«Mexico woke up" by Katka Kincelová. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“A government on its knees”: this is how Gil Ramos describes Mexico’s current administration. With an average of nearly 100 homicides per day, 7 journalists killed in 8 months, an epidemic of disappearances of social activists, students and civilians, and hundreds of human right violations, it is difficult to discredit that statement. In fact, Mexico would perfectly fit with Bunker and Sullivan’s definition of a “failed state”. Contrary to the “Mexican moment” envisaged by Times magazine a year ago, Mexicans are living in an increasingly insecure environment, witnessing an increased level of corruption in government institutions, and experiencing the “ungovernability” of numerous municipalities. Thus, far from the democratic dream of progress, citizens in Mexico are living in a dangerous and still fragile democracy.
Beginning with the execution of 22 people in Tlatlaya, in the state of Mexico, the past 12 months have been flooded with cases of human rights violations that have shaken Mexican society. Leaving aside the fact that those executed belonged to a criminal organization, the assassination of these unarmed and surrounded criminals in June 2014 demonstrated that the army was not carrying out its operations with strict respect for human rights. Despite the Minister of the Interior's assurances that government would “prosecute this crime to the very end”, this atrocity, until then the worst slaughter committed by the armed forces in Peña Nieto’s administration, has proved to be only a symptom of the disease affecting the Mexican government and society.
A mere three months later, Mexico and the world were shocked by the kidnapping and –as we know now – the execution of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. On September 26, under orders from the Major of Iguala, dozens of students of a rural teaching college were attacked, 3 were murdered, and 43 were abducted by the local police and then handed over to the United Warriors criminal organization. After DNA fragments of one of the students were identified by independent investigators, who stated that “no more usable DNA could be found to identify the rest of the corpses, the government closed the case and, in January 2015, pronounced the students dead. However, in a country where there is growing evidence to confirm widespread suspicions of collusion between criminal groups and the authorities, this official statement has been rejected by relatives and large sectors of the population.
Notwithstanding the political notoriety and judicial impact of these cases, and despite the fact that 79% of Mexican citizens consider crime to be one of the biggest problems in Mexico and 57% are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, the Minister of Finance has recently declared that “Mexico has a strong rule of law: a pronouncement that, as activists and society in general would say, lacks any support under the current circumstances.
The land of the dead journalists
In addition to the sad cases previously described, Mexico is one in only 10 countries in the world where journalists have been murdered in the last nine months. According to Freedom House, civil and political rights in the country continue to be violated and, far from diminishing, criminality has increased in certain parts of Mexico. Just between 2013 and 2014, for instance, the kidnapping rate in Tamaulipas went up by 22.6%, reaching the mark of 40 kidnappings per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of that year. What is more, only 57% of the crimes are reported and – even more worrying – only 3% end up with a conviction. Thus, contrary to the Minister’s picture of a “lawful Mexico”, citizens continue to live in a country with many laws, but where impunity reigns. Two more cases illustrate perfectly the situation.
On August 31t, Ruben Espinosa and Nadia Vera, a reporter and a social activist, both critical of the government of the state of Veracruz, were found murdered in Mexico City. Although some rushed to support the hypothesis of a robbery whilst virtually condemning as foolish any other line of inquiry, both Espinosa and Vera had previously blamed the Governor of Veracruz for anything that might happen to them, causing a great deal of questioning across society. Just a few days later, Miguel Angel Jimenez, a social activist who led search parties looking for the remaining 42 students of Iguala, was found dead in his taxi. Whether or not coincidences, as with Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya, these cases not only reflect the ineffectiveness of the Mexican judicial system, they remind us of the importance and fragility of democratic values and human rights, including a free press, freedom of association and – above all – the right to life.
Trapped between criminal organizations and a colluding State, Mexican society needs to wake up, become more politically engaged, and demand more accountability and responsiveness from the State. Marching and protesting against the government is one way by which society can work to ensure that Tlatlaya or Ayotzinapa do not happen again.
Change, of course, cannot occur immediately. And this is why scholars like Centeno say that “some things can only be solved with punching”, and that rural militias are the solution to the current violence. To support this ideology, however, goes against the aim of securing democratic values and rights. It is thus necessary to understand that democracy is not a dichotomous notion, but a continuum and evolving process of which Mexico is a perfect example. Two decades ago, voting was pointless in “Mexico's perfect dictatorship”. It took several years, lots of money and many lives to achieve an electoral democracy where voting does change a government, does change politics, and can change the country.
In less than 10 months from now, citizens will vote for new governors of Veracruz –the riskiest place for journalists in Mexico -, and of Oaxaca, Tamaulipas and Sinaloa – three of the 10 most violent states in the country. If human rights violations are to be stopped, this democratic exercise might not be the entire solution, but it is definitely a critical starting point.