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The knot at the end of the rope: Violence, hope, and transformation in El Salvador and Mexico

ArianaMarkowitz11 December 2018

I spent an afternoon in August with a group of young men in a skate park on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador. The park was part of a larger recreational complex and more people drifted in as the hours passed. The day was stifling and even if shade in the park was limited, at least sometimes there was a breeze in the air, unlike inside the low-income housing blocks that ringed the park and the shacks that climbed up the surrounding streets, splintering into a labyrinth of dead-end alleys.

The young men in the skate park told me story after story about police and gang brutality. At one point I asked them to draw a picture of a place or a situation in which they felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious and another place or situation where they felt the opposite. One person stared at a blank piece of paper for 10 minutes, unable to think of any time or place where he had ever felt safe. Another drew an imaginary safe place where there were no abuses of power, people interacted as equals, homes were dignified, and greenery was abundant. After leaving the park later that day, a taxi driver told me about almost joining a gang some 15 years earlier, but changing his mind at the last minute based on the somber regrets of someone who had decided to go through with it. Later that night on my way home, I saw a body on the street. No one stopped and when I slowed down to get a closer look, my car was almost hit from behind.

A drawing produced by one of the young men in the skate park. In his words, “What makes me feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious is the police, corruption, murders, and interpersonal violence.”

This situation is part of what is driving Central Americans, especially from the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, to flee, seeking a better life or, in some cases, a life at all in the United States. More and more the migrants and displaced people are traveling in mass because most of their journey is through Mexico and the Mexican state has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to protect asylum seekers’ human rights, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic people and cartel violence while they travel, often with babies and children in tow. The poor treatment of migrants and displaced people is an extension of the Mexican state’s similar unwillingness or inability to protect Mexican citizens’ human rights. Nearly 250,000 Mexicans have been killed in the last 10 years and there are more disappearances now in Mexico than there were under the dictatorships in South America, including the still unresolved case of 43 students disappearing in 2014, apparently at the hands of state security agents with assistance from organized criminal groups under the protection of military forces. Just like I saw in El Salvador, poverty in Mexico is both a driver and a result of violence, and decades of repeated abuses have corroded Mexicans’ confidence in each other and in their government. Several years ago when I was documenting police reform in Mexico, I was struck by how government insiders and partners recalled processes that were difficult but ultimately successful while outsiders saw failures and suspected conspiracies.

Amidst so much darkness, DPU’s Étienne von Bertrab has opted to look for light. A few years ago he began developing what is now Albora, an initiative that traces Mexico’s “geographies of hope” through identifying, studying, documenting, and showcasing transformative projects throughout the country. Spotlighting this work demonstrates the that there are other ways to develop, progress, and grow, ones in which no one mistakes violence for a solution, where access to water and other natural resources is universal, where citizens are informed and engaged, and where everyone strives for the greater good.

Luis Domínguez, an engineer working for Agua para Siempre, has dedicated decades of his life to assisting communities fight soil erosion and restore river basins in the impoverished Mixteca region.

One such project is Agua para Siempre (‘water forever’), established 30 years ago by a then young couple, who decided that they would defend and support their poorest compatriots. They landed in the Sierra Mixteca in the Mexican state of Puebla, an arid and fast-eroding area that had been and continued to be hollowed out because of migration to large Mexican cities and the United States. With time, the couple understood that access to water was fundamental to addressing poverty and migration, so they began to study pre-Hispanic methods for soil retention and cultivation and advocate for their re-adoption in surrounding communities. Today, their organization, Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social, AC (‘alternatives and social participation processes’), has 300 people and thousands of local partners who are seeing the fruits of their sustained efforts. Communities are beginning to have access to water all year for small-scale cultivation, animal husbandry, and human consumption, and hundreds of small cooperatives have begun to produce amaranth, a pre-Columbian pseudo-grain that, like quinoa, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Reversing previous trends, migration is falling, as is child malnutrition, thanks to the inclusion of amaranth in local diets.

