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Beautiful laws

Mexico’s federal government has reacted to seething discontent by violently shutting down popular protest. In doing so, it frequently breaks its own laws in the process. But how long can this last?

Robert Joe Stout
1 July 2014
Riot police in Mexico

Riot Police in Mexico. Demotix/Enrique Perez Huerta. All rights reserved.

Mexico’s economy has bottomed out. Factories have closed; hundreds of thousands of layoffs and firings are occuring each month. Drug organizations equipped with high-powered weapons designed for military use control nearly 30 percent of the nation’s land space and an even greater percentage of the economy. The illegal arms trade is flourishing. The families of prominent business leaders and entrepreneurs live in gated private communities while their husbands travel under the protection of highly paid bodyguards. Storekeepers, taxi drivers, accountants, even schoolteachers and prostitutes hide handguns beneath counters, in glove compartments, in briefcases and purses. Military abuses against the civilian population have multiplied.

Throughout Mexico, miners, airline stewardesses and electrical workers blockade highways, invade government buildings and march in protest of government policies. Discontent, according to journalist Luis Hernández-Navarro, has been “breaking out on all sides like the bubbles in a vat of water about to boil.” The most organized, outspoken and most threatening of these movements has emerged in the states of Michoacàn, Oaxaca and Guerrero. The federal government reacts to popular protest swiftly and violently, frequently breaking its own laws in the process.

Vengeance through provocation

Although on a national level protests have not congealed into a united force, they have nevertheless impacted state and federal policies. Governing officials, particularly those affiliated with the party in power, the Partido Revoluciònario Instituciònal (PRI), still chafe at the success that the Zapatista movement has maintained since it appeared as an armed force in Chiapas in 1994. The Zapatistas have established self-governing autonomous communities despite constant military and paramilitary harassment. Their success prompted the federal government to equip and train armed groups like the Paz y Justicia and the Ejército de Díos to vandalize Zapatista communities, burn crops and blockade access roads.

As journalist Marta Duràn de Huerta explained to Radio Nederland, the Cocopa agreement between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas restricts any kind of military intervention, but the government has surreptitiously diverted aid and development funds to the paramilitary organizations. The hope is, she insists, that this low intensity paramilitary warfare will provoke an armed Zapatista reaction, thereby offering “an ideal pretext to annihilate them militarily.”

Two major protests culminated violently in 2006. An angry crowd in Atenco in the Estado de Mexico retaliated against police attempting to arrest a group of flower vendors who had set up stalls “illegally.” The police, routed by the rock-throwing, club-wielding Atencans, called for reinforcements. After pitched battles the federal and state forces overwhelmed the opposition, arresting and jailing hundreds, many of whom were tortured and in the case of women, raped.

“It was provocation to get vengeance,” an Estado de Mexico lawyer told me. Resistance in Atenco and the surrounding area to federal confiscation of farmland forced the federal government to abandon plans to construct a huge international airport there. “The government instigated the conflict and came down hard to teach resisters a lesson.” The governor of the Estado de Mexico who ordered the repression was Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s current president.

A few months later over 4,000 federal troops and militarized police abetted by state and municipal forces and hundreds of non-uniformed paramilitaries swept through the city of Oaxaca after a protest march by members and supporters of Oaxaca’s People’s Popular Assembly. The armed units arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned over 140 citizens, many of whom had nothing to do with the protest march that had just concluded. After the purge, paramilitary “sicarios” continued to roam the state, intimidating, detaining and assaulting persons affiliated with the Popular Assembly.

International Association of Jurists investigators denounced the participation of the militarized federal police as an “extreme violation of human rights” and emphasized that the use of military force against a civilian demonstration is absolutely prohibited by international law. At least a dozen other international agencies, including Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, the Latin American Association of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights organization investigated and reported severe violations. Amnesty International and the International Red Cross took their objections directly to Mexico’s then president Felipe Calderón.

He smiled for publicity photos taken with the representatives but neither he nor any cabinet officials acted on the denunciations. Similarly no US agencies voiced concern over the abuses; instead the US Congress approved the multi-million dollar financing of Mexico’s military and militarized police under the so-called “Plan Mérida” despite evidence that those organizations were being used to repress popular protests as well as combat drug smuggling.

Laws are beautiful

The privatization of many former government functions, including the retirement system (which consequently lost billions of dollars of invested funds during the economic collapse in 2008), the public health system and the oil industry exacerbated the plunge into poverty of millions of former job-holders and small business owners devastated by the layoffs and lost incomes associated with the financial crash. Teachers, parents, unemployed workers, “indocumentados” deported from the United States, labour organizers and other protest groups insist on non-violence but pent-up anger often explodes into rock-throwing rage.

Teachers openly battled federal preventive police in Morelos in 2008. Defrauded Oaxacan landowners forcibly closed the operation of windmill-produced energy in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Civilian militias in the states of Michoacán and Guerrero usurped police functions in order to battle drug organizations that were exacting protection quotas and sequestering young women.

President Calderón ignored complaints from both inside and outside of Mexico and declared a state of exemption to allow the “temporary” use of the armed forces to combat organized crime. In Chiapas military incursions, using the pretext of drug searches for marijuana plantings or narcotics, evicted communal residents, destroyed food and water supplies and manhandled and arrested those who resisted. The federal government utilized the military and the federal police to quell student protests in Guerrero, teachers’ strikes in Morelos and quash the electrical workers union in the Estado de Mexico and surrounding states.

“For three whole days after my son disappeared we couldn’t eat, we couldn’t sleep, we couldn’t think or talk about anything except, “Where is he?”; “Is he being tortured?””, the mother of a university student abducted by non-uniformed police told me. “Never had I felt such anguish. The government wouldn’t tell us anything. Then on the third day our son called. He’d been released. They’d tortured him. For weeks afterwards he’d wake up screaming, “No! No! No! Don’t!”, and he’d be shaking and sweating. He’ll never forget.

There are thousands in Mexico who will never forget. Throughout his six-year term as Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox (2000-2006) loftily proclaimed that Mexico was a country “apegado a la ley” (“devoted to the law”). By “the law” he seemed to mean the legal system, a ponderous and ineffective outgrowth of written procedures and platitudes that he and his successors utilized when it was convenient and ignored when it was not. Even victims of illegal apprehensions and torture do not argue that the laws are unjust. As teacher Pedro Rodriguez told visitors to the campus of the Coalition of Indigenous Teachers of Oaxaca, “laws are beautiful, but they are a long way from us.”

The prairie state

By turning its back on human rights violations, the government of the United States has become an accomplice to this repressive reign. The ability of presidents Calderòn and Peña Nieto to repress popular movements is strengthened by the millions of dollars worth of munitions and manpower earmarked for anti-narcotics activities under the so-called “Plan Mérida.”

How long can this continue? State of Veracruz attorney Gilberto Hernández told me, “Politically, socially, the state is like a drought-dried prairie. One match and whoosh! the whole place will go up in flames.”

Veracruz is not the only state on the verge of explosion. Disruptions in Michoacàn, Guerrero, Oaxaca and the State of Mexico—not to mention Chiapas—are rife.

Estado de Mexico resident Argelia Martínez, who participated in anti-government protests, wryly asserts, “(Governor) Duarte, I’m sure, has his violin ready” (so he can fiddle while the state burns). Perhaps Peña Nieto, too, has a violin—or will he merely send in heavily armed troops and militarized police to make arbitrary arrests?

And will the United States send more guns, more money and more propaganda to prop up one of its last allies in the Western Hemisphere, so corrupt leaders can manifest their “beautiful laws”?

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