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JUST when things seemed to be going well for the 2-year-old administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, president of Mexico, political tremors began shaking his country in a manner not seen in decades. What is going on, and why should we care?

In Washington state, we stand to gain from knowing what is going on down south because our destinies are connected. For example, in 2013, Mexico was the state’s fifth-largest foreign market, with merchandise exports valued at $3.2 billion. Thousands of our jobs depend on those exports. Many thousands of Washington travelers also depend on Mexico’s climate, culture, scenery and history for their rest and recreation. And some 600,000 residents have relatives there, as I do.

As a family friend recently said to me, “I want to understand what’s going on down there because my grandparents want to go visit — and they’re afraid.”

So are many of us.

Rumblings of unrest were reported vividly in the news media beginning in late September over the disappearance of 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Spanish-language TV informed its viewers on these social tremors on a daily basis, the direst images were broadcast around Nov. 20, a national holiday, when thousands of protesters raised their voices in Mexico City’s central plaza, calling for Peña Nieto’s resignation. Large groups of hooded “anarchists” firebombed the giant wooden doors of the presidential palace, Mexico’s iconic seat of power since the early 1500s.

If there’s a focal point in all this ferment, it’s the accusation on the part of activists that the government as a whole is guilty of yet another crime — a very big one this time. This assertion has forced everyone to recall other times when young protesters also disappeared and the rulers merely shrugged. The protesters are thus touching a sensitive chord in the national psyche, further propelling the rumblings.

The epicenter of these tremors is traced to an often forgotten and troubled corner of the country: Guerrero. It is one of the most mountainous and poorest states in the country, well known because it embraces a population that still retains its Indian roots, ruled for generations by traditionally minded non-Indian patriarchs.

The 43 youths, who suddenly disappeared Sept. 26 and have not been found to this day, were students at Ayotzinapa, a threadbare rural teacher’s school. They had traveled to the nearby city of Iguala to protest — on behalf of their institute — education policies by the Mexican government. In so doing they commandeered some school buses, a practice that is not unusual in Mexican politics.

Hidden forces were triggered with the seizure of the buses: It seems the students were not in good graces with José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, who was hand-picked for that post by leaders of his party, the PRD (Party of Democratic Revolution).

The students were probably aware of the rumors concerning the mayor’s underhanded actions — even criminal ones, according to some reports, including links with a local drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos. The traffickers reportedly received large monetary payoffs, the nation’s attorney general claimed, on a “regular” basis to suborn local police forces. In other words, the drug mafia acted as one with the Iguala police, and the mayor’s wife, María de los Angeles Pineda, who enjoyed a high social profile locally along with her husband. She was giving a speech nearby and the students were thought to be planning to demonstrate against her and bring attention to their own plight as well.

When Iguala police officers learned of the student’s intentions, they informed their cartel associates. With the alleged knowledge of the mayor, the drug traffickers, hand in hand with the local police, purportedly ordered and carried out the sequestering of the buses filled with the students, and then killed and incinerated them. Neither the students nor their remains have been positively located to this day, according to the nation’s attorney general, who also made public the discovery of other previously unknown common graves nearby.

These despicable acts explain the political tremors shaking the country. The Mexican people are indignant, especially the young. To calm things down, Peña Nieto announced far-reaching reforms that would enable the federal government to straighten out future anomalies in Mexico’s far-flung communities, but people are deeply suspicious, as they should be.

This incredible turn of events is a cruel reminder of the fateful massacre of students by Mexican soldiers in Mexico City in 1968. Today, with these crystal-clear examples of political and criminal collusion at hand, the three layers of government (federal, state and municipal) are being accused all at once of corruptive betrayal. Many people are saying, “The government has betrayed us.” This is a serious charge because it weakens national trust.

Let us hope the Mexican people can altogether begin to resolve this corrosive situation that puts us all at risk.