The search for transformative initiatives also brought the Albora team, which includes five DPU alumni, to Mexico City where a Mexican historian and novelist, his family, and a dozen others have formed the Brigada para Leer en Libertad (‘brigade to read in freedom’). The brigade has cultivated new readers through facilitating horizontal and informal access to authors, expanding the availability of books, and creating free places to read. So far, they have gifted or sold more than a million books at an affordable price to girls, boys, women, and men in a country where the high price of books makes bookstores elitist and inaccessible and public libraries are few. To that end, the brigade also establishes libraries, with a recent campaign resulting in the donation of nearly 70,000 books. These books have become the basis for carefully curated collections in formerly empty libraries in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The brigade promotes reading for pleasure but also as a political act—an essential step towards the full exercise of conscious citizenship.

Free public gatherings are central to the Brigada’s book fairs in which women, men and children engage in dialogues with authors about their work and about the Mexican political conjuncture and ways out of the crises.

These projects and others are harnessing the power of hope to fuel alternative visions of their society. They demonstrate the fundamental importance of restoring and cultivating hope, necessary for active citizenship, and united, powerful communities, not just in Mexico or El Salvador but everywhere where injustice and inequality construct blocks for us to stumble over. The projects challenge us to look beyond our cynicism and apathy.

Before I left the skate park in August, one young man told me that he was glad I had come. “Most people don’t come looking for us, and the people who do don’t listen to what we have to say,” he said. “I hope you’ve been able to hear us and that the stories of our lives help you do your work.”

To learn more about Albora and contribute to its crowdfunding campaign, active until Tuesday, 18 December and only funded if it reaches 100% of its goal, go here.

Ariana Markowitz is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining characteristics of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.

From theory to practice: Real life social policy for development

MariaHuerta Urias19 February 2016

When I was undergoing my masters degree in Social Development Practice at the DPU, I was consistently amazed by the insight that development gurus provided when discussing and critiquing the design of public policy for development. As a student, reading about government policy was comfortable because you could deconstruct, isolate variables and analyze government performance by focusing on issues regarding diversity, identity, and the importance of planned intervention. We usually come to the easy conclusion that it is (sometimes) inefficient, separated from the reality of those in poverty, swamped with bureaucratic nonsense and overall unable to perform correctly. However, we usually look at this from a distance and perhaps we lack insight into how public policy is designed and the complexities of its execution.

 

In January I joined the national Ministry for Social Development in Mexico City, as a senior advisor for the under secretary. This is by far the most challenging professional opportunity I´ve had and is one that requires lots of work, dedication and most importantly, patience. Why? Because there are many things to be considered before any work is actually done. It’s attempting to reach the most people in poverty, with the most cost-efficient programmes, whilst balancing a complex political agenda….AND at the same time, attempting to put into practice all the knowledge gained from other development experiences and from my brand new masters award. It sounds tricky right? Well, it is.

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So far, this is what I have learned.

Lesson one: In Mexico, public social policy is understood as the norms, institutions, programs and resources that are designed to improve livelihoods. It is meant to be a tool for the promotion and protection of basic social rights, but in reality it translates into each government undertaking a set of compromises that match the current political agenda.

There is a long-term national development effort that can be traced all the way back to the 1910 Revolution and to the recognition of social rights in the Constitution of 1917. For years, the social agenda has been woven into the very fabric of government institutions in this country, but it is constantly changing, shifting priorities and strategies depending on the political arrangement. The implications of this are that once a particular government ends, a new administration starts all over again. New priorities, new strategies. There is no continuity in this “long-term development effort” except for a few successful exceptions which are worth mentioning on a different entry.

Lesson two; “Cost-efficient and viable programmes that reach the most people living under the poverty line”… Cost-effective is not a sexy concept in the world of social development. We analyze and deconstruct loads of other more profound concepts, like power dynamics or citizenship. In practice however, while all of these profound concepts are essential, cost-efficiency becomes a priority to public policy. I learned this recently when I had to define with a group of experts where to open 200 community dinners for women and children that lack access to nutritious food. So I work for hours putting together all the social variables that ought to be considered, from the figure of mothers as caregivers and how that ought to change and include other roles, to the complexity of food chains and power relations. I sit down to discuss this strategy and the main issue is, where can we reach the most people with the most cost-effective operation. No need to say more.

