By Caroline Kuritzkes
While President Enrique Peña Nieto, government officials, and federal and local police wage the Drug War on Mexico’s streets, Mexican youth and digital activists are fighting a different battle online. Their weapons are not AK-47’s or Black Hawk helicopters, but Twitter handles, videos, statuses, and hashtags. What started as an outraged response to the disappearance and massacre of 43 teenage students from the Ayotzinapa teachers training college has evolved into widespread condemnation of the mass murders, kidnappings, and corruption that reign in Mexico with impunity.
On September 25th, 2014, the students were abducted in the city of Iguala while on their way to solicit donations and commandeer buses for a demonstration. Operating under orders from the city mayor, local police ambushed the students and opened fire, killing three before turning over the rest to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), a local drug gang. The cartel led the remaining students to a nearby garbage dump and massacred them all. Though Mexico’s attorney general alleges that the drug gang incinerated the students’ bodies and dumped their ashes in the San Juan River, an independent Argentine forensic team has not confirmed the Mexican government’s reconstruction of events. Indeed, this mistrust may be well placed, given that independent investigators and rights groups have linked the Mexican president’s administration to the atrocity; a Proceso magazine investigative report recently revealed that the federal government had been tracking the students since their departure and that state security forces were present during the ambush.
The lines between state-sanctioned violence and criminal warfare in Mexico are now more blurred than ever. But this climate of brutal repression is a routine aspect of law enforcement and daily life for Mexican civilians, who have seen more than 80,000 casualties of drug-related violence since 2006, according to Human Rights Watch. The disappearance of the 43 students is far from an isolated incident, yet the blatant inhumanity of the act and publicly recognized complicity of state and local police strikes a different chord for Mexican citizens spanning the entire socioeconomic spectrum.
“People from all strata of society are getting involved,” said Aileen Teague, who researches the history of US drug policy in Mexico. Currently based in Mexico City and observing demonstrations that happen regularly on her block, she is struck by the sheer size and inclusivity of the protests. “There have been smaller incidents of drug violence that have stirred the Mexican people, but other recent protests haven’t inspired the same level of opposition.” Unlike previous spells of resistance in Mexico, the Ayotzinapa protests have spiraled into a large-scale societal conversation that transcends class boundaries.
It’s no wonder that the families of the disappeared, Mexican students, activists, and teachers unions are up in arms, but the role of social media in broadcasting their rage is noteworthy. Hashtags such as #TodosSomosAyotzinapa (We’re all Ayotzinapa), #Ayotzinapa, #FueElEstado (It was the state), #FueElEjercito (It was the army), and #FueraPeña (oust Peña, the President of Mexico) are cropping up on Twitter accounts and sweeping Mexico in fury. After Mexico’s attorney general famously wrapped up a press conference about the missing students with a dismissive “Ya me cansé” (“Enough, I’m tired”), activists rallied not only in the streets, but also on their phones and computers, cleverly appropriating the phrase with a satirical #YaMeCanse that generated more than 4 million public mentions on Twitter in the month of November. In this digital chorus, activists are claiming ownership of the right to be tired, frustrated, and disappointed, pointing fingers at the Mexican government’s indifference to unchecked violence, criminality, and corruption tainting the country’s political and security apparatus.
Of course, protesters are mobilizing on the ground, too. Marching, blockading highways, and setting fire to government buildings in Iguala are tactics that many activists have adopted to voice their grievances. Yet online protests are particularly important in publicizing the activism occurring in the streets for a national, and even global, audience. “They’ve progressed from regional protests, to the national level, and now to the international level,” explained Celeste González de Bustamente, a professor at the University of Arizona and scholar of journalism in Mexico. She said that parallel protest groups have surfaced all over the United States, such as demonstrations at the University of Arizona, the University of Washington, Freedom University in Atlanta, and the Ayotzinapa Somos Todos protest in Los Angeles, spurred in large part by the frequent online posts by Mexican youth that American students are accessing. @Desinformémonos, an activism group and Mexican digital media source, posts hourly photos of protesters obstructing roads and painting murals, as well as screenshots of signs publicizing the times and locations of street demonstrations. “In Uruguay, the musical band ‘The Green Devils’ expresses their solidarity with #Ayotzinapa #YaMeCanse27” and “Preparing a protest in Costa Rica for the visit of #PeñaNieto #YaMeCanse25 #Ayotzinapa” are just a fraction of their tweets recognizing support from sympathizers outside of Mexico. Other group activist handles based in Mexico City, such as @elgritomas, @fightbackmexico, @poresopropongo, and @AyotzinapaFeed, are among thousands who are using Twitter to bring the disappearances to international attention.
