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Violence, the state and civil society in Mexico

By ucyow3c, on 14 November 2014

pencil-icon Written by Anna Tyor, International Relations MSc

Javier Trevino-Rangel, a professor at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, went from city to city in Mexico interviewing middle class residents about violence in their communities and heard the same responses over and over again, all over the country: “The media blows things out of proportion”; “We need more reliable information”; and “I just skip this section in the newspaper”.

As we shifted chairs to make room for a growing audience, five distinguished speakers anxiously looked around the room hoping to address these issues by explaining challenging topics in Mexico including drug trade, militarisation of the state, rural violence, social media and human rights.

Following the disappearance of dozens of student teachers in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico and the world cried out in protest after the discovery of mass shallow graves filled with their singed bodies. This poignant talk convened by the Radical Americas Network at the UCL Institute of the Americas came in light of these recent murders and attempted to shed light on who is to blame for such atrocities.

The room was packed by the time Benjamin Smith (University of Warwick) began to speak about drug trade and security issues in Mexico. “One person is kidnapped every few minutes in Mexico”, stated Smith with a powerful voice booming from the front of the room.

Smith believes that Mexico has been driven from stable democracy to violent pluralism for a few reasons: free trade has created the Ni-Ni generation (neither students nor workers); the drug trade has wreaked havoc on everyday citizens’ lives for years, disrupting productivity and creating a culture of violence; and the judicial system is incapable of obtaining justice for victims. Smith ended his talk, hoping that the government could take greater control over local areas.

But is the Mexican government capable of taking greater control?

Dr Thomas Rath (UCL History), who has focused most of his recent studies on the militarisation of the state, followed Smith with his thoughts about the Mexican military’s growing role in policing society. The army budget has risen and the numbers of soldiers have almost tripled in the last decade in order to deal with the overwhelming violence instigated  by the ‘War on Drugs’.

The government’s military reaction to organised crime has been promoted by US policy and creation of special-forces units in order to deal with violence in the cities and also in the lawless countryside.

Next came Tanalis Padilla (Dartmouth College), who explained Mexico’s history of rural violence and related this topic to the Normalista student kidnappings and massacre in Guerrero. Padilla has focused much of her research on the controversial Normales Rurales schools that are scattered throughout rural Mexico, where many guerrilla leaders have taught and where Normalista students have been educated to take action against an incompetent Mexican government.

Padilla believes that rural violence can be attributed to many reasons, some including unequal wealth distribution, violence of poverty, and the government’s slow dismantling of the Mexican social system.

If students cannot take action, are there other forms of activism?

Rupert Knox, a social media expert,analysed the role of social media in Mexico. Because the government has little control over rural areas, drug cartels control information that is published. The cartels make it difficult for ordinary citizens to access reliable information concerning crime and cause the local to media to be almost non-existent.

Recently, a doctor in rural Mexico was murdered after retweeting sensitive information that a local drug cartel did not want leaked. Knox argued that in some cases, social media can be an outlet for local citizens to reach the world community and hopes that this will be the case for Mexico.

Do the Mexican citizens have a right to be appalled or are they complacent in the violence?

For the last presentation, Javier Trevino-Rangel wanted to discern how ordinary Mexicans digest this information about violence and government incompetence in their country. He found that most citizens that he interviewed believed Mexico was improving and that anyone who had been killed or kidnapped was probably a criminal.

Ironically, most of Trevino-Rangel’s subjects knew someone who had been kidnapped or murdered but insisted that these people were not involved in illegal activity. Trevino also found that almost none of the people he interviewed had investigated the murders or kidnappings of their friends or even knew about various non-governmental organisations or forms of activism in their country.

The speakers gave thorough explanations of their topics and tried to shed light on the combination of factors that lead to violence in Mexico. The audience was ultimately left wondering, who really is to blame for the massacre in Guerrero?

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