Lesson three; in a public institution, everything is urgent, it needs to be done as soon as possible. So when cost-effectiveness meets viability, then that´s it. The policy gets designed and it operates under those two principles. More profound, long term considerations are harder to incorporate, not because they are considered less important, but because there is a utilitarian formula at place. Reach the most people, other aspects will eventually be introduced. I learned this whilst performing an evaluation of a Woman’s Centre in one of the poorest areas in the country. I had exactly 4 hours to conduct an evaluation of the social impact of this place and report back. My evaluation would determine important things at a higher level. 4 hours. Is it cost-effective, is it reaching the targeted population, is it viable to keep? Of course I had a file with a vast number of considerations that I learned in the Practice module of my Masters degree, but only got to use very few of them.

Lesson four; however difficult it its to incorporate the knowledge from my previous experiences and from my master degree, I recognise the privileged position I´m in. To work in these issues is to be able to impact thousands of people who live in the most poverty stricken areas in the country. What a great responsibility right? So this is why I started my entry by saying patience is the most important lesson. By having patience I will hopefully learn how to play this game, how to match the political agenda with the life agenda of those we work with, not for. How to match what is cost-effective with what is profound and sustainable. Of course, having been in this job for less than two months, any ideas and suggestions on how to do this would be greatly appreciated!

What can alternative technologies contribute to sustainable development?

JorgeOrtiz Moreno6 August 2015

A few weeks ago the NGO Shelter Global announced the winners of its first annual “Dencity Competition”, focused on fostering new ideas on how to better handle the growing density of unplanned settlements while spreading awareness about this global issue.

The first-placed project, Urukundu: Slum Factory consists of the creation of a small community-managed construction materials factory for the physical improvement of an informal neighbourhood that is now being partially demolished and replaced by high-priced private housing. All in the name of “enhancing” the city image of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

Among the main features of the project is its use of local materials, local technologies and local construction systems like rainwater harvesting, clay filters for water purification and biogas micro-production systems (biodigesters) in order to stimulate the future sustainable growth of the neighbourhood.

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Out of 300 entries from 50 different countries that sought to “rethink life in slums”, the winner represents a great example of how design can sustainably empower communities. However, what I want to point out here is the relevance of alternative technology to improving living conditions in informal settlements.

Evidence from many regions of the Global South is showing that more and more successful initiatives are including the implementation of decentralized, locally-managed and sometimes labour-intensive technologies for infrastructure improvement and socioeconomic development.

As well as the “Appropriate Technology” movement, popularized in 1973 by Ernst Friedrich Schumacher through his influential book “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”, Urukundu: Slum Factory is characterized by a strong “people-centred” approach.

Urukundu: Slum Factory board

Urukundu: Slum Factory board

Many different conceptualizations have arisen around the alternative technology movement during the last 50 years. Recently, for example, the concept of “grassroots innovations” has been proposed for technologies that come from processes of innovation that are inclusive of local communities, in terms of the knowledge, processes and outcomes involved.

There are strong research groups in the UK at Sussex University and University of East Anglia that are exploring the role of “grassroots innovations” on sustainability and social justice issues.

Melissa Leach and her colleagues from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex suggest that ambitious Sustainable Development Goals are now required along with a major transformation in modes of innovation to meet them. In an article published in the Ecology and Society journal in 2012 they suggest the Appropriate Technology Demonstration and Training Centre (CEDECAP, is its acronym in Spanish) as an example of such “transformative innovation”.

Rainwater harvesting system and their users, Mexico

Rainwater harvesting system and their users, Mexico

This organization works with local communities in rural Peru to identify their priority uses for electricity and then to develop energy schemes that those communities control, run, and benefit from. Furthermore, CEDECAP develops, trains, and pilots alternative forms of renewable energy distribution, focusing on low-cost technologies with low environmental impact, and fostering local research and capacity.

