Mexican Protests: Is This Time Different?

Protestors near the U.N. on Nov. 23 (Photo by Lucina Melesia for Voices of NY)

Protestors near the U.N. on Nov. 23 (Photo by Lucina Melesia for Voices of NY)

Protests in Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere over the 43 students who disappeared in Iguala, Mexico, in September may open the door for transitional justice, or the gradual shift toward the recognition of human rights abuses and redress for those abuses, experts said the evening of Nov. 24 at the Center for Mexican Studies at Columbia University in New York.

Speakers at The Global Forum “Mexico: The Wound of the World,” an event that drew nearly 100 attendees to Morningside Heights, were participating in discussions about “the governability and human rights crisis in Mexico” – discussions that are taking place in over 30 universities around in the U.S., Europe and Latin America in November and December.

The protests have reverberated around the world, including in New York, where more than 300,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans reside. There have been repeated protests in front of the Mexican consulate on East 39th Street and elsewhere, including near U.N. headquarters on Sunday, Nov. 23.

“We’ve had mobilizations at least since 2005; people came out, manifested their complaints and blamed the government. This time it’s different,” said Pablo Piccato, an expert in Mexican political history at Columbia. “People are protesting as they do in countries where major humanitarian rights have been violated; this is an important change,” he said.

At the Columbia University panel, left to right: Paul Gillingham, Northwestern U., Pablo Picatto, Columbia U. and Natalia Mendoza, Columbia U. (Photo by Lucina Melesio for Voices of NY)

At the Columbia University panel, left to right: Paul Gillingham, Northwestern U., Pablo Picatto, Columbia U. and Natalia Mendoza, Columbia U. (Photo by Lucina Melesio for Voices of NY)

The 43 students, from a rural teachers’ college in the town of Ayotzinapa, disappeared after the police picked them up during a protest in Iguala, a town in southern Mexico. Outrage mounted after the government declared it obtained confessions from a local drug gang who claimed to have been directed by the police to murder the group of students.

But with no conclusive evidence to identify their bodily remains or any other information pointing to their whereabouts, protests have been scaling up – to a symbolical point at which demonstrators torched the doors of Palacio Nacional, a scene rarely witnessed before in times of major social instability in Mexico’s history.

On Nov. 20, 11 demonstrators in Mexico City – most of them university students – were arrested, charged with terrorism and attempt to commit murder, and sent to prisons in Nayarit and Veracruz, two states hundreds of miles from the capital. These arrests have ignited further protests, and have drawn more international attention since one of the arrested students is a Chilean citizen.

“The justice system in Mexico lacks social legitimacy. Nobody believes in it. It would be naive to start believing in it now,” said Picatto. He added that while transitional justice is mainly discussed in countries undergoing systemic change – which is not the case in Mexico – this could be an opportunity to discuss such a shift. “We do not need to wait for a revolution to make a transition; we can do it whenever we want.”

However, Jorge Castañeda, a professor at NYU who was Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs before the war against drugs started in 2006, said that although the movement has clearly shaken up Mexico, the political consequences in the short term will not be meaningful.

“This will not bring the government down,” Castañeda said. “My prediction is that the student movement will die over Christmas,” since most universities and government agencies take a month-long holiday in December. He told Voices of NY the movement is likely to become politicized by the left wing. “It might die out just like the others. I hope not.”

While analysts’ views on the topic are mixed – and some have even said not to expect an “Aztec Spring” – Pablo Benson, professor at Long Island University, disagreed with Castañeda.

“I think we are in a very interesting moment of historical transition,” he said, explaining that what makes this movement unique is that it has built upon existing social networks such as the “Yo Soy 132” movement and gained even more strength – in a similar way to how the Occupy Wall Street network was re-activated and played a crucial role in providing aid after Hurricane Sandy.

“Underestimating a social movement comes at a great peril,” he told Voices of NY. “These networks have already been activated and will certainly not die over Christmas.”

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