The physics of Ayotzinapa

Protest in Mexico City’s central square (Zócalo). Legend reads: “it was the state” (“Fue el estado”).

By Ignacio Gonzalez.

I am willing to concede that an outright denunciation of social injustice looks like an obvious misfit within this blog, however, I believe that the reader should equally grant that if the claim is properly woven with physical metaphors, then, the dissonance becomes considerably mitigated. Thus, I appeal to the reader’s tolerance to allow me this semantic transgression. I trust that if I get this through alright then perhaps by the end of it I will have gained a grain of the reader’s sympathy, but much more rewarding  than obtaining sympathy directed at the author, I hope that the reader might sympathize with the very motives underlying this topical deviation.

Then, let us get started by describing the putative “physical system” that I want to deal with in this delivery.

Defining the “Mexican system”.

Spatially, Mexico extends its territory over almost 2 million square kilometers (turning this nation into the 14th largest country in the world). The dynamics of Mexico’s physical area are of the rather static kind nowadays (although there is plenty of room for argument against this assumption) therefore, I would like to focus on a more challenging problem: the dynamical behavior exhibited by Mexico’s nearly 120 million inhabitants aptly denominated as “Mexicans”. From now on, I will refer to the group of all Mexicans by using the term “Mexican system”.

Recently, the Mexican system has been subjected to a disruptive and completely arbitrary stimulus of considerable magnitude. The disturbance has propagated rapidly throughout large parts of the system, which, in response has reacted by physically mobilizing hundreds of thousands of its component particles and propitiating ideologically-loaded verbal manifestations from millions more.

Some of the most relevant questions regarding the evolution of the system in the aftermath of this major perturbation are: will the magnitude of the emergent collective behavior so far displayed by the Mexicans continue to amplify as the time passes by? and if so, will the many reactionary waves come to a coherent state of constructive interference? Will the coherence last long enough for the reaction to gather enough momentum in order to drive the badly needed phase transition that the system needs?

Tough questions for a tough problem, perhaps we simply do not count with enough information to provide a positive or negative answer with a high degree of certainty, after all one must never forget that a good fraction of the variables that span the phase space of any social system have a remarkable talent to remain stubbornly hidden.

Ayotzinapa, the critical point?

To understand what Ayotzinapa is let us go back to the geographical space for only a moment. Ayotzinapa is a community enclaved within the mexican state of Guerrero (more internationally known for harboring the playa of Acapulco). According to the all-knowing Wikipedia Ayotzinapa was home to less than 100 people back in 2010.

Perhaps the main reason why this minuscule town occupies a discernible spot in the map it’s because it is home to the “Raul Isidro Burgos” rural Normal School where around 530 students aspired to become elementary school teachers. On the night of the last 26th of September that student body became suddenly and forcibly reduced by little less than 10 % when 43 students were abducted near the  city of Iguala (lying around 130 away from Ayotzinapa). This subtraction have sparked a massive turmoil within the Mexican system, not a minor feat for a system that is commonly labeled by many as intrinsically apathetic when confronted with similar happenings.

One cannot make sense of such an intense reaction when the event is framed only in the language of cold hard numbers. The tiny fraction of the Mexican population that these 43 of its members represent would be more economically expressed in scientific notation, but for marketing purposes I will express the figure in standard decimal scripture: the 43 missing students make up around the 0.0000003-th part of the whole Mexican system. Why is it then that the vanishing of such an infinitesimally small fraction has provoked such an over-reaching response? On the face of it, it seems like this phenomenon blatantly violates Newton’s third law of mechanics which states that a reaction over a system is entitled to cause a reaction from the system of equal intensity but with opposed direction (the “equal intensity” bit being the obviously transgressed part), could we instead be witnessing a sort of runaway “butterfly effect”? should we abandon classical approximations and jump into the framework used to describe complex dynamical systems in the verge of chaos in order to understand how this phenomenon came about? Perhaps that is not necessary, one task and one assumption might suffice to treat the problem at hand:

Task: To analyze the context around the subtraction. The inherent explosive nature of the event might be understood once its phenomenological details are inspected.

