Mexican students on why they burn down, not sit-in

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While recent protest movements around the world have generally tended to peaceful - see Hong Kong and Ferguson —  in southern Mexico, protesters are burning buildings, throwing rocks and hijacking trucks in response to the  recent disappearance of 43 students.

But while the images coming out of southern Mexico stand in stark contrast to the global trend, they can be seen clearly through the prism of a specific radical tradition born in a place where the rule of law has been undermined by decades of corruption, political violence, government neglect and pervasive poverty.


The Ayotzinapa rural teachers college, where the missing students are from, has a long leftist tradition of protest and dissent, going back to the 1960s and continuing through days of the "perfect dictatorship" of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). One of the school's more famous alumnus, Lucio Cabanas, was a guerrilla fighter killed by the Mexican army in 1974. In recent times, student protests have tended to focus on more local concerns, such as improved living conditions at the school, where the sleeping quarters look more like cell blocks than college dorms.  The disappearance of the 43 students, allegedly at the hands of the local government working in conjunction with a drug cartel, has changed the dynamic.

"This is a very militant group that has been fighting the government since the 60s or 70s, and they have long history of resistance," said Vidal Romero, a professor at the ITAM university in Mexico City. "It’s not going to be easy at all for the government to quiet down this group, especially now because they have a claim that is shared by the whole country."


Indeed, there have been peaceful protests throughout the country organized by other civic and student groups, including a massive march in Mexico City on Oct. 8.

Part of what has caused the entire country to rally around the students is what this case symbolizes: the investigation into the missing students has turned a harsh spotlight on a festering problem in Mexico, where local police are often controlled by drug gangs. For the Ayotzinapa students, they aren't  protesting against one particular group of corrupt officials, but rather  against an entire corrupt system that directly attacked them.

"Here we say that the government isn’t really the elected officials, it’s actually organized crime,"  said Angel Nery, a student leader a the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college. "The government here in Guerrero is very involved with drug traffickers. There isn’t a government but a narco-government."

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Nery dismisses criticism in Mexican media that the student protests have become too violent.


"There will always be criticisms," he said. "This was a direct attack by the state. They didn’t hesitate to shoot at us for a moment. They shot at us without considering that we were students or unarmed civilians. Now the parents, all of us, are desperate, because we haven’t found our classmates."

Uriel Ruiz, another student leader from Ayotzinapa who survived the shooting on Sept. 26, said the protesters believe that extreme tactics are the only way to get the government's attention.


"It's is a type of pressure to make the government take us seriously," Ruiz said.

The decision to set fire to a government office building during a protest Monday in Chilpancingo, the state capital, was not planned, Nery said. It happened after police forcefully dispersed teachers and relatives of the missing from blockading the capital building. He thinks the protesters' actions were justified.


"It’s a total rejection of the state," Nery said. "They have constantly attacked us, they have constantly marginalized us through the media, portrayed us a bunch of guerrillas."

Vidal, the professor, believes that as long as the disappeared students remain missing, the protests will continue to escalate, and the government will be reluctant to crack-down. However, the students risk alienating at least part of the public if they continue to vandalize and destroy public property.


Ruiz and his friends said they have no intention of letting up on the throttle.

"We said from the beginning that if the government didn't give us results, we would intensify our activities," he said.


Fusion staff writers Manuel Rueda and Rafael Fernandez de Castro contributed to this report.

@JaredGoyette is a digital news editor at Fusion.