The flagrant, active involvement of Iguala’s police in arresting the students and handing them over to members of the Guerreros Unidos laid bare the collusion between Mexican law enforcement and organized crime.

Similar cases of complicity between security forces and organized crime have been documented over the past nine years, but none has emerged as publicly as Ayotzinapa. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recorded 149 cases of security forces taking part in forced disappearances during Calderón’s presidency. In 60 of those cases, HRW found that state agents colluded with organized crime to “disappear” the victims.[14] In the first five months of 2013 alone, security officials were accused of carrying out 20 forced disappearances and 21 extrajudicial killings.[15] These reports demonstrate a troubling pattern of police and military impunity that has extended into President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.

Many Mexicans already believe Mexico’s police force—at the federal, state, and local levels—is incompetent and unethical. Polls show that about a third of Mexicans nationwide believe that the federal police respect human rights. And only 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively, trust the state police and the local police.[16] In Guerrero, 25 percent of the population believes that federal, state, and local police all disregard human rights. Only six percent of guerrerenses believe that the state police protect human rights, and a mere two percent believe that the local police do so.[17]

When asked about the role of the police in Ayotzinapa, former mayor of Torreón Eduardo Olmos said, “what we are seeing are the results of many years of decomposition, complacency, and denial by many governments in turn.”[18] As mayor, Olmos purged 1,000 members of Torreón’s police force, which had been infiltrated by the Zetas—an infamous drug cartel.[19] Purging and recreating police forces has been a common strategy on the national and local levels in recent years, with Presidents Zedillo, Fox, Calderón, and Peña Nieto all carrying out police overhauls during their terms. However, police corruption and criminality persists.

For the Mexican public, Ayotzinapa may not have spiraled into a national crisis had it not been for the police’s role. The students’ disappearance shone a light on the depth of police impunity that exists in Mexico. Trust in the police—alarmingly low even before the tragedy—has been further diminished by its role in Ayotzinapa’s egregious human rights violations.

Local Government Involvement and Federal Government Mismanagement

Another aspect of the students’ disappearance that set the incident apart was the evident involvement of Iguala city officials, coupled with the perceived ineptitude of the national government in conducting the subsequent investigation.

The Iguala mayor and his wife, José Luis Abarca and María de los Ángeles Pineda, were known as the “imperial couple” before the events of September 26, 2014. They are widely reported to have conducted city affairs as a team, and they governed with a heavy hand. While in office, Abarca was accused of nepotism, influence peddling, and the murder of a leading political dissident.[20] Pineda’s family is associated with the Beltrán Levya cartel, and her two brothers were killed by the federal police in 2009. Detained gang members have referred to her as “the boss of the bosses,” and Guerrero fisherman Valdemar Servin recalls, “She loved the fact that people were scared of her.”[21]

Amid accusations of involvement in the normalistas’ disappearance, the couple went into hiding on September 30, but by November they had been found and arrested in Mexico City. On January 12, 2015, Pineda was formally accused of racketeering for her alleged role in providing protection and economic support to the Guerreros Unidos, which included laundering more than $1 million through the purchase of real estate.[22] Two days later, Abarca was officially charged with the kidnapping of the 43 students. Both are currently being held in prison—their corruption and violence now known to all.

According to public perception, the federal government has failed the Mexican people, as well. There are two elements to this issue: the federal government’s slow-paced investigation, and the Peña Nieto administration’s inability to connect with the public to effectively show remorse.

When the tragedy first came to light, Peña Nieto suggested that it was a local issue. He addressed Ayotzinapa offhandedly on September 30, in response to a reporter’s question. He said that the government of Guerrero must “assume its own responsibility” for the issue.[23] Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong echoed this sentiment on October 3 when he stated that the Attorney General had not taken on the case because it is a “local level issue.”[24]

In the face of rising media and public attention, the government backtracked. On October 4, the Attorney General accepted responsibility for the Ayotzinapa case.[25] By October 6, when Peña Nieto first addressed the nation about Ayotzinapa, he emphasized, “Like Mexican society, as President of the Republic, I am deeply outraged and appalled by the information that has been coming to light throughout this weekend.”[26] He expressed his administration’s support for Guerrero’s investigation, and explained that the federal government and the Security Cabinet will “take action, participate in the due clarification of the facts, find those responsible, and strictly enforce the law in light of these facts.”[27] Yet more than a week had passed since the students’ disappearance by the time the federal government stepped in.

