In 2014, missing students buried 'Mexico's Moment'

Laurent Thomet
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Joaquina Mora (L) is seen during the vigil of her nephew Alexander Mora --one of the 43 missing students, whose remains were found in a landfill in Cocula-- in the Tecoanapa municipality, Guerrero State, Mexico, on December 11, 2014

Joaquina Mora (L) is seen during the vigil of her nephew Alexander Mora --one of the 43 missing students, whose remains were found in a landfill in Cocula-- in the Tecoanapa municipality, Guerrero State, Mexico, on December 11, 2014 (AFP Photo/Pedro Pardo)

Mexico City (AFP) - Mexico finally seemed poised to write the drug war's final chapter this year -- the world's most wanted cartel kingpin was captured, homicides fell and the world hailed economic reforms.

But the apparent massacre of dozens of students buried "Mexico's Moment," sparking nationwide protests and triggering the biggest crisis of President Enrique Pena Nieto's two-year-old administration.

"Everything was working like clockwork. Everything was in place. It will no longer be like this," Lorenzo Meyer, one of Mexico's most prominent historians, told AFP.

The first half of 2014, Meyer said, showed the "surreal Mexico of the political and economic elite."

In the second half, he said, the world saw "the Mexico that had always been there but had been covered by a work of art created by the political class."

Pena Nieto was having a good year until 43 college students were allegedly slaughtered by a police-backed drug gang in the southern state of Guerrero on September 26.

He had graced the cover of Time magazine with the headline "Saving Mexico," he reported a 29 percent drop in murders between 2012-2014, and his security forces dealt major blows to drug cartels.

Marines arrested fugitive Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in the Pacific resort of Mazatlan in February, ending a 13-year manhunt for the world's most powerful drug lord.

Security forces killed the head of the Knights Templar gang in the violence-plagued western state of Michoacan in March, then captured the leaders of the Beltran Leyva and Juarez drug cartels in the space of a week in October.

Pena Nieto's triumphs peaked in August, when Congress gave final approval to his signature reform, ending the 76-year-old state monopoly on oil drilling and inviting foreign firms back into the country.

- Old ghosts -

But Mexico's ghosts came back to haunt the country on September 26, when police in Guerrero attacked busloads of college students, allegedly under the orders of the mayor of the city of Iguala, and handed them over to a gang.

This month, one of the 43 young men was identified among charred remains found in a landfill and a river, bolstering suspicions they were all murdered there by the Guerreros Unidos drug gang.

The investigation revealed a blood-stained tableau as the search for the students led to the discovery of several mass graves with the bodies of 38 other people.

Fed up with a drug war that has left 100,000 people dead or missing since 2006, Mexicans flooded the streets in protest, calling for Pena Nieto's resignation.

His popularity rating has sunk to around 40 percent, the lowest for a president in two decades.

On top of it all, the military has faced abuse allegations after prosecutors said three soldiers murdered eight of 22 suspects who died in what officials originally reported as a shootout in June.

"The level of anger has been so high that few remember the energy and telecommunications reforms," said Javier Oliva, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Oliva warned that the crisis could worsen if the government continues to "improvise" its response to public anger.

- Tackling corruption -

Pena Nieto, who had sought to focus on Mexico's economic potential, was forced to tackle the security problem.

In response, he launched a plan to disband the country's notoriously corrupt municipal police forces and allow federal authorities to take over gang-infiltrated towns.

But analysts and human rights groups are skeptical, noting that the changes focus on municipal forces when corruption and impunity have infected all levels of government.

"There are some states in which it might help, but that proposal was based under the rather bizarre assumption that state and federal police were that much better," said Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank.

The government hopes Congress will pass the police reforms before congressional elections in July.

But the government will also want to return to business next year, when it awards the first oil contracts to private companies on July 15.