In Mexico, accompanied by a group of researchers, students and consultants from the Institute of Research on Ecosystems and Sustainability of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) I have been studying and working on another alternative technology approach called “ecotechnology.”

This refers to technologies that promote a positive relationship between their users and the environment, and are linked to a specific socio-ecological context. In our recent book “Ecotechnology in Mexico”, we describe several initiatives that have been providing small-scale ecological alternatives to meet basic human needs such as sanitation, water, energy, housing and nourishment in rural and urban areas.

Woman cooking with an improved cookstove of Patsari Project, Mexico

Woman cooking with an improved cookstove of Patsari Project, Mexico

From experienced NGOs to recently launched social entrepreneurship initiatives, there are a wide range of actors that are innovating in order to to reach the poor and meet the needs that neither the private sector nor the governments have been able to.

Some examples of this are the Patsari Project, a participatory and multi-institutional initiative that promotes a sustainable model of firewood consumption by distributing improved cook-stoves in rural areas, and the Isla Urbana Project, which aims to provide sustainable access to water by implementing low cost rainwater harvesting systems in the peri-urban interface of Mexico City and other isolated localities of the country.

As it is illustrated by the examples given, alternative technologies are playing an important role on development and they should be kept in mind as a vehicle for community empowerment and sustainability in the Global South. A better integration of the research done is needed and, of course, more attention on the issue is fundamental.


Jorge Ortiz Moreno is an independent consultant with experience in grassroots innovations, clean technologies and peri-urban dynamics. Nowadays he coordinates a program about “Clean technologies and sustainable development” at the Eco-technology Unit of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). He graduated from the DPU’s Urban Development Planning MSc programme in 2014.
Although most of his work has been done in Mexico, Jorge has participated in research projects about housing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Olympic Legacy in London, UK, and urban infrastructure in Medellin, Colombia. He is interested in how social entrepreneurship can foster well-being and environmental justice for the peri-urban poor and the role of grassroots innovations as tools for sustainable development in Latin America.

The Meaning of Solidarity

Étiennevon Bertrab13 March 2015

Protestors outside Downing Street in London, February 2015. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Protestors outside Downing Street in London, March 2015. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

For me, the most significant definition of solidarity is expressed in the words of Eduardo Galeano’s, the  extraordinary yet humble Uruguayan writer:

“Charity humiliates because it is practiced vertically and from above; solidarity is horizontal and implies mutual respect”

This is what many of us, upset about the state visit of Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto last week to the UK, found not only in the streets, but in lecture theatres in UCL, LSE, SOAS, Queen Mary University, and several other public spaces.

The other pleasant surprise was the discovery, at least for me, of Jeremy Corbyn, MP, who was the most outspoken about this state visit (the Queen has two of these per year) in light of the ongoing human rights crisis in Mexico, which the Mexican state has been contributing towards in a significant manner.

The two videos featured in this post say a lot. The first (in English), about the protest on the first day of Peña Nieto’s visit; the second (mixed English and Spanish), about the extraordinary discussions held in universities in the space of just one week.

Finally, while the bilateral Dual Year Mexico-UK insists on focusing on trade and investment – and yes, also a bit of education, culture, and nice arts and yummy food – a growing number of people, including 44 members of the UK Parliament, insist that without addressing the pressing issues that affect Mexican society, this initiative is at best misguided, and at worst a slap in the face to Mexican society at large.

In Mexico traditional media is highly controlled or pro-government (supporting whoever is in power). In the UK, Mexico has been afforded very little attention in the media, though this is changing.

For this reason, we have created this site with meaningful, trustworthy information of what really goes on in Mexico, all in English, with the hope of educating and increasing awareness: www.ukmx2015.org

I invite you all to visit the pages and simply to watch and read some of the content, in solidarity.


