AFP/Getty Images

In the 2012 presidential race, Estado de Mexico Governor Enrique Peña Nieto was projected to win by a wide margin. But on May 11, 2012 a calculated presidential campaign stumbled.

Candidate Peña Nieto visited Universidad Iberoamericana, a private university in Mexico City, to share his political agenda and vision for the country. The discussion halted after a group of students confronted him for the Salvador Atenco incident where Peña Nieto allegedly had police quell a demonstration in the town which resulted in the brutal beating, death and rape of some protesters. Peña Nieto swiftly exited the auditorium as the student denunciations grew louder. Outside he was chased by a larger congregation of chanting students who blocked his path. Peña Nieto was forced to take shelter in one of the university’s bathrooms.

His campaign immediately accused the students of working for leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. In response, 131 university students uploaded a Youtube video in which they displayed their ID cards to discredit the political affiliation rumors. The video went viral and the #yosoy132 ("I am a 132") monicker was created.

Mexican youth, considered indifferent, took to the streets. Facebook and Twitter were used to organize mass protests against Peña Nieto and the country’s media monopolies, which they accused of favoring the candidate. The growing movement began to brand itself as the “Mexican Spring.”

Advertisement

Regardless, Peña Nieto won the election and the students returned to the classroom. Some movement leaders ended up working for Televisa, a media giant they once accused of monopolizing television and imposing candidates. Spring gave in to Winter.

Yesterday evening, city authorities said approximately 50,000 students from dozens of universities and other supporters met at the the heart of Mexico City, below the towering Angel of Independence statue for the “A light for Ayotzinapa” march that culminated at the Zocalo, the city’s main square. A rising wave of protests have led to 48-hour strikes at institutions like UNAM, the largest public university in Latin America. So far 40 colleges across the country have followed suit.

Demonstrators in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and other countries expressed their support.

Javier Osorio, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice and former civil society specialist for the World Bank in Mexico, said the 2012 protests that had put Peña Nieto’s candidacy in a tight spot went into a latent state after the presidential election, but now the tragedy of Ayotzinapa has reignited them.

Advertisement

Private research university ITAM student Rodolfo Castellanos believes this time new demonstrators can go further since they have learned from what happened two years ago. “They are being much more articulated and no longer appointing spokespersons.” He said they have learned that social networks are “merely a trigger but not something that guarantees focus and continuity.” He believes the main difference is that “the magnitude of the student tragedy is attracting much more people now.”

Alan Ortega, a computer science student at Universidad Iberoamericana who attended the marches in 2012, said the new demonstrations at the campus have merely involved sit-ins. “Nevertheless, yesterday the students at Ibero organized a mass in honor of the missing students and their families and were much more organized when marching together towards the city center.”

When it comes to social media, #DemandoTuRenunciaEPN (I demand your resignation, EPN) and #EPNBringThemBack are some of the Twitter hashtags branding the mass protests triggered by a silent government administration that after a month is still unable to declare whether the 43 missing Ayotzinapa college students are alive, dead or where there bodies reside. Rodolfo Castellanos believes these hashtags are politicizing the movement, in similar fashion to what happened with yosoy132. An analytical study by La Razon newspaper indicates this could be the case, finding that 90 percent of the Twitter accounts publishing these anti-EPN hashtags are bots.

Mariana Mora, a researcher for CIESAS, a center focused on social anthropology, has been working for five years in the Guerrero region studying violence and human rights abuses. She explained these new protests go beyond demanding a resignation, and are aimed against the municipal, state and federal levels of government and all political parties. “These demonstrations are different, they originate from a very specific event while those in 2012 were proactive facing the elections.” As she joined yesterday’s marches in Guerrero, she told Fusion that locally the “protesters are demanding the investigation, sanction and arrest of state governor Angel Aguirre.” Mora said people are also outraged at the federal government since it took them ten days to recognize the massacre and enter the Iguala municipality.

Advertisement

She explained the normalistas are a very particular group of rural students, “composed of  teachers and pupils who have farms and workshops and make a career out of cultivating the fields.” She noted the Ayotzinapa school was created in 1926. “The only thing that can be compared between the protests now and those back then is that students across the country are now showing their support.”

However, the extensive use of social media and the student coordination across Mexico’s universities has resulted in a new wave of youth demonstrations that are reminiscent of the movement that two years ago was forged within Mexico’s educational institutions.

Although sparked by different causes, the similarities in strategy and organizing used by the 2012 demonstrators can prove to be a powerful example for new protesters who want this rising movement to prevail by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Advertisement

Back then the students’ inability to designate leaders, pinpoint membership and coordinate a disciplined strategy while proclaiming a set of concrete goals ended up crippling the entire cause.

One of the so-called leaders of the yosoy132 movement, Antonio Antolini, said social networks allowed the movement to get the outmost participation. “The Internet is the great equalizer of our time,” he proclaimed.