Assumption: To assume that the Mexican system is endowed with memory capabilities. As faulty as the data storing ability of the system has proven to be, a hope remains that the bits of information engraved on the collective Mexican mind might not be yet completely covered in rust so as to leave them illegible.

Why Ayotzinapa feels different.

The Mexican system oscillates along countless degrees of freedom. One of its dominant oscillations has been strictly periodical since 1934, I am referring to the presidential oscillation which completes a period every six years. The fabric that holds the system together has been degrading as successive periods come to pass. I will not pretend to be a historian, thus, I will not try to pinpoint an exact point in time marking the beginning of the structural decomposition of the authorities in charge to enforce the laws under which the Mexican system plays. Most likely the causes cannot be traced back to a single water-shedding event, however, it seems to me (and many more would agree with me up to a degree) that in the last three presidential periods the rottenness of the governmental institutions has leaked profusely and now it deeply pervades the whole of the Mexican system.

Let us focus on the number of agents forming the system. The subtraction rate ramped up during the period comprehended between December of 2006 to November 2012 when the infamous Felipe Calderon drove the system into a state of war (shockingly, this is not a figure of speech, Calderon did declare war against the drug dealers as soon as he took office. If this was ever intended as a metaphor then Mr. Calderon should know that you do do not metaphorically refer to intentions and deeds that you actually plan to carry on). The numbers vary depending on the source but by all accounts the subtraction operation performed over the Mexican system during this outrageous period was massive (over 100,000 deaths without counting other thousands labeled as “missing”). Both, Blood and pesos, were valid currency back then and one cannot safely say that the exchange rate among them has substantially subdued ever since.

When one takes a look at those numbers and contrasts them with the apparent calm with which the Mexicans seem to carry on with their lives, one might be forced to conclude that the Mexican system has developed a disturbingly robust resistance against such deadly perturbations. Or, could it be more likely that the bloodbath induced a phase transition in the system driving it into a state of stupor and indifference? was it a kind of spinodal transition where the system could have equally evolved towards a state of revolutionary uprising on the one hand, or, of fear-induced stasis into the other? Could the falling into the latter due to an almost imperceptible tweak on the initial conditions? if it is so, then, the question of why the Ayotzinapan case has demonstrated to be so outstandingly revulsive becomes as transcendental as ever.

A good part of the answer to this conundrum is neatly summarized in three proverbial words that the Mexican system has chosen as a banner for the movement: “fue el estado” (“it was the state”). The abduction, the subtraction, the kidnapping of the 43 students was performed by uniformed policemen who acted upon direct orders given by the mayor of Iguala himself (or should I say his wife? it seems that she is stealing the shameful limelight). This time, it was the undisguised state. This time there was no immediate “war” background to absorb the impact that the disappearance of 43 innocent citizens would have on an increasingly strained society. Actually, the circumstances that lead the 43 students to be transformed into victims is precisely the kind of trademark symptom of the social strain I just referred to. The students had set off to Iguala to either voice a protest against the educational reform implemented by the government (say some) or to prepare the logistics necessary for them to take part on the annual commemoration of the student massacre perpetrated by the state back in 1968 (in which case The Machiavellian irony surrounding the whole incident could not fail to be noticed).

In any case, one can easily peer into the kind of properties typically exhibited by the Mexican system that the state took into consideration before playing one more of its rapacious tactics on its own population: it could have been emboldened by its seamlessly all-forgiving nature, or fooled by its apparently incurable amnesia, or simply betting on its impossibility to wake up from the blood-induced trance of recent times… or a mixture of all the former properties plus many more that the author might be missing to list.

Well, even the most superficial evaluation of the aftermath tells an obvious truth: the reactivity of the Mexican system was seriously underestimated by the state.

The Mexican system as solid under strain.

Could it be that the ultimate physical metaphor to describe the evolution of the Mexican system’s behavior during the last decade is that of a deformable solid subjected to repetitive stress loads? Let us pose a series of propositions to confirm that the similitude between both systems can hold.

