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Mexico's Youth Uprising: How a Social Media-Powered Student Movement Upended the Presidential Election

Sick of repression and media bias, a growing student-led movement takes aim at the leading presidential candidate.
 
 
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Street graffiti supporting the Mexican student movement dubbed "#YoSoy132."
Photo Credit: Andrew Kennis

 
 
 
 

This story was originally published before Mexican election results were announced. Last night, July 1, election authorities announced that the Institutional Revolutionary Party's Enrique Peña Nieto won with 38 percent of the vote.

Mexico City -- On Sunday July 1, most of Mexico’s 79 million voters will go to the polls and cast votes for one of four leading presidential candidates. For the overwhelming majority of the campaign, the dashing and young Enrique Peña Nieto, who hailed from the party that ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 71 years, has led the race by wide margins, according to polls.

But on May 11, in an instant as quick as a smartphone-posted tweet, everything changed--and not only for Peña Nieto. Some argue that the emergence of a burgeoning and nationwide student-led social movement has changed the very future of Mexican democracy itself.

At first, everything went as planned. Peña Nieto had successfully negotiated a stage-managed appearance at the Iberoamericana, a prestigious university based in a well-to-do suburb of Mexico City.

“EPN [Peña Nieto] had turned down two prior invitations to come to the Ibero, due to concerns of student opposition and lack of control. Finally, the third time, he agreed to come when stage-managed conditions were set,” said an insider who works for the school administration and agreed to speak anonymously to AlterNet.

Questions were asked by pre-selected students and answered with ease, and Peña Nieto left the auditorium wearing his trademark smile.

But then hundreds upon hundreds of students started shouting at Peña Nieto, telling him, “Fuera, fuera, fuera!” (Get out!) Signs were unveiled pointing to Peña Nieto’s role as governor in authorizing repressive acts toward a movement hailing from Atenco, a farmer-based autonomous community located in the state over which he presided. (In Atenco, hundreds of protesters were arrested and beaten on the way to prison in May 2006, and over two dozen women filed official complaints about having been raped.) Other signs railed against a return to the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) rule.

Peña Nieto was clearly unnerved, as security agents and university officials formed a small circle to protect him against the protesting students. Eventually, Peña Nieto found his way off-campus through a back-door exit.

#Somos131

The event at Ibero University, which attracted national news media attention, would have likely been forgotten were it not for the effective utilization of social media by a handful of activists at Ibero.

The students who gave Peña Nieto the shout-down at Ibero were instantly attacked and one by one, the accusations were repeated by the Mexican TV news media duopoly: “They didn’t look like Ibero students,” “they're intolerant and anti-democratic,” “the authorities should investigate them” “they had to be paid protesters,” bellowed a variety of high-ranking functionaries of the PRI and its allied parties.

But the Ibero students fought back—successfully.

“We need at least 50, with less than that, we won’t do anything,” muttered Rodrigo, an Ibero journalism student, via a Facebook chat he held with his fellow students and activists, Ana and Oscar. It was already a day after the accusations had made the rounds on Mexico’s media airwaves, and the students knew time was of the essence.

Minutes later, Rodrigo read a blinking chat message on his screen: “We have 131.”

“Having” the 131 students meant that there was a legion of volunteers who uploaded testimonials proving that they were not paid protesters and were, in fact, authentic students at Ibero. They did so by making sure to include images of themselves along with their student credentials. Soon after, the Twitter hashtag #Somos131 was created. The students’ quick counter to the media attack on them spread like wildfire through social media. Overnight, the mainstream media myths were destroyed--much to the embarrassment of the media moguls.