Antolini explained the problem was that these new tools of participation did not translate into forms of organization, social networks would allow many politically compromised individuals to join in real time and this “ended up stalling the movement,” he told Fusion. However, simultaneously yosoy132 thrived on the holy trinity of social networking: “Twitter was our velocity, Facebook our formal organization and YouTube our ideological reinforcement,” claimed Antolini who now hosts a debate program at FOROtv, Televisa’s 24-hour news channel.

Advertisement

The yosoy132 movement spread nationwide and eventually incorporated tens of thousands of students across Mexico’s private and public universities. However, the street demonstrations were soon joined by other groups with highly politicized agendas; worker syndicates, anarchists and some who saw this as an opportunity to commit acts of vandalism. Virtually anyone could claim to belong to yosoy132 while smashing windows, the movement’s powerful uniformity became its achilles heel.

Professor Javier Osorio said the violent event that triggered the current mobilization has given the new movement more radical shades, while yosoy132 was much more peaceful.

This can be seen in the burning of government buildings in the capital of Guerrero. Furthermore, yesterday a shopping mall in Iguala was looted and normalista supporters blamed two “infiltrated” rioters for the burning of the municipal palace. The demonstrators apprehended these two alleged saboteurs and made them continue the march barefoot before turning them over to the police. It is hard to pinpoint if the violence is coming from the protesters themselves. Yosoy132 had the same issue.

Pintas en el batallón militar de #Iguala #EPNBringThemBack #VivosLosQueremos #AyotzinapaSomosTodos pic.twitter.com/8sQZxlXpk6

— AltoParlante Oficial (@Alto_Parlante) October 23, 2014

Graffiti on Iguala military headquarters reads:  "You have no honor"

Osorio said the lack of action from the government has made many others sympathize with the cause. “The tragedy touched the social fiber of the Mexican population at large, not just students.” He does admit the demands are similar to those of yosoy132. In his view “these are aimed against the ruling party, against authoritarianism.” Nonetheless, he believes the students don’t have enough force to cause actual change: “this will eventually return to a latent state, the boiling tensions will trigger time and time again but this won’t turn into something tangible.” In essence the recurring formula is as follows: “the masses will gather, take the streets, and then dissolve.”

Advertisement

The disappearance and the protests it has triggered are also being compared to the biggest student tragedy known to Mexico. Renowned writer Elena Poniatowska has publicly stated that what happened with the Ayotzinapa students is worst than the infamous student massacre at the hands of the Mexican government in 1968. On October 2 of that year, a government paramilitary group brutally suppressed a march in Mexico City. The armed group known as the Olimpia Battalion, distinguishing itself from other government forces by wearing a white glove, triggered a bloodbath by shooting at the masses with sniper rifles and later imprisoning, torturing and disappearing many protesters.

68: soldiers round up protesters

Jaime Pensado is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame who has been researching social activism in Mexico for many years. He agrees with Poniatowska's views and believes there are other comparisons. “In 1968 you also have police who is poorly trained and reacts violently, not necessarily showcasing the strength but the weakness of the state,” Pensado said pointing to the rampant police corruption across Mexico’s municipal, state and federal levels. “This is also about the concept of criminalizing the youth, back in 68 those who were mostly targeted by the government were people coming from a low socioeconomic background, same now with the Ayotzinapa normalistas.”

Advertisement

Nonetheless, the biggest difference according to Pensado is that back in 68 President Diaz Ordaz received a lot support from the general population and both the domestic and international press for suppressing what wrongly appeared as a leftist rebellion. Today, Pensado pointed out it’s completely the opposite, the government is getting slammed by the people and the press. He added: “The new protests go beyond the Peña Nieto figure, they are aimed at the political system and it just so happens to be Peña Nieto and the ruling party are the face of that system right now.”

Manuel Perlo, Director of the Institute of Social Sciences at UNAM, the university that has now participated in the 68, yosoy132 and Ayotzinapa protests, said that each social movement has it’s own characteristics and cannot fit into a single classification.

What is important about this particular movement is that it originates from an initial killing of students; 6 dead bodies and 43 missing. He also said Ayotzinapa is unique because yosoy132 and 68 were primarily urban movements but the normalistas are completely rural. “It is an anti-system movement in many respects,” Perlo explained. “The normalistas are from the left but not a political establishment one, but one that is connected to the farmers, the communitarian guards, Marxists expressions.” This movement has been around for many years and now this tragedy has placed it in the national spotlight.

Advertisement

Perlo believes the new and tragic ingredient here is that now you have a vicious circle and combination involving criminal bands that operate on a much greater scale, conspiring with politicians to kill students who express dissenting views.

As thousands of students across Mexico and people from all sectors of society continue to join the cause, Perlo told Fusion we can only be sure of one thing: “this movement is still being formed, minute by minute, and we can’t determine its character yet.”