Normalista Unrest Highlights Mexico's Geographic Challenge

6 MINS READOct 28, 2014 | 09:00 GMT
Normalista Unrest Highlights Mexico's Geographic Challenge
Students block the Chilpancingo-Acapulco highway to protest the September disappearance of 43 teaching students in Guerrero state.
(YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The legislature of the Mexican state of Guerrero approved an interim governor Oct. 26 to replace former Gov. Angel Aguirre, who resigned Oct. 23 amid rising political tumult following the disappearance in Iguala of 43 teaching college students known as normalistas. Aguirre's own political party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, pushed him to resign to protect its political fortunes in its stronghold of Guerrero. As Aguirre was resigning, masked protesters in Mexico City prepared to take over the television station of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where they later broadcast a video demanding that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto locate the missing normalistas, whom the protesters alleged municipal police kidnapped on the orders of the mayor of Iguala.

The unrest in Guerrero is the latest manifestation of Mexico City's historical struggle to control the territories on its southwestern periphery, including Chiapas, Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca states. The deserts, mountains and plateaus that begin outside Mexico City make for a large geographic territory difficult to control and integrate economically, leading to a substantial socio-economic divide between the core and the periphery, especially in Mexico's southwestern states. Their proximity to Mexico's core increases Mexico City's sensitivity to unrest there, given the risk of demonstrations spreading to the capital. Whether the current unrest will cause significant disruptions outside Guerrero remains to be seen. But either way, it has shined a spotlight on Mexico's ongoing struggles with political corruption, organized crime-related violence and the disparities between the urban core and rural periphery, publicity that could frighten off investors and disrupt Mexico City's security strategy.

The Sept. 26 incidents began when a group of normalistas from the Raul Isidro Burgos rural normal school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero state, reportedly traveled to Iguala to steal buses to use in a demonstration on the anniversary of the Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City. According to the attorney general of Mexico, the mayor of Iguala ordered the municipal police to halt the normalistas. At some point, the police opened fire on two separate groups in Iguala that they thought consisted of normalistas and allegedly kidnapped 43 of them. The detainees were subsequently turned over to the Guerreros Unidos, a criminal group with which the mayor of Iguala and his wife reportedly have links. Shortly thereafter, normalistas began demonstrations in the state capital, Chilpancingo, and soon began garnering support from the broader teaching sector in the country's southwest, which was behind disruptive teacher protests in Mexico City in 2013

Bad Publicity

The most immediate challenge to Mexico City — unwanted attention on the insecurity within its borders — is less serious than the struggle to control its periphery, but it is unwelcome nonetheless. Given the advent of energy reform, Mexico is now eagerly awaiting the foreign investment needed to jump-start its energy sector, but it fears that violence and unrest could scare off onshore investment. Though nationwide violence has gradually declined since its peak between 2010 and 2012, the always-restive Mexican southwest contains some of the highest levels of criminal violence in the country and the weakest local governments.

The emergence of the self-defense militias in Michoacan state and their war with the Knights Templar criminal group have served as a strong reminder to outsiders of the persistent difficulties of enforcing the rule of law in southwestern Mexico. The Sept. 26 incidents have done so as well.

Mexico's Geopolitical Subregions

Mexico's Geopolitical Subregions

The unrest scaring off investors could get even worse if community-organized police, anti-government militants or the rural teachers of Mexico's powerful national teachers' unions join forces with the normalistas.

Community Police

The federal government has struggled to assert its authority over much of the rural areas of Guerrero state, and the state government has had even more difficulty. Because of the federal and state governments' inability to provide sufficient public safety to rural Guerrero, large geographic portions of the state populated by rural indigenous communities contain community police forces, civilian militias currently organized under one of two coordinating bodies that serve as de facto public safety institutions for the rural communities.

Guerrero's community police are not inherently anti-government. Their demands often include calls for a greater federal security presence in their respective areas, and they often dialogue and coordinate with the state and federal governments. Community police efforts focus on preventing organized crime from preying on community members, but unlike Michoacan's self-defense militias, they have not mounted military-style campaigns.

Even so, there are strong ties between Guerrero's community police and the rural teaching sector, including normalistas. In the 2013 teacher protests, Guerrero's community police assisted in the logistics required to transport teachers from Oaxaca and Guerrero to Mexico City. Continued unrest in Guerrero could draw community police into demonstrations, encourage a geographic expansion of their operations, or trigger a new armed conflict between organized crime and community police — all of which would further threaten stability and Mexico City's authority in Guerrero. Still, the community police will be hesitant to do anything that would provoke a strong military response from Mexico City.


The poor economies, weak governing institutions and relative isolation from the core in Mexico's rural southwest have also created an environment suitable for various insurgencies that Mexico City has had to deploy military forces to quell at various times. Since the 1990s, several low-level Marxist guerrilla groups have emerged in Guerrero state. The most notable is the Popular Revolutionary Army, to which a number of attacks against federal troops and hydrocarbon pipelines during the 1990s and 2000s were attributed.

Whether any of these groups — which have not given signs of meaningful activity since at least 2007 — continue to operate remains uncertain, but normalistas in Guerrero share ideological affinities with them. Several communiques purportedly from the Popular Revolutionary Army and its suspected splinter groups have been disseminated in Mexican media outlets backing the normalistas and condemning the Guerreros Unidos. Aside from the communiques, however, no indicators of a new wave of guerrilla attacks in Guerrero have emerged.

Teachers' Unions

A more realistic threat to Mexico City arising out of the Sept. 26 unrest is that the broader educational sector will join forces with the normalistas. The lack of central authority in the southwestern states has given institutions including teachers' unions a significant degree of autonomy, freedom they jealously guard from government encroachment. The educational reforms Pena Nieto signed into law in February 2013 were taken as an existential threat to this autonomy. Resistance to the reform culminated in disruptive demonstrations in Mexico City whose participants primarily hailed from southwestern states and included normalistas from Guerrero.

Anti-government sentiment among southwestern teachers' unions remains strong, and could well expand once more in support of the normalistas. If it did, the demonstrations could reach the point of disrupting daily activity outside Guerrero, as did the 2013 teacher protests.

Iguala and Pena Nieto's Security Strategy

One of the key parts of the Pena Nieto administration's national security strategy has been transforming organized crime-related violence and public safety in general from a national security issue to a law enforcement issue. This move has involved transitioning away from using troops to patrol the streets under the reasoning that the military is a poor substitute for law enforcement and attracts unwanted attention to the country's security woes.

Mexico City will therefore be hesitant to expand the role of federal troops in Guerrero. But the growing unrest — which has led to substantial destruction of government facilities in the state — will likely necessitate an expanded military presence in Guerrero, undermining Pena Nieto's current security strategy. 

How much the military presence in Guerrero state expands ultimately depends upon how much the unrest grows. While the pro-normalista demonstrations in Guerrero will likely see continued (and even stronger) support from the education sector and even from groups like the community police, the duration of this support will be limited by the participating groups' separate agendas. Either way, the unrest sparked by the Sept. 26 incidents has served as a stark reminder of Mexico's geopolitical challenges.

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