Guest Blog: A Perspective on the Historical Context of the Tragedy of Iguala by Francesco Di Bernardo

‘We closed our eyes in order to suppose that the other Mexico would disappear if it was not seen. On the first January 1994, we awake in another country’ (Pacheco 1994).

José Emilio Pacheco wrote these words to comment on the Zapatista uprising of the 1st January 1994. While the political establishment, following the implementation of the NAFTA agreement was propagandizing the idea of a new modern Mexico, the Zapatista uprising compelled Mexican society to face the contradictions of the process of neoliberal restructuring and to witness its detrimental effects on rural and indigenous populations. The case of the assassination of six and the forced disappearance of forty-three students of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, on 26th September 2014 in Iguala, state of Guerero, where they had gone to protest against educational policies they considered detrimental for the rural schools, produced an effect on Mexican society similar to that described in the above mentioned words of Pacheco. Until the tragic event, the Mexican establishment under President Enrique Peña Nieto had insisted on a modernising image to justify the implementation a new wave of neoliberal policies, diverting public opinion from unresolved issues. However, the tragedy showed the contradictions between the supposedly modernising vision of the political and economic establishment and the attitude toward the everyday-reality of neglect and violence of people of the marginalised areas of the country, specifically because of the involvement of some local authorities and the perceived slow response of the authorities at state and federal levels. The tragedy sparked indignation and revolt throughout Mexican society with people demanding a radical change: end to the system of patronage, corruption, nets of clienteles and collusions with organised crime. Mexican civil society both inside and outside the country are fighting so that the curtain is not drawn on the case, and are exerting pressure to demand justice. Just to mention one example, Mexican students and researchers at the University of Sussex have set up Sussex Mexican Solidarity, and involving the wider university’s community have organised demonstrations, symposiums, and have contributed to draft proposals to make changes to the Mexican political and socio-economical system.

Photo credit: Sussex Mexico Solidarity 2014
Photo credit: Sussex Mexico Solidarity 2014

This renewed activism in Mexico and abroad has roots in the long and rich tradition of Mexican civil society and social movements. Social activism and attention to social and political rights have indeed always been a mark of Mexico’s modernity. One could ask why exactly this tragedy, among the many afflicting the country since the start of the war on drugs, has triggered this new wave of struggle and political activism. It certainly depends on the horrendousness of this callous crime, and certainly, as John Ackerman notes, depends on the fact that this tragedy subverts the narrative according to which those who disappear in Mexico are necessarily involved in cartels-related activities. ‘[T]his incident broke with that narrative […] These […] are students, they are activists who are completely unarmed, they are politically active, and they are obviously innocent. They can’t be seen just as “collateral damage” of a generalized crisis of violence’ (Ackerman interviewed by Julie Schwietert Collazo 2014).

Photo credit: Sussex Mexico Solidarity 2014
Photo credit: Sussex Mexico Solidarity 2014

One of the reasons why the Ayotzinapa case has sparked so much outrage and demand for change lies, however, also in the history of activism and state repression in the state of Guerrero:

Political activism by the state’s rural and urban laborers and community groups in mid-century arose in the context of endemic poverty, expanding commercial agriculture and foreign capital investment, and a history of extreme institutional instability and political corruption that characterized the state (Blacker 2009).

Blacker identifies two waves of political struggle: the first, started in the 1950s demanded the fulfilment of the promises of the 1910 Revolution and the second one, started in the 1970s, was connoted by a radicalisation determined by state repression and by the influence of Guevarismo (Blacker 2009). The socialist educational programs of Presidents Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-28) and Lázaro Cárdenas (1934- 40) nurtured grass-roots expectations of social improvements. The formation of social movements gravitated around the rural normal school of Ayotzinapa where two prominent leaders of the social movements, Genaro Vázquez and Lucio Cabañas, were studying.

