The disappearance and presumed death of 43 student protesters in Iguala, Guerrero has sparked concerns of a new surge of guerilla movements in southern Mexico, but just how likely is it?
The situation in Guerrero has clearly sparked a democratic crisis. The mayor of Iguala and his wife, charged with overseeing the mass murder of the protesters, were arrested after going underground for several weeks. The governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre, resigned amid protests. And activists within Guerrero, including family members of the disappeared students, are now calling for a boycott of all elections until the students are found. One spokesman spoke ominously of “thinking about actions that we don’t want to be thinking about.”
It’s not a surprise, therefore, that some media outlets are reporting increased activities of local guerilla groups. This doesn’t make a return of a full-blown insurgent movement a foregone conclusion, and the barriers to a Mexican descent into sustained civil conflict remain substantial. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances in modern Mexico more conducive to fomenting armed civil opposition to the government.
Many of the factors are historical: southern Mexico, and Guerrero in particular, has been an insurgent hotbed for decades. Much of that stems from the South’s persistent inequality, a social problem that correlates strongly with insurgent movements. Guerrero was the second most unequal state in the country according to one recent study by the Mexican government, and its status in that regard is longstanding.
During Mexico’s Dirty Wars in the 1970s and 1980s, several of the most prominent leftist groups that earned the government’s ire were based out of Guerrero. Many of the disappearances of that era were concentrated in the state, targeting the local Party of the Poor. One of the most infamous figures from that era, schoolteacher-turned-revolutionary Lucio Cabañas, operated from the Guerrero mountains, financing his group’s activities via kidnappings and bank robberies. Cabañas was killed in a shootout with the Mexican army in 1974.
But this is not simply a historical relic; the Dirty War legacy affects modern Guerrero as well. It’s no coincidence that current groups like the EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army), the ERPI (Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People), the FAR-LP (Revolutionary Armed Forces — Liberation of the People), and the PROCUP-PDLP (Revolutionary Worker Clandestine Union of the People Party — Party of the Poor) have called Guerrero home for many years. These are the ideological heirs of Cabañas and his allies, evidence of the eternal suspicion of Mexico’s political structure within the region. And more to the point, they present a ready-made audience for anti-government messages behind any insurgent movement.
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The organized crime landscape in Guerrero is a further complicating factor. With its ample coastline and proximity to the massive local drug market in Mexico City, the territory will always be coveted by drug traffickers. In today’s Guerrero, the criminal landscape is extremely fractured. A recent analysis by Victor Sanchez in Animal Politico tallied no less than nine different criminal groups operating within the state: Independent Cartel of Acapulco, Knights Templar, the Guerreros Unidos, the Jalisco Cartel–New Generation, the Rojos, the Familia Michoacana, the Barredora, the Ardillos, and the Granados. In most of the state, multiple groups are operating in the same territory.
The constellation of competing groups is and of itself an obstacle, because their conflicts generate bloodshed and make governing a challenge. As a result, they tend to open up space for extra-legal groups that channel popular frustration, and provide locals with some hope of defending themselves from a seemingly implacable criminal group. The specific tactics of many of the criminal groups, which prey on civilians more so than many traditional organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel, only worsen the conflict. Criminal groups in Guerrero, to take but one example, pioneered the extortion of teachers.
A key element of this is that all of the major political parties seem compromised, whether by their political support for the protagonists of the Iguala killings or their wanton inability to secure meaningful solutions. The PAN and the PRI are Mexico’s two parties of the monied establishment, and both spark suspicion and even hostility in Mexico’s poor, rural south. But it’s telling that the foremost voice for Mexico’s disaffected, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, allegedly was a supporter of Iguala mayor Jose Luis Abarca and of Aguirre. (He denies having close ties to Abarca.) If even Lopez Obrador is viewed as insufficiently loyal to the poor masses, then there is no one for them inside the mainstream political system.
In short, Guerrero looks like a tinderbox, and the Iguala disappearances could serve as a match.
Nonetheless, any civil conflict remains unlikely. Mexico’s federal government, whatever its defects, remains far stronger than its counterparts in twentieth century Colombia or Guatemala. There is no foreign patron who would bankroll local rebels so as to make life for the government miserable, as is typically the case with more robust insurgencies. The proliferation of insurgent groups also speaks to their weakness and lack of organization, a key barrier. And while there is a great deal of popular suspicion of the government around Mexico, that doesn’t mean there would be sympathy for those who take up arms against the state.
But Guerrero is flirting with the circumstances that could spark an insurgent movement, a dangerous and harmful path even in the absence of armed rebellion.