Bright Lights and Grunts and Waving

In 2009 Mexican journalist Luis Hernández-Navarro perceived “discontent breaking out on all sides like the bubbles in a vat of water about to boil.” Citizen groups battling police in Estado de Mexico, Morelia, and Oaxaca filed thousands of criminal complaints against Mexican militaries they identified as “another of the organized criminal bands.”


The wives of miners killed during a massive cave-in at Pasto de Conchas, Sonora tangled with police who tried to remove their barricading of the mine entrance and federal authorities pistolwhipped women attempting to block trucks hauling U.S. exported toxic waste to a newly opened dump in the state of Hidalgo.


Nearly 3,000 men, women and teenagers converged on state police sent to arrest three local residents in Tochmatzintla, Puebla. Residents wielding clubs and stones in Santiago Tolman, Estado de Mexico, counterattacked armed police who’d just rescued two officers about to be lynched for detaining a primary school student. Thousands of striking teachers and their supporters in Oaxaca took over the city of 300,000 and held it for 5 months before tank- and teargas-equipped militarized police and soldiers drove them out.


“One doesn’t know who’s on who’s side,” a young university student named Guillermo Ruiz told me. “The police belong to the gangs, gang members to the police, guerrillas to both. You never know who you’re talking to. Even the campesinos fight against each other. Mexico’s become a no man’s land.”


The drug corporations absorb hundreds of thousands of adolescents every year. Contrary to the stance of the Catholic Church hierarchy most of these ni-nis (ni estudiar ni trabajar—“neither study nor work”) haven’t lost faith. “How can one lose something one never had?” a 17-year-old that I interviewed demanded. “Life is short, so you get what you can while you can.”


Before the last half of the 20th century most Mexican adolescents grew up surrounded by relatives and peers who created networks of inclusion and sharing (so-called “cushions against misery and loneliness”). But with urbanization and the consequent breakup of both family structure and tightly knit homogenous communities, more and more Mexicans perceived that the patrón (father, cacique, governor, president) no longer deserved unquestioned obedience, widening a crack that had begun to appear in the deeply ingrained paternalism that had dominated the country’s political system since the founding of the Republic.


The majority of young people who perceive hypocrisy between their parents’ and grandparents’ morality and the society in which they find themselves have no viable new system to insert in the old one’s place. Combined with increased mobility among the population, including the rural-to-urban movement of millions of campesinos and small landholders and the magnet provided by work opportunities in the United States they’ve became increasingly less willing to accept lack of opportunity, poverty and oppression that the previous generation felt it had to endure.


Mexican writer Jorge Zepeda-Patterson described a Federal District 14-year-old who, like millions of other Mexican adolescents, “came to the conclusion that the only way not to be beaten and assaulted was to join a gang….” To do so he “…simply had to comply with the conditions of initiation: rape a woman and kill a rival, which he did.”


La muerte me da risa (“death makes me laugh”) has become a catch phrase scribbled onto walls and boasted in cantinas. Better to live high and die young than slowly starve on dried-up plots of lands that can’t provide sustenance to burros, much less human beings.


Nevertheless, despite migration and urbanization, towns and villages throughout Mexico strive to remain unified. Their inhabitants know each other, work with each other, intermarry and most share the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds. From 1810—the beginning of the revolution against Spain—until after the revolution of 1910 and the decade of bloodshed that followed, many of these communities had little or no contact with the federal government and were controlled by local caciques who fought federalization or solidified their control by supporting regional governors.


The revolutions of 1910-1926 battered but did not destroy this system. Caciques and ladino landholders supported one or another of the various revolutionary forces and emerged having lost territory but not their governing power. The various indigenous cultures retained their customs, their languages and to a large extent their systems of communal control. Entire generations lived and died without coming into contact with either Spanish or Mexican governing authorities.


The separation that existed between the elite and the people during the Colonial period continues to exist in 21st century Mexico. Indigena leaders who aligned themselves with the country’s single-party political system replaced usos y costumbres with Spanish-style administrative government. Everything that takes place between the community and the autocratic federal and state governments goes through party politicians. Periodic local protests and uprisings erupt but are subdued and the families in power retained their caciquedoms.


