Mexico: the volcano of resistance

Mexico is a volcano, and the beauty and frailty of the snow gracing its peaks hides a scalding reality. An instability that in any given moment could explode. Español

Manuel Garza Zepeda Geoffrey Pleyers
5 February 2018
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


Relatives of the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa protest in Mexico City in December 26, 2015. AP Photo / Marco Ugarte. All rights reserved.


From the transition times' civil society, to the volcano of resistance

For those interested in social movements, the 21st century began in Mexico with the uprising of the indigenous Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas on January the 1st, 1994. Their struggle has been a source of inspiration for movements around the world.

During the following years, Mexican civil society acquired a certain prominence in the so-called “transition to democracy”. After more than seventy years of domination by a single party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), a contender won the seat of Mexico City in 1997 and the presidency of the republic in 2000.

Faced with the Zapatista threat and a different party winning the presidential elections, it appeared as though the country was going through a profound process of renovation and democratisation. Expectations for change were huge.

Two decades later, this hope has faded out. The PRI recovered the presidency in 2012. Poverty has reached terrifying levels, corruption is increasingly unashamed, and access to healthcare is difficult for huge sectors of the population. Structural violence, murders and forced disappearance are on the rise due drug cartels and the human rights violation and extra juridical executions by military forces.

The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. Meanwhile budget cuts to public spending are announced, particularly in education, science and technology, and health and social services, the National Electoral Institute (INE) declared a historic budget of more than 1,050 millions of euros for funding of political parties and the organisation of next July elections.

The reality of the “transition to democracy” and the profound transformations it was supposed to generate is questioned on every front.

At a quick glance, it appears that a type of drastic conformity reigns over the country when things fall apart. The media show focuses on the 24/7 political campaign, rising violence and worries regarding the NAFTA negotiations. Citizens seem to have lost any hope for change towards a better, fairer and less violent Mexico.

The perspective looks however very different on the ground, as shown by the book “México en Movimientos” that gathers 15 short essays analysing resistances and alternatives in 14 states of the Mexican Republic.

John Holloway [1], author of the preface of the book, describes it in the form of a metaphor: the country is a volcano and the beauty and frailty of the snow that graces its peaks hides a scalding reality of rejection, fury, and a search for alternatives, an instability that in any given moment could explode.

Different panorama, different resistance

However, it would be an error to search for movements and mobilisations in the shape they appeared in the period of the ‘transition to democracy’. The context in which resistances emerge  today is very different and so are the movements. . These differences impose the necessity to explore in new spaces the shifts that are occurring. 

The chapters of the book “Mexico in Motion[2] (Mexico en movimientos) points to six fundamental transformations in social movements in Mexico during the last decade:


  1. The explosion of the Internet and social networks has deeply changed the culture and organisation of social movements. Social media allow a fast and efficient mobilization of inter-personal and collective organisations. New channels of information and communication are opening up among citizens. However, while information, flows on social media, the issue of misinformation, media manipulations and fake news has yet to cease.

The “battle of information” has become an all-out war, with a death toll of 35 Mexican journalists murdered from January of 2016.

The dominant television consortiums still retain a wide influence over public opinion. What’s more, Mexico is among the countries in the world with the highest spent on government and political propaganda. The relevance of this field is clear when warnings that the “battle of information” has become an all-out war, with a death toll of 35 Mexican journalists murdered since January of 2016.

2. In the last decade, violence has flared up in Mexico and has become a structural problem, with deep roots in every sector of the economy and public life, including the state and its own institutions. Journalism, defence of human rights and activism has become extremely dangerous activities across the country. The forced disappearance of 43 students from the teachers’ rural school of Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero illustrates the on-going process of criminalising social movements and youth in particular. One way or another, all social movements face the issue of violence through threats from the drug cartels, destruction of their communities, repression by the state or disappearance of activists. With the exceptions of the “Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity” and the protests after the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, the majority of resistance to violence has arisen at the local level and has expressed a strong distrust towards the state Citizens and communities have set up their own “groups of self-defence” groups against the drug cartels. Most of them face a strong repression by the state and the army.

