Instability and uncertainty follow killing of students

The disappearance – and subsequent killing – of dozens of students in Iguala last September has sparked such uproar within the country that it not only threatens the stability of the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto but it also threatens the rule of law throughout the states where drug-related violence is rampant and questions the legacy and legitimacy of many actors and institutions.

The events that surround the killing of students from a teachers college are yet to be fully explained and details vary depending on the source and the intent of those who seek to explain it.

Regardless, these students were protesting against what they said were discriminatory teaching hiring practices and they went missing after clashes with police. The killing fundamentally shakes the pillars of trust between individuals and institutions and highlights lack of accountability in the lines of command.

Student protests in Latin America

Throughout Latin America, student activism has been one of the pillars of social movements and has been a catalyst in attaining reforms in many areas of social and economic activity. In 1918, there were a series of student protests in Cordoba, Argentina, which resulted in what has been called the university revolution, and these protests spread across the region.

The prevailing concept or idea of the university and institutional autonomy in Latin America is an outcome of the Cordoba uprising. In the case of Iguala or anywhere in the world, whether it is in Argentina, Chile, Hong Kong or Thailand, student protests often start with the principle of seeking improvements to the nature of education, but can take on a life of their own, sometimes beyond the realm of student-related issues.

Moreover, past events show that student activism seems to continue along the cycle of political instability unless the causes for it are addressed. Invariably the effects of student protests are to be felt for many, many years, if not generations, afterwards.

For example, in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, Mexican authorities killed a number of students who were protesting against unpopular actions by the federal government. As a consequence, Mexican society became further polarised and this was followed by a political implosion which hindered social and economic growth for some time.

Student protests more often than not make headlines in the news. Images of the protagonists – whether student leaders or persons in authority – are published while they are newsworthy but as times goes by the imagery of the protests disappears after the news cycle moves on.

Often what remains unreported is the legacy of the protesters and the lingering effects for the relatives of the missing. Relatives are left on their own to deal with the uncertainty and turmoil of what happened to their loved ones.

There are many unforeseeable effects that may linger for years after these traumatic events, and yet expectations are that surviving relatives will lead a normal life. There are no formal structures that provide ongoing support to counsel surviving relatives or monitor their social, emotional and even economic well-being.

Yet supporting the well-being of the surviving relatives of victims of conflict should be paramount in making amends and aiding their reintegration with the rest of society and this may rest with independent or autonomous support agencies. Bringing justice through legal means and providing a process by which reconciliation can occur can also be positive steps towards healing.

Often the culprits of atrocities remain at large or are unaccountable for their actions, whether it is because of impunity, uncertainty, lack of the proper legal instruments to hand, or simply an unwillingness to pursue matters further.

It is troubling that this lack of accountability is still happening in the contemporary world and it only serves to erode trust in the set of institutions and the legal framework which underpin democratic values. Applying the rule of law in these circumstances would be beneficial to prevent further abuses and to support the recovery of families.


Latin America as a region has been undergoing an important transformation for some decades. Events such as those in Iguala have the potential to bring instability to the road of sustained development in Mexico and even in neighbouring countries.

Gone are the days of political turmoil and civil unrest which brought considerable instability and delayed economic development in Latin America. However, there are many reminders in the region of the legacy of conflict and these should form the basis for seeking better ways to deal with discontent, civil unrest or social uprising.

Mexico has a long democratic tradition and has played a pivotal role in the development of the Americas, but Mexico – like most Latin American countries – still confronts a number of different challenges, many resulting from colonial times and uneven development.

How authorities seek to respond to these challenges could set the path for reconciliation, an important step in the process of bringing about lasting change and national cohesion.

Around the world, there are many countries that are yet to overcome the hurdles of conflict. Building the required trust in institutions is important for the longevity of these institutions and for upholding the values and aspirations of the people they seek to represent.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor in the planning and research consultancy at RMIT University, Australia.