In the year 2000, the monopoly of the single-party political system that emerged as the Partido Nacional Revolucionario in 1928 and later became the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI) gave way to “the party of change”: the ultra-conservative and pro-Catholic National Action Party (PAN). But PAN presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón changed only the name of the game, not the way that it was played. They utilized the PRI pyramidal structure of regional strong men and caciques to control local legislatures and retaliate against social or political protests.


By aligning itself with the new PAN administration, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church assumed more political power after Vicente Fox’s election. They achieved a lessening of restrictions against religious participation in politics and became major players in dictating anti-abortion legislation.


Nevertheless, the “many things to many different people” Church condoned, if not actually supported, stands taken against human rights abuses. Catholic bishops Raúl Vera and Samuel Ruiz openly supported the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, striking miners in Cananea and Pasta de Conchos and the massive anti-government protest in Oaxaca in 2006. Archbishop Héctor González of Durango ignited a controversy in April 2009 by telling his parishioners that the capo of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquín (“El Chapo”) Guzmán “lives a little past Guanaceví. Everyone knows this except for the authorities.”


Durango’s governor, Ismael Hernández, huffily defended his state’s law enforcement and insisted that the Archbishop should go to the federal police with this information. The governor’s defense triggered public derision. Clearly, if everyone in Mexico except the authorities knew where El Chapo lived the authorities were lying about not knowing his whereabouts or they were stupider than everyone else in the country. (Various people that I talked to asserted that both were true—the majority conclusion being that the federal government was lying and was in cahoots with El Chapo or was afraid of him.)


Columnist Denise Dresser of the weekly magazine Proceso suggested, “The fact that the Archbishop’s parishioners have confided information concerning the whereabouts of El Chapo reveals something both preoccupying and important: The people have no confidence in the government and do not feel protected by the authorities.”


Independent transmission of news virtually ceased to exist after Vicente Fox’s “by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs” government granted duopoly rights to the country’s two communications giants, Televisa and TV Azteca in 2005. Local newspapers continued to publish, most of them thanks to government advertising, but even those that maintained full editorial and reporting staffs increased dependence on international wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press.


Carlos Payán, the founding editor of the daily La Jornada, told a “Mexico’s Situation” forum in Saltillo, Mexico that the Mexican media had ceased to be operated by journalists and had passed into the hands of entrepreneurs who “deform and erode information and any attempts at objectivity.”


Federal incursions into the mountainous areas of southern Mexico demolished the facilities of community radio stations, many of which broadcast in indigena languages. Officials cited technical or licensing violations but the broadcasters and their audiences assured human rights advocates that the punitive actions—which including the assassinations of two young Oaxaca broadcasters—were launched because the stations were providing news and commentary that contradicted government propaganda.


By 2006, the PAN administration, the television giants and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had effectively joined forces to restrict citizen participation in political and social decision-making, paving the way for neo-liberal entrepreneurs to accumulate immense wealth and the Church to actively promote legislation that corresponded with its ideology. Protest demonstrations were described as “Communist-inspired” or “leftist-led” and the members branded as “dissidents” and “revolutionaries.”


“[This] dissidence is attacked and in the atmosphere of false religiosity the existence of true dialogue is not just a ‘rupture of institutional order’ but a heresy,” Carlos Monsiváis insisted in Tiempo de Saber.


“It is as though 100 million people are crouched in the shadows watching a fictional television show called ‘our government,’” retired business owner Luis de la Vega told me as we chatted on the patio of his hillside home north of Guanajuato. “Like a lucha libre (pro wrestling) performance, bright lights and grunts and waving to the crowd—it’s all fake, everybody knows it’s fake. Our leaders have beautiful wives, they have mansions and big cars and herds of bodyguards and they tell us how good things are and we have less and less. But we’re just audience, hypnotized…”


Clearing his throat and forcing himself upright, he insisted, “Nietzsche said religion is the opiate of the people. No, the media is.”


