Mexico City, Mexico – The 43 students from a teachers' college in Ayotzinapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero went missing in the town of Iguala on Sept. 26.
The demonstrations began in Guerrero soon afterward under the leadership of student associations – who are referred to as “normalistas,” because they attend a teachers’ or “normal” college – and protesters torched the offices of the state government in Guerrero’s capital, Chilpancingo.
On October 22, they set the mayor’s office in Iguala on fire.
In November, protesters marched through Mexico City, setting the doors to the Palacio Nacional, a buiding that houses murals by Diego Rivera, ablaze.
This month, protesters have vandalized the airport in Acapulco, burned cars and political offices in Chilpancingo and also vandalized buildings in the neighboring state of Michoacán.
Mexico’s attorney general has claimed that the charred remains of the missing students were found in a trash dump, and they have been sent to Austria for DNA analysis.
The “normalistas” are not appeased. They are sending caravans of protesters to states throughout Mexico, promising to torch 43 more government buildings—one for each missing student.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, facing the most trying period so far in his time in office, has criticized the incendiary tactics, but also failed to offer a clear explanation of what he plans to do to address the crisis and the deep-seated and longstanding economic and security problems in Guerrero.
In the state of Guerrero, whose isolated mountain towns are home to some of the worst violence and most severe poverty in Mexico, the disappearance of the students has served as a rallying point for residents who are tired of the failure of their local, state and federal governments to provide law and order for residents.
Although some polls show that public support for the protests is declining, it remains an open question whether the movement gathers momentum and sparks genuine change or whether it will fizzle and be forgotten.
During a Thursday telephone interview, a representative of the “normalistas” from Ayotzinapa told Fox News Latino, “We are sending caravans [of protesters] to Chiapas, to Morelos, and also to states in the north. Then we will all congregate in Mexico City on the 20th [of November].”
Guillermo Alvarez, an indigenous leader interviewed recently in Chilpancingo, explained that the biggest problem people in Guerrero face “is the poverty. There’s no work in the mountains. So the men go to work in the U.S.”
While Mexico’s federal government has worked hard to develop factories and agribusiness in the north, Guerrero has been an afterthought in national policy for decades. And drug cartels have stepped into the void, now working with farmers in Guerrero's sierra to grow the bulk of the heroin exported to the U.S.
Security has also become a major concern for residents. Guerrero is home to Mexico’s most violent city, Acapulco, and in 2013 reported the highest number of murders of any state in Mexico. “In my town you can’t go out at night. There are gangsters,” Alvarez told Fox News Latino.
“Guerrero isn’t a poor state,” education policy scholar Humberto Santos told FNL, “it’s been impoverished by public policy. It’s a failed, tremendously corrupt state.”
The protesters are outraged over the disappearance of the students, of course, but also frustrated by Guerrero’s broader problems. Spray-painted messages in Chilpancingo and Iguala announce, “We demand justice and security” but also attack the “Pinche businesses who poison the people.”
While Mexico’s wealthiest one percent, a group that includes billionaires such as Carlos Slim and Germán Larrea, has enjoyed income growth over the past few years, the bulk of Mexico’s population has seen its income stagnate or decline.
Nearly 60 percent of Mexicans work in the informal economy, and around half its population lives below the poverty line.
Jason Marzack, a Latin America researcher from the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., told FNL, “In Peña Nieto’s first two years in office, he’s done a remarkable job of putting reforms forward, but most of the benefits of these reforms aren’t being felt. The energy, electricity and telecom reforms should create jobs, but the benefits are a few years away.”
Many ordinary citizens are frustrated that Peña Nieto hasn’t delivered on his promise that under his leadership, “You’ll earn more.”
A student leader from the Ayotzinapa school on Friday told Fox News Latino, “It’s a national movement that’s launching. People are really upset in Mexico. It’s a movement for all citizens that is sparking protests across the country. That’s what happening now. We’re sending caravans to Chihuahua, Zacatecas, all the states from north to south. It’s family members [of the victims] and normalistas.”
While the overall movement is focused on organizing marches, the normalista students also accept fire-bombings as a valid form of political expression. “It’s individual actions that people are taking in response to what happened. Mainly our intention is to hold back the aggressors but we also have to value the actions they take,” the student leader said.
Over the next few weeks ordinary Mexicans from across the country will decide whether or not they want to join the protests and help fan the flames.
Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS and Instagram: @nathanielparish.