The massacre of forty-three students sparked months of protests in Mexico. Can the Left turn outrage into political power?
On the night of September 26, 2014, local police in the southern Mexican city of Iguala, Guerrero, killed six people and disappeared forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college. It quickly became clear that the police had handed the students over to a local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos, whose leaders are relatives of the wife of Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca.
But even with the recent passing of the six-month anniversary, there are still discrepancies between official and reported accounts. According to the federal government, the students were killed, then chopped into pieces and burned, their ashes spread at a dump; the attorney general later called this version the “historical truth.”
However, Proceso magazine found that both the army and the federal police were involved, with the latter directly tied to the shootings. Later that night, the magazine reports, the army kicked a group of wounded students out of a private health clinic. “You’re looking for your own deaths,” an officer told them after he made them get on the floor. (Eventually, people from the neighborhood helped them get to another hospital.)
The exact role of the army is still a mystery; the missing students’ parents believe it is behind the disappearances and burned the bodies in its furnaces.
The forty-three students have not been found yet, although the remains of one of them were recovered at the dump where they were allegedly killed. The students’ parents still hold out hope their children will be found alive, either in a cartel safe house or perhaps even at a military base.
The massacre has sparked enormous public outrage. In November and early December, Mexico experienced some of its largest demonstrations in recent history. Four or five times between late September and mid December, several hundred thousand people went out into the streets in Mexico City. All around the country protesters expressed their anger at the government: highways were shut down, airports closed, government buildings shielded. In Guerrero, the governor finally stepped down in an attempt to placate the protesters.
Mexico has not been shaken to such an extent since at least the Zapatista rebellion of 1994. The massacre and the subsequent movement can be seen as the explosion of a historically repressed reality.
But the winter holidays cooled the intensity of the demonstrations, and vehement anger has partially subsided. The resumption of normal economic activities in January didn’t lead to a similar build-up of forces: it’s clear that the movement came to the end of a cycle with the year’s conclusion. This tense, relative calm gives us the opportunity to take stock of the movement.
The enormous upsurge has three aspects that will shape Mexican politics in the coming years. One of them — the role of the army and the state at large — has been at the center of the standard narrative. The other two — the role played by the official left and the reaction by the Guerrero peasantry — have largely been ignored. Yet they provide the most important lessons for the radical left.
Guerrero and the PRD
Guerrero and the surrounding states in the southern Pacific (Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacán) are distinct in a number of ways. The region is disproportionally rural, indigenous, and poor. Drug trafficking is pervasive. Caciques, the landed gentry formed in the shadow of the post-revolutionary state, largely command political and economic power.
Often viewed as a laggard region — incapable of attracting large-scale foreign investment and thus unable to take the modernizing path trumpeted by technocrats — the southeastern states are in fact the constitutive other of Mexican neoliberalism, as well as an essential pillar of the North American economic bloc.
It is these states that provide most of the internal and external migrant labor force (there are 4 million michoacanos in Michoacán; the same numbers as in the US), which functions as a “reserve army” that pushes wages down. Over the past two decades, the region’s mining resources have also become prey to several Canadian open-pit mining companies; American-owned maquiladoras largely rely on its labor force.
These conditions have prompted acute class struggle from below. In just the past twenty years, four insurrections have occurred in these four states: the Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Chiapas, the Oaxaca teachers’ union-led rebellion in 2006, the Michoacán self-defense groups’ military campaign against the cartels in 2013, and the Guerrero revolt in late 2014.
To understand these uprisings, we must first examine the role played by the official left.
Mexico’s hegemonic left party, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), was born in 1989 out of a split from the Institutionalized Revolution Party (PRI), which had ruled the country for seven decades and took a neoliberal turn in the 1980s. Harkening back to an earlier epoch of developmentalism, the PRD’s first leader was Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, the son of the president who nationalized the Anglo-American oil corporations in 1938. The overwhelming majority of the country’s radical left entered the party’s tent.
While it’s never won a presidential election, the PRD has become the main opposition party (the PRI and the PAN, a center-right party, have taken turns controlling the presidency). In 2006, its candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, lost by less than half a percentage point; six years later, he came close again. The party currently governs four states, including Guerrero.
But the PRD, initially framed as a social movement-based organization, is today a corrupt party, with several of its members directly tied to the cartels. How did this happen?