The subsequent investigation dragged on for a month, with thousands of security agents working around the clock, but with no sign of the bodies. When several mass graves were found near Iguala, it added to public frustration and despair. The governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre, resigned on October 24 in the midst of the chaos, stating that he hoped his resignation would create “a more favorable political climate to bring about a solution to the crisis.”[28]

In an ironic turn, a press conference designed to provide closure to the case created an explosion of unrest. On November 7, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam showed a video of detained gang members describing how they had killed the students and disposed of their bodies. However, after this startling revelation, he quickly ended the press conference, saying, “Ya me cansé,”—“I’m tired,” or “I’ve had enough.”

The hashtag #YaMeCansé almost immediately became a rallying cry on social media, and millions of people used it to express their frustration with the government’s handling of the case. In the three weeks that followed Murillo Karam’s misstep, #YaMeCansé was tweeted about 3.8 million times, leaving more than 146 million impressions on Twitter.[29] Protestors also used slogans related to the comment, including, “I’m tired of fear” and “I’m tired of politicians.

As a leader, Peña Nieto is widely seen as failing to provide even symbolic support during the crisis. In the middle of the crisis, he traveled to Beijing for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, infuriating the public with his perceived lack of concern. He did not visit Guerrero for more than two months after the tragedy—finally making a trip to Acapulco on December 4—, and he still has yet to visit Iguala.[30] Peña Nieto canceled an earlier trip to the state, citing bad weather, but the public came away believing he did not care about the students.[31] Even when Peña Nieto took symbolic action, he failed to gain public support. His meeting with the families of the missing students on October 30 did not garner positive attention. According to one of the parents, Melitón Ortega, “the promises aren’t enough.”[32]

Bringing closure to the federal investigation has been complicated by public mistrust. The Attorney General’s office announced the conclusion of the investigation on January 27—using limited DNA evidence to confirm the government’s suspicions that the students had been murdered, burned in a garbage dump, and thrown into a river.[33] However, the normalistas’ families have said that they will only accept the findings of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), which was brought in to provide an unbiased investigation. The EAAF released a report on February 7 that highlighted several weaknesses in Murillo Karam’s investigation. The group stated that the investigation should not be closed, as there is still a large body of evidence to analyze.[34] Three weeks later, Attorney General Murillo Karam resigned from his post.[35] President Peña Nieto announced that Murillo Karam will be moved to the Ministry of Agricultural, Territorial, and Urban Development (SEDATU) and Senator Arely Gómez González will take over as Attorney General (pending congressional approval).[36]

When taken together, the overt corruption of Iguala’s local government combined with the uncertain stance of the federal government have greatly undermined public trust in Mexico’s institutions. Ayotzinapa demonstrated clearly that there are criminal elements within Mexico’s government. Peña Nieto’s weak investigation made the public feel that no one can hold wrongdoers accountable in Mexico. Ayotzinapa therefore created a sort of existential crisis for Mexico—a feeling that the government is entirely unable to uphold the rule of law and protect its people.

The Students’ Families and Community

The Ayotzinapa protest movement would not have been possible without the prominent role of the normalistas’ families and the Mexican student community. These were the two groups that first brought national attention to the event and immediately mobilized to protest the students’ disappearance. Though Mexican students are often involved in protests, the role of the parents set Ayotzinapa apart from other similar events.

The families were able to gain national media coverage by traveling to Ayotzinapa and speaking to the press in the aftermath of their children’s disappearance. They camped out near the college in a weeks-long vigil after the tragedy. One distraught man returned home from Dallas, Texas, to join the hunt for his missing brother.[37] The families’ search for the students was characterized by dogged persistence in the face of government apathy.

