The land of Zapata has once again become a beacon of hope in the middle of the arid desert of corruption which today controls politics as usual in Washington, Mexico City, Ottawa and beyond. While Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, is busy negotiating deals with international investors and rubbing elbows with world leaders this week at the APEC summit in China and the G20 summit in Australia, his country is exploding at the seams. The good news is that the vast social mobilization engulfing Mexico today holds the seeds for the liberation of Mexicans from decades of political exclusion on both sides of the Río Grande.
Not since the uprising led by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas in 1994 has Mexico been convulsed by such a powerful independent citizen movement which seeks to transform the roots of the existing system of repression and inequality. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets throughout Mexico and in over 80 cities abroad. Students have suspended classes in over 50 schools throughout the country in solidarity with their friends and colleagues of the Escuela Normal Rural “Raúl Isidro Burgos” in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero—the principal victims of the massacre of September 26, 2014.
Dozens of municipalities in the state of Guerrero are now under the control of independent citizen groups, frequently armed although peaceful, who refuse to be the victims of the next massacre. Parents of the kidnapped students shut down Acapulcpo’s international airport for over four hours this Monday. Banks, shopping centers, government buildings and highways throughout the country have been targeted by the continuous, spontaneous protests which have gripped the nation for the last month and a half. Mexico City’s international airport may even be circled by protesters at the end of this week when Peña Nieto tries to return home from his trip to Asia.
These protests were detonated by the disappearance of 43, the assassination of six, and wounding of over a dozen student activists by local police in Iguala, Guerrero. As Yoalli Rodríguez has pointed out eloquently, the “normal” schools where the activists studied were created in the 1920s in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 as centers for critical thinking, social mobility and community development for youth from peasant, often indigenous communities.
In recent years, the “normalistas” have been some of the most active groups in defending the progressive ideals of Mexico’s revolutionary Constitution of 1917 against systematic attack by both the Peña Nieto administration’s neoliberal policies and the “drug war” funded by U.S. taxpayers. Before the students were brutally repressed, they were collecting money in order to travel to Mexico City to participate in the annual march in remembrance of the historic student massacre of October 2, 1968.
The way in which the students were tortured and murdered has made the political nature of the crime particularly clear. One 22-year-old student who had just started studying at the school and had a 3-month-old baby, Julio César Mondragón, later appeared with his face brutally skinned and eyes gouged out, sending a clear message that the choice of victims had not been accidental. And this past Friday, government officials confirmed the version which had previously been leaked by whistleblowers that the 43 students were burned alive for over 12 hours in an enormous bonfire without anyone intervening.
If such a crime against humanity had occurred in Venezuela, Russia or Syria, it would have been immediately and forcefully condemned by the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress and the mainstream U.S. media. Only months ago, the kidnapping of children by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria led to an enormous international outcry. But the present case has only been mentioned in passing by U.S. authorities. The principal obstacle to the spread of indignation in the U.S. is that Peña Nieto is a friend of Wall Street, an ally of the Pentagon and promises to open up enormous new contracts for international oil companies. It is time to break through the hype.
Most international accounts of the massacre first followed the official Mexican government line, which tried to place all of the blame on the drug cartels and local officials. But according to Mexican law, organized crime and narcotrafficking are federal, as opposed to local, crimes. In addition, public security in Guerrero has been under the control of federal officials for years and there is an important military base stationed in Iguala itself.
The only way for the drug cartels and local police to be able to operate with such incredible impunity during the Iguala massacre is if they were actively protected by the federal police and the military, before, during and after the terrible events of September 26. This is not just a case of responsibility “by omission” of the federal authorities, but of their active complicity with heinous crimes against humanity.
This perhaps explains why the federal authorities waited a full 10 days before even initiating an investigation of the case. And since doing so, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam has refused to even examine the possibility of federal complicity. During last Friday’s press conference he even publicly applauded the military’s behavior during the massacre, with the clear intention of sending a message of absolute impunity to the armed forces.
Instead of getting to the bottom of the case, the Peña Nieto government has preferred to resort to the classic authoritarian scare tactics typical of his old guard Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Last Saturday, government provocateurs set fire to the doors of Mexico´s National Palace under the watchful gaze of inebriated top military officials from the elite Presidential Guard.
And in a particularly worrisome turn of events, on Monday the Mexican military made unprecedented public statements which suggest that they may even be considering organizing a coup d’etat if the situation does not calm down soon. What is particularly remarkable about these new statements is their overtly political nature. They offer to intervene not only to defend against narcotraffickers and organized crime but also to support “the development and progress of the Nation” and, in particular, Peña Nieto´s neoliberal “government project” so that “the country can reach better development possibilities.” They seem to be clearing the ground in preparation for an expansion of political repression.
Meanwhile, Obama and the U.S. Congress stand idly by and continue to prop up a Mexican president who increasingly resembles Augusto Pinochet with his “dirty wars” against the political opposition in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s. The only official reaction so far have been bland statements by the State Department about how the “perpetrators must be brought to justice” and calling for “a full, transparent investigation.” The terrible human rights situation ripping Mexico apart deserves a full condemnation by both the US government and civil society groups.
The good news is that the enormous democracy protests in Mexico could not have come at a better time. The devastating midterm election results in the United Stated combined with a shameful lack of commitment to the Latino population by Barack Obama and most of the Democratic Party, demonstrate that normal institutional channels have failed also north of the Río Grande. As the hope of achieving social change through electoral politics increasingly becomes an illusion, Mexico´s mobilized civil society shows the way for renovating political action in the United States and beyond.
Specifically, by taking to the streets in solidarity with their sisters and brothers south of the border, U.S. Latinos could make an important difference in helping achieve a transition to democracy in Mexico. And such a transformation would in turn be enormously useful for the future battles for authentic immigration reform in the United States. A Mexican government truly accountable to the Mexican people would be an invaluable ally in the struggle to achieve a path towards citizenship for everyone who lives, works or studies in the United States. It is time to act together on both sides of the Río Grande to save North America from the forces of corruption, exclusion and violence.
Dr. John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Editor-in-Chief of The Mexican Law Review, and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso Magazine.