The UN High Commission for Human Rights has warned that the parents of 43 Mexican students who disappeared after they were attacked by police have been put at risk by a campaign to demonise their missing sons.
Javier Hernández, the representative in Mexico for the UN High Commission, told the Guardian that the parents – and protesters calling for justice – needed protection amid a campaign to denigrate the trainee teachers who vanished 10 weeks ago.
“Some are starting to vilify and insult the disappeared students and demonise their parents and their demands,” said Hernández. “The vast wave of protest generated by the case of the 43 students needs to be protected.”
The disappearance of the students – apparently at the hands of corrupt local police in league with a criminal gang – has triggered a wave of demonstrations against violence and criminality enabled by the country’s deep-rooted political corruption. More protests are planned in the country’s capital on Saturday.
Several previous marches in the city ended with outbreaks of violence – fuelled by heavy handed police tactics and the alleged presence of agents provocateurs among the protesters.
The street fighting has partly drawn attention away from the collective disgust at the collusion between criminals and local authorities, which lay behind the attack on the students on 26 September in the southern city of Iguala. The students were set upon by police – allegedly acting on the orders of the local mayor – and then handed over to a local drug gang called Guerreros Unidos.
Fernandez said he was particularly worried about jeers and insults directed at the missing students posted on social networks.
“Unfortunately, these attitudes are affecting the way demonstrations are being handled and the police response to the violence in some of the protests,” he said.
Hostile reaction to the students has often focused on the radical reputation of their teacher training college in the town of Ayotzinapa. Two of the country’s most famous guerrillas from the 1970s studied at the college, and the curriculum includes classes on “social struggle”. The disappeared students had gone to Iguala, two hours’ drive away, to commandeer buses to use in a later protest.
The anti-student tweets included dismissals of the missing as “bloody vandals”, alongside racist slurs and references to their poverty. Numerous jokes have used the government’s announcement that it believes the students were probably massacred in a rubbish dump and burned on a huge funeral pyre. One this week read: “The Hunger Games: Ayotzinapos in Flames”.
Hernandez visited Ayotzinapa earlier this week to support the families there, and he called upon other organizations to make similar gestures. He also warned that arbitrary arrests at protests threatened people’s right to protest.
The families and their supporters have called on the government to ensure that the students are returned alive, but the protests have tapped into anger over general violence and impunity.
Emiliano Navarrete, whose 17-year-old son José Angel is one of the missing, said: “People feel impotent and angry for good reason. The president has to take responsibility. The army was there and it did nothing. The federal government knew what kind of government there was in Iguala. It knew Iguala was a clandestine cemetery.”
Omar Garcia, one of several Ayotzinapa students who survived the attack, said the incident had crystalised the widespread sense that political corruption was driving Mexico’s descent into violence. Garcia has received death threats since the incident but played down the risk he faced. “We are all vulnerable before the alliance of organized crime and the state,” he said.
Fury at the government’s handling of the investigation has been further fueled by its failure to acknowledge the depth of its own crisis of credibility.
Leading the efforts to contain the damage to Mexico’s international image, the undersecretary for multilateral affairs and human rights, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, rejected accusations that the government has been too focused on its economic agenda to tackle violent crime and corruption.
“[The disappearance of the 43 students] is a big challenge but it does not mean we were not working on these issues before,” he told the Guardian. “It sounds a warning and tells the people, the government, and the private sector that economic reforms will never bear their fruit if rule of law does not prevail.”
Last week President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a 10-point package of measures he promised would strengthen the rule of law. Several were focused on corruption in local police forces. None addressed federal responsibility.
There has still been no serious explanation of why soldiers based in Iguala did not intervene to help the students during the attack, little more than a mile from their barracks.
Guillermo Valdez, a former head of the national intelligence agency, told the Guardian it was unlikely that the security services were not fully aware of longstanding accusations that the mayor of Iguala headed a kind of co-government in the city with Guerreros Unidos.
“It’s very likely they knew,” he said.
The president’s invocation of the chant “Todos Somos Ayotzinapa”, or “We Are All Ayotzinapa”, during his announcement also prompted derision during the last mass protest on Monday.
The president has yet to visit either Ayotzinapa or Iguala. On Thursday, he made his first visit to Guerrero since the disappearance of the students. While inaugurating a new bridge, he called for “a collective effort to move forward so that we can truly leave behind this painful movement”.
Some analysts suggest the government’s strategy centres on the hope that the movement has peaked and will begin to fade away.
“It seems they are trying to buy a little time with the measures, hoping that things will calm down a bit over the Christmas holidays,” said Valdez. “It is a serious error not to address the problem of credibility because [even if things do calm down] another event like Iguala will fire things up again.”
Saturday’s march will be headed by parents and students from Ayotzinapa, but the protest has also drawn mass support from independent trade unions and campesino groups – as well as students and human rights campaigners.
“[The parents’] presence is the constant reminder that the government is not fulfilling its most basic functions,” he said. “The government and the political class lacks moral standing, and the parents are overflowing with it.”
The movement is also mining Mexican history for symbols that reflect the tradition of the struggle for justice. Saturday’s march coincides with the 100th anniversary of the entrance into Mexico City of the most popular figures from the Mexican revolution, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.
“The date symbolizes a lot. It contains the message that people are looking for real change,” says student leader Garcia, who will head the protest in Mexico City.
Garcia says the movement is currently seeking to harness the anger in a common agenda of clear demands, a difficult task given the multiplicity of visions; it is not yet clear how much can be achieved.
“The 26th of September is already a historic date,” he said. “Everything goes out of fashion, but we are not going to go away.”