The stock phrase being used in the press is that this is “the first visit by a sitting US president in eighty-eight years,” but of course that’s not the point. It’s the first visit since the Cuban Revolution, the first since the Bay of Pigs, the first since Fidel brought in the nuclear missiles that made the world freeze in fear of imminent nuclear annihilation in 1962, the first since the United States imposed fifty years of diplomatic and commercial isolation on an island with a population of eleven million.
Everyone knows what happened; no one understands why. On September 26, forty-three students were abducted in one of the poorest states in the Mexican republic, from one of its very poorest public vocational schools—an all-male teachers’ college. This is by no means the largest or even necessarily the most horrifying mass killing to have taken place in Mexico in recent years, but it is the most known: we know the perpetrators (the local police and the local drug gangs), the victims (forty-three young men whose pictures are now everywhere), and their families, stoic hard workers—campesinos, many of them—who have refused to back down from their demand that their missing children be returned to them alive.
Let us say that you are a Mexican reporter working for peanuts at a local television station somewhere in the provinces—the state of Durango, for example—and that one day you get a friendly invitation from a powerful drug-trafficking group. Imagine that it is the Zetas, and that thanks to their efforts in your city several dozen people have recently perished in various unspeakable ways, while justice turned a blind eye. Among the dead is one of your colleagues. Now consider the invitation, which is to a press conference to be held punctually on the following Friday, at a not particularly out of the way spot just outside of town. You were, perhaps, considering going instead to a movie? Keep in mind, the invitation notes, that attendance will be taken by the Zetas.
A couple of decades ago, perhaps, a discussion of the war on drugs declared by Richard Nixon back in 1973 could reasonably have centered on whether eradication of narcotic-producing crops and the violent extermination of drug-trafficking groups was the way to rescue the young and vulnerable from the threat of addiction. It was the existence of addicts, after all, and the desire to avoid creating more of them, that justified the entire notion of drug prohibition. But the startling, unprogrammed, and rebellious discussion about drugs that took place among hemispheric leaders in April at a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, barely mentioned addiction, because it’s too late for that.
Given the almost complete lack of trust under which law enforcement authorities labor everywhere in Mexico, it is not surprising that the Mexico City District Attorney’s preliminary conclusion, that Rubén Espinosa and his friend, the activist Nadia Vera, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were murdered July 31, was met with general hoots of rage and derision.
Chapo Guzmán’s jailbreak is arguably the greatest pie-in-the-face embarrassment any Mexican government has ever had to deal with. But as the country’s highest officials try to recover face, serious questions continue to pile up—including claims that he was captured last year by US agents disguised as Mexican marines.
Within a few hours of his relaxed escape from Mexico’s highest security prison, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as “el Chapo,” was back on Twitter. “Never say never,” the world’s most wanted drug trafficker cried. He thanked his collaborators, praised his sons, and made rude references to President Enrique Pena Nieto: “And you, @EPN, don’t call me a delinquent again, because I give people jobs, not like your piddling cheap government.”
The horrific kidnapping of forty-three boys has created a crisis of a different order for the Mexican state. By rights the Ayotzinapa parents should all go mad, faced with the uncertainty, systematic mistreatment by the authorities, and sheer horror of contemplating how their children may have been killed.