The worst months of the economic crisis (October 2008-May 2009) thrust nearly 750,000 Mexican workers out of their jobs as inflation increased and federal and local governments reduced services. Mayors and municipal presidents throughout the country abandoned construction projects and laid off employees, including police and firemen. The drastic reduction in money being sent by emigrants working in the United States further impoverished already struggling marginal communities.


“The fatal bullet,” a retired aluminum plant foreperson described the 2008-2009 crisis: “It killed what already was a quivering corpse.”


Governing authorities enclosed in their “PAN-landia” make-believe, a country of happy people enthralled with bicentennial celebrations and the national soccer team, shunted aside all protest as germinated by “a tiny minority.”


“In Oaxaca it’s a crime to write, it’s a crime to protest, it’s a crime to think,” newspaper correspondent Pedro Matias told members of a Rights Action human rights delegation (of which I was a member).


Protesting farmers in San Luis Potosí battered their state governor with eggs because he failed to acknowledge their complaints about inflation and unemployment. The wives of miners buried by a cave-in at Pasta de Conchos blocked access to the site of the tragedy shouting, “The government wants to forget what happened. Pretend we don’t exist.” The parents of nearly 100 victims of a fire that destroyed a privatized government infant care facility in Chihuahua pounded on bureaucrats’ doors demanding, “Why are you ignoring us?”


“We have no place to turn, no one to turn to,” I hear over and over throughout Mexico. As the governments of Mexico and the United States continue to promote the “War on Drugs” the drug corporations have become better armed than the militaries of many Third World countries. Auto-sufficient farming has disappeared as people desert their crops out of fear or take work constructing roads for drug smugglers and illegal lumbering operations. Competing marijuana and opium poppy growers and exporters commandeer huge swaths of territory in areas where they have become the only government that exists.


For the exploited, those “desde abajo” (“from down under,” a term used by both the Zapatistas and Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly to describe Mexicans disconnected from the ruling elite), the gap between their lives and their needs and the operations by which government-supported entrepreneurs and the monied class control the flow of labor, goods and wealth has widened into an impassible chasm. Other than being able to vote (although not to select the candidates for whom they can cast ballots) those desde abajo and the organizations that represent them—NGOs, labor unions, human rights and environmental groups and university researchers and writers—lack input into the decisions being made by the ruling coteries of Mexico and the United States and by entrepreneurial associations like the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SSP) and the North American Competitive Council (NACC).


Heavily armed security forces restrict access to SSP summit meetings, much as they do to other international collaborations of heads of state like the World Trade Organization. Most of the details of the so-called “Plan Mexico” (renamed the “Plan Mèrida”), which provides armaments and training to Mexican security forces, emerged from SSP meetings before the plan was presented to the Congresses of the two countries for modifications and approval.


That federal police and the military were the primary anti-protest forces used to repress the citizen uprisings at Atenco and in Oaxaca, to contain possible expansion by the Zapatistas, to forcibly evict union workers during the takeovers of the Luz y Fuerza del Centro and to crush strikes in Cananea and Pasto de Conchos has intensified the frustrations of those whose protests haven’t been answered. They share—and fear—what a Witness for Peace bulletin warned: “…if the ‘Plan Mexico’ proposal is any indication, the SSP is going well beyond the economic realm. Taking into account the wealth disparity, extreme poverty, and levels of migration exacerbated by policies such as NAFTA, many wonder if the next key ingredient to any trade agreement would be security measures to both quell the inevitable social discontent and protect private investment.”


“One of the objectives of the administrators of neo-liberal systems like those in the United States and Mexico is to erase all memory of social struggles,” La Jornada correspondent David Brooks quoted Noam Chomsky following a presentation by Chomsky in New York City on June 14, 2009. According to Chomsky, neo-liberal economic philosophy masquerading as “democracy” spreads the costs of generating income among the masses but funnels the profits into the hands of a wealthy minority. PRI administrations from 1982-2000 made efforts to cloak the process that Chomsky described, but PAN, “by, for and of entrepreneurs,” governments blatantly rewarded a select few and impoverished millions, increasing emigration and opening channels for drug corporation capos to flourish.


