UBC expert weighs in on the missing students in Mexico
Near the end of September, 43 students went missing in the Mexican town of Iguala. Recent reports indicate that the students were murdered, their bodies burned – another tragic turn of events in a country that has endured horrific violence and state corruption.
Agustin Goenaga, a Mexican doctoral candidate in UBC’s Dept. of Political Science, discusses the disappearance, examines its implications for Mexican democracy and highlights a Canadian angle.
Violence has plagued Mexico in recent years, yet the disappearance of the 43 students has produced a particularly strong reaction. Why?
These developments challenge the narrative that victims of violence are involved in illegal activities. If innocent civilians are targeted, they’re viewed as collateral damage.
What’s different now is that the 43 students had absolutely no ties with organized crime. This is something that even the attorney general has publicly stated.
Second, the first actors involved in this crime were local police forces, following orders of Iguala’s mayor. They were the ones who opened fire against students, arrested them, detained them and allegedly handed them over to members of a criminal organization to torture and execute.
How have the government and opposition parties responded?
The president has started a new nationwide strategy to combat organized crime, and deal with conflicts of interest and corruption amongst public officials.
The brunt of the new program is an initiative to dismantle municipal police forces, and create 32 forces at the state level, as an attempt to fight the corruption of local police officers.
In many municipalities, local police forces are indeed the most vulnerable to corruption. But dismantling them also removes actors who historically served as mediators in illegal activities, managing the violent escalation of small conflicts in this ad hoc way.
There is also an assumption that corruption does not touch the state or federal levels. This is false. Former state governors, national union leaders and federal secretaries of state face accusations of corruption. Even President Peña Nieto is trapped in a conflict-of-interest scandal.
What are the implications for Mexican democracy?
Civil society has mobilized in ways unseen until now. We’ve had demonstrations in the streets all over Mexico and around the world.
These events are serving as a trigger for civil society to push the political parties to be more responsive. Maybe there is also the potential for a new coalition of political forces to emerge.
A recent Vancouver protest highlighted concerns about Canada placing Mexico on a so-called “safe list.” Can you expand?
Immigration Canada put that decision in place in February 2013. This was based on the idea that it has limited resources to deal with claims for asylum and refugee status. The implications are that Mexicans potentially asking for asylum will face higher obstacles to achieve that.
The justification for placing Mexico on the “safe list” comes from the way the Mexican administrations have presented themselves to the international community: as defenders of human rights that are trying to implement and enforce the rule of law – and in the process are facing an escalation of violence.
But the recent events put this image of the Mexican state in question. The state has not proven itself capable of defending human rights, protecting vulnerable populations or prosecuting violations. In the students’ case, the state was actually the perpetrator of those crimes.