MEXICO CITY -- It was a sweet, prolonged honeymoon. During his first 18 months in office President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico signed a political agreement with the country's top three political parties, something unheard of in a country known for its acrimonious, highly partisan politics. He proceeded to get 11 major reforms approved by a divided Congress. Peña Nieto moved Mexico from the crime sections to the business pages of international newspapers. His energy reform opened up Mexico's oil, gas and electricity industries to private investment. The telecommunications reform has tackled powerful local business empires. In his annual state of the union report, on Sept. 1, a confident Peña Nieto claimed that, after a long paralysis, "Mexico [is] on the move."
MEXICO WAS MOVING
But the movement has turned into an earthquake. On the evening of Sept. 26 a group of first-year students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College arrived in Iguala, a city in the southern state of Guerrero. They had been ordered by their school "Struggle Committee," the radical leftist group that rules life at the college, to disrupt a celebration organized by María de los Ángeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala's mayor, José Luis Abarca, who had plans to succeed her husband.
The students had stolen buses. Mayor Abarca ordered the Iguala police to "stop" the students. When the police intercepted them, the students apparently threw stones at the police, who then reportedly responded with live bullets. According to eyewitness accounts, three students were killed right there. Forty-four others were taken away by the police. The others are presumed to have been taken to Cocula, a small town, and handed over to a drug organization known as Guerreros Unidos or United Warriors. The drug traffickers allegedly killed them and burned their bodies. The government claims the mayor and his wife had links with this drug organization.
Mexico is used to violence. President Felipe Calderón, Peña Nieto's predecessor, launched a war against drugs in 2006 and saw an increase in murders from 8 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 24 in 2011. A slow decline in homicides began in 2012. In 2013, the first year of President Peña Nieto's government, there were 19 homicides per 100,000 people. The reduction prompted Peña Nieto to promote the idea that violence was a thing of the past.
No more. The disappearance and apparent murder of the Ayotzinapa students has horrified Mexico and the world. Other acts of violence have also become public knowledge. When searching for the Ayotzinapa students, government investigators uncovered a number of clandestine burial sites in the state of Guerrero. They thought at first they were the Ayotzinapa students, but were proven wrong. Dozens of bodies have been recovered and are now painfully and slowly being identified.
CHE STILL HERO OF THE STUDENTS
The Iguala affair has turned into a political crisis for President Peña Nieto. The Ayotzinapa school is known for its Marxist bent. Instead of having pictures of the nation's heroes, it is decorated with portraits of Che Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos. Its classes are used for indoctrinating students on revolutionary struggle. Lucio Cabañas, a famous guerrilla fighter of the 1970s, was a graduate of the college -- and remains the most admired alumnus.
Dozens of left-wing organizations have now joined the Ayotzinapa Struggle Committee in a movement that openly seeks the resignation of Peña Nieto. This would appear strange. Neither the president nor his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, had anything to do with the events in Iguala. The mayor was a member of the moderate leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Peña Nieto's attorney general has pretty much solved the crime, which is unusual in a country with a 98 percent impunity rate, and has detained more than 70 people, including the mayor and his wife. Many of the accused have confessed to the mass kidnapping and the executions of the students. Still, the leaders of the movement claim that this was "a state crime" and thus the head of the Mexican state must resign.
The president's public image has been further tarnished by information that his wife owns a $7 million residential compound in Mexico City's posh Lomas district. Images of the luxurious home have circulated widely. A former successful television soap opera star, Angélica Rivera issued an emotional video explaining that she purchased the property with her own resources. Part of the compound, however, was bought on credit from a government contractor. The first lady claims that she is repaying the loan with interest.
On Nov. 20, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Mexico City demanding Peña Nieto's resignation. At this point there is no indication that the president is even considering the move. His administration is constitutionally scheduled to end in November 2018.
But the government is now afraid to use public force to prevent demonstrators from blockading roads and streets, stealing buses and trucks, ransacking supermarkets and torching government buildings. President Peña Nieto has claimed that his patience has limits, but so far the Ayotzinapa movement appears to have forced him into a corner.
REMEMBERING A VIOLENT REVOLUTION
Many of the demonstrators on Revolution Day threatened President Peña Nieto with a revolution if he does not resign. Paradoxically, Peña Nieto said on that very same day, in a ceremony to commemorate the 1910 Revolution, that violence is not acceptable. Apparently he was not aware of the fact that the Mexican Revolution was a violent affair that cost the lives of perhaps 1 million Mexicans, one tenth of the population at the time. Perhaps he should have remembered the words often attributed to Porfirio Díaz, the president who after 30 years in power resigned in 1911 at the start of the revolution: "In Mexico nothing ever happens -- until it happens."
Sergio Sarmiento is a columnist for the Mexican daily Reforma and a TV and radio commentator.