Smoke, mirrors and murder in Mexico

The disappearance and killing of student protesters, with the involvement of federal police, has brought human rights to the fore in Mexico, write Ella McPherson and Mónica Moreno Figueroa

March 1, 2015 · 7 min read

On 26 September 2014, students from a rural teacher training college in Ayotzinapa crossed the Mexican state of Guerrero, heading for Iguala to protest against education conditions. Forty-six of them never returned; two were killed that night in a clash with police, along with three bystanders; a third was found dead the next day with his face flayed; 43 were abducted by the police. In the intervening months, the charred remains of only one of the students have been identified from the dozens of mass graves since discovered around Iguala.

This horrific event stands in stark contrast to the Mexico that President Enrique Peña Nieto has been promoting worldwide since he took office in 2012. Last year, Time magazine featured Peña Nieto on its cover under the headline ‘Saving Mexico’, crediting Mexico’s position as ‘the hot new emerging market’ in part due to his government’s reforms. Yet these reforms, as Mexican academic Sergio Aguayo points out, have been largely limited to the economy: ‘They don’t touch things like human rights, corruption and security.’

The enforced disappearances of students in Iguala belie the administration’s attempts to shift Mexico’s international image from a state besieged by the drugs war to one ripe for investment. Domestic and international speculation as to the fate of the students continues to be rife, and reports are contradictory, so that definitively establishing the series of events is, so far. impossible. In our view, the government’s discourse about that fateful night builds on a tradition of deliberately downplaying the state’s role in human rights violations.

Official version

The official version, presented by the attorney general, is that corrupt police handed the students over to a drugs gang, who murdered them and burned their bodies. Parents and their supporters question this account, particularly as they interpret it as a way for the government to wash its hands of the incident despite indications of federal police and military involvement in the case.

Peña Nieto’s actions in the early days – or rather inaction, as he left the Guerrero authorities to handle the investigation while he travelled to China and Australia – have also been read as signs of apathy towards the disappeared and their community. Police reforms he has since proposed have been critiqued as feeble, and the actions of his administration dismissed as ‘smoke and mirrors’.

Such a ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach is a well-known tactic of the party in power, the Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI), which has ruled Mexico for more than 70 years. Although a member of the Socialist International, the PRI is both authoritarian and increasingly neoliberal. In 2012, it regained power following a two-term interregnum that many had hoped would mark a lasting transition to democracy. Once called the ‘perfect dictatorship’ by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, the PRI ruled Mexico for much of the 20th century as a semi-authoritarian regime in democratic clothing. Key to the appearance of democracy was control over the media – control that media owners were happy to cede as part of a cosy cash-for-coverage relationship with the authorities.

This traditional media-state relationship began to founder in 1968 following what is known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, a violent clash between protesting students and the police that left protesters dead – how many is unclear. The clash occurred in the context of another moment when Mexico was basking in a successful international image, namely high economic growth as it planned to host the Olympics. In the days following the massacre, newspapers loyal to the PRI published official accounts of a few dozen killed, even though the word on the street was that the death toll was in the hundreds. When people took to the avenues, protesting against the PRI’s brutal repression, one of their chants was ‘Prensa vendida!’ (‘Sell-out press!’).

The events of Iguala bear a chilling resemblance to the Tlatelolco Massacre –and, poignantly, the students in Iguala were raising money to send a delegation to the annual massacre commemoration in Mexico City. The current government continues the tradition of damage control through managing the public image of Mexico. But one difference between 1968 and 2014 is the existence of social media.


On Twitter, hashtags have emerged condemning the Mexican state’s apathy. The most emblematic is #YaMeCansé, which translates as ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’ve had enough’. These words were uttered by Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, in an off-the-cuff comment at the end of a press conference on the events in Iguala. #YaMeCansé surfaced on Twitter within minutes, with users chiming in that they, too, are tired – of the violence, of the injustice, of the impunity, of the corruption.

Some suspect the state of trying to wrest control of the dialogue on social media. After weeks as a top-ten trending Twitter topic in Mexico, #YaMeCansé disappeared overnight on 4 December. Many interpreted this as a ‘forced disappearance’ of the hashtag and the result of manipulation by bots. Some directly link these bots to the government, calling them ‘peñabots’, after Peña Nieto. Quite quickly, activists responded with #YaMeCanse2, then #YaMeCanse3 – by the start of 2015, #YaMeCanse18 was trending.

Activists’ social media strategies are sophisticated. The group behind acts like a ‘media agency’ and draws on expertise from radio, TV, cinema and advertising. They are harnessing social media to counter the government discourse – the ‘official narrative . . . that [allows the federal government] to evade its negligence and responsibility in the events’, in the words of Luis Hérnandez Navarro, the opinion editor of Mexico’s La Jornada. This provides hope in a public contradiction of the party line that was not so easily expressed during the previous heyday of the PRI, when the party-state had a monopoly on symbolic power – the power to construct social reality – as exercised through the media.

Activists are realistic about the effects of their social media campaigns, however. One infographic circulating online states, ‘A hashtag is not going to change the country, but it demonstrates the desire to try.’ The visibility on Twitter of outrage about the events in Iguala, moreover, has called international attention to Mexico’s problems and has countered the government’s attempts to downplay them.

The #YaMeCansé movement is asking for global action to put pressure on all governments to suspend all treaties with Mexico until the authorities meet their obligations. Concerned Twitter users in the US have launched a solidarity hashtag, #UStired2, and protesters have mobilised across the nation. One of their demands is that the US stops providing military assistance in Mexico’s war on drugs. In Germany, the Green Party has proposed that the German government provides technical assistance for the Iguala investigation and bans arms sales to Mexico.

2015 has been declared ‘The Year of Mexico’ in the UK and ‘The Year of the UK’ in Mexico. This initiative claims ‘these interlinked Years will leave a legacy that brings British and Mexican societies even closer together in the years ahead’.

This is a high-visibility moment for a government that cares deeply about its image. We urge citizens here to impel the Mexican state for reforms in relation to corruption, accountability, transparency and effective prosecution to address the Iguala case. Of course this also means investigating the context in which the murders happened: one where the government is pushing to criminalise aspects of social protest in the midst of a public outrage about the 26,000 people that have disappeared and over 60,000 people who have been killed since 2006.

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