The parents held Peña Nieto’s feet to the fire, discussing with him the investigation’s progress and presenting a list of demands. From a societal perspective, the Ayotzinapa parents are cut from the same cloth as their children; many of them belong to a culture of resistance that verges on militancy.[38] And they do not intend to let the protests die away: they called for a massive demonstration in Mexico City on January 26, in which fifteen thousand people reportedly participated.[39]

While the parents’ actions have been decidedly anti-Peña Nieto, both the ruling powers and the opposition have tried to politicize the crisis for their own ends—especially because of the upcoming midterm elections later this year. The PRD, Mexico’s leftist opposition party, has been accused of manipulating the Ayotzinapa families into promoting a political agenda that aligns with its interests. Political rumors suggest that the PRD funneled money into last year’s major protests.[40] Further, since former Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca and former Guerrero governor Ángel Aguirre were both PRD members, many believe that the party has been particularly adamant in its support for the families, in order to avoid political backlash.[41]

On the other end of the spectrum, the Peña Nieto administration has also been trying to control its image during the crisis. Reverend Alejandro Solalinde, a human rights defender, says that Peña Nieto’s administration is withholding information about the Ayotzinapa investigation for political gain.[42] He believes that Peña Nieto’s goal is to wrest gubernatorial and congressional control of Guerrero from the PRD. Under normal conditions, perhaps the families of the missing students would not be so important to the political powers-that-be. Yet because of the June elections just around the corner, the parents’ actions are being publicized for political gain.

The normalistas’ disappearance also resonated with the student community of Mexico. Students and teachers already have a strong protesting infrastructure, as they are mired in multiple ongoing controversies. The teachers from Mexico City public high schools have been on strike since early November 2014, as their union demanded a 23 percent pay raise that was denied.[43] The National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) was also on strike for more than two months last year due to changed government regulations affecting students. (The 177,000 students that attend IPN resumed classes in January 2015.) Teachers throughout the country have also been protesting Mexico’s 2013 education reform, which required mandatory teacher testing and weakened the teachers union’s power. In short, there is already a great deal of unrest within Mexico’s education community. With so many teachers and students already out of the classroom, they mobilized with ease.

Social media also played a strong role in the protest movement. Students were able to quickly organize and spread news of protests through social media channels. Mexico’s students have experience with viral social protest: in 2012, Mexico’s #YoSoy132 movement—which began in opposition to then-candidate Enrique Peña Nieto—swept the country. Viral hashtags like #AyotzinapaSomosTodos and especially the aforementioned #YaMeCansé ruled Twitter in late 2014. The parents of the 43 kidnapped students also have used social media: they published an emotional YouTube video on December 22, discussing how different Christmas would be without their children.[44]

Together, the Ayotzinapa parents and the Mexican student community have made sure that the country and the world continue to seek justice for the missing students. They haven’t stopped pressuring the government to provide better answers or mobilizing the public in protest.

Mexicans Are Not Living “Mexico’s Moment”

One last factor that has contributed to the outcry against Ayotzinapa is the public discourse that presents Mexico as a growing, thriving country full of economic opportunity—the image that President Peña Nieto has based his presidency on. Yet many Mexicans still face daily violence, corruption, and poverty. Public frustration is exacerbated by the fact that most Mexicans have not gotten to experience the shining “Mexico’s Moment” that has been so publicized at home and abroad.

When Peña Nieto took office, various Mexico commentators observed that he was shifting the dialogue away from security issues and toward economic development. Dr. Jorge Chabat, a CIDE professor, commented, “What Peña Nieto is doing is…to hide the violence under the rug so that it cannot be seen…It may be effective in the short term, until the violence itself is so evident that the discourse is unsustainable.”[45] And Edna Jaime of México Evalúa, a well-regarded public policy think tank, believes that minimizing discussion of violence in Mexico could be effective, as long as “the narrative is accompanied by a change in reality.”[46] Peña Nieto’s historic reform agenda took center stage, while organized crime was hardly mentioned. Yet except for how it was communicated, the government’s anti-crime strategy did not shift significantly when Peña Nieto took office. InSight Crime reports that Peña Nieto’s administration deploys the army and the navy to particularly troubled areas, just like Calderón’s did. The federal police also continue to enjoy a major role and sizable budget.[47]