It would be a mistake to interpret its trajectory as a conservative fall from a leftist Eden. Indeed, it was the project of an excluded sector of the elite, who had belonged to the authoritarian ruling party and allowed the worst things to happen while there.
Its links to social movements were always subordinated to election results. It defended the regime against popular forces when it had to, the best example being Cardenas’ original denunciation of the Zapatista rebels as troublemakers, and his call for the restoration of peace at a time when the Chiapas peasants were fighting arms at hand for their rights.
Why did the Left join such a project? The reasons depend on the organizations (the Mexican left was extremely diverse at the time), but in general there was a fear of political isolation in the face of a mass force, mixed with an honest expectation that Cardenas would, by becoming president, end the sixty-year PRI dictatorship.
In addition, Cardenas’s 1988 campaign, and to a lesser extent Obrador’s 2006 run, did marshal a considerable degree of popular fervor. And in some parts of the countryside, the PRD in its early years did rally militant support from peasants.
In the city, however, the electoral rise of the PRD took place in the context of an anemic workers’ movement, weakened by a neoliberal offensive that drove down union membership and against which no far-ranging opposition after 1983 was ever organized. The PRD eventually received mass electoral support, but couldn’t win backing at the shop-floor level — least of all control over its leading bodies.
The tendency to corruption was present from the PRD’s conception. But the increase in cartel activity and power in the past decade accentuated this drift, by exposing the party not only to sociopolitical determination by common capital, but also to drug-trafficking capital. Indeed, Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, was elected on a PRD list.
The PRD realized that winning elections required allying itself with local caciques — and the cartels. In the conflict between local elites and its ostensible base, the PRD has taken sides in a lethal way: between 2005 and 2011, during their first term governing Guerrero, thirty-two of its own members were killed, most of them peasants. Where it has governed, the PRD has quickly turned into a new PRI, its corruption and authoritarianism barely concealed by its progressive sheen.
In 2011, the police killed two Ayotzinapa students at a demonstration. In June 2013, Abarca, along with his henchmen, captured seven fellow PRD members; he personally tortured and killed Hernández Cardona, the leader of Unidad Popular (UP), a peasant organization linked to another PRD faction. In the ensuing protests, Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre supported Abarca, and the PRD leadership convinced the attorney general not to investigate, even though the survivors gave a notarized statement indicating Abarca’s involvement.
The reasons given for Cardona’s assassination are manifold: intra-PRD factionalism, the UP’s unwillingness to submit to Abarca’s client networks of fertilizer distribution, Cardona’s public accusation that Abarca had murdered a local politician. Whatever the motivation, Abarca killed Cardona because he knew he could get away with it. (The nickname of Abarca and his wife: the Imperial Couple.)
This tragic episode foreshadowed the network of state and non-state actors that would attack the students a year later.
After the disappearance of the forty-three, the government seemed to believe the issue would quickly blow over, just like the other murders. But this time the outburst of public anger exceeded all expectations.
The government’s first approach was to blame a small cartel with no links whatsoever to the authorities. That quickly collapsed, and it became clear that both Abarca and Aguirre were involved. Still, Abarca, at the time on the run from the police for his role in the massacre, was not expelled from the PRD until October 6. (PRD legislators tried to keep Aguirre in office, arguing that if he quit the situation would become even more unstable. But enormous protests finally forced him out on October 24.)
After Aguirre’s fall, the PRD tried to carry out a strategy of democratic containment. They appointed a scholar, not a politician, as state governor. They avoided direct physical confrontation with the protesters and promised to free a number of political prisoners. (So far, none have been released, and in a demonstration late February the first post-Ayotzinapa protester died.) This stance depends on permanent brinkmanship, but for now, in the short term at least, the specter of a revolution appears to be dissipating.
The Corruption of López Obrador
For the past twelve years or so, the PRD’s key public figure has been Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City and a politician who still commands the support of much of the Left.
After the 2012 elections, claiming the leadership had failed to honor its original objectives and principles by moving to the right, López Obrador, departed the party and formed his own, the Movement of National Regeneration (Morena). At a first glance, López Obrador’s defection — a few months before the Ayotzinapa crisis exploded — separates him from what transpired and maintains his credibility.
A few days after the massacre, however, photos of Abarca in a comradely hug with López Obrador flooded social media. The latter’s role in Ayotzinapa is perhaps not direct; but his close collaborators are personally involved, and he was in a position to prevent the rise of Guerrero’s “cartel lobby” years ago.
