MEXICO CITY - Sixteen people, mostly teenagers, gunned down at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez in 2010. Fifty-two people killed in Monterrey after gunmen doused a crowded casino with fuel and set it ablaze. More than 200 bodies pulled from mass graves during 2010 and 2011 in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, most believed to be Central American migrants. And in the latest atrocity: 43 students from a rural teachers college kidnapped in the southwestern state of Guerrero in September 2014, many last seen being forced into municipal police cars.
For Mexicans, the forced disappearances outside the town of Iguala, Guerrero, evoke a horrific sense of déjà vu: once again innocent people are caught up in violence so extreme that it defies belief. Witnesses have told federal investigators that local police turned the victims over to a gang known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), who drove them to a dump, shot those not already dead, then piled the corpses in a massive funeral pyre, along with discarded tires, plastic and other trash and set it afire with diesel fuel and gasoline.
The disappearances have awakened the Mexican student movement, which has called for a national strike this week. "¡Ya me cansé del miedo!" ("I am fed up with fear!") has become a rallying cry on social media, though some protestors also point fingers squarely at their leaders with another popular slogan: "Fue el Estado" ("It was the state").
That accusation is rejected by the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which, after an arguably slow start, has deployed massive resources to find the students and their killers. Seventy-four suspects are under arrest, including three dozen municipal police plus the mayor of Iguala, who allegedly ordered security forces to stop the students from disrupting a political event hosted by his wife. The federal government has also taken over policing in Iguala and a dozen other towns in the region, replacing local law enforcement with federal forces and the military.
FEDERAL CONTROL IS A STOP-GAP SOLUTION
Federal control is at best a stop-gap solution, however. The bloodshed is fueled by the disintegration of large cartels amid heightened competition for control not only of drug trafficking but also of local rackets such as extortion and kidnapping. But the underlying reason for the recurring cycle of hyper violent crimes is a pervasive sense of impunity among criminals and corrupt officials alike.
All too often, writes security expert Ernesto López Portillo, organized criminals have recruited police as "an armed extermination branch." Impunity is not limited to local officers: state investigative police are associated with torture in many regions. Federal police face allegations of human rights violations, including preying on undocumented migrants. Internal affairs units are "black boxes," operated without clear professional standards.
Even the military, which benefits from better training and more funding and enjoys far greater prestige, has been implicated in abuse, most recently in the allegedly execution-style killing of 22 kidnapping suspects in central Mexico.
A ROTTEN POLITICAL SYSTEM
The killings in Guerrero also laid bare rot within the political system. News stories now recount in detail the alleged crimes of Iguala's former mayor, José Luis Abarca, who is said to have controlled the local drug plaza and was implicated last year in the kidnapping and murder of three political opponents. The charges were never investigated, however, because the state legislature did not lift Abarca's political immunity until October, after the disgraced mayor and his wife went into hiding following the student kidnappings.
Once known mainly as the birthplace of the Mexican flag, Iguala de la Independencia is now cited as a paradigm of political impunity. Abarca was a member of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, but candidates chosen from among local strongmen with deep pockets and questionable connections are not limited to one ideology or movement. "Profound changes are needed," said an activist in Guerrero. "But the federal government can't do it because it is as penetrated by organized crime as the rest."
That blanket condemnation is unfair to politicians, police and prosecutors at all levels of government who have battled crime and corruption for years, sometimes paying with their lives. But lack of confidence in the Mexican government runs deep. According to a poll released in early November by the firm Parametría, seven out of ten Mexicans did not believe authorities would arrest those responsible for the students' disappearance
"Iguala is not the state," said Prosecutor General Jesús Murillo Karam, rejecting the idea that the latest atrocities implicate the government as a whole. But the impunity enjoyed by some has tarnished the police, prosecutors and politicians as a whole, whether honest or dishonest. To prevent another Iguala -- or another Villas de Salvárcar or another San Fernando -- Mexican leaders must show that rule of law prevails, especially for those required to uphold it.