But one probably shouldn’t blame voters for not keeping track of these subtleties. That takes work, especially in one of the worst-educated countries in the Western hemisphere. However, this work is increasingly being done, thankfully, by millennials. Young Mexicans’ interest in their country’s political life—especially college-educated young Mexicans’—became manifest in the 2012 campaigns, most notably during Peña Nieto’s embarrassing visit to Universidad Iberoamericana. While visiting the campus he famously locked himself in a restroom in order to avoid the angered students who were trying to hold him accountable for the 2006 Atenco episode, in which several protesting peasants were murdered and sexually abused by the police under his rule as governor of the Estado de México. The Ibero incident was symbolic to the point of parody. In the shadows of the restroom, the establishment’s attitude was symbolized by Peña Nieto’s cowardice, by his stammering; outside, in the hallways and the street, the new generation’s attitude was symbolized by a rampage made up of people who had just recently turned old enough to legally have their say. This led the way for those of us who were politically coming of age at that point to realize the significance of standing up to the people responsible for our fellow Mexicans’ lives, especially if you had them (the responsible ones) right there. Though the cause was still abstract (few of us, in the capital at least, actually knew any victims of state violence), the thirst for basic moral principles’ being met was contagious, and student protests against the PRI arose nationwide. The experience of chanting in unison with people in the couple of marches I joined was ecstatic, not unlike that of a powerful concert. A friend made his way to AMLO’s headquarters and convinced them to let him accompany them to some rallies in his Aztec eagle warrior costume. All in all, the 2012 elections saw a 14 percent increase in young votes relative to 2006.
Over these six years, young people’s anger hasn’t stopped brewing. They’ve taken to the streets again and again. Late last year they demonstrated against Peña Nieto’s Ley de Seguridad Interior, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated “does not meet international human rights standards” because it allows armed forces to intervene in civil movements they might consider non-peaceful, thereby furthering the militarization that began with Calderón’s war on drugs. This is just the newest reason young people are not very happy with either the PAN or the PRI. Though AMLO has been the favorite of those between eighteen and 36 for the last two elections, the difference this time around, as Mexico’s leading pollster explains, is that traditionally PAN or PRI-supporting groups are unexpectedly turning towards him. But why?
AMLO’s promising prospects can’t be explained just by a sudden shift left among traditionally centrist or conservative voters—businessmen, hardcore Catholics and seniors like my grandmother—who would normally oppose such a radical candidate. It’s not that they’ve been given yet again reasons to vote for the left, and finally been persuaded. What it’s taken for these Mexicans to change their vote is not a reassessment of political parties’ policies or new arguments on their part but these people finally experiencing the consequences of the last twelve years of PRI and PAN governments. What it has taken, in other words, is their finally experiencing the shock of the horror perpetuated under these two administrations.
Don’t get me wrong—the entire twentieth century in the country has been a bloodbath. After the Revolution ended around 1920 and one of its winning leaders founded the PRI, the party that would hold office until 2000, Mexico joined the rest of Latin America in decades of state terror, which in its Mexican variety took the form of a PRI-led guerra sucia: enforced disappearances, secret prisons, ample torture and the like. Precisely because of Mexico’s stark class segregation, however, the fortunate ones barely noticed. Unlike other dictatorships in Latin America, the PRI’s war was targeted rather than generalized, so middle class Mexicans went through those years blissfully ignoring the extrajudicial repression of leftist, often agrarian, organizations all around them.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better in 2000, when the PRI lost the presidential election for the first time. But then the second president of the new party in office, the PAN, declared the infamous war on drugs in 2006 and deployed the army to the streets of the states where the cartels are based, mostly in the north. What used to be the turf of inter-cartel conflict then became the stage of human rights violations by the military against vulnerable populations such as drug users, sex workers and farmers who worked for the cartels because growing their own crops was significantly less profitable. Shootings also began occurring on the streets. (A friend of mine from Culiacán who’d grown up surrounded by cartel culture was scared by tanks in action down the road from his house around that time.) Violence, in short, became the focus of the national agenda. For the first time, it became impossible to unsee it. Whereas targets of state violence had been the subversive or otherwise problematic before, and those of the cartels had been their rivals, it was civilians in urban areas now who were dying at the hands of both cartels and the military. Still, during the 2006-12 term most of these deaths stayed within the confines of those particular states, and a few corners of the country, including Mexico City, were spared.