How Repression of Nonviolent Dissidents Backfired on Mexico’s “Imperial Couple”

In October, Mexicans protest the disappearance of 43 aspiring teachers. By Realidad Expuesta.

Guest post by Gina Lei Miller

In October, Mexicans protest the disappearance of 43 aspiring teachers. By Realidad Expuesta.
In October, Mexicans protest the disappearance of 43 aspiring teachers. By Realidad Expuesta.

On September 26, 2014, student protesters from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college were attacked by local police while traveling outside the southern Mexican city of Iguala.[1] Six people were killed and 43 students were taken into custody. One student’s mutilated body was found later, but the other activists have not been seen since the night of the attack and are presumed dead. A federal investigation into the disappearances revealed that the former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, authorized the attack and kidnappings to prevent the students’ supposed plans to stage a protest during political events honoring Pineda. The investigation revealed that Abarca and Pineda, dubbed by the media as the “Imperial Couple”, were closely connected with the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel and had worked with local police to have the students attacked, arrested, and turned over to cartel members.

News of the attack sparked large-scale protests throughout Mexico and around the world, with thousands of people mobilizing to express outrage over the political corruption and violence plaguing Mexico. While many demonstrations remained peaceful, others turned violent as angry protesters clashed with riot police. The domestic and international outrage following the attack prompted the arrest of numerous Iguala police and city officials with connections to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, including the Imperial Couple, who spent most of October on the run from federal authorities. Across Mexico, people continue to call for the country’s president and other top officials to resign, claiming that political leaders have not done enough to control corruption and may have known about the attacks in Iguala as they occurred.

Why did the Iguala attack backfire on the Imperial Couple and other political leaders when other instances of state violence against dissent in Mexico have met with popular silence?

The protests that erupted around this case of repression and the subsequent political consequences illustrate why scholars must think about violent and nonviolent dissent differently when explaining or predicting repression. In my dissertation, I argue that theories of repression should distinguish between violent and nonviolent dissent, as each type involves distinct tactics and participants that threaten political power and shape the potential consequences of repression in different ways.  Because nonviolent dissidents use peaceful tactics and are more representative of the wider population than violent dissidents, domestic audiences are more likely to sympathize with these groups and sanction leaders who repress them.[2]  Strategic leaders anticipate that repression is more likely to backfire when used against nonviolent opponents and will weigh the benefits of repression against the costs they could incur if repression backfires.

In the case of the Iguala attack, if the protesters planned to use violent tactics (say they were found with bomb-making materials or a weapons cache), local officials could justify the attack as an attempt to protect citizens and officials from the radical activists. But the protesters were young students with no apparent plans for violence, and they were unarmed when the police opened fire. While observers may believe the former use of violence to be within the authority of the state, the latter is a violation of agreed-upon limits of state force.[3]

What’s more, the participants involved in the protest activity could have been anyone’s sons or brothers. These students were training to be teachers in poor, rural areas of Mexico, and many were working to escape their own impoverished backgrounds—backgrounds shared by many across Mexico. According to an article in The New Yorker, the protests in Iguala were many of the students’ first “activity fight”, a regular tradition among students at the left-wing school. The general public was incensed by the brutal treatment of student activists who posed no violent threat and were representative of many idealistic young students.

Pineda allegedly instructed the police to attack the protesters in order to “teach them a lesson” for planning to interrupt celebrations honoring her community service and announcing her mayoral run, but for most Mexican citizens, this punishment did not fit the (uncommitted) crime. This attack was troubling for ordinary citizens—if peaceful students can be so arbitrarily killed by the state, can the same thing not happen to any Mexican? This sense of injustice and ongoing frustration with political corruption motivated ordinary citizens to mobilize against the current regime.

If leaders should expect that the public will disagree with the use of repression against nonviolent dissidents, why did Pineda order the attack? She and her husband had gotten away with similar brutality in the past, and this likely caused her to underestimate the possible consequences for such callous action. According to The Daily Beast, Abarca allegedly assisted in the execution of several protesters who verbally attacked him during a public forum in May 2013, and Mexican officials claimed that he was constitutionally protected from criminal charges and didn’t pursue the case further. Despite national media attention on Abarca’s possible involvement, the public response was muted in comparison to the events of September 26. Abarca and his henchmen strategically placed signs on the bodies of the men killed in 2013, implying that the homicides were drug related. Locals who were aware of his involvement and knew the killings were not drug related kept silent out of fear. Pineda likely believed that the slayings in Iguala would go unnoticed as they had the year before or that she had enough political support to weather any consequences if word of the attack spread.

If Pineda had accurately predicted the political and legal consequences following the attack, she certainly would have done things differently. She had to know that the general public would be outraged by her actions if they learned of the attack—the students were peaceful and could have been anyone’s sons, brothers, or husbands. So she either believed that the attack would go unreported or that those audiences who learned of it wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything to sanction her. This miscalculation cost her—and many other Mexican authorities—severely.

What lessons can be drawn from the Iguala tragedy? The public response to the attack demonstrates three key points of interest to scholars of repression and dissent. First, the public represents a powerful actor that can affect conflict outcomes. A growing number of studies model dissent and repression as a three-actor game that considers the public as an important player, and future scholarship should not overlook the critical role played by domestic audiences.

Second, not all dissent is created equal, and scholars should develop theories that account for the different consequences of repressing violent and nonviolent dissent. The public outrage following the Iguala attack suggests that the public may be less willing to tolerate repression of nonviolent dissent, and we can expect strategic leaders to consider the possibility that repression will backfire.

Finally, if leaders fear repression will backfire and create a worse situation than if nothing had been done, then we should expect them not to repress. The threat of repression backfiring and producing undesirable consequences can serve as an effective constraint against the use of repression, but as the Iguala tragedy highlights, not all leaders believe repression will backfire. My dissertation research examines how certain domestic institutions can increase the likelihood that repression will backfire and allow leaders to more accurately estimate the potential consequences of repressing nonviolent dissent. While the Imperial Couple does not appear to have worried that repression of nonviolent protesters would backfire and cost them so severely, their contemporaries in power will most likely take note of their downfall at the hands of an angry public.

[1] I am grateful to Emily H. Ritter for her feedback on drafts of this post. Any errors are my own.

[2] Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[3] Weingast, B. R. (1997). The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law. American Political Science Review, 91(2), 245-263.

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