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Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part II)

Étiennevon Bertrab10 February 2015

Just one week on

To understand the depth of the socio-political crisis in Mexico it might be illustrative to go through events that occurred since Part I was posted a week ago: a mayor in the State of Mexico authorised police to shoot those who protest against the dispossession of their communal water system; a newspaper editor in Matamoros was abducted, beaten and left with a death threat: “no more reporting on violence along the border”; and as if it was a horror film, 61 bodies were found in an abandoned crematory in the outskirts of Acapulco, a famous tourist destination in the State of Guerrero (where the disappearance of the 43 teacher training students took place four months ago).

No caption needed. Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

Much to the disappointment of those in power, what happens in Mexico can no longer be kept within the country’s borders. The prestigious Hay Festival, which would take place later this year in Xalapa, was cancelled after hundreds of Mexican writers and journalists signed a petition in protest. “We recognise that the killing of Moisés Sánchez, the 15th journalist to have been murdered or disappeared in Veracruz since 2010, has caused unbearable pain and rage” – reads the organisers’ official statement.

In Geneva – in the same week – the UN Committee of Enforced Disappearances (CED) identified ‘prominent discrepancy between words and deeds’ while for Amnesty International the hearings evidenced the failure of the Mexican State in its international responsibilities. Furthermore, The New York Times revealed over the weekend that amongst the secret buyers using shell companies to grab the most expensive real estate in New York is an ex-governor of Oaxaca and father of the current director of INFONAVIT – Mexico’s social housing agency.

Elections: opportunity or distraction?

While it is almost a consensus that the party system is rotten beyond repair, what to do during the elections is always a divisive issue: to back the least worst party or candidates, or to boycott the elections altogether? As a result of a recent political reform it will now be possible – for the first time in Mexican history – for citizens to be elected without affiliation to a political party. For many this is a double-edged sword, but there are glimpses of hope: Wikipolítica, a group of young student-activists, could give Jalisco its first independent legislator – without using any public resources but rather dozens of creative and enthusiastic volunteers.

Intentions of a long journey Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

Beyond these more localised opportunities there is an increasing recognition that our social contract has been broken: the Mexican Constitution of 1917 (often referred to as the most progressive of the early 20th century) has been subject to almost 500 reforms, mostly to facilitate capital accumulation in detriment of rights and communal and public ownership of natural resources.

A call for the formation of a constitutional assembly with the aim of refunding the State is gaining traction, reinvigorated by the very circumstances and by the vocal support of progressive and highly respectable public figures such as bishop Raúl Vera, the last prominent priest of the Theology of Liberation in Mexico, who since the Zapatista uprising has made his cause the voices of the poor. His mission: “to listen to everyone’s feelings and aspirations, particularly those of the poor and marginalised”. However, it is undoubtedly a long-term social and democratic endeavour that no living Mexican has ever experienced. For many, including myself, it might be the only way to avoid a violent revolution.

In this emotive video, Omar García, survivor of the attack, expresses how the case of Ayotzinapa has awaken millions throughout the country.

 

Part III on the role of journalism and new media, and on why it’s important to focus on the (non-urban) territory and those who defend it, will be published next week.

All images are courtesy of Colectivo Lapiztola, a street art collective that emerged in the suppressed social movement in Oaxaca in 2006. Part of their work is exhibited in Rich Mix, London, until 28 February.

Opening the wings. Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista

Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part I)

Étiennevon Bertrab2 February 2015

They want a different future, Yucatán. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

They want a different future, Yucatán. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Mexico is going through turbulent times and its future looks, if not pitch black, then highly uncertain and complex. This is a personal attempt to make sense of recent developments and to share some reflections on causes, implications, and sources of hope.

The recent wave of high-level corruption scandals and particularly the forced disappearance of the 43 rural students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, have been, for a majority of Mexicans, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Studies over the last few years had already shown a steady decline in levels of trust in State institutions; however, trust has reached an all time low and there are calls to ignore and boycott the mid-term elections this summer. Although most attention is placed on the machinery of corruption and impunity of PRI (the infamous political party that ruled Mexico for 70 years and came back to power in 2012), people are losing trust in all political parties.

Mexico has the worst political class in decades” concluded a recent panel on democracy and elections held at IBERO University. Internationally, only a year ago mainstream media made reference to ‘the time of Mexico’ and Time magazine portrayed president Peña Nieto as saviour. The Economist, which had praised his constitutional reforms – particularly the juicy energy reform that allows the privatisation of oil – has now referred to him as “a president who doesn’t get that he doesn’t get it”. For The New Yorker, the President himself is the clearest example of corruption in the country.

Protest street art, Guadalajara. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Protest street art, Guadalajara. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

But corruption and impunity have been there for a while and the distance between the political class and ordinary people has been widely perceived and commented upon. Why are so many Mexicans in the streets over and over again, shouting ‘enough is enough’ and getting engaged in the public sphere in ways never seen before? Behind the Ayotzinapa case are around 100,000 deaths and more than 23,000 disappearances since 2006 (according to official figures), plus 150,000 displaced people according to Freedom House. Unsurprisingly, those affected the most are the poor and the marginalised amongst Mexican society.

More than two decades of neoliberal restructuring and particularly the culture of capitalist cronyism built by those in power, have benefitted only a few while too many women and men continue to live in poverty. Not to mention indigenous groups who for centuries have been victims of oppression and dispossession (for most, little has changed since colonial times). Across the country over 7 million young people can’t find opportunities to study or work and thus are unable to imagine a future in their own country. Apart from the negative effects on human development the country is losing its ‘demographic bonus’.

‘Where those above destroy, below we flourish’. Image: Creative Commons

‘Where those above destroy, below we flourish’

There is simply too much suffering in so many families and communities, and too few provisions to deal with the repercussions of eight years of crude violence on top of the generalised sense of injustice. The situation of human rights in Mexico, according to Amnesty International, is now the worst in the American continent.

In the latest developments, while the federal government declared the official investigation on the 43 disappeared students ‘closed’ last week, a new journalistic investigation revealed that most of the government’s ‘evidence’ was obtained through torture. The federal government will surely defend its version (referred to as the ‘historical truth’ by the attorney general) with full force, and repression to protestors is likely to escalate. These practices should also not come as a surprise: according to Human Rights Watch, there have been over 9,000 complaints of abuse by the army since 2006.

For an audio account of the investigation that proved that the authorities at the national level were involved in the disappearances, you can listen to Steve Fisher, one of the authors of the original article in Proceso magazine, here. Channel 4 News has also produced an informative video entitled ‘Are Mexico’s disappeared students victims of drug war?’ – available on its website.

 

Part II, on hope, solidarity and opportunities for research that can make a difference will be published on the DPU blog next week.

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista