AYOTZINAPA, Mexico — On the day that pipe-wielding rioters set fire to a government accounting office and ransacked the state congress building, Felipe de la Cruz stepped to the microphone in the floodlit plaza of his missing son’s school.
The protests about his son and dozens of others abducted by police had been building for weeks. The next morning, caravans of buses would drive out of these wooded hills to spread their defiant message to far corners of Mexico, as protesters in various states blocked highways, seized town squares, closed airports, and burned cars and buildings.
“The parents are enraged by so much waiting and so few results,” de la Cruz, who has emerged as a spokesman for the victims’ families, told the crowd on Wednesday. As of Monday, he said, “the flame of insurgency has been lit.”
In the more than seven weeks since police drove away with Cruz’s 19-year-old son, Angel, and 42 of his classmates at a teachers college in the rural state of Guerrero, the localized rage of their relatives at the forced disappearances has flashed across the country and the world, drawing condemnations from such world leaders as President Obama and Pope Francis. The crime has captured Mexico’s attention unlike nearly any other atrocity in the recent years of brutal drug-war violence and spawned a protest movement that has shown no signs of abating. President Enrique Peña Nieto, who returned this past weekend from an extended trip abroad, is facing the most acute crisis of his two years in office.
The demand to find the students and punish those responsible for their disappearance has broadened into a more diverse fury about corrupt politicians and their drug-trafficking cronies, the economic and education reforms pushed by Peña Nieto, and the enrichment of the political class as poverty persists in states such as Guerrero. The outrage reflects deep distrust of the new government, which has emphasized that security is improving, even as large swaths of the country remain under the control of drug cartels and more than 20,000 people are officially counted as missing.
“It is not violence to burn a government building that isn’t an institution. That’s a white elephant that doesn’t serve the interests of the people,” said a protest leader who gave his name as Carlos, wearing a skeleton mask and aviator sunglasses as he prepared to march through the Guerrero capital, Chilpancingo. “The real violence is the assassination of our comrades. And we will not give up this fight.”
The protests have spread far beyond the rural towns and villages where they started. Tens of thousands of marchers have descended several times on Mexico City’s main Zocalo plaza. At minute 43 — the number of Ayotzinapa students missing — of the Mexican national soccer team’s game in Amsterdam against the Netherlands last week, a stadium full of fans chanted “Justice! Justice!”
The trouble began on the evening of Sept. 26, when police stopped the students as they traveled on buses in the town of Iguala. Authorities accuse Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca of ordering police to prevent the students from disrupting a speech given by his wife. According to the government version of events, police then handed over the students to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos. In the ensuing weeks, 10,000 Mexican soldiers and police officers scoured the region and uncovered various graves. Last week, Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, announced that charred remains, probably of the students, had been found at a dump and in a river in Guerrero. He presented videotaped confessions of drug gang members talking about how they carried out the killings. Authorities are working to identify the remains through DNA testing.
The night after Murillo Karam’s presentation, protesters threw molotov cocktails at the door of the national palace in Mexico City.
On Friday in Chilpancingo, thousands of people marched through the streets, led by masked men from the teachers union carrying riot shields and metal pipes. With no police or soldiers in sight, they stopped along the way to spray-paint government buildings, newspaper offices and the storefront windows of Oxxo convenience stores, part of a national chain. The march ended at the town square, which protesters have occupied for weeks, with people living in tents surrounding a statue hung with a cardboard sign that reads: “We are going to disappear the narcostate.”
“If the state doesn’t return our students, this could get out of control,” said Walter Añorve, a teacher from Acapulco who is one of the protest leaders. “It’s a peaceful struggle so far, but it might not remain so.”
The state of Guerrero, rural and poor, has a history of anti-government mobilizations. The Mexican military fought leftist guerrillas here in the 1970s, and government security forces have killed villagers in uprisings in the decades since, including a massacre by police of 17 farmers on their way to a protest in 1996. As in neighboring Michoacan, a citizens militia movement took off in Guerrero, with peasants forming armed groups to keep out drug traffickers and corrupt cops.
Veterans of those struggles say this time feels different. The protests have tapped into a growing opposition to Peña Nieto’s moves to open up the country’s oil sector to foreign firms and his challenges to teachers unions, which have prompted months of protests in Oaxaca. A teacher and protest leader in Chilpancingo who called himself Pastor Mojica said that earlier uprisings, such as protests over the disputed 1988 presidential elections, were more narrowly focused.
“Those protests were to defend the vote,” said Mojica, a teacher from the mountains near Acapulco. “This time, it’s deeper.”
The government, he said, wants “to impose these reforms at any cost,” and the “society rises in opposition to that.”
Some of the parents involved had no experience with politics. Bernardo Campos Santos, 59, a corn farmer from the town of Tixtla, first heard of his son’s disappearance when a truck with a megaphone drove down his street announcing that something “grave” had happened that night and that everyone with relatives at the school — the Escuela Normal Rural Raul Isidro Burgos — should go there immediately.
Since then, he and other parents have converted the school into a base camp for the protest movement, sleeping in student dormitories and eating communal meals on the basketball court.
Campos had never participated in any political protest before the disappearance of his son, José Angel. But like many others, he resented a government he saw as serving the interests of the cartels over those of residents. He and other parents know people who have been pushed off their land by drug traffickers and who pay them protection fees in cash or with portions of their crops. They consider the government complicit.
“Peasants don’t like to get involved in politics. We work. We go home. We sleep. We get up early,” he said. “A politician has never helped me at all.”
“For them, the lives of the poor don’t have any value,” said Nardo Flores Vázquez, whose 21-year-old son, Bernardo, is among the missing.
The parents and protest leaders say they do not believe the government’s claims that their children were burned at the dump. The hope that they might still be found has given the protest movement momentum, because it’s a concrete, although perhaps unmeetable, demand for the government: Return the students alive.
“As long as they continue to be missing, the movement remains alive,” said Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer advising the families.
The parents have presented some apparent complications to the government’s narrative. For instance, they say they cannot understand how the bodies of so many young men could be burned so completely on a night when it was raining.
“It’s just not possible,” Flores Vázquez said.
The parents say they are willing to accept the findings of an independent organization, just not the government. An Argentine forensic team has been working on the case, and remains have been sent to Austria for testing. Until those results come back, Flores Vázquez said, there will be more marches, more protests, more unrest and more waiting.
“This has been hell,” he said.