Another example of the disconnect between the “new” Mexico and the Mexican reality was exemplified by the “Casa Blanca” (White House) scandal. In early November, Aristegui Noticias dropped the bombshell that Angélica Rivera Hurtado, the telenovela star wife of Peña Nieto, purchased a $7 million dollar mansion from a Mexican businessman whose companies have received major government contracts. Juan Armando Hinojosa Cantú, the businessman in question, was also involved in the plans for a high speed rail line connecting Mexico City and Querétaro—a deal that was abruptly cancelled just before the Casa Blanca scandal was revealed.[48] The scandal came out in the middle of the Ayotzinapa crisis, making it difficult for the president to react effectively to either situation.

On December 11, the Wall Street Journal reported that Peña Nieto’s finance minister and confidant, Luis Videgaray, had also purchased a home from Hinojosa. Technically, Videgaray’s act was not illegal, since he bought the vacation home two months before assuming the role of finance minister.[49] As recently as January 20, the Wall Street Journal published another damning report that showed Peña Nieto bought a home in 2005 from a developer who later won government contracts.[50] This took place when Peña Nieto was the governor of the State of Mexico. Peña Nieto denies any wrongdoing, yet these lavish houses point to possible corruption and undeniable conflicts of interest within the federal government.

Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent and protestors throughout Mexico have called for his resignation. For many Mexicans, Ayotzinapa revealed the blatant hypocrisy in Peña Nieto’s discourse. In order to save his presidency, he must confront the contradiction that his administration has papered over: the developed country and vibrant economy of “Mexico’s Moment” alongside the violent, corrupt nation of Ayotzinapa and the Casa Blanca.

Path Forward

The president and various governmental institutions have scrambled to address problems as they have arisen. They must now tackle the structural problems that enabled the tragedy to take place. As Dr. Chabat writes in Letras Libres, crime is not the illness, merely a symptom. He believes that “the crimes reflect a deeper problem: institutional weakness, which produces corruption and impunity.”[51] In order to move forward as a country, Mexico must implement long-term, structural solutions to its institutional weaknesses, which include a lagging reform process in the criminal justice system, abuses in military and police forces, and corruption in legislative bodies.

To address Mexico’s weak rule of law, a constitutional reform in 2008 mandated changes to the country’s criminal justice system, and the affected jurisdictions are supposed to fully implement the reform by 2016.[52] Under the current system, crimes very often go unpunished. According to CIDAC, public prosecutors only initiate investigations of 20 percent of reported crimes. Only nine percent of crimes go to trial, and only one percent of crimes are ever punished.[53] Certain crimes have far worse statistics: 99 percent of the 30,000 to 42,300 forced disappearances that took place from 2006 to 2014 were never even investigated. Among the one percent of forced disappearance cases that were investigated, zero perpetrators have been punished over the past nine years.[54] Ayotzinapa might also have never taken place if José Luis Abarca and María de los Ángeles Pineda had been investigated for the crimes of which they were previously accused.

To address the low levels of sentencing, the reform’s changes include the introduction of oral trials, new responsibilities for judges and prosecutors, and stronger due process. The existing maxim of “guilty until proven innocent” will be flipped on its head. Some progress has already been made: Mexico used to have 34 different penal codes, which have been consolidated into one.[55] Yet the Citizen Observatory of the Criminal Justice Reform reports that Mexico must “enact necessary secondary legislation, build new court rooms, retrain legal professionals, update law school curricula, and improve forensic technology” in order to fully implement the reform.[56] These changes will not come cheap: the reform’s rollout is expected to cost $4.2 billion.[57]

Implementation is also behind schedule, and independent sources differ on how far along it has progressed. The Citizen Observatory considers the new judicial system to be fully operational in three states: Chihuahua, Morelos, and the State of Mexico.[58] However, the think tank CIDAC uses a more complex measuring system, by which no state has implemented even 75 percent of the new system.[59] Peña Nieto will need to dedicate the necessary resources and political capital in order to continue moving this process forward. In the wake of a disaster like Ayotzinapa, he should have public goodwill behind him to prioritize this policy—the changes are likely to be very popular if fully explained.

