The “Other” Politics of Ayotzinapa

How a popular movement arisen from the forced disappearance of student-teachers in Mexico demonstrates a horizontal politics of shared leadership.

How a popular movement arisen from the forced disappearance of student-teachers in Mexico demonstrates a horizontal politics of shared leadership.

Family and colleagues of 43 student-teachers[2] forcibly disappeared and feared killed in Iguala, Guerrero last September 26, 2014 have grown into a civilian movement known as “Ayotzinapa” that includes people from all walks of life and from around the world. Their simple but powerful actions of visibility and protest have put in stark light the excesses and failures of a corrupt government structure which operates in deep collusion with drug lords and corporate interests. The case of Ayotzinapa is but a window into a larger pattern of forced disappearances that plagues the nation as a whole. The movement demands accountability and justice for all of Mexico’s disappeared as well as for radical change in a country ravaged by an epidemic of extreme violence, corruption and impunity.

Theirs is another “¡Ya Basta!” (Enough!), reminiscent of the Zapatista uprising that in 1994 rose up in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement which sounded a death-toll of the Mexican campesino, a largely indigenous and poor peasantry. Carrying this history and awareness in their resistance as campesinos themselves, the Ayotzinapa families, students and teachers manifest the kind of ethics and politics called for by the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in 2006. La Sexta, as it became known in Spanish, called for a new way of doing politics, one that does not rely on political parties or electoral circuses, but rather one that is based on an ethics of accountability where “the people rule and the government obeys,”[3] a politics comprised of “everything for everyone, nothing for us.” In short: a politics from below and to the left…by the people for the people.

It comes at a crucial time, as Mexico seems to be sinking into an even more severe political and economic crisis: the peso keeps falling[4] while disappearances[5] and assassinations[6] keep rising. Meanwhile civilian social protests are violently repressed by the state, while a daily theater of death is delivered by the various drug cartels terrorizing the nation with uncountable disappearances, beheadings and hanging corpses. Such gruesome spectacles are meant to intimidate the populace into fearful denial, complacency and silence. Official estimates state that over 100,000 people have been killed and approximately 25,000 disappeared since former President Calderon declared war on the drug lords in 2006. Many believe the actual numbers are much higher. The Ayotzinapa case confirmed the suspected link between murderous drug cartels and the governments of ruling political parties as both municipal police and federal army were involved in detaining the student-teachers that fateful 26th of September, resulting in 3 dead and 43 disappeared. The federal government has completely failed to provide explanations for the army’s role in the students’ disappearance, denying access to the army barracks from where came the last signal of their cellular phones.

The resulting outrage expressed on both a national as well as global scale accompanies and supports the determination and leadership of the disappeared students’ colleagues and family members trying to find out what happened to their loved ones. Their collective intelligence manifests in an ability to organize and act swiftly. They have formed various civilian caravans composed of parents, student, teachers, human rights workers and legal advisors to tour the north, south, and center of the country to meet with other families of the disappeared. Their hope is to make more visible their plight and connect with others like them, striking a deep chord with the Mexican public; they mirror the reality of an entire nation at the mercy of murderous cartels complicit with an inept government. The strength and persistence of what has now become a wide-reaching movement far surpasses that of a President and Attorney General who have merely tried to sweep the whole pesky affair under the proverbial rug. Not only has the Mexican federal government failed to provide plausible explanations or competent actions, they have not been able to even express credible empathy.

The Ayotzinapa victims’ families and friends have not been fooled by the government’s theatrics. After traveling throughout Mexico, the caravans have gone international–first to Geneva, Switzerland where they presented their case before the United Nations. “We come before this committee seeking support and justice, as our government has been unable to provide either,”[7] they said to the UN Committee on Forced Disappearances in early February. Various caravans are now in major cities of the United States. The caravan that traveled to southeastern Mexico in December/January was given prominence in Chiapas at the Zapatista First Global Festival of Resistances and Rebellions Against Capitalism, presided by the National Indigenous Congress. At this site alone, over 3100 people from 49 countries, 31 Mexican states, and 21 indigenous nations attended.[8] Similar numbers were reported from the different gatherings in Xochicuautla, Mexico City and Campeche. These gatherings showed great solidarity with the families/friends of the victims and were a reminder that deep change is possible. The Zapatistas themselves are a functioning example of self-governance for over 20 years, and they are not the only ones self-organizing amidst a long-time crumbling dysfunctional nation-state. In Guerrero, people have formed community self-defense police (policía comunitaria) to fill the void of corrupted security forces. Twenty-one out of 81 municipalities have been taken by common people (teachers, students, workers, religious people) with the intent of beginning to administrate them themselves better than the corrupt narco-state.

An Other Politics towards a deeper, more direct democracy is alive and growing. It starts with honesty and requires constant rebuilding of trust between those governing and those governed. The Zapatistas themselves demonstrate how it is done: elected representatives are directly accountable to those they govern, and replaced if they abuse this responsibility. The Mexican constitution’s Article 39 states that “sovereignty resides in the people,” yet it is this people’s sovereignty that has been forgotten and trodden upon by elite governments who have instead been intent on selling off the country to the highest transnational bidders. An avalanche of recent labor, education, oil and water reforms have followed the privatization of communally held lands. Called ejidos, these communal lands had been hard-fought for in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and were designated for the kind of intergenerational family farming that had been the backbone of Mexican campesino subsistence.

The forcibly disappeared 43 student-teachers of Ayotzinapa’s teacher-training school “Raul Isídoro Burgos” come from such campesino families who are co ntinuously being stripped of their land and self-sustaining livelihoods, forced instead to seek meager wages by migrating far from their homes and families. In their absence, it is these missing students, together with their peers, families and teachers, who are showing the world a new and better way to organize and govern ourselves, a new kind of politics based on better personal and social relations, one built on mutual aid, trust and commonality. The Ayotzinapa Movement has awoken and activated Mexico, sprouting new hope for a true social change movement, but also serving as a model of a more horizontal politics that comes from below.

[2] 43 students were forcibly disappeared, plus three were killed at the time of their apprehension. DNA evidence of one student has been confirmed by Argentine forensics, but they specified that the sample was given to them by the government and not collected by them at the alleged site of incineration.

[3] “Mandar Obedeciendo”

[4] Mexican peso had the greatest fall against the US dollar in almost six years (La Jornada 10 February 2015). Take into consideration that the current (nuevo) peso was adjusted by eliminating zeros from the previous (viejos) pesos, so that difference is actually much greater than it appears.

[5] At the rate of 14 disappearances per day in the last 3 months (La Jornada, 18 January 2015).

[6] Official estimates vary between 120,000-150,000 killed since former President Calderón declared war on the drug cartels in 2006. It has become painfully clear to most that both the Mexican state and Mexican army are in deep collusion with the drug cartels, who most likely serve as their now not-so-clandestine armed forces, violently repressing anyone who dares resist their economic interests, whether by denouncing their activities (as shown by the epidemic of assassinated journalists) or protest their actions (as in the multiple assassinations of social and environmental activists).

[7] Magdalena Gomez, “Ayotzinapa en Ginebra: no aplauden al estado mexicano.” (La Jornada, 10 February 2015).

[8] Javier Sethness Castro, “México Trágico, Mágico México: the First Global Festival for Anti-Capitalist Resistance and Rebellion” Counterpunch, January 26, 2015.

Charlotte Maria Sáenz is Media and Education Coordinator for Other Worlds and teaches at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco.