Mexico is no stranger to massacres.
In 2010, The Zetas drug cartel slay 72 people and dumped their bodies in a ranch warehouse in the northern state of Tamaulipas. A year later, the same drug gang entered a casino in the northern city of Monterrey and murdered 52 people according to official estimates before setting fire to the building.
Both incidents made horrible headline news. But neither mobilized Mexican society the same way that the recent disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students has.
On Thursday, tens of thousands of citizens marched against the government in various parts of the country. In Mexico City one group of protesters squared off with police in front of the airport, while another crowd filled the city center and burned President Enrique Peña Nieto in effigy.
But is Mexico really "on the brink," as a headline on the Guardian recently posited, or will this episode also fade into the foggy memory of past atrocities?
Mexican historian Enrique Krauze says change must come from the government and society. “The protests are a wave of indignation that is perfectly justified, people are fed-up and completely disappointed with the poor performance of the government,” he said. But he doesn't think the current wave of protests have a clear call to action, and as a result "prevail more on social media than on the streets.”
“It is relatively easy to protest but much harder to build something,” he says.
Javier Osorio, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, believes the tragedy will trigger “cosmetic" changes rather than profound reform. He notes that Mexico has gone through moments of great political turmoil in the recent past, including the collapse of the voting system on election night in 1988, the assassination of a leading presidential candidate in 1994, and the Zapatista uprising that same year. Osorio says those events generated real change, but doubts the Ayotzinapa protest movement is anywhere near the same scale of history-shapers.
“I don’t think this is going to generate reforms to the Constitution or further the opening of democracy,” he said.
He says to maintain a large-scale social protest a movement needs a message that appeals to broad sectors of society. The Ayotzinapa tragedy, he says, was mostly resolved when the government revealed the narcos' confessions.
“People wanted to know where the students where and the government answered by showcasing the testimonies of the kidnappers and murderers; they demanded justice and the Mayor of Iguala and his wife were arrested along with several other criminals whether these are real or fictitious,” he says.
Calls and petitions for the president’s resignation are unlikely to go anywhere, Osorio said. “In Mexico we don’t have the possibility of impeachment or the revocation of mandate, the president would have to step down voluntarily and this is just not going to happen.”
Mexican officials, meanwhile, dismiss the premise of the protesters' arguments of government involvement.
“It is completely irrational to think the Ayotzinapa crime was generated by the State,” Javier Vega, director of international affairs for the ruling PRI, told Fusion.
Vega says protesters overreacting will only hurt Mexico. “They don’t realize they are making the problem worse when expressing their rage with tactics like these,” he said, referring to roadblocks on the highway to Acapulco over a holiday weekend. “They basically punished the economy," he says. "Acapulco lives on tourism."
The government thinks the issue is being blown out of perspective. “We must see things in their right dimension," Vega said. "Ayotzinapa is not the only thing going on in Mexico.”
But activists aren't persuaded by the government's call for calm. Ayotzinapa student Omar Garcia thinks the massacre “will go down in history as a crime of the State” and is hopeful it will trigger change on a national level.
"The country is rotten and institutions don’t work, and it’s time to debate a new project for the nation —not through politicians, but through those at the bottom, the people,” he told Fusion.
Garcia says his group, which is currently caravanning around the country, does not advocate violence, but warns “patience runs out at some point.”
The change that comes from this moment might not be the comprehensive reforms that activists are calling for, but Garcia says "the important thing is that something changes.”