Seizing on the anniversary of Mexico's 1910 revolution, demonstrators took to the streets in Mexico City and other parts of the country Thursday in one of the largest shows to date of public anger over government corruption and the probable massacre of 43 college students.
Youths, parents, teachers, intellectuals, entire families and thousands of people from many walks of life converged from three directions on the capital's enormous Zocalo, or central downtown plaza.
Many held candles aloft despite the chilling rain and waved pictures of the missing students, all from a rural college in the town of Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, dedicated to training the poor to become teachers -- itself a product of the revolution that Thursday's anniversary marked. They were last seen in the Guerrero city of Iguala on Sept. 26 being led away by police, who authorities say handed them over to drug gang members who killed them, incinerated their bodies and dumped the remains in a river.
The parents have not accepted that official version, however, and continue to demand that the students be found and justice served. Their rage and despair have galvanized a society already familiar with abuse and atrocity.
"Mexicans are ready to explode," Homero Aridjis, a prominent Mexican poet and social activist, said as he hurried to join the march down Reforma Boulevard. "Corruption has touched bottom, people are poor, suffering violence. They are fed up and desperate."
The Iguala tragedy exposed how rotten parts of the Mexican political system remain despite promises of democracy and reform. "People don't want violence," Aridjis said of the protests, "but they also say how can we change the government? This is a social crisis and a terrible crisis of power."
The mood was sad, defiant and angry, but the marches that reached and then filled the vast Zocalo, with the ceremonial National Palace on one flank, were largely peaceful. Some chanted to demand that President Enrique Peña Nieto resign; at another point, they counted from one to 43, then cried, "Justice!"
"I am here because I have children who are students and one day they could be No. 44," said Roberto Garcia Santibañez, a 54-year-old architect. "They are not going to silence us.... If they want to quiet us, we are millions that the government will have to confront."
"We are shouting really loud so that Peña Nieto can hear us," said Mario Reyes Contreras, a 54-year-old vendor accompanied by his wife and three children. "We demand he resign. We demand an end in the country to the thousands of dead and disappeared."
Medical student Alejandra Ramirez, 21, said she was marching to win better opportunities for youth, who are often locked out of the job market in Mexico's struggling economy, "so that the future not be one of repression like what happened" to the 43. "They were just looking for a better future," she said.
Earlier in the day, scattered clashes broke out near the Mexico City airport between riot police firing tear gas and masked protesters hurling firebombs. The protesters also set tires on fire to block roadways. Police had said they were determined to keep routes to the airport open after some groups pledged to surround it. The airport continued to operate normally, officials said, and 15 people were reported arrested.
Peña Nieto has taken a hard line on demonstrations that in recent weeks have sometimes dissolved into vandalism and the torching of government buildings. He said this week that “protests that at times do not have a clear objective” would seem aimed at “generating instability, generating social disorder.”
"There would seem to be some voices," he added, "who don't share this national project" of his administration, "who do not want the country to grow and want to halt its development."
On Thursday, the president sounded a similar theme during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the revolution in which he heaped praise on assembled military officers. Attacking Mexico's institutions, he said, was an attack on Mexicans.
The government canceled the customary Revolution Day parade in Mexico City, apparently to avoid the protest marches. Instead, the ceremony was held at a tightly secured military field.
Peña Nieto also said the military's "honorable" reputation could not be impugned by the actions of "a few elements," an allusion to soldiers' alleged execution in June of 22 gang members who had surrendered or were wounded. For months, the army gave a false account of what happened until journalists inspected the site and found witnesses who disputed the official version.
Sanchez is a special correspondent.