Ayotzinapa highlighted the need for a professional and accountable police force in Mexico. In early December 2014, Peña Nieto proposed a plan to reform the police. The plan subsumes Mexico’s municipal police forces into state forces and permits the federal government to take control of cities overrun by organized crime.[60] State police forces retain marginally more public trust than local forces, but as noted above, only 16 percent of Mexicans polled by Parametría believe that the state police protect human rights. The solution has drawn criticism by Dr. David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego, who says that implementing a single command police force suggests that “police forces [are] a structural problem. [A single force] may make it easier to coordinate, but it doesn’t address accountability. There’s no silver bullet.”[61]

Addressing police corruption will be no easy fix. However, some measures can help incrementally in the short term. Salaries, training, and oversight should all be increased. First, policemen should receive a salary that enables them to live comfortably in the middle class. The current average salary range of $325 to $350 per month is insufficient in light of the massive pressure wealthy criminal gangs place on policemen. Mexico has still failed to implement this oft-repeated policy recommendation; perhaps the Ayotzinapa case provides the justification needed to pay higher police salaries. Policemen should also earn promotions and raises based on excellent performance. Dr. Shirk argues that the issue of police advancement is a “huge problem, because police themselves express that they aren’t being rewarded based on merit, but politics and personal relationships. That won’t change if you move it to the state level. In fact, it could get worse.”[62]

Second, not all local policemen will be allowed to keep their posts and become state officers. They would have to pass the requisite tests (including assessments of their trustworthiness) and gain state-level certifications.[63] This process may help weed out corrupt officers, as state officials are unlikely to have personal relationships with many municipal officers. When possible, the state should focus efforts on reforming, rather than expelling, policemen—unemployed officers roaming the streets could pose new risks to community security. Police officers should receive training that includes respect for human rights norms, and Mexico should afford additional educational opportunities whenever possible.

Finally, security officials should face accountability for past abuses. The military has maintained a major role in fighting organized crime over the past nine years, and it has been accused of 8,150 violations of human rights from December 2006 to September 2013. Amid these accusations, Mexico has sentenced only 38 military members.[64] The country should investigate alleged abuses to mete out justice for past military and police wrongdoing. Though the public will remain wary of trusting police in the medium-term following Ayotzinapa, justice served for past crimes may encourage public trust.

The Mexican government must also crack down on corruption. Once criminal justice reform takes hold, Mexico must pursue punishment for corruption on the local, state, and national levels. This may mean passing stronger anti-corruption legislation—a major challenge when, according to The Economist, the bill has to “go through a Congress riddled with conflicts of interest, not least because politicians have to raise piles of unauthorized money to get elected, and lawmakers almost always water down any proposal that threatens their money supply.”[65]

Shannon O’Neil, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, emphasizes that the Mexican public needs to see evidence that the new system is working. Prominent lawbreakers—including major businessmen, politicians, and union leaders—must be convicted and sentenced. According to Dr. O’Neil, Peña Nieto must “demonstrate that those within the Hermes ties and scarf wearing set can end up behind bars: that malfeasance can carry real costs.”[66] Sentencing Abarca and Pineda would make for a strong start.

To promote the rule of law, Mexico must provide socioeconomic support for at-risk communities. Peña Nieto began his term with the polígonos (polygons) program, which focuses on supporting 250 high-risk zones and 1,000 neighborhoods throughout Mexico.[67] The program has an annual funding level of $190 million to implement crime prevention programs in the selected communities.[68] The initiative includes sports and music programs, substance abuse prevention programs, and women’s support. The polígonos will also have more legal job opportunities, social services, and infrastructure development.[69] However, the government must increase the statistical rigor of this program’s oversight. It must establish measurable goals and metrics by which to evaluate progress. The process should involve community groups—these organizations have already proven themselves invaluable in reducing crime in Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez, and Tijuana.[70]

Finally, the government must consider the needs of the normales rurales. If the government provided adequate funding for student transportation and costs of living, these students would diminish their illegal activities. Ayotzinapa might never have taken place if the students had not needed to commandeer public buses in Iguala. The Mexican government should prioritize these and other potentially marginalized groups of young people—the most likely recruits of criminal gangs, and in this case, their victims.

