Mexican protests get world’s attention, but will they bring lasting change?

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

On the two-year anniversary of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s having taken office on Dec. 1, thousands of protesters congregated in the center of Mexico City to demand information about 43 teachers’ college student from the state of Guerrero who went missing in late September and to voice their frustration with the country’s ongoing crime, corruption and violence problems.

Although the protest featured groups of students, well-dressed men and women and young people carrying signs, when protesters approached the wide palm-tree lined boulevard called Reforma (“Reform”) near the landmark Angel of Independence statue, a few young men wearing masks smashed the windows of several banks and spray painted a paradoxical mix of messages: “No More Death,” “Socialism or Death,” and “Death to the Police.”

As most of the protesters walked away, a small group of masked individuals charged down Reforma, lit torches and started smashing windows as patrons in business attire at upscale restaurants on the second and third floors watched. A separate group of protesters called the vandals idiots and chanted, “No violence!”

Shortly after masked men lit a fire in front of the ultra-modern Reforma 222 shopping center and smashed the windows of another bank, more than a thousand police officers in riot gear in two separate columns blocked off the front and back of the procession.

“They’re closing us in!” a man yelled as he ran away. More columns of officers carrying shields arrived, forming a tight barrier around the protest.

Police outnumbered protesters by at least five to one. A woman on a bicycle stopped to shout at the expressionless officers, “they have the right to protest! This is repression!”

After a few tense minutes, the police allowed the protest to continue but accompanied it with lines of officers who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of banks, hotels and stores on the sides of the avenue.

Protests like that of Dec. 1 show that the discourse in Mexico has turned sharply away from Peña Nieto’s highly promoted reform agenda, and back toward the issues of crime, corruption and security.

The demonstrations are a policy Catch-22. If police allow the destruction of property, the government will look like it has lost control and is unable to protect businesses and investors – a nightmare for an economics-driven technocrat like Peña Nieto.

If the police intervene, however, the government will be accused of repression. As 2014 comes to a close, the president is still figuring out how to respond to the protests, which are well into their third month.

The demonstrators, for their part, have yet to coalesce around any specific policy goal, apart from demanding Peña Nieto’s resignation. The protests are in flux, and it remains unclear what lasting impact, if any, the marches will have.

The Mexico City-based political analyst Genaro Lozano, who marched along with the protesters on Dec. 1, estimates that around 30,000 people joined the march.

“They were students mainly,” he told Fox News Latino, “but also parents, mothers and fathers with children in strollers and people, farmers, holding up communist signs. There was only one group of anarchists. They started smashing windows and setting off Molotov cocktails.”

The local news coverage has focused on the damage caused by the “anarchists,” and peaceful protesters have found their voices drowned out in the din.

“The media doesn’t show the peaceful people marching, [and] one of the things I’m worried about is that the movement isn’t broadening its agenda. They ask for the students to be returned alive, and they ask for the removal of Peña Nieto,” Lozano said.

As the weeks pass with no sign of the 43 missing students, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that they will ever be seen  alive. There is also little chance that Peña Nieto will resign—his polemical predecessors such as Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, and Felipe Calderón all served their full terms in office despite scandals of varying stripes and degrees.

And now the country starts its month-long celebration of Christmas, taking even more steam out of the protests.

On Dec. 1, Peña Nieto made a public appearance in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state. “We’re not satisfied with what we’ve achieved,” he said. “We have to persevere to make sure that the benefits of these reforms happen and benefit Mexican families.”

His top priority will now undoubtedly be to try to win back the approval of the public, at least a little bit, by kick-starting economic growth.

Peña Nieto was elected with the promise that under his leadership, “You’ll earn more.” But last year Mexico’s economy grew at an anemic 1.1 percent.

The country isn’t expected to fare much better in 2014.

Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council, a non-partisan Washington-based think tank, told FNL that although Peña Nieto’s economic reforms in areas like energy and telecommunications “were critical to addressing longstanding structural issues, it's hard for average Mexicans when the benefits are a few years away. Peña Nieto has attacked many of the issues that have bedeviled his predecessors. The challenge is that the majority of the benefits are not going to be seen immediately."

The continuing protests, however, have put the focus—both at home and abroad—on the one issue that Peña Nieto has studiously worked to avoid: crime.

Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., told FNL, "So far the government has focused on economic reforms. There hasn't been much progress on justice reform."

On November 27 Peña Nieto announced a ten-point plan to improve security in problematic parts of Mexico. His proposals have not received an enthusiastic response.

But no politicians or civil society groups are emerging with alternative proposals.

The Mexico City political scientist José Merino, told FNL, “There are many people marching for different reasons, but what the specific agenda [of the movement] will be is still very unclear.”

The student leaders involved in organizing the protests are entering their exam period, but Merino is confident that the movement will not die out.

“I do think it’s going to continue,” he said.

The night of Dec. 1, underneath a dimly-lit Mexican flag and a dark night sky, the police cordon on Reforma lifted, and the remaining protesters chanted “Justice!” at the officers. Behind the rear guard of the policemen, three skinny teens carried a massive banner. “Out With Peña Nieto,” it read.

As large and raucous as the protest was, by mid-day on Dec. 2, the broken glass had been swept away from in front of the Reforma 222 shopping center, and throngs of well-dressed professionals were throwing themselves into the Christmas shopping season.