The ghosts of Mexico’s repressed past always eventually rear their heads. Born out of the spirits of the earth, spilt blood, sun and volcanoes, they are made manifest in acts of barbaric violence committed upon its people. A people driven to despair by the corrupt and flagrant abuses of the state. A society of 120 million that is really two societies, so stark is the disparity between rich and poor, where just 39 families enjoy most of Mexico’s wealth. And at the top, Carlos Slim, the second richest man in the world.
Yet the politicians’ promise of modernisation has turned out to be nothing more than a pipe dream; the wave of reforms that began in the 1980s resulting in few meaningful changes other than a perpetual state of civil unrest. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994 with Canada and the US, commercial activity and foreign investment were supposed to double and triple respectively. Despite this, we’ve seen no change in levels of poverty or inequality, and economic growth continues at a pitiful rate. Evidently democracy isn’t a priority, so long as we keep up appearances.
Our young people are beginning to vocalise their frustration with a government that has failed to provide them with a viable future. One has to look no further than the rates of suicide and murder (the biggest killers of Mexican youth) to comprehend the depths of their despair. They, like other young people around the world, have made social media a powerful weapon of dissent. Yet their calls to arms have had little effect, other than aggravating the other camp, which wants a political system that offers more than just marches, blockades and vandalism.
In pre-Columbian times the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlán (which can mean variously “in the moon’s belly button” or “between the fruits of the nopal”) centralised the vast and diverse Aztec Empire. The Spanish Empire subsequently sat on its ruins, maintaining its historic and central status, which continues in the post-Independence era. A mestizo culture that includes indigenous, Spanish, African, Chinese, Arab, French and modern Anglo-Saxon elements, Mexican culture has been growing in the backyard of the United States since the 19th century. Since the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America was proposed in 2005, Mexico has aspired to the ultra-modern, learning from the US’s renewed propensity for aggressive foreign policy in the wake of 9/11.
Under President Calderon between 2007 and 2012 Mexico waged a war against drug trafficking (with financial support from the US) that left 120,000 dead or “disappeared”. Violence and fear reign in many parts of the country and local governments are more likely to engage in corruption than uphold the law. Furthermore, economic paralysis has allowed the black market to prevail, which facilitates both illicit activity and tax evasion.
The adverse conditions in Mexico and its restive people present a serious problem for the government, which, in spite of some macroeconomic successes, has failed to address three crucial areas: respect for human rights, prevailing corruption and maintaining its authority.
Furthermore, this autumn saw two instances of barbarity in Mexico that have resonated around the world. First, the execution of 22 individuals in a reported confrontation with the Mexican army in Tlatlaya. It was months before an officer and three soldiers (of the seven that participated) were charged. The second is, of course, the kidnapping, torture and murder of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Iguala Guerrero, as well as six subsequent executions. The latter was a direct result of organised crime and its perpetrators were complicit with the municipal government and police.
The most troubling aspect of such events is that they are in fact a daily occurrence – far from the “exceptional” or “sporadic” incidents that official sources would have us believe. The government claims to adhere to international human-rights conventions, publishing reports and statistics as evidence of this. The UN and Amnesty International have suggested otherwise. They have revealed instead that the Mexican armed forces and police systematically violate human rights and engage in torture.
We only have to look at the barbaric activities of soldiers, police and hired assassins to realise that the government is distorting the facts. They present a narrative of successful reforms and modernising processes to the rest of the world while failing to maintain a law-abiding state.
In short, this is a fundamentally illegal state, which functions outside of and against the law while purporting to uphold it. A state of violence and instability thus prevails, which can be traced back to the failure of the supposed war against drugs, the authorities’ complete lack of control, and the complicity between powerful heads of state and organised crime. Take the Michoacán case as an example, in which high-ranking civil servants were found to be willing accessories to violent crime.
On September 26, 2014, a run-in between the local government of Iguala and a school in Ayotzinapa (“the River of Little Squash”) revealed these harsh truths. That night, a group of student teachers boarded buses at the central bus station in Iguala to drive to the school to prepare for a demonstration. While en route, the buses were apprehended by municipal police who fired on the students, killing three. At the same time, another armed group happened upon a second bus and car and opened fire, killing three more and injuring a further 25. In total of 43 students were abducted and later murdered. Their bodies were set alight to conceal the evidence.
Some weeks later, the Mexican authorities discovered their ashes and several bones in dumpsters nearby, and by December, thanks to DNA testing conducted by the University of Innsbruck in Austria, they identified the first of the individuals: Alexander Mora, aged 19.
A second case stands out among the 43: that of 22-year-old Julio César Fuentes Mondragón. Terrified by the attack on him and his companions, he fled the scene, only to fall into the hands of the police. Some hours later his body was found in an industrial area in Iguala. He had been tortured, his eyes had been gouged out and his face mutilated.
What is evident is that the federal authorities, who were informed of that night’s events in real time, refused to intervene. The leftist Ayotzinapa community and its schoolteachers are known for their anti-establishment approach; they charge those seeking transit through their territory, demand petrol from cars from out of town and occasionally even seize vehicles for use in protests and blockades. Even so, there is absolutely no justification for the atrocities committed against the 43.
US NGO Human Rights Watch has described the acts of brutality in Guerrero as the worst events to happen in Mexico since the massacre of dozens of people in Tlatelolco Plaza during the student movement of 1968. People are calling for widespread action in response to September’s events and their total absence of justice. They hope it will achieve more than mere political reorganisation, and demand the establishment of long-term democratic order.
Mexico City, the fourth most densely populated city in the world according to the UN, is situated in what was once a series of lakes, on a plateau 2,500 metres above sea level and 350 kilometres from both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The capital is extremely vulnerable to seismic activity. Cinna Lomnitz, a well-known seismologist, likens Mexican earthquakes to a professional boxer who seeks out and exploits the weaknesses of his opponent: “It is the enemy that always catches us off guard.” The 1985 earthquake in Mexico City left an estimated 10,000 dead, destroyed hundreds of buildings and damaged thousands more. When the authorities failed to react adequately, civilians took matters into their own hands and spearheaded the rescue effort.
There are lessons to be learned from the relationship between the capital’s geology and its society. Their similarities are symbolic of what Mexico has been and what it will continue to be: a multicultural, rich land characterised by continual instability; a victim of colonial and postcolonial exploitation, today for its natural resources, tomorrow for its cheap workforce; a land caught up in geostrategic policies, currently targeted not only by the United States and the machinations of global organised crime, but now increasingly by China.
Lomnitz describes a way of counteracting the seismic forces that involves introducing shock absorbers, like those in cars, into buildings’ structures. This protects them, she says, “from too much movement, thus enabling them to handle even the strongest of tremors.” If one were to extrapolate and apply that logic to Mexico’s social structure, it wouldn’t work. In Mexico, the political apparatus is incapable of providing support for disasters either natural or man-made. For most, the only consolation left is the lyrics of the mariachi: “I don’t have a throne or a queen, or anyone who understands me, but I’m still the king.” §
Translated by Carmen Ogilvie and Lux Patterson