Since the Ayotzinapa atrocity, protests have broken out across the United States, in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, and El Paso; and also internationally, in Paris, Moscow, San Salvador, Sidney, and Brisbane. College students from 43 countries created a YouTube video expressing their solidarity.[71] Late last year, the entire world seemed united against the tragedy. Now it is up to Mexico to channel this anger and pain into progress.

Challenges and uncertainty still lie ahead. Getting all of these systems working smoothly will not be easy or immediate—success is not assured. Mexicans are not likely to see the results during Peña Nieto’s sexenio (six year presidential term). Yet, reform and accountability can begin to undo the damage caused by this catastrophe. Policy solutions and a vigilant public can help prevent another tragedy like Ayotzinapa.

About the Author

Lauren Eades is a Mexico City-based researcher and political risk analyst. She studied international relations and Spanish at Tufts University.

[1] John Gibler, “The Disappeared,” The California Sunday Magazine,

[2] Alma Guillermoprieto, “Mexico: We Are Not Sheep to Be Killed,” The New York Review of Books blog,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.; Javier Brandoli, “Nuevas pruebas demostrarían la total omisión del Ejército en la masacre de Iguala,” El Mundo, Feb. 25, 2015

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] José Roberto Cisneros Duarte, “43 claves para entender el caso Ayotzinapa, a 43 días de su inicio,” CNN México, Nov. 7, 2014,

[9] Encarni Pindado and Jared Goyette, “Photos: Mexicans set fire to the National Palace,” Fusion, Nov. 9, 2014,; “Student teachers of Ayotzinapa were killed and burned: PGR,” El Universal, Jan. 27, 2015,

[10] Andrew Selee, Cynthia J. Arson, and Eric L. Olson, “Crime and Violence in Mexico and Central America: An Evolving but Incomplete US Policy Response,” Regional Migration Study Group, Wilson Center, January 2013, pg. 1

[11] Kyra Gurney, “Report Highlights Rampant Impunity in Mexico Forced Disappearances,” InSight Crime, Sept. 3, 2014,

[12] Gibler

[13] Guillermoprieto

[14] Human Rights Watch, “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored, Feb 20, 2013, pgs. 3 and 29,

[15] Marguerite Cawley, “Mexico Securit Forces Facing More Scrutiny After Accusations of Abuse,” InSight Crime, Jul. 10, 2103,

[16] “Los estados y su batalla contra la inseguridad, Parametría, survey carried out from Mar. 10 to 23, 2013,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Graham

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lydiette Carrión, “Perfil. La “pareja imperial” que “reinó” en Iguala,” Oct. 8, 2014,

[21] Julian Robinson, “Arrest warrant issued for Mexican mayor over kidnapping of 43 missing students after protestors storm military base,” Jan. 14, 2015,

[22] Paula Chouza, “La tensión arrecia en Guerrero a más de 100 días del caso Iguala,” Jan. 14, 2015,

[23] Angélica Nieto, “Peña Nieto: no cabe la impunidad en la agresión sufrida por normalistas,” La Jornada, Oct. 6, 2014,

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Cronología: Paso a paso del caso de los normalistas de Ayotzinapa,” Excelsior, Nov. 7, 2014,

[26] Gobierno de la República, “Mensaje a medios del Presidente Peña Nieto sobre Iguala, Guerrero,” Youtube, Oct. 6, 2014,

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Missing Mexico students: Guerrero state governor to resign,” BBC, Oct. 24, 2014,

[29] “Tweets per day: #YaMeCanse and #Ayotzinapa,” Topsy, Note: this page only shows tweets from the past month. I checked it on December 1 to find the response to Murillo Karam’s comments.