3. As it is the case all over Latin America, extractivist policies and neoliberal “development projects” have all but intensified in the past few years. Indigenous and rural communities are deprived from their land by mining projects, the construction of a new airport and land grabbing by legal corporations and drug cartels. On the other hand, attempts to privatise resources such as water have recently unfolded. Villages and communities resist this extraction complex that is becoming a central focus of neoliberal economics. In this process, rural communities experience modes of organization oriented not only towards resistances but also towards the daily construction of alternatives to the capitalist and extractivist system.

The possible arrival to the presidency of a honest politician that strives to combat corruption may improve the situation, but it will not resolve the structural problems of the country.

4.  One of the deeper transformations that affect citizens and social movements in Mexico is the loss of hope in the democratization process and the questioning of the prospects for emancipation. 20 years ago, the ‘transition to democracy transition’ generated hopes that political alternation would open up new political, economic, and social horizons, that it would put an end to corruption and impose the rule of law and human rights. 18 years later, few expectations remain. The media system displays the electoral campaign 24/7, but a majority of Mexican know that the arrival of an honest politician that strives to combat corruption may improve the situation, but it will not solve the structural problems of the country no stop the power of the drug cartels.

5. A growing number of Mexicans now clearly consider the state to be part of the problem rather than the solution to it. What the experiences analysed in this book show us is that citizens and communities go beyond resistance. They develop concrete and autonomous alternatives. An increasing number of citizens don’t expect the State to solve their problem and decide to take their fate in their own arms developing concrete local autonomous projects, against and in spite of the context of high violence and repression. Resistances and alternatives are thus mostly focused at the local scale. In many cases, they have managed to decrease violence, defend their livelihood and provide their people with dignity and more secure and a slightly better life. However, it is not denying the importance of these local alternatives to mention that many of the problems they face cannot be solved only at the local level. In spite of the success of the Zaptista movement and of the multiplication of autonomous communities, violence and inequalities have risen in Mexico. The emancipatory model based on local autonomy that has fuelled so many alternatives now faces some major challenges. It has become increasingly difficult and dangerous to resist to drug cartel violence, mining projects and repression only at the local scale. To solve the issue their face (mass forced disappearance, feminicide, land grabbing, growing inequalities) also requires deep changes at the state and national scales. To foster structural changes beyond local initiatives has become their major and urgent challenges, and no one seems to have a clear path to offer in this respect.

6. The movements that have arisen in the last decade haven’t done so with an institutional-political agenda in mind, but based on indignation that rose from personal experience, local livelihood and daily problems: feminicide (mass murdering of women), the search for disappeared family members without the support of (and often against) the state, the destruction of a forest in the municipality of Cherán, environmental devastation caused by mining companies, the rise in petrol prices, the lack of resources for schools and education. It would be a mistake to oppose these mobilisations in defence of local and personal issues to the preservation of a much higher general interest. When the parents of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa demand the truth and justice for their children, they are fighting against a system, which favours violence and guarantees impunity in the context of every death and disappearance in Mexico. When a forest is protected or a common farm defended, a whole economic model is being resisted, showing that alternatives are possible, that another Mexico is still standing in spite of everything.


[1] Holloway, John (2010). “Teoría volcánica”. En J. Holloway, F. Matamoros y S. Tischler (eds), Pensar a contrapelo. Movimientos sociales y reflexión crítica. Buenos Aires: Herramienta.

[2] The book “México en movimientos” brings together analysis of resistence movements and the construction of alternatives throughout the 14 states of the Republic of Mexico. From various standpoints and experiences, the chapters describe the diverse ways in which the individual capacity to become a subject is reclaimed, departing from a notion that opposes the dominant form of relations: dignity. Pleyers G. Garza M. eds. (2018) México en movimientos. Resistencias y alternativas, México: Porrúa. Prefacios de John Holloway & Eduardo Bautista. Posfacio de Breno Bringel.

How to cite:
Pleyers G. and Garza Zepeda M.(2018) Mexico: the volcano of resistance Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 5 February.



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