Tens of thousands of protesters massed Thursday night in Mexico City’s main plaza, carrying torches and bellowing “Out with Peña!” in the latest sign of surging discontent with the rule of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The protesters cheered as what appeared to be a 30-foot-tall effigy, or perhaps a piñata, of Peña Nieto was set ablaze.
It was a relatively peaceful end to a national day of protest that began on a violent note with firebomb attacks and rock-throwing clashes.
Riot police blocked hundreds of hooded demonstrators from shutting down Mexico City’s international airport. Protesters a few blocks away set a police cruiser on fire and barricaded streets. TV newscasts showed images of protesters tossing Molotov cocktails at riot police. In one image, an officer was enveloped in flames. At least 14 arrests were reported.
Peña Nieto canceled a military parade to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, sidestepping a possible confrontation with protesters in the capital’s plaza. He exhorted citizens to protest peacefully.
“We Mexicans say no to violence,” Peña Nieto said at a ceremony to honor the military. “The society and government categorically reject any attempt to provoke or encourage it. Mexico, it is true, is in pain but the only way to relieve this pain is through peace and justice.”
The demonstrations were ostensibly called to protest the disappearance, and likely murder, of 43 students in late September in the state of Guerrero. But as the blazing Peña Nieto showed, it gave voice to a mood of national despair made worse by a sputtering economy and a corruption scandal over a $7 million mansion that a government contractor built for the president’s wife.
The scandal and the likely deaths of the 43 mostly poor students has laid bare what many see as official apathy toward Mexico’s underclass.
“People are totally fed up. They want something to happen,” said Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, a former legislator who now says all political parties are corrupt.
How great a challenge the unrest will become to Peña Nieto’s two-year-old presidency is still to be seen. The missing students are clearly the greatest crisis of his tenure so far.
But even as protests surge, and sympathy grows for the parents of the missing students, no group or opposition leader has harnessed the anger.
“We have to organize but no one knows for sure how to carry off the changes this country needs,” Lopez y Rivas said.
Protesters carried signs that said, “Murderous narco state,” “Make all of them go away” and simply “Out with Peña.” Most had dispersed by around 8:30 p.m. but the La Jornada newspaper website said hundreds remained behind and were tossing bottles at the National Palace and setting fires.
Organizers said students from 114 universities and institutes around the country took part in the day of protest, one of the largest in recent decades.
Parents and relatives of the missing 43 students converged on the capital’s main plaza from three directions to join the massive rally.
Passengers headed for the international airport earlier in the day found their way blocked by protesters, many of them wearing masks or kerchiefs. Cordons of federal police in riot gear redirected the protesters to side streets, and used pickups to ferry passengers past barricades to reach the airport. Authorities urged passengers to arrive four hours early for their flights.
In Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state, thousands of protesters flooded onto the major highway from Mexico City to the Pacific coast and blocked it for two hours. Demonstrations also occurred in Guadalajara, Hermosillo, Monterrey, Cuernavaca and other cities.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told a shocked nation two weeks ago that a federal investigation had turned up evidence that police in Iguala, a city in Guerrero state, had turned over the 43 students to an organized crime group, which killed them and burned their bodies in a mass pyre, then dumped their ashes and shattered bones in a river.
Identification of the charred body fragments has yet to take place, and many parents hold out hope that the students might still be alive.
The attorney general’s admission stirred historic demonstrations and violence, including the torching of the city hall in Iguala and the legislative headquarters in Chilpancingo, as well as numerous political party offices in Guerrero and other states.
Peña Nieto’s government has also come under pressure from other quarters. The Vatican’s papal nuncio in Mexico, Christophe Pierre, told a reception for the diplomatic community hosted by the Chamber of Deputies on Thursday that the Peña Nieto government should heed the church’s call to end corruption, impunity and violence.
“These are desires that the state must want to, and know how to, embrace,” Pierre said.
Rattled by the protests, Peña Nieto in recent days has cited a campaign of political destabilization. Others in his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, have picked up on the theme.
PRI Deputy Manuel Añorve Baños said some protesters were trying to hijack the issue of the missing students and use it for acts of violence.
He said roadblocks and other actions had devastated tourism in Guerrero state, home to the tourist resorts of Taxco, Acapulco and Zihuatanejo.
“It is not through roadblocks and by strangling the economy of Guerrero that they will achieve their objectives,” he told a legislative news service.
At a military ceremony Thursday, Peña Nieto offered a full-throated defense of the military from charges of human rights abuses.
“Under no circumstances can the loyalty and noble service that the armed forces have lent to the nation be put in doubt,” he said. “The greatness of the institution shouldn’t be harmed by a handful of elements that may have strayed from their principles.”
That was a reference to a mass killing June 30 in which members of an army unit allegedly executed 22 people, most of them suspected criminals, in the town of Tlatlaya after many had surrendered. Three soldiers are to go on trial on charges of first-degree murder.
Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, the defense secretary, issued a veiled warning that Mexico may be traversing a perilous political period.
“In times of disunity is when the country has suffered its major fractures,” he said.