Mexico Massacres Dim Pena Nieto Limelight as ‘Lawlessness’ Looms

Enrique Pena Nieto renewed his pledge to punish perpetrators of alleged massacres by security forces as a state governor stepped down amid a crisis that’s overshadowing the Mexican president’s economic agenda.

Police are in their fourth week of searching for 43 college students who were handed over by local police to a drug gang, according to Attorney General Jesus Murillo. Authorities are determining whether bodies found in nine mass graves belong to the students, while the former local mayor, his wife and police chief are suspects, Murillo said. In a separate June incident, the army killed as many as 15 alleged gang members after they surrendered, the national human rights commission said.

“The President of the Republic shares the feelings of outrage, repulsion and dismay that have been provoked by the disappearance” of the students, Pena Nieto said in a speech yesterday, vowing to apply the “full force of the law” on those responsible. Pena Nieto previously said the search for the students was a defining challenge for the nation.

The cases highlight corruption among local authorities and the weak rule of law in a country that has seen 70,000 deaths in drug-related violence since 2006. The crisis is dimming Pena Nieto’s legislative successes aimed at bolstering private-sector investment in oil, gas, telecommunications and other industries, according to political consultant Alfonso Zarate.

‘Widespread Lawlessness’

“This is the most serious crisis Pena Nieto has faced,” Zarate said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. “The president’s narrative in recent months has been all about the resources his structural reforms are going to bring to the country. These tragic events are waking us back up to the reality of widespread lawlessness.”

Angel Aguirre, the governor of Guerrero State, where the students disappeared, said at a news conference yesterday that he’s asking his state legislature for an indefinite leave of absence to improve the political climate around the search. Investigations into the disappearance of the students led federal authorities to take over security in 12 Guerrero towns this week after uncovering alleged links between local police and organized crime.

Mexico State

Aguirre is from the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, Mexico’s third-largest political group and the runner up in the 2012 presidential election to Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Carlos Navarrete, the national head of the PRD, said at a separate news conference yesterday that the party demanded Aguirre take a leave.

In a separate incident on June 30, Mexican soldiers killed at least 12 and as many as 15 people in Tlatlaya, 240 kilometers (150 miles) from Mexico City in Mexico State, after they surrendered following a firefight, according to a report by the human rights commission. A total of 22 people died, including a 15-year-old girl. The dead were gang members, according to the Attorney General’s office.

Soldiers altered the scene of the shootout and survivors were tortured and threatened with rape if they didn’t support the army’s version of events, the commission’s report said.

Three soldiers will be charged with homicide for their role in the killings, Murillo said this month.

Mass Graves

About 100 miles to the southeast in the town of Iguala, local police kidnapped the 43 students, who were attending a teachers college, and handed them over to drug gang members, who then took them to an area where mass graves were found, Murillo said Oct. 22. Two tests to determine whether the bodies in the graves belonged to the students were negative and results of a third test are pending, Murillo said.

The disappearances followed protests by the students on Sept. 26-27 that left six people dead. The clash occurred as the students tried to disrupt a public event held by the wife of then-Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, Murillo said. Abarca took leave last month and was stripped of his immunity from prosecution last week.

The situation in the state of Guerrero is “falling apart,” Zarate said. Students have organized protest marches including one last week in which the state government’s main building was burned. The Iguala city hall was set on fire Oct. 22 in another demonstration, while the Acapulco City Hall was taken over by a separate group of students yesterday.

‘Taking Control’

“The government needs to show that it’s taking control of the situation, it needs to find the masterminds of the disappearances,” Zarate said. “Otherwise things will keep getting worse.”

Mexico’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

While the president is making almost daily comments on the disappearances, the government needs to do more to clean up local government, said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst in Mexico City.

“Taking on criminal gangs is useless if you don’t also go after their political protection,” Chabat said. “This is much more serious than anything Pena Nieto’s government has handled in the past.”

Pena Nieto points to the capture or killing of many of the alleged leaders of Mexico’s drug cartels since assuming office in late 2012 as evidence that his security efforts are achieving results.

Criminals Captured

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most-wanted drug boss, was detained in a Pacific Coast resort town in February. Hector Beltran Leyva, one of the nation’s most-wanted drug traffickers, was arrested at a seafood restaurant in the tourist town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on Oct. 1. Juarez Cartel boss Vicente Carrillo Fuentes was caught the following week and the reputed head of the Gulf Cartel was detained by U.S. agents Oct. 9 in south Texas.

Mexico’s security efforts have led to the capture or removal of 88 of the nation’s 122 most dangerous criminals, Pena Nieto said last month.

A central bank analyst survey published Oct. 3 showed public security problems remain the top obstacle to Mexico’s economic expansion, followed by fiscal policy, weak domestic demand and international financial instability. A surge in violence has left more than 70,000 people dead in Mexico since Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, sent the military to fight drug cartels in 2006, according to Milenio.

‘Deeply-Rooted’

“There is no doubt that violence has been a negative factor,” central bank Governor Agustin Carstens said in an interview on Oct. 20. “This is a problem that Mexico has been tackling for the last few years. It’s a deeply-rooted problem.”

While the student disappearances and Tlatlaya killings probably won’t stop companies from investing in oil projects and auto plants in other parts of Mexico, they show the weakness of the nation’s local governments, said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“This highlights one of the major weaknesses in Mexico, which is the weakness of institutions,” Wood said in a telephone interview. “You can have all the reforms you want on the economic level but until we have institutions at the state and local level that can really apply the rule of law, Mexico is going to be held back in its development.”

In the nation’s capital, residents have taken to the streets to protest the incidents and the government’s response. Demonstrators marched down Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma boulevard, from the Angel of Independence Monument to the Zocalo main square in the city’s historic center, just after dark on Oct. 22. Their numbers swelled to 50,000, according to an estimate from the city government. Some carried flaming torches; others, photos of the students missing from Guerrero.

Guadalupe Garcia, 45, carried a sign with an excerpt of a poem by Chilean Pablo Neruda.

“The government isn’t giving enough priority to the security problem,” she said as the sound of drums and the smell of burning candles filled the night air. “Mexicans are standing up. If we don’t stop this violence now, it could spread to the rest of the country.”

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