Though social media has proven instrumental in relaying the concerns of activists to a broader national and global audience, it has done little to foster the organization and cohesion that could propel isolated demonstrations into a lasting movement. “Logistically and practically, social media spreads information about where protests are located, but that’s very different from organizing and articulating one voice,” Teague said. Distilling a general spirit of outrage into material demands is especially challenging for protesters who are divided into multiple factions with disparate objectives. According to Alicia Camacho, a professor of ethnicity, race, and migration at Yale who studies Mexico, the families and relatives of the disappeared have the immediate goal of finding their loved ones and gaining closure. Teachers unions and professors, on the other hand, are focused on students’ and teachers’ rights in Mexico, and a guerrilla organization is taking a stand against the Mexican government’s military presence. Jaqueline Saenz Andujo, a human rights coordinator at Fundar, a Mexico City-based non-governmental organization that advocates on behalf of disappeared victims and their families, said that the use of violence has become an additional tactical divide for the protestors. “Some people want to paint murals, but others want to throw Molotov cocktails,” she claimed. She anticipates that it will be challenging for the protestors to reshape rhetoric to keep people excited, frustrated, and mobilized months down the line.
Teague thinks an even greater obstacle is that the protestors are not focused on policies or tangible political reform, which involve the nuance and complexity of targeting real local and federal institutions. “What the protests need is a leader who can marry the sadness and anger of the moment to simple policies or new laws. Someone needs to vocalize concrete goals in bite-size pieces that everyone can understand,” she said. Santiago Aguirre, director and lawyer at Centro Pro de Derechos, a national Mexican human rights organization, affirmed that rights groups must devise technical approaches so that the families of the 43 can translate their grievances into workable political action. “Victims of atrocities are not looking for pragmatic political agendas but for demands that are not on the table,” he claimed. Ultimately, social media has a publicizing power for the protestors, but it isn’t lending their fight strategic shape or purpose.
Nonetheless, in the face of heightened censorship and with prospects of retribution from cartels and police looming large, social media can offer activists, bloggers, and journalists some degree of anonymity, though even digital protestors are not completely immune from retaliation. With that relative facelessness comes the capacity to publish stories and on-the-ground experiences of local communities that would otherwise go unheard. According to Saenz Andujo, non-independent Mexican media sources portray the protestors as subversives trying to destabilize the country and rarely publish photos of the demonstrations. Teague recalls that when two student protesters from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) were shot in mid-November, the story was unveiled not by major Mexican news outlets, but by Twitter activists and independent digital media sources like Sin Embargo. @Global132, an activism group from the #YoSoy132 movement in Mexico from 2012, tweeted five photos of one of the injured students with an accompanying “#YaMeCanse #UNAM” on November 15th. González de Bustamente noted that severe violence in Matamoros, a city in northeastern Mexico, has prevented news stations from covering day-to-day crime altogether. “The role that used to be occupied by mainstream media is just not being fulfilled, so now social media is playing that part,” she said. She attributes the lack of reporting to self-censorship from journalists who fear reprisal from drug gangs in cahoots with local or state security forces. Indeed, Mexico is one of most dangerous countries in the world for journalists today; according to the PEN American Center, more than 80 media workers have been killed there since 2000.
In this context of forced disappearances, censorship, and human rights abuse, activists across the board are searching for the same, unreachable answers. Where are the 43 students who disappeared this past September? Where are the 80,000 who have disappeared in the past decade? And why are the Mexican government and local police targeting innocent civilians through mass murder? When I asked Saenz Andujo this last question, her response was chilling. “Because they can,” she told me.
Mexico’s attorney general may have had enough, but so have Mexican students, youth, teachers, families, and communities affected by undisguised violence, often committed and authorized by local and state security forces with little to no accountability. With formal political channels and processes of achieving justice ultimately ineffective, Enough, I’m tired could be the satirical hashtag needed to draw attention to the violence, corruption, and government indifference largely ignored by Mexican mainstream media. Online tweets, videos, photos, and statuses are far more than just tokens of a digital age. They are evidence that activists will unearth silenced atrocity and pursue justice through whatever recourse is available to them. The question they need to ask is whether their many voices are drowning out a potential louder one that could rework hashtags and handles into a unified movement with lasting change.
Caroline Kuritzkes ’18 is in Ezra Stiles College. She can be reached at email@example.com.
[Above: After a protest in Montevideo on November 17, Uruguayan protestors left posters depicting the 43 missing students in front of the Mexican embassy. The sign on the left reads, “If we forget, the state wins (courtesy Flickr user Sofiá).”]