Mexican president leaves country as news of apparent massacre deepens political crisis

A banner calling for justice for the Ayotzinapa students made an appearance at an open air concert in Oaxaca, November 8, 2014.

A new wave of protests erupted in Mexico after the country’s attorney general announced Friday afternoon that the 43 students who went missing in late September are most likely dead. Parents of the students and their supporters blocked roads in the resort city of Acapulco and occupied the international airport there Monday. The announcement of the apparent massacre of the students came just days before President Enrique Peña Nieto left Mexico for a trade summit in China. Meanwhile, the situation has touched national nerves already raw from years of drug war violence and impunity. While the president is abroad for the APEC and G-20 summits, the deepest crisis of his nearly two years in office simmers in the streets. Shannon Young reports from Oaxaca City.

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Public reaction was swift after Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam announced Friday afternoon that the 43 missing students were apparently massacred and incinerated. The attorney general stopped short of stating with certainty that the students are dead, but played video clips of two detainees confessing they participated in the massacre, burned the bodies in a trash dump and threw the ashes and charred bone fragments in the San Juan River. The fire in the trash dump allegedly burned for more than 14 hours without anyone reporting it.

Murillo Karam said investigators were able to recover a single plastic bag from the river. The bag was tied shut and contained what’s left of the fire damaged remains which will be sent to an Austrian lab for mitochondrial DNA testing.

The parents of the missing students reject the story based on detainee confessions. They held their own press conference on the grounds of the Ayotzinapa teachers college on the heels of the attorney general’s statements to the media. One after the other, parents said that until the government can offer scientific proof that their children are dead, they will continue to demand they be returned alive.

Late last month, the parents met with President Enrique Peña Nieto. Felipe de la Cruz, father of one of the missing students, said Peña Nieto hasn’t kept his commitment to a ten-point list of agreements reached and he urged the president to reconsider his trip abroad.

“This contributes to our continuing distrust that’s been there from the start,” de la Cruz said. “Because those who took our boys were police, agents of the state. So there’s complicity, or a cover-up as we said in the meeting. If he leaves on tour, it shows us yet again that he doesn’t care what’s happening to the people of Guerrero.”

Peña Nieto left for China Sunday morning to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. From there, he is due to attend a meeting of G-20 nations in Australia.

The president’s decision to leave the country in a moment of crisis fueled public outrage in the streets. In Oaxaca shortly after the attorney general’s announcement on Friday, relatives of missing student Christian Colon Garnica took over the main stage of Oaxaca’s International Book Fair. The family is from the nearby town of Tlacolula. The relatives hosted a three-hour long open mic session, during which members of the public openly criticized top officials, expressed solidarity with the families of the students and turned the scheduled literary event into a heated anti-government rally.

The crowd gave an older woman who identified herself only as Elva an ovation when she said that as a mother, if the state ever disappeared one of her children she wouldn’t wait for the justice system but would kill those responsible with her own hands.

“I can’t let this pass unnoticed, as a mother and as a human being,” Elva said. “We’re living in a state of terror, not just there, but here and all over Mexico. People, we need to wake up! A lot of people are sleeping and saying ‘well, that happened to students, to the teachers.’ They don’t realize that around the corner, this same fate can await them, or their children, or anyone in these times.”

The government’s handling of the case has also brought criticism of Peña Nieto’s reform packages, which laid the groundwork for deep economic changes in the country. While the president’s structural adjustment packages won praise from financial institutions abroad, they have been far less popular at home.

The most organized street-level opposition to the president’s reform agenda has come from the dissident wing of the country’s teachers’ union. When the news broke Friday, the leadership of Oaxaca’s chapter of the union was holding a statewide meeting. A spontaneous march followed, and ended in Oaxaca City’s central plaza after dark with around two hundred participants. Isabel Garcia is a teacher’s union representative from Pinotepa Nacional, a town near Oaxaca’s state line with Guerrero.

“We’re going to agree on actions – not just make statements – but take action to come together in a unified front to put a stop to this type of state-sponsored crime; be it in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacán, wherever we’re putting up a fight,” said Garcia. “Because we know perfectly well it’s the way in which the government seeks to get rid of social activists.”

Through the weekend, widespread anger was evident when demonstrators in Guerrero burned several corporate delivery trucks at the gates of the state’s main government office. On Saturday night, a group of agitators set the doors of Mexico’s National Palace on fire after a large protest reached the main plaza. The words “Que se vayan todos,” or “they all need to go,” were painted in giant white letters in another corner of the square. The phrase was a motto of anti-government demonstrations in Argentina after the country’s 2001 financial collapse.

During a layover on his flight to China, Peña Nieto defended his choice to leave Mexico for a week to attend international economic and trade summits. When he returns, he may find the political climate very different than it was when he left.

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