[30] “Peña presenta plan para ‘reactivar’ Guerrero,” Animal Político, Dec. 5, 2014,

[31] “Peña Nieto cancela gira a Guerrero; argumenta mal clima,” La Jornada, Sep. 28, 2014,

[32] “Caso Ayotzinapa: científicos de Austria no logran identificar los restos,” Animal Político, Jan. 20, 2015,

[33] Jorge Monroy, “Investigación llegó a su fin: Murillo,” El Economista, Jan. 28, 2015,

[34] “Peritos argentinos ponen en duda la “verdad histórica” de la PGR sobre Ayotzinapa,” Aristegui Noticias, Feb. 7, 2015,

[35] “Mexican Attorney General to Step down amid Ayotzinapa Crisis,” teleSUR, Feb. 27, 2015,

[36] Jaime Contreras Salcedo, “Murillo Karam se va a la Sedatu; lo anunciará EPN por la tarde,” Excelsior, Feb. 27, 2015,

[37] Alfredo Corchado, “For Dallas gardener, exhausting search for missing Mexico student takes toll,” The Dallas Morning News, Dec. 14, 2014,

[38] Sergio Sarmiento, “Están vivos,” Jaque Mate, Reforma, Nov. 5, 2014

[39] Nayeli Roldán, “En el primer mitin del ao por Ayotzinapa, papás llaman a no votar en Guerrero,” Jan. 26, 2015,; “Ayotzinapa parents call for Giant March for Missing Students,” teleSUR, Jan. 20, 2015,

[40] On-background interviews conducted by author in October and November 2014.

[41] Carlos Ramírez, “Complicidad de padres de Ayotzinapa con PRD,” 24 Horas, Nov. 10, 2014,

[42] “Gov’t Using Ayotzinapa for Political Gain Says Mexican Activist,” teleSUR, Nov. 11, 2014,

[43] Sergio Sarmiento, “Paro nacional,” Jaque Mate, Reforma, Nov. 6, 2014,

[44] Ojos DePerro, “Ayotzinapa: los padres,” YouTube, Dec. 22, 2014,

[45] E. Eduardo Castillo, “Gobierno cambia discurso frente a violencia,” Terra, Jan. 30, 2013,,e5d60c5263e7c310VgnCLD2000000ec6eb0aRCRD.html

[46] Ibid.

[47] Patrick Cocoran, Mexico Security Under Enrique Peña Nieto: 1 Year Review,” InSight Crime, Dec. 1, 2013,

[48] “La casa blanca de Enrique Peña Nieto (investigación especial),” Aristegui Noticias, Nov. 9, 2014,

[49] Juan Montes, “Mexico Finance Minister Bought House From Government Contractor,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 11, 2014,

[50] Juan Montes, “Mexico Leader Under New Scrutiny,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 20, 2015,

[51] Jorge Chabat, “Un diagnósitco equivocado,” Letras Libres, December 2014,

[52] Matthew C. Ingram, “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico: Where Things Stand Now.” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Mexico Institute,

[53] Marien Rivera and Rafael Ch, “RED NUMBERS of the Criminal Justice System in Mexico,” CIDAC, October 2011,

[54] Martínez

[55] “¿Qué es?” Código Nacional de Procedimientos Penales, Gobierno de la República,

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] “Criminal Justice System Reform,” Citizen Observatory of the Criminal Justice Reform, 2014,

[59] María Novoa, et al., “Reporte de Hallazgos 2014, CIDAC, 2014, pg. 122

[60] Mauricio Torres, “Mando único policial y otras 10 claves del nuevo plan de seguridad de Peña,” CNN México, Dec. 3, 2014,

[61] Eulich

[62] Ibid.

[63] Torres

[64] “Mexico Country Summary,” Human Rights Watch, January 2014,

[65] “Missing the point,” The Economist, Nov. 27, 2014,

[66] Shannon K. O’Neil, “Taking on Mexico’s Corruption,” Council on Foreign Relations, Nov. 24, 2014,

[67] Carlos Quiroz, “Detectan 250 polígonos de alta incidencia delictiva en el país,” Excelsior, Mar. 21, 2013,

[68] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Improving Anti-Crime Policy in Mexico,” Brookings, Oct. 27, 2014,

[69] Ibid.

[70] “Building Resilient Communities in Mexico: Civic Responses to Crime and Violence,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2014,

[71] Boston for Ayotzinapa, “THE WORLD IS WATCHING: students from 43 countries in solidarity with Ayotzinapa,” Nov. 2, 2014,


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