What Do Ayotzinapa and Wall Street Have in Common?

“Impunity is the name of the game.”

That was the central theme of La Jornada opinions editor Luis Hernández Navarro’s talk earlier this week at Pomona College. Navarro—who has covered indigenous communities, labor struggles and student movements throughout Mexico for the better part of four decades—pointed out to a crowd of 125 students, faculty members, staff members and community residents that while what happened 54 days ago in Iguala, Guerrero, is a tragedy of epic proportions, it is sadly nothing new.

Since 2006, at least 20,000 people have been reported missing, along with 100,000 dead at the hands of the federal government's war against drug cartels. It is safe to say that violence is pervasive in Mexico. But in the words of Navarro, the disappearance of the normalistas "was the straw that broke the camel's back." What has been called "the worst tragedy in half a century" by Carlos Loret, one of Mexico's most prominent journalists, has brought out Mexico's pent up anger in ways never seen before. No more can the blame be solely placed on organized crime. Mexico is a narcostate, and the masses are ready to abolish the problem at its root.

Mexico, The Narcostate

A recap of events is merited. On Sept. 26, around 80 rural teachers-in-training traveled 100 miles from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, to Iguala to protest the federal government’s education reform. Upon leaving the city, the students’ buses were detained by local police at the behest of Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca. The students shouted that they were “solo estudiantes,” but the police indiscriminately opened fire, killing six and injuring dozens more. The authorities then apprehended 43 students, loaded them into police vehicles and proceeded to deliver them to members of a local drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos.

What happened next is still up in the air. On Nov. 7, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam publicly announced that the missing students were killed and their remains burned and then thrown into a river. But many are finding it hard to believe the official story. 

For one, the sources of these claims—two apprehended members of Guerreros Unidos—are said to be insufficient to conclude the entire investigation, especially since previous testimonies by police officers don’t match up. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to cremate 43 bodies so easily with literally no visible remnants left behind. Others see it as a timely cover-up that washes away any controversy before President Enrique Peña Nieto’s scheduled attendance at this week’s XXII summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders in Beijing.

Regardless of what happened to the missing 43 normalistas, one thing is certain: Their disappearance is a crime committed by the state.

But those most responsible for these atrocities have not been—and may never be—apprehended. Ángel Aguirre, ex-governor of Guerrero, took an indefinite leave of absence one month after the normalistas’ disappearance. His administration allowed Abarca to escape Iguala even after it was understood that the ex-mayor gave the order to 'arrest' the students. Aguirre is also believed to have been directly involved in multiple killings of activists across the state; according to Navarro, at least 60 social justice activists were slain in Guerrero during Aguirre’s tenure between 2006 and 2009. None of these crimes have ever been investigated.

To make matters worse, Peña Nieto—whose presidency has been plagued by lackluster responses to social issues and hefty criticism from the Mexican populace—is nowhere to be seen. It took the president 10 days to make an official announcement in which he drastically downplayed the state’s role in the kidnapping of the 43 normalistas. Since then, Peña Nieto has only provided lip service in finding the students, with no intent of returning from his travels abroad.

It’s no wonder tens of thousands in Mexico and across the world are calling for his resignation.

This is just the tip of iceberg. Mexico has a long, disturbing history of widespread impunity. Wealthy businessmen, powerful elected officials and even notorious narcos are rarely prosecuted for their crimes, mainly because—as we saw in Guerrero—they act and benefit in unison.

But impunity is not only a Mexican problem. The United States has its own class of untouchables, too.

Too Big to Prosecute

On Nov. 6, critically acclaimed journalist Matt Taibbi published a damning interview for Rolling Stone with former JP Morgan deal manager Alayne Fleischmann, who, in 2006, “witnessed, then tried to stop, what she describes as ‘massive criminal securities fraud’ in the bank’s mortgage operations.” After multiple attempts to bring what she saw to light, Fleischmann left the bank and became the government’s central witness in its investigation of the bank’s role in creating the 2007 housing crisis.

Once the investigation was underway, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon went over to the Department of Justice and was treated to a $9 billion settlement in which the bank didn’t admit to any wrongdoing. Similar settlements were made with Bank of America and Citigroup.

“The root bargain in these deals was cash for secrecy,” Taibbi writes. “The banks paid big fines, without trials or even judges—only secret negotiations that typically ended with the public shown nothing but vague, quasi-official papers called ‘statements of facts,’ which were conveniently devoid of anything like actual facts … [The] state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industry-wide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption.”

What we have here are two classic cases of impunity: members of the upper echelons of society being exempt from just punishment.

How is it possible that the heads of Wall Street and corporate America find solace in a justice system that continuously incarcerates tens of thousands of people for petty non-violent crimes? How is it that Mexican elected officials are able to bypass any and all laws without even trying?

At first, it would seem misleading to equate the possible massacre of 43 students to bank settlements with the federal government. But given that those responsible for ruining (and, in many cases, ending) the lives of millions across the globe will never be held accountable, it's fair to say that the two are, at the very least, close cousins. This is especially true when you consider that what happened in Ayotzinapa is the result of decades of mind numbing corruption that has taken the lives of countless innocent people. 

Should we expect those truly responsible for the vast majority of these crimes to be held accountable? History—and the courts—tells us a resounding 'no.'

But there is hope. From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson to New York City, marginalized and oppressed communities across North America are demanding an end to impunity. There are marches and demonstrations in Mexico and all across the world at this very moment. Demonstrations honoring the missing normalistas have been organized in Denmark, South Africa, China and all over the United States. Calls for a complete overhaul of the system echo across the entire country. The Occupy movement might not be across headlines, but the global movement against the inequities of modern capitalism is still going strong. The days in which citizens trust and believe in the status quo are coming to an end. For thousands of us, there is no going back.

Will it take pitchforks and Molotov cocktails to get things straight? Hopefully not. But at this point, calls for a president to resign and for Wall Street to get its act together should be signs of relief.

Carlos Ballesteros CM '16 is a sociology major from Chicago, Ill.