A brutal surge of violence is the greatest surprise of Mexico’s 21st century. There hasn’t been anything like it since the Mexican Revolution, which was rich in similar atrocities: killings and massacres, kidnappings, street crime, plundering, extortion. More than a million people were killed during the revolutionary years of 1910 to 1920. Between 2007 and 2014, more than 164,000 Mexicans were killed.
The last straw for many Mexicans came in September 2014, in the town of Iguala, with the disappearance and probable murder of 43 students from the nearby teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa. The tragedy was the work of an alliance between a narco gang, the police, and corrupt politicians. People throughout much of the country were furious. “It’s the government that foments violence,” said Francisco Toledo, Mexico’s greatest contemporary visual artist. There have been many other massacres in recent years, like the killing of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010, or at least 52 murdered at the Casino Royal in Monterrey in 2011. But none had the national and international impact of Iguala—perhaps because it happened in Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest and most violent states, or perhaps because the victims were students, kindred spirits of those massacred in the Tlatelolco plaza of Mexico City in 1968 during the government crackdown on student protests.
Violence obviously stirs up feelings of insecurity, which nearly 70 percent of Mexicans admit to having. If your life or property is threatened or harmed, the likelihood of the damage being repaired or those responsible being punished is practically nil. Few such crimes are even reported. To make matters worse, in many municipalities, especially in the states of Tamaulipas, Morelos, and Guerrero, people have legitimate suspicions of connivance between criminals and the authorities. The Mexican state, as a whole, has been ineffective in the fight against crime and has not succeeded in even minimally reducing the blight of impunity. And so the mood of Mexican society is one of vulnerability, anxiety, and discouragement.
What a different future seemed to be on the horizon in the year 2000! Through the magic of the voting booth, the supporting struts of the old political system were kicked aside. “The system” was the term used to describe the political monopoly carefully managed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled as Mexico’s hegemonic party for seven decades. In 2000, for the first time since 1929, the PRI lost the presidency and its majority in both houses of Congress to Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN). Central to this process of change was the impartial and independent electoral oversight of the Instituto Federal Electoral. Although the IFE had been established in 1990, it only became fully autonomous and effective in 1996. As a result of the PRI’s defeat and the consequent change of government, the powers of the presidency were reduced and limited. The presidency had been, in effect, an absolute monarchy with a new potentate installed by manipulated elections every six years. But after 2000, like collapsing dominoes, governors and mayors began to slip from the control of the central government, as voters in the states and municipalities elected candidates from parties other than the PRI, principally the center-right PAN and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).