In the summer of 2014 it seemed like Mexico’s handsome young president Enrique Peña Nieto could do no wrong. Two years into his term, Peña Nieto had passed major structural reforms, overseen declining levels of narco violence, and imprisoned Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s most wanted kingpin.
Time magazine hailed him on its cover as “Saving Mexico,” but when a group of students arrived in the town of Iguala in southern Guerrero state in late September that year, it ignited a chain of events that would tear this narrative to shreds.
Moments after boarding buses headed for Mexico City, the students from the all-male Ayotzinapa teachers’ college were ambushed by police gunmen. Six people were killed, including one student whose face was flayed; dozens were wounded; and 43 young men were driven away in patrol cars, never to be seen again. Three years later, the students remain missing and Mexico’s presidency and its politics have never been the same.
“Peña Nieto’s term effectively ended on September 26, 2014.”
Municipal, state, and federal officers were implicated in the coordinated and sustained attacks, along with soldiers who observed the action and threatened a group of survivors. It was one of the worst crimes in recent Mexican history, but the government was slow to react and its eventual investigation was riddled with glaring holes and confounding contradictions.
Peña Nieto had presented himself as the fresh face of a modern and open Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but his cold and detached handling of the investigation brought to mind the party’s more authoritarian tendencies during its uninterrupted 71-year reign last century.
The president was criticized for waiting a month before meeting with the missing students’ parents and for refusing to investigate the role of the army, fueling widespread suspicion that a cover-up was underway.
His reputation never recovered.
“Peña Nieto’s term effectively ended on September 26, 2014,” says political analyst Enrique Toussaint. “In just one night an entire project of structural reforms, this whole narrative about changing the country — it all collapsed.”
Toussaint says that while Peña Nieto had sought to divert public attention away from narco violence, he never developed an effective security strategy, and the forced disappearance of the 43 students revealed in startling detail the vast and tangled networks of crime and corruption that had taken root across Mexico.
“Ayotzinapa became a mirror that showed us the real problems facing the country: the violence, impunity, inequality, and lack of opportunities,” Toussaint adds.
The case quickly moved beyond government incompetence. Mexico’s crisis of forced disappearances soon entered the spotlight, as relatives searching for the missing students uncovered dozens of mass graves containing presumed cartel victims in the rugged hills around Iguala. The students were not among them.
With public anger mounting, the government arrested dozens of low-level police officers and accused them of turning the students over to a local drug cartel. The government claimed the cartel murdered the students after mistaking them for members of a rival gang, then burned their bodies on a rudimentary bonfire at a dump in nearby Cocula.
Independent investigations by Argentine forensics experts and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights comprehensively debunked the government account, illustrating its many omissions, inconsistencies, and reliance on testimony obtained through torture.
The investigators demonstrated that the students’ bodies could not have been burned in the circumstances described by the authorities, and noted that the only forensic evidence was a single charred bone fragment, which could have been planted near the scene.
“Ayotzinapa demonstrated that Mexico’s problem is not just the PRI. The problem is the entire system.”
The motive for the attack remains unclear, and the students’ fate remains unknown, but the authorities’ attempts to draw a line under the case backfired spectacularly.
“This is a gut-wrenchingly devastating blow to the legitimacy of the federal government,” says John Gibler, the author of “An Oral History of the Attacks Against the Students of Ayotzinapa.”
“The government forcefully disappears students, tortures people into producing false stories, and then can’t even find the bodies,” Gibler adds. “It’s so ridiculous, but it makes sense when you analyze the fact that all levels of government were collaborating to produce that violence, destroy any evidence, and protect the people who carried out the attacks.”
Peña Nieto’s presidency has since veered from one crisis to another.
Public outrage reached boiling point in November 2014 when Mexican journalists revealed that his wife had acquired a luxury mansion from a favored government contractor. The couple denied any wrongdoing but calls for the president’s resignation intensified as tens of thousands took to the streets and torched the gates of Mexico’s national palace.
The following months brought more corruption scandals and two suspected massacres by security forces in western Michoacán state. Then came the embarrassment of “El Chapo” tunneling out of a maximum-security prison, his second daring escape following another jailbreak in 2001.
Guzmán was eventually recaptured last year, but the subsequent power vacuum has fueled record levels of violence. More than 86,000 people have been killed and 32,000 have disappeared since Peña Nieto took office in December 2012 promising an end to Mexico’s dark history of drug violence.
The president’s approval ratings sank to an all-time low of 12 percent in January as the public blamed him for hiked gas prices, economic stagnation, and the humiliating decision to invite Donald Trump to Mexico ahead of last year’s U.S. election.
Mexico’s constitution prohibits Peña Nieto from running in next year’s presidential election, but the festering wounds exposed by Ayotzinapa are still likely to impact the contest.
The PRI has slipped to third in the polls, while the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which governed at municipal and state level in Iguala and Guerrero, was also tainted by the atrocity. Other major parties did little to challenge the government’s version of events or harness public outrage to ensure justice was done.
Toussaint believes public disillusionment with party politics will benefit independent candidates and anti-establishment figures like the veteran leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the early front-runner in July’s elections.
“Ayotzinapa demonstrated that Mexico’s problem is not just the PRI,” Toussaint concludes. “The problem is the entire system.”
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Mexico.