Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Narco-Politics: Lessons from the 2014 Iguala Massacre

By Christopher ChoPublished October 24, 2014

Mexico is reeling in the aftermath of a police shootout that resulted in the death unarmed student protestors in Iguala. The tragedy, however, illuminates a plethora of daunting challenges Mexico must learn from and eventually overcome.
By Christopher Cho, 10/24/14

Student protests in Iguala, Mexico on September 26th culminated with a brutal police shootout that left 6 dead and 43 missing. The following day, the mangled corpse of one of the student was dumped on a major street—the signature mark of a cartel assassination in what initially appeared to be a case of police violence. These events, which unfolded in the wake of triumphant claims of an improving security climate, should and have rightfully come as a resonant shock.

The students killed in Iguala had come from a rural teachers' college to challenge a federal education law requiring teacher evaluations. The protestors, many of whom were from poor indigenous communities, objected that the test would discriminate against them. Student radicalism, as well as police heavy-handedness, is a tolerated norm in Iguala. The police response to the demonstrations last month, however, was entirely without precedent in the city. 

Investigations led soldiers and federal detectives to detain two alleged cartel hit men, who confessed to collusion with the police and later pointed the officials to shallow mass graves in the outskirts of Iguala containing 28 charred bodies—none of which were those of the missing students. At least five such graves have been uncovered in recent searches, all of which indicate the lawlessness that plagues rural Mexico.  

While the motive for this atrocity is, as of now, unclear, cartel violence is understood as a common reality in a country that has long grappled with the issues of gangs and institutional corruption. The massacre in Iguala is particularly alarming because it highlights the growing influence of drug traffickers over regional governments. In many rural communities, cartels members have been known to control local officials and police, or directly occupy the positions themselves. Iguala is the poster child of this dangerous trend, coined "narco-politics" by some. In fact, Jose Luis Abaraca, the city's mayor, and his wife are openly known to have connections to the Beltran-Leyva organized crime gang. Close family members have even alleged that Abaraca is on the drug gang's payroll. It is perhaps a telltale sign that the mayoral couple, as well as the police chief, has gone into hiding in light of recent federal scrutiny.

These events and the international attention they have garnered come as a major embarrassment for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his administration. The president has strived to change his country's violent image in the past two years, enacting several economic reforms and taking down major crime bosses. Analysts, observing the country's surging economy, have called President Peña Nieto's term "Mexico's Moment." Blanket labels, however, distort important truths. They oversimplify Mexico's increasingly nuanced socioeconomic landscape and ignore critical issues that the government has routinely failed to confront.

Corruption is one of the most daunting challenges Mexico faces today, and a problem President Peña Nieto has attempted to tackle. His extensive legal reforms may be well-meaning, but they border irrelevance when the country itself lacks the institutions and infrastructure necessary to effectively uphold them. Furthermore, recent government led takedowns of prominent drug lords have not uprooted cartels as predicted, but rather prompted them to branch out into other crimes. The elite police force of 5,000 the president inaugurated in August is a far cry from the 40,000 he promised during his presidential campaign. What's more, the new gendarmerie is unlikely to have noteworthy effect; Mexican heads of state have, for decades, introduced new police forces as nothing more than political gestures. 

If Mexico wants real change, officials must begin with fundamental internal reforms. The first, at least, has been mandated by the Iguala massacre: the professionalization of the police force. The federal government must oversee an active purging of corrupt officers while designating promotions based on merit rather than deep-seated loyalties. A lack of these practices is at a crucial reason the unpardonable murders in Iguala. Put simply, the cartel entrenched law enforcement responded in the manner most familiar to drug traffickers: with extreme brutality intended to inspire fear. 

Moral implications aside, Mexico has practical incentives to crack down on corruption. Officials estimate that crime alone has cost the country more than $16 billion. Last year, abductions numbered at over 1,600, an all-time high. And as September 26th demonstrated, real lives are on the line.