MEXICO CITY – I have covered many massacres, witnessed too much bloodshed, so many that the latest killings should not have come as a surprise. But it doesn’t make it any less painful.
Mexico has a history of horrors. It is a country ravaged by rampant corruption, weak judicial institutions, deep economic disparities and indifference by authorities at all levels, so much that at times I question whether Mexicans have become numb. The impunity rate is right up there with Honduras, 95 percent.
And yet here I was, at the latest protest over the latest massacre, with masses of people pacing the same boulevard. The majestic Reforma Avenue now turned into a river of agony and outrage epitomized by tens of thousands of protesters raging against the latest massacre of 43 students in the state of Guerrero.
Is this Mexico’s turning point? I asked myself as I walked away. What, if anything, has changed in this country?
I was born in Mexico, left my umbilical chord buried there and have spent a lifetime searching for answers to those questions, questions that have haunted me since I left my homeland kicking and screaming to the United States. The very questions that pushed me to write Midnight In Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness.
Since 2006, more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared. Tragedies abound, reflected in part by clandestine graves regularly unearthed throughout the country, from northeastern states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua to my birthplace of Durango. Guerrero is by no means a stranger to this morbid list.
And yet, this march felt different, the weight of the world falling on this magnificent, yet transfixed valley of more than 20 million people. The grim revelations of deep complicity between government authorities and criminal groups hit a new low, drawing condemnations from such world leaders as President Obama and Pope Francis and widespread anger in cities from Mexico City, Oslo, New Delhi, Buenos Aires and even Boston.
To begin with, the grisly details: Investigators had recovered garbage bags with dozens of burned human bones, ashes and other remains. One bone fragment has been confirmed by independent forensics experts from Austria and others may also belong to the missing students, all teacher trainees at a Guerrero town called Ayotzinapa. Some of the remains may never be identified, officials said Monday. The students were allegedly killed by a drug gang at the behest of the local mayor.
On Reforma Avenue I walked alongside colleagues and protesters that included some of the relatives of the victims. The protesters had seized the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution to show their discontent, still searching for the equality and justice the revolutionaries died for.
Under gray skies and gathering raindrops, some carried pictures of the victims, others signs that mocked the narrative that President Enrique Peña Nieto tried to promote abroad. One sign read: “Visit Mexico” and showed gravesites in the background. Others carried Mexico’s tricolor flag, transformed into another symbol of mourning by coloring its green and red stripes to black.
Indeed, the biggest blow, analysts say, may be Peña Nieto’s carefully crafted domestic and international public relations campaign. Since his presidency began in December 2012, Peña Nieto has focused on pushing for major reforms, from energy to telecommunications, and promised to rebuild his party’s tattered image as corrupt and decrepit.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years, was kicked out of office in 2000 for 12 years before returning to power with Peña Nieto. The ouster and return of the PRI was hailed as a sign that democracy, albeit messy and violent, had been ushered into Mexico.
The protests unleashed another fury; reports from leading Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui of a mansion estimated at $7 million belonging to soap opera star Angelica Rivera, the wife of the president. Rivera was buying the home, under construction in a pricey section known as Las Lomas, on credit from a company whose owner won large government construction contracts from Mexico State when Mr. Peña Nieto was its governor. Peña Nieto acknowledge the home, but said it belong to his wife, Rivera, who would answer questions. She did and said she would put the house up for sale.
The allegations of government corruption, complicity with drug traffickers and conflicts of interest underscored a belief; If the PRI, or other political parties didn’t change, the people certainly have. Marches, protests, vigils have continued here and across the world with the theme of “Mexico, the world is watching.”
Democracy isn’t tidy and neat, certainly not in Mexico, or even in my adopted homeland, the United States. Days later I returned to America and saw protests sparked by a grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri. And most recently in New York City. I couldn’t help but think of Mexico.
The U.S. protests may lead to changes in how law enforcement authorities operate. President Obama weighed in and supports the idea of police collecting evidence through body cameras worn by officers. I thought of the possibility of such a move in Mexico: Mexican cops wearing cameras? Never.
Never may be too strong of a statement. Change in Mexico, fellow journalist Angela Kocherga, reminded me, is usually a series of turning points that may lead to a tipping point. Whether Mexicans can seize the latest moment is perhaps a question best answered by time and those around me: Young and old, poor, middle and upper class, jamming streets leading to the biggest public square in the Americas known as the Zócalo.
Social media is proving an effective tool. Mexicans are learning not just to blame authorities, but to shame them before the world with their postings. Hold the powerful accountable.
Indeed, just the fact that people still turn out to protest in the darkest moments is further proof that the best of Mexico lies in the Mexicans themselves.
I strolled the streets of Mexico, looking for cover from a pouring rain, still caught between fear and hope.
Updated December 9, 2014.