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It’s about much more than missing students: Mexico’s massive protest movement, explained

A protester in Mexico city in front of the burning Presidential Palace, which was set on fire during demonstrations on November 8
A protester in Mexico city in front of the burning Presidential Palace, which was set on fire during demonstrations on November 8
(Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Mexico has been roiled by near-constant protests in recent weeks, and all signs are that the demonstrations are continuing to gather steam. On Saturday, a large demonstration in Mexico City turned violent, with some protesters lighting cars on fire and attempting to burn down the presidential palace. On Monday, another demonstration shut down the Acapulco airport. On Tuesday, protesters set fire to the ruling party's regional headquarters in Guerrero state.

This began as a movement to demand justice and answers in the case of 43 students who were kidnapped and likely killed by a drug cartel at the behest of corrupt politicians, but has turned into something much larger, touching on some of the biggest and most daunting issues facing Mexico today. Here's what you need to know about the protests in Mexico and the deeper forces driving the unrest.

1) What are the protests about?

Protests Mexico City

Protesters in Mexico City on November 8 ( Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

The protests started in response to a horrible attack on a group of student protesters in Iguala, a small city in Mexico's Guerrero province. However, they've now become much broader — a way for Mexicans to protest against the violence and corruption that plague their country.

The 43 student protesters disappeared outside Iguala on September 26, and are believed to have been murdered by a drug cartel at the behest of corrupt local officials. Shortly after the attack, the body of one of the students was found with his eyes gouged out and the skin from his face removed. His companions remain missing.

Last week, police announced that two "gang members" had confessed to murdering the students and burning their bodies in a garbage dump outside of the city before stuffing the charred remains into trash bags and throwing them in a river.

Some burned remains have been recovered from the dump and river, but they have not yet been conclusively identified as belonging to the missing students — the Mexican government has said that it lacks the technology necessary to do DNA analysis on the fragments, which were badly burned. They have asked a lab in Austria to assist with that process.

2) Why did the kidnapping become such a big deal?

Riot police Mexico

Protesters face off with riot police on November 10 during the demonstrations at the Acapulco airport (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

Drug cartel violence is nothing new to Mexico. But the students' kidnapping struck a nerve and quickly became a national story, prompting protests around the country that have grown for more than a month. That's not just because the kidnapping was so terrible — although it was — but because the attack encapsulated many Mexicans' worst fears and frustrations about where their country is headed.

There's the fear that public corruption is out of control: the mayor of Iguala and his wife apparently had close ties to Guerros Unidos, a local drug cartel, and ordered the police to hand the students over to the gang, which murdered them. There's the fear that corruption and violence will be used to suppress political dissent: the town's mayor appears to have ordered the students to be arrested so that their protests wouldn't disrupt a speech by his wife. There's the fear that even ordinary Mexicans, who have no ties to the drug trade or politics, still can't escape from politicized violence: the students were ordinary kids from poor families, studying to be teachers.

And finally, but crucially, the students' disappearance has also become the manifestation of Mexicans' fear that their government doesn't take those problems seriously, or even treats calls to fix them with disdain. On November 7, Mexico's Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam cut off a press conference about the students with a muttered "ya me cansé " — a phrase that basically means "I'm tired of this already."

To many Mexicans, it seemed like Murillo was dismissing the missing students as an annoyance, or a waste of time. They reacted with fury. The hashtag #YaMeCansé began trending on Twitter, as Mexicans began tweeting and uploading videos about what they were tired of: corruption, crime, violence — as well as Murillo himself and Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

The next day there was a large protest in Mexico City, with demonstrators carrying hand-made Ya Me Cansé banners and signs. That evening, the demonstration turned violent, as protestors lit cars on fire and attempted to burn down the presidential palace.

3) Are things in Mexico really that bad?

Mexico City Protests

Protests in Mexico City on November 8 (Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Yes. Violence in Mexico is out of control, and organized crime has spread throughout the country like a cancer, destroying any legitimate institutions that get in its way.

The International Crisis Group estimates that a staggering 47,000 to 70,000 people were killed in drug war-related violence between 2006 and 2012 alone, along with thousands more who disappeared and whose fate remains unknown. Human Rights Watch puts that number at 60,000.

The police, military, and other state security forces were responsible for many of those killings and disappearances, as well as for torture and other human rights abuses. Amnesty International documented a 600 percent rise in torture committed by state security officials between 2003 and 2013.

Violence has often been used to terrorize or eliminate Mexicans who support the rule of law. Hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, judges, police officers, and politicians have been murdered. Government corruption has deepened criminal groups' leverage, buying off those who haven't been scared away.

That has had the effect of silencing dissent as well as weakening law enforcement and democratic institutions, not to mention destroying public trust, all of which makes the drug war problems even worse.

Mexico's judicial system has, for all practical purposes, collapsed. 80 percent of homicides remain unsolved and in some states fewer than one in 20 murders results in a conviction. The violence has become so extreme, and the impunity so absolute, that a coalition of Mexican human rights groups recently asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into Mexican crimes against humanity.

4) How did Mexico become such a disaster?

Guerrero state protesters

Demonstrators clash with riot police during protests in Chilpancingo, a city in Mexico's Guerrero state (Eduardo Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)

There are a lot of factors, but the crisis has its roots in Mexico's transition, in the 1990s and early 2000s, from a de-facto single-party dictatorship to a multi-party democracy. That transition opened up a power vacuum — and organized crime rushed to fill it.

Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, held power for 71 years in what the writer Mario Vargas Llosa has called the "dictadura perfecta" — the perfect dictatorship. Its rule was marked by corruption and authoritarianism, but the stability of the one-party state limited criminal competition, which acted as a check on violence.

However, the PRI lost its absolute majority in Mexico's Congress in 1997, and then the presidency in 2000.

The democratic transition brought many benefits to Mexico. But dismantling the one-party state weakened Mexican institutions, and created a competition for power and influence that wasn't limited to lawful methods, or legitimate goals.

From the top to the bottom, the PRI government had ruled Mexico through a system of corruption, patronage, and authoritarian enforcement. That system was corrupt and unjust, but it was stable. When the party left power and that system splintered, it opened up a power vacuum at every level of Mexican society. That created an opportunity for criminal groups, who used corruption and violence to expand their operations and co-opt political power. The cartels became much more powerful, and daily life in Mexico became much more violent.

This got much worse after September 11, 2001. As part of its global war on terror, the US clamped down on its border with Mexico. That disrupted established smuggling routes, setting off renewed — and necessarily fiercer — competition between different cartels for border territory and smuggling routes.

The results were disastrous. Because the always-challenging process of Mexico's democratic transition had left its law enforcement institutions and politicians weaker, they lacked the power to constrain the cartels, whose competition for the most lucrative "plazas" — smuggling territories — was fierce.

As new cartels grew and old ones sought to expand or consolidate their holdings, violence escalated — much of it intended to grab attention and inspire fear through exceptional brutality. La Familia Michoacana, a relatively new cartel, announced its arrival on the scene in 2006 by emptying a sackful of severed heads onto the floor of a nightclub.

When the Mexican military killed the head of the Beltran Leyva cartel, members of his organization attacked the funeral of a marine killed in the operation, murdering his mother, aunt, and siblings in revenge. The Tijuana cartel murdered so many people that it had to employ someone (known colloquially as "the Stewmaker") full-time to dispose of the bodies by dissolving them in acid.

5) So is Mexico a failed state?

Mexico never became a completely failed state — but it has failed in a number of important respects.

Many of Mexico's institutions have been weakened or co-opted by organized crime. That process takes many forms, from bribing sympathetic officials, to killing or frightening off people who might oppose them, to installing cartel-friendly faces in key roles.

The result has been to diminish the state's capacity to act independently or control criminal organizations. And that sets off a vicious cycle, as state weakness gives criminal groups more room to thrive, and thus more ability to weaken state institutions even further.

It is of course important to remember that there's much more to Mexico than its violent drug war. The country has the 15th-largest nominal GDP in the world, and is home to a growing middle class. It has 32 UNESCO world heritage sites, more than anywhere else in the Americas. And more than 20 million tourists per year visit its beaches, cities, and natural wonders.

6) This is getting kind of intense. Can we take a music break?

Sure. Here are some videos of "narcocorridos" — a type of Mexican pop ballad glorifying the violent exploits of cartel members.

Narcocorridos have found mainstream success with the Mexican public and, to a lesser degree, in the US. Their popularity shows that cartels have become a cultural force in Mexico, even within mainstream society. The narcocorridos present drug smugglers as romantic outlaws, heirs to the tradition of hero-criminals such as Robin Hood.

They're now banned from Mexico's airwaves and a number of states have banned live performances as well, on the theory that they encourage violence. However, those bans may soon be lifted: last year Mexico's Supreme Court overturned Sinaloa State's prohibition on narcocorrido performances.

7) What is the US doing about the violence in Mexico?

Skeleton protester

A protester in Mexico City holds a sign calling the government responsible for the missing students' deaths (Miguel Tovar / LatinContent / Getty Images)

The US is responding with a program called the Merida Initiative, which sends financial and military aid to Mexico to assist the government's efforts in fighting the drug war.

Under that program, Mexico has received approximately $2.4 billion in aid from the US to pay for programs that focus on disrupting criminal organizations and on building up the capacity and resilience of Mexico's legitimate institutions. The US has also provided Mexico with direct intelligence and military assistance in the fight against the cartels.

For many years, the Merida Initiative has employed the same "high level target" strategy that the US has used in the war on terror, focusing on identifying and eliminating the top cartel leaders. That strategy has led to the arrest or killing of a number of Mexican drug kingpins, including Arturo Beltran Leyva, the head of the Beltran Leyva cartel, who was killed in 2009.

However, many believe that the policy of going after cartel leaders has actually increased drug violence, because lower-ranked cartel members often launch bloody campaigns for control — or secession — when their leadership is disrupted.

8) What's going to happen next?

It's hard to say for sure.

At the moment, the protests seem to be gathering steam, widening their focus from the Iguala disappearances to the government in general. Protests in the state of Guerrero already forced its governor to resign over his response to the students' disappearance. In recent days, protesters have been calling for the resignations of Attorney General Murillo, as well as Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Peña Nieto's aloof attitude towards the protesters appears to be inflaming the protests. He's come under fire for leaving the country to attend the APEC summit in Beijing, rather than staying home to deal with the crisis. He is also facing an inquiry into his family's $7 million mansion, which turns out to be owned by Grupo Higa, a company that recently received a lucrative high-speed rail contract from the Mexican government. Last week, once it became clear that the media was investigating the company's ties to the president, the government took the unprecedented step of canceling their contract.

It is therefore possible that the protests, in combination with the revelations about Grupo Higa, could affect Peña Nieto's presidency. However, it is unlikely that the bigger, underlying issues — the endemic violence and corruption plaguing the country — will end any time soon. Those problems are simply too deep, and the criminal groups too entrenched, to be solved by protests alone.

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