Mexican youth movement adding fuel to frenzy leading up to Sunday presidential vote
About a third of Mexico's 79.4 million registered voters are between 18-29
Unemployment rate of those 15-24 is nearly 10%, double the national average
Officials estimate that millions of young Mexicans, known as "ninis," neither study nor work
They sport purple hair and piercings, plaid shirts and plastic aviator glasses. A guy with dreadlocks totes a bongo drum.
Five weeks ago, they were scrambling to finish homework assignments and studying for exams at Mexico City’s Iberoamerican University. Before then, many of them had never met.
Now, the students huddle in a tight circle at a weekend protest, stack their hands in the middle and belt out a school cheer: Wolves, howling, on the path to truth. Ow-ooo. Ow-ooo. Ow-ooo.
They have become high-profile protagonists in a swelling youth movement that has drawn attention from the nation’s presidential candidates and added fuel to the political frenzy leading up to Sunday’s vote.
They protest by day and plan by night, using social media as a key weapon in their offensive.
A video they made has garnered more than 1.1 million views on YouTube. Three of four candidates squared off in an online presidential debate they helped organize. Thousands of youth across the country are wearing T-shirts and waving signs that support them.
“It’s like a storm, getting stronger,” says Luis Sosa, a 25-year-old graduate student who marched in Sunday’s protest in the nation’s capital. “It’s the first time in a long time that young people have raised their voice.”
Mexico’s ‘lost generation’
By the numbers, the picture for Mexico’s young people is bleak.
Analysts point to them as the most common casualties in a brutal drug war that has claimed more than 47,500 lives in fewer than six years.
And the unemployment rate of those aged 15 to 24 is nearly 10%, double the national figure.
“Being young, poor and living in the wrong place adds up to a death sentence,” academic Alberto Aziz wrote in a 2010 column for Mexico’s El Universal newspaper.
Officials estimate that millions of young Mexicans neither study nor work. They are known the ninis – Spanish for neither, nor. Some have called them Mexico’s “lost generation.”
“Many young people, when they finish middle school, they are left for years with no direction,” says Norma Escobar, strategy recruitment director at the Manpower employment agency in Mexico City.
The problem is so prevalent that government-sponsored youth addiction centers across the country offer brightly colored brochures for ninis alongside handouts that warn against smoking, alcohol and drugs.
“If they ask you, ‘do you work or do you study?’ and you cannot answer, this information is for you,” the brochure’s cover says.
“Between 7 and 9 million youth like you neither study nor work,” the brochure says, advising readers to try different activities like playing sports, volunteering or learning a language.
More than 100 government-sponsored Juvenile Integration Centers across the country have programs aimed at keeping ninis off the streets.
“Our goal is to keep them from falling into the world of drugs,” says Juan Ramiro Vazquez Torres, a regional coordinator based in Mexico City.
If they don’t, the consequences can be dire.
Last year, a judge sentenced a 14-year-old boy to three years in a correctional facility after he was found guilty of torturing and beheading at least four people while working for the South Pacific drug cartel.
Mexican youth are “the most affected not just by unemployment, but also by the lack of health care coverage, discrimination, violence and the fight against organized crime,” according to a study released in April by Metropolitan Autonomous University sociology professor Enrique Cuna Perez.
Those same factors discourage young people from believing in the country’s democracy, he says.
About a third of Mexico’s 79.4 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 29.
According to Cuna’s study, 75% of young Mexicans surveyed said they weren’t planning to vote in this year’s presidential elections.
‘Like trying to put out a fire with gasoline’
Young faces flash by in the video, one by one.
Bunk beds and pink wallpaper and photo collages appear behind them.
They say their names and hold their school IDs and repeat, “We are students from the Ibero.”
Days earlier, they booed and chanted “get out” when presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto visited the Iberoamerican University.
Officials from Peña Nieto’s campaign quickly dismissed the May 11 protest, saying the outbursts were not from students but from outsiders dragged there by political operatives to cause commotion. As he rushed out to a waiting car, the candidate told CNNMexico he did not believe that the protesters were genuine.
“That,” says 22-year-old communications student Federico Gomez, “was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.”
Three days later, the students fired back on social media, promoting a video on YouTube titled “131 students from the Ibero respond.”
The day the video went up, it became a trending topic on Twitter, says Rodrigo Serrano, one of the students who helped edit it. In 24 hours, it was viewed half a million times.
Students at other universities quickly showed their solidarity, posting links to the video on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #YoSoy132 (I am 132).
That small catchphrase became the name for something much larger. What started with 131 students at one school in Mexico City has expanded into a political movement that includes more than 100 universities throughout the country.
#YoSoy132 has committees and meetings, strategies and spokesmen.
Its activism moves fluidly from social media to the streets, with tens of thousands of students marching in numerous demonstrations in Mexico’s capital and throughout the nation.
Support for the movement extends beyond Mexico’s borders. A post on an Occupy Wall Street website last month called on supporters of the U.S.-based movement to “express solidarity with the Mexican Spring.”
Students from the Ibero say they hoped to draw attention to their cause but never expected the group to grow so large or so fast.
“I never thought I’d see something like this in my generation,” says Sosa, the grad student.
He notes there are parallels – but also significant differences – between the Mexican youth protests and the so-called Arab Spring demonstrations that toppled governments in the Middle East.