Mexico's Normalista Protests Threaten to Spread

6 MINS READNov 19, 2014 | 10:00 GMT
Update on Guerrero
A demonstrator throws a fire bomb at riot police near the Acapulco airport on Nov. 10 while protesting the September disappearance of 43 normalistas in Iguala, Guerrero state.
(Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)

Violent protests calling for the return of 43 students missing from Iguala, in Guerrero state, and criticizing the government's perceived insensitivity and mismanagement of the case will continue in Guerrero and in other parts of Mexico. Though the demonstrations do not pose an immediate threat to the central government, they could undermine local governments and the federal government's authority at the local level.

The federal government's reach is particularly weak in Mexico's southwest. There are large geographic areas in several states in the region where communities enjoy partial autonomy, making it easier for citizens to challenge federal authority altogether. The unrest in Guerrero is fostered by feeble state and municipal institutions, which, in a cyclical process, become impaired even further with each additional bout of disorder. Mexico City fears it could lose all authority in the region except for military and federal police operations. While this fear is valid, it is unlikely that such a high degree of unrest would spread to the capital unless organizers achieve a massive increase in coordination and in civil participation.

On Nov. 10, demonstrators in Acapulco overpowered federal riot police and overran the airport, blocking all of its entrances. On Nov. 12, students from Mexico's traditionally left-wing rural teaching colleges — known as normalistas — blocked the entrance to the international airport in Morelia, forcing those already inside to use the building's back door. Soon after, students in Mexico City announced that they would hold even more protests Nov. 20 to support the missing normalistas.

Large demonstrations linked to the missing normalistas have taken place all over the country, but the most violent protests have been focused in the southwestern states, including Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. Unrest in the southwestern region has shown little sign of abating, posing a considerable threat to state and municipal governments in the area. Protesters have repeatedly torched government buildings throughout the southwest region to demonstrate against what they see as an ineffective and corrupt government. They say Mexico's judicial system and its security forces, especially at the local level, have struggled to implement democratic reforms after being shaped by 70 years of semi-authoritarian rule.

Protests Could Spread

For now, coordination between organizers in southwestern states and those in Mexico City and in other parts of the country has been limited, but that could change. Demonstrators from the southwest — affiliated with the normalistas and teachers' unions — have organized three groups of protesters to tour the country and converge on Mexico City for Nov. 20 protests. If the normalista and teachers' groups are able to cooperate with the Mexico City organizers and significantly escalate the demonstrations, the Mexican government will find it difficult to manage prolonged unrest in multiple areas using non-violent means. However, the different tactics and approaches employed by the organizers may make such cooperation difficult.

Mexico's Normalista Protest Threaten to Spread

Protest Groups to Converge on Mexico City

Protest Groups to Converge on Mexico City

Protests in Mexico City have differed in character and intensity from those in the southwest. The demonstrations in Mexico City have been organized and carried out primarily by student groups from various universities in the city. Though these protests have attracted by far the most participants of any normalista-linked demonstrations outside of Guerrero, they have mostly been peaceful, with the exception of a few incidents. In contrast to the demonstrations in the southwest, it is clear that most of the protesters in Mexico City do not condone violence or vandalism and that a radical minority is responsible for the violence that has occurred in the city. In fact, on Nov. 8, demonstrators stopped masked individuals attempting to vandalize the exterior of the attorney general's headquarters in Mexico City.

The Mexican government is intentionally being light-handed in its dealings with protesters, and authorities released all but one of the activists arrested for vandalizing the attorney general's offices. With the arrival of protesters from the southwest in Mexico City, however, officials will be on high alert for violent tactics mirroring those used in the southwest.

Mexico City is well equipped to deal with large demonstrations, which are a regular occurrence in the city, and the government is well aware that violently repressing them will only exacerbate tensions and add impetus to the protests. Thus, Mexico City is working to avoid confrontation at all costs. The violent repression of the infamous Tlatelolco protests in 1968 is still fresh in the minds of Mexicans, especially those in the capital city, and the irony that the missing normalistas were raising funds to attend a demonstration commemorating the anniversary of the massacre is not lost on the public.

Is Guerrero the Next Michoacan?

Despite President Enrique Pena Nieto's efforts to surmount the country's security problems through economic reforms and increased coordination of security forces, the federal government is struggling to maintain its authority. Mexico is seeing rising unrest among an increasingly disillusioned population, especially in southwestern states. The emergence of autodefensas, or civilian militias, in Michoacan is the most extreme recent example of such a challenge to the federal government. Although the Mexican government has contained that movement — partly by incorporating the groups into the state apparatus — the resulting tenuous security environment requires continued intervention by the federal government and adds to the general unrest in the region.

The primary participants in the Guerrero demonstrations have been Guerrero state normalistas and members of a local teachers' union. The two groups likely have organizational ties and have been aligned in their protests against a 2013 federal education reform, making them natural partners in the current round of protests. The groups have proven themselves capable of coordinating large demonstrations and clearly intend to draw further attention to their cause by creating as much disruption to state governance and daily life as possible. So far, their only demands are the return of the missing normalistas and justice for the students and their families. However, the organizers could angle for negotiations with state and federal leaders in the future to increase their influence in regional politics.

Overt challenges to government authority in the southwestern states will give rise to a number of economic and security issues, and Mexico City will attempt to defuse the situation by arresting cartel leaders and local politicians in Iguala. The mayor and his wife are charged with masterminding the disappearances. Both are currently in federal custody, but the city's police chief, also allegedly involved, is still on the run. The federal government has been unusually open about the existence of collusion between local officials and criminal elements in this case, and it must make a convincing effort to rid the state of corrupt politicians and establish alternative rule to prevent the rise of armed civilian groups. To this end, the government will expand military and federal police operations in the southwest, but this expansion of security operations can only be maintained for a limited time before Mexico City must resort to alternative tactics.

Although protests are likely to continue in the coming weeks, the demonstrations are unlikely to pose an existential threat to Mexico City's government. However, the pressure on the central government could mount significantly if protesters in Mexico City and the southwest are able to coordinate their organizing efforts and garner increased public participation.

Throughout the country, the federal government must balance its security measures to create the impression that it is in control, but without cracking down on citizens in a way that would invite accusations of authoritarianism. If the security response in Guerrero is too weak, armed citizen groups could emerge to fill the void. However, if the response is too strong, it will add to discontent and encourage additional protests. There will be more high-profile arrests in connection to the students' disappearances, and reforms to local governments and security forces will also be made. The key factor to watch will be any coordination between organizing groups during the Nov. 20 protests. Such cooperation could signal a significant shift in tactics and incite a different response from the government.

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