The Art of Mexican Protest

Banners with the names and faces of the forty-three students who were kidnapped in Iguala, Guerrero, allegedly by police, hang in front of a plantón, or a protest encampment, on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.

Every time I’ve come to Mexico City, I’ve happened upon a protest.  In fact, I run across at least one almost every day, sometimes more than one.  (Today, as I was bicycling to my Spanish lesson, I passed two.)   Mexicans love to protest almost as much as the French, though it’s not at all clear that they’re getting the same results as the French.  On this trip to Mexico, I’ve noticed something that I never noticed before:  the use of entertainment in protests.  Maybe song and dance have always been features of Mexican protests, and I’m just noticing it now.  Or maybe it’s a new strategy for capturing the attention of Chilango passersby who are so accustomed to protests that they hardly notice them.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I was walking around in the Historic Center, and I stumbled upon a few dozen nearly naked men dancing to cumbia music in front of the Torre Latinoamericana (the tower in the Historic Center that was once the tallest building in Mexico).  Then I noticed that there were a half a dozen topless women dancing in the middle of the street.  It was causing quite a traffic jam, mainly because pedestrians were taking over el Eje Central (the main thoroughfare through the Historic Center) in order to get a better look and take pictures.  The men had photos of two allegedly corrupt officials attached to their crotches, and behind them were huge banners denouncing the malfeasance of Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Angel Yunes Linares.  The former is accused of illegally expropriating land to build a subway line when he was mayor of Mexico City, and the latter of embezzling tens of millions of pesos meant for social services.

Just last week, as I was walking around in the Historic Center, I noticed a ballet folklorico being staged in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.  As I got closer, I saw that this too was a protest organized by Antorcha Campesina (Rural Torch—or Peasant Torch—I’m not sure which is the best translation), demanding justice for a man they claim was kidnapped and killed by the government.  (When I asked my friend Mauricio about the protests, he was familiar with both groups and said that they had been holding protests in Mexico City for years.  So maybe this isn’t a new tactic after all.)

No topic inspires more protests these days than the fate of forty-three protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero.  A little more than a year ago, two busloads of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were traveling to the town of Iguala, where they intended to disrupt a conference being held by the mayor’s wife.  On orders from the mayor, the local police intercepted the students, shot three of them, kidnapped forty-three others, and then turned them over to a drug cartel that allegedly murdered them and incinerated their bodies in the town dump in nearby Cocula. This is, at any rate, what the federal government claims happened, but it’s a story that few Mexicans believe.  The Mexican publication El Proceso published an article arguing that the federal police and army were also involved in the kidnapping of the students, and a recent article in the New Yorker makes a similar argument.  Teams of forensics experts from the UNAM and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights investigated the incident and claimed that the government’s explanation was physically impossible.  Later, when forensics experts from the University of Innsbrook in Austria identified the remains of three students in material collected from the Cocula town dump, the IACHR’s experts cast doubt on the origins of the samples that the Austrian team had studied.  The families of the identified students have said that they don’t believe the government’s explanation, and every Mexican I have talked to about this topic is equally dubious.  Graffiti and protests signs throughout el DF say, “Fue el Estado” (“It was the state”) and “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (“Alive they took them, alive we want them”).

On September 26th of this year, the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping, I was in Puebla, where I joined protesters in the town square who were commemorating the anniversary and demanding government accountability.  As with so many other protests that I have witnessed recently, there was entertainment:  music, spoken word poetry, and stirring speeches.  (The city government sponsored a concert in the town square that day, much to the annoyance of the protesters, who believed it was a deliberate attempt to distract attention from their protest.)  The performances all took place on a small stage, in front of which were arranged forty-three empty chairs, each labeled with the image and name of one of the missing students.  At the end of the event, the names of the forty-three students were all read aloud.  Each name was accompanied by chants of “Vivo se lo llevaron, vivo lo queremos” and the release of one black helium balloon.




As Francisco Goldman explains in his excellent series of articles in The New Yorker, these kidnappings hit a nerve in Mexico not because they were isolated incidents but because they epitomize the link between organized crime and corrupt government officials that has been plaguing Mexico for so long.  In his words, “Mexicans know that the murder of the forty-three students, like so many other Mexican atrocities, wasn’t a local crime but rather a manifestation of the political corruption and impunity that have been tormenting the country for years.”

During the protest in Puebla, one speaker decried the lack of accountability for government officials in Mexico.  If just one corrupt politician were to be punished, he said, the country might begin to change for the better.  He spoke of the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose work recently led to the jailing of the country’s president and vice-president, and called for a similar independent, international commission in Mexico.  Many in Mexico have called for an independent investigation of the events in Iguala, including both the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the right-leaning Party of National Action (PAN), but the current PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) dominated government of President Enrique Peña Nieto continues to insist that an independent investigation would be a waste of money.

When I was studying Spanish at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, my teacher recommended that I see the recent film La Dictadura Perfecta, a political satire about the link between corrupt politicians and the Mexican media.  In the film, a state governor caught accepting bribes on camera negotiates a deal with a major TV network to clean up his image and help him win the next presidential election.  When this governor is involved in a second scandal, the TV network arranges the kidnapping of two adorable little girls and covers the story non-stop in order to distract the public’s attention from the scandal.  The movie seems like an improbable political farce.  But after I watched it, I googled it and learned that every outrageous event in the film was based on something that had actually happened in Mexico.  The British publication The Guardian, for instance, somehow got its hands on contracts between the Peña Nieto campaign and Televisa, the largest Mexican television network, and published photos of them.  When I read about this, I recalled the protests I had seen in Mexico City a few years ago, just after Peña Nieto’s election.  Many people carried picket signs bearing images of Peña Nieto with thought bubbles saying, “Televisa made me president.”

At a 2012 protest after the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, a sign reads, “Televisa made me president. You’re the product of Fraud. Thanks, Televisa.”

With Mexico’s largest TV network in bed with corrupt politicians, the burden to investigate them falls on the shoulders of print journalists.  But print journalists investigating corruption are killed at an astounding rate in Mexico.  More than a hundred journalists have been killed in Mexico in last fifteen years, and twenty-five others have gone missing.  Mexico is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world, after Iraq.  It’s even more dangerous for journalists than Syria.

Many of the Mexicans I’ve talked to are pessimistic about the chances for real reform in Mexico.  But the protesters have not given up.  A group of them are camped out in tents on Paseo de la Reforma.  I cycle past them every day, and they’re making a lot of noise.

A banner on Paseo la Reforma in Mexico City reads, “We’re missing 43. It was the state. Alive they were taken; alive we want them.”


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