The story could have come out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Putin's Russia. An act so terrible that facts cannot contain the boundaries of the myth.
No one knows for certain what the facts are. That tends to be the way of these things. What we do know is horrible.
Iguala, Guerrero is a sleepy city with a chip in the game of history. It is where Agustín de Iturbide, leader of the Spanish forces, and Vicente Guerrero, leader of what remained of the independence forces, signed an agreement that would end Mexico's war of independence. It now has quite a different chip in that same game.
Exactly two months ago, 43 male students from a teacher college came to town to protest some mild reforms promoted by the Mexican central government. Either the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, or his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, ordered the police to arrest the students -- believing that they were there to disrupt a speech by the mayor's wife. They probably were. Student-teacher groups from teacher schools have a history of hijacking buses and trucks as part of their protests.
The police then turned the students over to a local drug cartel with close connections to the mayor, his wife, and the police. According to a report issued by the Attorney General's office, the cartel murdered the students, burned their bodies, and dumped the remains in a river.
The mayor and his wife fled, and were arrested in Mexico City. The governor of Guerrero resigned. Over 70 suspects were arrested. While searching for the missing 43, other mass graves were discovered.
Instead of protests in Iguala over an education reform, there were protests and riots in various parts of the country. The massive doors of the National Palace were set afire.
As horrible as the incident is, it has torn the mask off of one of the problems that has long hobbled Mexican society and government.
Every president since the end of the Revolution has pledged to fix the endemic corruption that permeates Mexico. And nothing really gets done.
The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, proposed a modest reform bill to deal with one of the country's most corrupt institutions -- education. Mexico's schools have been hobbled by a sinecure system brought to Mexico by the Spanish.
The reforms were designed to make public education more effective by focusing on the needs of students, rather than the jobs of teachers. Higher standards and higher
achievement were expected in the classroom. And a competitive process for the hiring, promotion, and tenure of teachers and administrators was to be instituted. All three major parties supported it.
Students and teachers didn't. Several areas of the country have been paralyzed by protesters who have blockaded streets with hijacked vehicles.
It was a small start for the president. But reform of corruption has to start somewhere.
Mexico has struggled with becoming a liberal democracy. The reaction of the students is a perfect example of how a truly democratic system should not operate.
Protest, certainly. Campaign for candidates, certainly. Repeatedly disrupt the lives of your neighbors, who you are attempting to persuade? It not only sounds counter-productive, it is simply a juvenile tantrum.
But you do not arrest, shoot, and burn anyone for protests.
How did Mexico get to this point? Let's go back to 1968. If you recall, several months ago, I told you the story of the student massacre in Mexico City during the Olympics (promises kept -- part i). In reaction to a perceived revolutionary threat from students, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, set in motion plans that would end in the deaths of many young people at the hands of the police and military.
That event has so traumatized subsequent administrations that student protests are given a free hand. No matter how disruptive. That is until someone -- like the mayor of Iguala, overreacts. No, "overreacts" is far too mild. Acts murderously.
But that is the fruit of corruption. When power can be exercised without a proper system of checks and balances, Lord Acton's dictum rules.
And where was the reforming president Peña Nieto during all this? He may as well have been playing golf on vacation. Because he was nowhere to be seen.
When he could have been the conscience of the nation, he was a no show. Of course, it would have been rather hypocritical for him to ride the moral high horse of good government. During the crisis, another news story broke. This one, about the president's own household. Or, rather, house.Peña Nieto lives in a house reportedly worth $7 million. The story is that his wife, a star of Mexican soap operas, was buying the house from the owner of a Mexican construction company.
It just so happened that the construction company was part of a consortium, along with Chinese partners, that the Mexican government awarded a no-bid contract to build a $3.75
billion high-speed rail link in central Mexico. The contract was cancelled as soon as the presidential house question was disclosed.
You must be asking yourself: Certainly there must be an opposition ready to step in and take the high ground? But this episode shows just how deep the cancer goes.
The obvious moral champions could have been the leftist Party
of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). It has campaigned in the past against human rights violations.
There is a major problem, though. The mayor, his wife, and the governor of Guerrero were (and are) members of PRD.
But what about the self-appointed leader of the left? Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador,
the Harold Stassen of Mexico. Lopez Obrador's new party, Morena, also has close ties with the mayor.
I had high hopes for this president. He came to office promising voters a set of reforms that would create a New Mexico. The citizens who voted for him believed him when he said his party, PRI, had a new vision. An honest vision.
Leaders often find their greatness in times of crisis. This is Peña Nieto's moment. He can admit that he was wrong. He must do that. And then take the initiative to make substantive changes in the central government to root up the true sources of corruption.
Not just structural changes. The very heart of the system needs to change. And it needs to start with a brave man who is willing to lead his nation out of hundreds of years of twilight.
There is no better time. Mexico has a brief window to move forward in becoming a liberal democracy.
If it doesn't, there are plenty of demagogues waiting to carve up the turkey carcass.