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 III)

Étiennevon Bertrab18 February 2015

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

This post focuses upon the disconnection between the urban population in Mexico (a large majority) and what happens in the non-urban territory, and reflects on the crucial role and state of journalism. However, events that have come to light in the last 7 days demand a short digression:

Just Another Week On

An on going investigation has revealed that the ‘disappearance rate’ in Mexico is currently a shocking 13 people per day. That is one every 2 hours. These people are usually considered as ‘disappeared by force,’ as reinforced last week by the UN Committee of Forced Disappearances. They are mostly marginalised women and men who predominantly belong to poor rural and indigenous communities.

To add to the tragedy 40% are aged 15 to 29, simply too young to go through such experience without life-long consequences – if they survive. The injustice doesn’t end here: confronting a reign of impunity their own relatives face high risks when choosing to do something about it.

This was the case of Norma Angélica Bruno, aged 26, who had recently joined a group of determined to find ‘the other disappeared’ in Guerrero. So far the group has discovered 48 bodies in clandestine graves across the state. In a sickly ironic turn of fate, Norma was assassinated before the eyes of her three children while walking to the funeral of a murdered colleague.

As if living in a parallel world, the Interior Minister Osorio Chong declared that Mexico has the highest levels of security in ten years and that “very important steps have been taken to give back peace and security to all Mexicans”.

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

The missing link between society and nature

Despite growing awareness of the crises in Mexico, politicians, analysts, mainstream media and even organised citizens who try to reform or rebuild the State, tend to ignore an underlying issue. The country is highly urbanised and most citizens are, willingly or not, alienated from nature, or more concretely, completely dislocated from what happens ‘elsewhere’.

It turns out, however, that Mexico’s land, water and natural resources are being degraded and extracted at an alarming pace. Mexican institutional framework, created in order to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, has been largely irrelevant in the rhetorical pursuit of sustainable development.

Take water resources, for instance: after conducting hearings between 2006 and 2012, the Latin American Water Tribunal warned of “possible hydric collapse” and condemned the Mexican State for violation of international treaties and its own legal framework to guarantee the right to water as a fundamental human right.

Indigenous Resistance

Indigenous communities have resisted for centuries. However, as a result of a combination of constitutional reforms and trade deals, resource grabbing has increased significantly over the last two decades; and it often unfolds violently.

For instance, in the mountains of Guerrero communities have been resisting the imposition of the La Parota Dam, which would displace 25,000 and severely affect livelihoods of another 75,000. Their decade-long resistance has been relatively effective, yet at a tragic cost: repression, illegal incarceration and assassination of communal leaders.

But this region is by no means an exception. Another ethical tribunal, the Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (TPP), documented over the last few years 220 active socio-environmental conflicts across the country, and observed the normalisation of institutional violence towards those who resist.

TPP’s condemnation of the Mexican State, entitled “The dispossession and degradation of Mexico: Free trade and deviation of power as causes of structural violence, impunity and dirty war against Mexico’s peoples”, can be downloaded here.

For years, active community members have regular meetings where they discuss structural problems and actions. With huge efforts they form regional assemblies and have an annual national assembly. This is the case of the Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (ANAA).

In my view, these forms of organisation are poorly supported and understood, and are essential not only in slowing down environmental degradation, but also in addressing a key factor in Mexico’s humanitarian crisis.

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water - pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water – pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

The brave world of journalism

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism, particularly critical, independent journalism. According to the map Periodistas en Riesgo, a recent initiative by Freedom House and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), 13 journalists have been killed over the last two years (the most deadly period has been May-October 2014) and four journalists are currently thought abducted.

Without brave journalists we would be incapable of understanding what happens in a country whose State machinery has dominated the art of manipulating our mainstream media. On a positive note, as noted by several political analysts, those in power have been completely unable to understand the world of the Internet – despite attempts to monitor and control. Civil society is way ahead in understanding the power and potential of social media, a space where anyone can join in solidarity.

To explore the role of street art in social movements in Mexico DPU and UCL Americas are hosting a unique conversation with artist-activists part of Oaxaca’s Colectivo Lapiztola, on Monday 23 February. Read more and register to attend.

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 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