López Obrador’s man in Guerrero is Lázaro Mazón, who was twice mayor of Iguala between 1996 and 2005, and then became a senator. When Aguirre won the state elections in 2011, Mazón was appointed minister of health. López Obrador later made it clear that Mazón would run for the Guerrero government on a Morena list in 2017.
Mazón, however, was also close to Abarca — the former having decisively tilted the balance in favor of the latter in the internal PRD election for mayor in 2011. He was the special guest at the opening of Abarca’s state-of-the-art, $25 million shopping mall. At the time several PRD members claimed Abarca was personally involved, via his wife, with the cartels, but no one (least of all Mazón or López Obrador) showed any interest in the charge’s veracity. Furthermore, Lázaro Mazón’s brother, Luis, was the mayor-substitute for Abarca.
In recent weeks, as the crisis of the PRD deepened and with the June midterm election clearly in mind, Morena has gone on the offensive, presenting the party as the only viable left alternative in Mexico. López Obrador’s connections with Abarca, through Mazón, are unpleasant for his followers. When confronted with the evidence, López Obrador has prevaricated.
Was López Obrador aware of Abarca’s link with the cartels? It’s highly probable he had heard rumors of it since 2011. Was he aware that Aguirre had repressed and killed fellow perredistas and students in the past? Of that there’s no doubt: Aguirre was in office and started killing when López Obrador was still first amongst equals in the PRD. López Obrador Obrador’s exit and denunciation of a rightist leadership never included, of course, details of actual crimes carried out by PRD statesmen.
But in the end, those are perhaps not the right questions to ask: in this context, it is worth recalling Badiou’s description of the two levels of corruption in bourgeois democracies. One of them is, indeed, empirical corruption, the one effectively punished by law. But the other might be more important, precisely because it is constitutive of democracy itself. It is the corruption by which democratic competition turns into a simple bargain of private interests. In Ambrose Bierce’s more elegant definition, politics is a “strife of interests masquerading as contest of principles.”
It is this second level of corruption that has so damaged the PRD and López Obrador.
As office-seeking parties in a cartel-ridden country, the process of centralizing the variegated interests of capital involved, more often than not, taking into account the interests of the cartels, especially in regions like Guerrero or Michoacan, which have economies completely dependent on illegal activities. Their appeal to national sovereignty or their (weak) ties to social movements do not alter this basic fact.
The Peasant Rebellion
But of course, none of this answers the question: why kill forty-three students? The drug trafficking could have kept going relatively undisturbed, it seems, without such bloodshed. Here is where politics, class politics, re-enters the picture.
Ayotzinapa is a hotbed of radical politics. Throughout the 1970s, communist guerrillas in Guerrero, led by two Ayotzinapa alums, fought state force that committed ended up committing more than 300 extra-judicial assassinations. Ayotzinapa’s central auditorium mural has a portrait of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. And the school not only has a tradition of left-wing activism, but also leads a communist federation of rural teacher colleges, which the government presumes (perhaps not unjustifiably) to be led by a guerrilla. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The most feasible explanation for the attack is that a faction of the state saw it as the most effective way to weaken the centennial class war in Guerrero. The government fears nothing more than an organized rebellion, led by armed guerrillas, with hundreds of disciplined youth as its organizing cadres.
The reasons for revolt have existed for a long time. The Caciques have led assassinations against the peasantry for land or cattle. Abuse by the army and police has been constant. Agrarian reform, which the PRI trumpets as one if its main achievements, was never actually carried out in Guerrero.
And in 1995, the police killed seventeen peasants in the Aguas Blancas massacre. Initially peasants reacted by arming themselves. The first vigilante organization made its appearance in 1993, ambushing policemen. After Aguas Blancas, the first guerrilla organization was born, the EPR.
But the process of self-armament evolved into something much more democratic and open. First by fighting against mining projects, then by leading reconstruction efforts after natural disasters, and finally by creating a community police and an institutional framework in charge of applying and delivering justice, peasants realized that they could only achieve some basic things through popular mobilization.
It was in late 1995 that several organizations from the Guerrero Mountains, responding to the insecurity and criminality that followed the Aguas Blancas massacre, formed the Community Police (PC). Communities themselves choose their police officers, which can be recalled at any point by assembly decision. (They also asked to be recognized by the state, which initially refused to do so.)
Three years later, a broad institutional framework for dealing with criminality was created: the Regional Coordination of Communitarian Authorities (CRAC). It has several “Justice Houses” in charge of rendering justice according to its own rules (which are not the same as the state’s): judicial processes are public, and there are no lawyers involved, so one’s ability to defend oneself does not depend on hiring an expensive one. If found guilty, offenders are sent to do community labor, which usually entails building roads or schools in neighboring communities for a few weeks.
The CRAC-PC has been staggeringly successful. There are now five Justice Houses in Guerrero, and criminality dropped immediately in the regions it covers. The model has been replicated in other places, and at least thirteen states have varying types of self-defense forces. (The most recent one, the autodefensas in Michoacán, has a force of fifteen thousand).
Unable to launch a frontal assault on the CRAC-PC, the government has attempted to co-opt factions through public funds and political favors, begrudgingly granted legal recognition when forced to do so, and repressed the more radical tendencies.
Before the student massacre, the Guerrero government had managed to create a schism within the PCs and discredit the project. But the attack against the students created solidarity between the PCs and the teachers college. Today, Tixtla’s armed community police keep watch over the school, and the PCs have led the search for bodies throughout the state.
And in the aftermath of the disappearances, protesters in the big cities burnt down the government offices and parties’ bureaus. In at least forty-two counties, the population (led by the PC, where it existed, or by the teachers’ union) expelled the mayors and declared their autonomy. In seven of them, this was coupled with an attempt to constitute their own power, through the formation of “popular assemblies” or people’s councils.
In short, in large parts of Guerrero, the state simply lost direct control. A full-fledged peasant rebellion took place. But in most cases, the issue of what to do with power remained unsolved. After expelling the state representatives and seizing the city halls, they were unsure of what the next step should be. Since December, the rebellion entered an inevitable downslide, and the state in most cases recovered partial control by opening up offices in other parts of the town to keep the essentials of the state machine working.
Mexico after September 26
The night of September 26 will henceforth serve as a line of delineation, a before and after in Mexican history. The question, of course, is what the new epoch will look like. A definitive answer is impossible. But we can do a bit more than just speculate.
The Mexican state has been weakened and its ideological character has been laid bare. President Enrique Peña Nieto hasn’t forthrightly addressed the issue, and he’s been beset by a real-estate scandal. It’s been a swift decline. The man that Time labeled the savior of Mexico, who proposed neoliberal reforms no other president had dared, has seen his popularity decline on the domestic and international front.
The army, previously the most prestigious institution in the country, is also profoundly discredited and seen as a violator of human rights and organizer of extrajudicial executions. We might never know what the military did that night. But most people believe it was involved, and for now that is what matters.
On the Left, a major reorganization of forces seems inevitable. The hegemonic party for the past quarter century is fragmented and held in disrepute by many. Several top members of the PRD have defected, some of them to López Obrador’s party. Nevertheless, the PRD still controls large client networks; to forecast its complete disappearance would be hasty — a halving of its votes seems more likely.
Morena, on the other hand, will suffer from its association with López Obrador; its leader is too divisive and too stained by the Ayotzinapa issue to seriously contend again for the presidency. None of them have been able to provide an answer to the issues that caused Ayotzinapa: the power of cartels, the war strategy, violence, etc.
Politics abhors a vacuum. For some time already, the space left by the PRD has been partially filled by the relatively spontaneous peasant organizations mentioned above. The development of a political consciousness on the part of hundreds of thousands or millions of peasants — which has enabled them to implement some parts of the traditional revolutionary program of popular armament — might be the single most important development in Mexican politics. There’s reason to believe that as long as conditions don’t drastically change, this will continue. But the results, of course, are undetermined.
This is also the point at which we arrive at an impasse. The peasants will continue defending themselves against the joint attacks of the state and the cartels. And then what? Mexico is, one should remember, a predominantly urban country.
Industrial workers in the city were largely absent from the post-massacre protests. The student movement, it is true, had a strong presence, and seems to be coming back to life. But if the Left is split along urban/rural lines, radical peasant uprisings could continue to flare up and dissipate. Unable to constitute their own power after the departure of the state, unable to draw on the solidarity of their urban allies, the peasants won’t be able to break from the status quo.
For this there is no easy solution. Nevertheless, Mexico’s economy is rapidly deteriorating, with harsh austerity measures announced earlier this year. High oil revenues seem to be gone for good. If this lasts, we can count on people not letting things go without a fight. It is upon this basis that a qualitative change may be fashioned.