Proposition 1: A deformable solid can change its shape whenever a force large enough is applied onto it. 

Analogy: This would be equivalent to say that the Mexican system is able to change its behavior whenever it is confronted by a social stimulus of enough “strength”.

Example: If a certain place is deemed (either factually or only perceived) as dangerous or a certain time of the day as insecure for being on the street (this designation playing the role of social stimulus), then, the population would take notice and stop attending to the place in question or showing up in public at the signaled time (the pertinent behavioral change by the population). Both situations have been manifest in some parts of the Mexican territory, for instance, people withdrew themselves from Casinos after shooting incidents occurred at several such places. Similarly, as the violence wave engulfed large parts of the national territory, whole villages and cities were effectively turned into ghost towns as soon as the sun sank in the horizon.

Proposition 2: After a large enough strain has been applied to the solid a transition into the so-called plastic regime can occur, this is, the object is not able anymore to recover its former configuration even after the strain ceases to be applied (as it happens with elastic objects which can recover their shape after they have been strained). This quality endows the object with some kind of memory, its present shape keeps track or stores information about the deforming stimulus that has been applied to it.

Analogy:  It would be in extreme naive to suppose that a population can fully recover from a prolonged exposition to indiscriminate violence without even leaving a scar. The traumatizing effects of such an experience are seen and felt everywhere, individual habits can change permanently, doors that used to be left open now never go unlocked through the night. On a larger scale, the social strain imposed by cycles of violence can permanently deform the infrastructure of a city or the demographics of a nation, even if the violence eventually wanes the system is already irreversibly transfixed.

Example: Take the case of the “Barrio Antiguo” district in the northern city of Monterrey. A place that used to be buzzing with nightlife, full of bars and clubs, this quintessential meeting point essentially closed its doors after the violence reached its grounds. The busy nights that characterized the place will not come back. The Barrio Antiguo is currently being brought back to life but not by the re-opening of clubs but by the activity of newly established restaurants. Not an strictly bad turnover in itself, but, an irreversible and uncalled change of urban landscape. Much more dramatic is the draining of entire communities due to massive emigration to safer havens mainly across the north american border, or again in a stockade of irony, to the Mexico City megalopolis traditionally regarded as an epithet of insecurity by the majority of the Mexicans.

Proposition 3: Plastics break. Even the most ductile of the materials is doomed to fracture if the application of ever increasing stress loads does not wither away.

Analogy: Revolutions, overthrows, shunning of inept authorities or regulations, all of those are unequivocal manifestations that a society has been strained beyond its self-restoring capabilities, or simply, beyond its tolerance. There are several pathways that can channel a society to a breaking point, namely: flamboyant displays of corruption, stringent inequality policies. There are several directions along one can pull on a social system in order to fracture it, one of them can well be the incapability of national institutions to provide safety to its population. The rupturing process is ensured to accelerate if those same institutions are transformed from national protectors to criminal perpetrators, just as it happened to those constituting the Mexican state.

Example: Can the kidnapping of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa be the critical event that drives the Mexican system to break away from its governing class? To recover the control over its territory that has been lost to corruption and institutional degeneration? I do not know the answer to these questions but I hope with all my might that an affirmative one will satisfactorily answer both of them. If we are not at the critical point quite yet and if indeed the deformable object analogy is a good one, then, what we can do to quicken the fracturing process is to constantly refresh the memory of the system, do not withdraw the topic from the public tribune, keep on stressing.

A hope-loaded prediction.

The Mexican system is giving us encouraging signals, it is telling us that it does have a memory, that the magnitude of the abuses and atrocities to which it has been subjected has lead the system  to trespass its elastic limit long ago, that the social strain applied onto it has left perennial marks on its topology, that bit by bit, pull after pull, the Mexican system has been painfully escalating to higher and higher energy states and that maybe, only maybe, what happened in Iguala will provide the final kick that the system needs to jump over the energy barrier and complete its phase transition and never walk back through such a tortuous path.