Lucio Cabañas

Both the first and the second waves of social and political struggle in Guerrero gravitated around the Ayotzinapa school which therefore has since become a symbol of the social and political struggle against injustices, inequalities, neglect, but also a symbol of state repression. Throughout the Cold War era, because of the presence of these movements, the state of Guerrero has witnessed an appalling series of massacres:

Mexico’s dirty war raged on in Guerrero. While both Mexico’s rural and urban populations suffered from regime-sponsored repression, the national government conducted its dirty war more intensely in Guerrero than any other location (Blacker 2009).

Social and political struggle in the state of Guerrero therefore somewhat epitomizes the wider social struggle in Mexico, and this is true also in present days, under changed historical and socio-economical and political circumstances. In 1980s/early 1990s PRI establishment started adopting neoliberal doctrines that continued to be implemented also in the following legislations. Schmidt affirms the adoption of the neoliberal paradigm was a top-down imposition:

the […] reconfiguration of the state and the accompanying economic reforms have been largely an elite affair in Mexico, linking circles with dominant elements in the private sector high governmental
and international capital. Historically, elite phenomena in Mexico have not diffused power and opportunity downward to the rest of the society (1996).

These policies have not improved the condition of people living in Guerrero, which remains one of the most disadvantaged states in Mexico: (Source: Principales resultados por localidad ITER, INEGI)

In this context the students of rural normal school of Ayotzinapa have continued to voice out the discontent of the marginalised population of Guerrero in several occasions and so they did on the fatal 26th September 2014. Guillermo Trejo wrote that ‘en la masacre de Iguala convergen pasado, presente y futuro / The massacre of Iguala converge past, present and future (my translation)’ (2014) . The students of Ayotzinapa with their social movements have represented throughout history a sort of political consciousness of Mexican society, reminding the whole society of the issues in need to be addressed and the changes to the system needed. This is also the reason why the disappearance of the forty-three normalistas in September 2014 has struck a chord. Large and variegated sectors of the Mexican civil society will keep demanding justice for them and in their name will keep demanding changes to the political system.


Alonso, Francisco. 2014. ‘A history of state repression in Guerrero, Mexico’, [Accessed on 12th December 2014].

Blacker, O’ Neill. 2009. ‘Cold War in the Countryside: Conflict in Guerrero, Mexico’, The Americas, vol. 66, n. 2, October 2009, pp. 181-210.

Pacheco, José Emilio. 1994. ‘La rebelion de Chiapas’. La Jornada, January 5 as reproduced in Institute for Global Communications, Peacenet electronic communications Carnet.mexnews conference network, 96.0, ‘Ultimos acontecimientos de Chiapas’.

Schmidt, Arthur. 1996. ‘Globalization, Neoliberal Ideology, and National Identity: The Historical Uncertainties of NAFTA’, Caribbean Studies, ol. 29, No. 1, For Better or Worse: The Caribbean and NAFTA (Jan. – Jun., 1996), pp. 67-105.

Schwietert Collazo, Julie. 2014. ‘We have an opening up in history”: John M. Ackerman discusses Ayotzinapa and what’s next’. Latin Corrispondent, 14 December 2014. [Accessed on 28th January 2015].

Trejo, Guillermo. 2014. ‘La industria criminal en México’, El Pais, 16th October 2014. [Accessed on 27th January 2015].

Special thanks to Carmen Leon Himmelstine for helping with data, and to Gustavo Iriarte and the Sussex Mexico Solidarity for the pictures.

Dr Francesco Di Bernardo holds a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Culture and Thought from the University of Sussex. He is interested in the relationship between literature and history, economics, sociology, and in critical theory. He is Associate Tutor at the School of English of the University of Sussex. He is one of the founders of Sussex Latin America, an interdisciplinary project started at the University of Sussex, which aims to bring together scholars, and experts interested in topics related to Latin America. He also writes as reviewer for the LSE Review of Books.

Muchas gracias to Francesco for such a fascinating Guest Blog!

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