Mexico: Missing student struggle reflects deeper issues

Issue 
A vigil in support of 43 missing students.

In Australia, the life of a teaching student comes with certain inconveniences, but not acute physical danger at the hands of law enforcement, political authorities and organised crime. Sadly, that is not the case in Mexico.

On the night of September 26-27 last year, in the southern state of Guerrero, police attacked a bus convoy taking a group of students from their normales rurales (rural teaching college) in Ayotzinapa to the city of Iguala.

Apparently, the planned activities of the teaching students (known as “normalistas”) which involved a political demonstration, were taken as a personal affront by the mayoral couple, who ordered the police to act in paramilitary fashion. Three students and three bystanders were killed in the initial assault.

Forty-three students were abducted by police and — by all accounts — handed over to members of a powerful local cartel, the de facto power in this part of Mexico, the “Guerreros Unidos”.

While their fate officially remains a mystery, it appears likely they were tortured, shot and buried in a mass grave. Some accounts suggest their remains were systematically incinerated. One victim who was found had been flayed alive, his face literally removed.

What motivates such hatred? Part of the answer lies in what the students represented, the Mexico of ordinary, struggling people, the Mexico that has been declared an enemy by global capital and its client elite.

Recent disclosures in an explosive article co-authored by Mexican investigative journalist and Narcoland author Annabel Hernandez indicate that the Mexican Federal Police, who had apparently been monitoring the students for some time, were directly involved in the assault.

Political killings of left-wing dissidents are nothing new in Mexico, but the circumstances of this latest massacre were so outrageous that it erupted into one of the biggest scandals of recent Mexican history.

Mass protests shook and continue to shake the country, drawing worldwide media coverage of the often-overlooked human rights crisis that has claimed at least 100,000 lives since the ramped-up “drug war” was declared by then-President Calderon (with Washington’s military financing) in 2006.

The root of the problem is that Mexico is a profoundly destabilised country. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened up the economy to multinational corporate infiltration in 1994, Mexican society bore the brunt of an experimental neoliberal development model that enriched a few at the expense of the vast majority.

About 1 million Mexican campesinos immediately lost their land and livelihoods — just one statistic indicative of NAFTA’s devastation. Some found new roles in the maquiladora sweatshops that sprang up close to the US border, only to be thrown out of work after the boom years ended in the early 2000s.

Post-NAFTA Mexico is an increasingly apocalyptic wasteland of crony capitalism and violent state-directed political repression. The embattled, chronically under-funded network of rural teacher training colleges, to which thes abducted students belonged, represents one of the last remaining bastions of the progressive ideals of the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution.

Addressing the problem of structural, ethnically-based inequality, a problem common to all Latin American societies, was one of the key aims of the revolution.

At the core of the revolution, which started in 1910 as an armed revolt against an autocratic ruler, was a strong vein of democratic aspirations and social reform.

Many of leading activists recognised that building a strong public education system was one of the essential keys to bringing the impoverished and largely indigenous masses into the fold of a new and fairer nation. Close to 50 normal rurals were established in the 1920s to train the children of illiterate farmers from small communities to become teachers.

After graduating, these normalistas — often the first members of their family to receive any sort of education — returned to their villages and towns to helping to educate the next generation.

Politically, these colleges have always been associated with left-wing political views. The students see themselves as the vanguard of a revolutionary wave that would undo the indigenous dispossession that was the founding sin of modern Mexico and Latin America in general.

When a student is selected to attend one of these colleges, they are inculcated with the idea that a public educator is by their very nature a social activist, dedicated to the improvement of the lives of others.

In the 1960s, the normales of southern Mexico became known as hotbeds of radical thought and activism. In fact, the Raul Isidro Burgos College produced two of Guerrero state’s most well-known guerrillas — Lucio Cabanas and Genaro Vazquez. A mural depicting these two alongside Che Guevara is one of the student-produced artworks features at the college.

Little wonder that the traditional elites have always looked askance at the normales and their vocal student body.

Public funding for the normales rurales was never lavish, but it allowed the network of colleges to carry out their work, training thousands of teachers and effecting positive social outcomes in the process.

This began to change radically in the '90s, when the post-revolution social contract was ripped up by neoliberal politicians. Every year, there are more funding cuts and more closures of normales, a tendency that is symptomatic of the widespread decay of Mexican public institutions.

Now, only 15 or so remain in service. Ironically, it was this onslaught of the “market” that the missing students were planning to protest about. They were met with the brutal reality that so often underlies the glib promises of the neoliberal state in the developing world.

With their deaths, they join tens of thousands of other political dissenters who have been disappeared and murdered by the Mexican state in recent years.

Tthe loss of so many at the outset of their careers represents a huge loss to Mexican society in general.

Let us remember the missing Mexican teaching students not only for the shocking manner in which they died, but also for the shining example of progressive activism that their young lives embodied.

We should also remember that, while the ultra-violent details of the Ayotzinapa case are exceptional, the underlying neoliberal hostility toward public educational institutions and personnel is by no means confined to narco-state Mexico.

In fact, as teachers everywhere can testify, the assault on public education is a global trend in jurisdictions governed by the shibboleth of “market principles” (and that’s just about everywhere these days).

Free, universal public education is under threat — and, whether it be Mexico or elsewhere, teacher unions are increasingly portrayed as the enemy. Teachers in First World societies like Australia, Britain and the US are not murdered by drug gangs, but their institutions are progressively being eviscerated by the budget-slashing “razor gangs” seeking ever more draconian “efficiencies” for political masters.

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