The legislative support given the Administration by the supposedly “opposition” PRI, enabled PAN operatives to defer tax payments by major corporations, including trans-nationals, and remove subsidies from gasoline and electricity. PAN pushed privatization of health services, social security and government daycare centers and systematically raised taxes, placing even greater financial burdens on the struggling middle and working class.


Chomsky revised the 19th century elitist pronouncement “an intelligent minority has to govern an ignorant and meddlesome majority” by substituting “an elite technocracy” for “intelligent minority,” but he insisted that the same motives—enrichment of the few at the expense of the many—guides the neo-liberal oligarchs just as they did the 19th century financial barons. Control of this “ignorant and meddlesome majority” in Mexico necessitates repression of mass movements, including those originating with labor unions, curbing education, and supplanting indigenous culture with a media dominated “reality show” that exalts consumerism and only peripherally discusses poverty, un- and under-employment and social issues.


This substitution of participatory government for a state-controlled telenovela also keys Mexico’s international relationships, even with countries and agencies that see through the sham. One of the most critical of these agencies, Amnesty International, repeatedly admonished President Calderón’s government for failing to acknowledge and respond to human rights violations. AI’s secretary general, Irene Khan, called Mexico’s attitude towards human rights “schizophrenic,” a label that syndicated journalist Ricardo Rocha insists she applied “with good reason.


 “We fight for human rights in the exterior, signing whatever treaty is put in front of us, while we stomp on those same principles inside out frontiers.”


 Government Secretary Fernando Gómez-Mont defended military personnel after the slaying of two children in June 2010 and the assassinations of two university students in Monterrey by charging human rights investigators with bias. Oaxaca governor Ulisés Ruiz blatantly rejected AI’s documentation of assassinations, disappearances and beatings in 2006 by joking that “they read like they were written by the APPO” (the initials of the Peoples’ Popular Assembly of Oaxaca).


Summarizing AI’s documentation, Rocha insisted, “If those in power evidence a lack of respect for human rights it creates a pernicious and corrosive impunity that corrupts the entire governmental apparatus.”


Journalist and environmental activist Gustavo Esteva asserts that corrupt or incompetent governments can ruin a country’s economic well-being when its institutions “produce the opposite of what they try to do…. Instead of protecting the citizenry the state security apparatus [in Mexico] has dedicated itself to spying and repressing it in order to protect the government and its institutions.”


After federal troops and federal police swept members of the People’s Popular Assembly, passers-by and shoppers into prison without allowing them to consult lawyers or relatives in Oaxaca in 2006, I questioned a state government attorney, “What if most of them are innocent?” “All the better,” he responded, “it will make the rest of the people more afraid.”


PAN’s government turned former federal functions over to private individuals and corporations (including transnationals), increasing their political power as well as their wealth. As a result, these entrepreneurs and corporations—including the major drug exporting organizations—control many aspects of the government instead of the government controlling them. “We don’t know who’s calling the shots,” one participant in a “What Happened to Democracy?” forum in Mexico City complained. “Is the government taking orders from Televisa? The capos? The United States?” Many of those attending concluded that whoever was giving the orders cared only for their own wealth and were willing to see the country deteriorate.


 “For the Spanish crown of the sixteenth century,” Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos insists, “like the neoliberalism of the beginning of the twenty-first century, the only culture is the one they dominate. Indigenous lands were nothing but an abundant source of labor for the Spanish powers, as they are now for savage capitalism.”


Despite countless so-called reforms, constitutional guarantees and supposed concessions on the part of the federal government the majority of Mexico’s indigena population “remain unheard and unattended,” journalist Juan Pablo Montes-Jiménez quoted labor leader Raúl Hilario Sánchez during the latter’s appearance in Oaxaca’s poverty-wracked Mixteca in 2009.


“The conditions of poverty and margination of the pueblos are the road for an upcoming social revolution and the government of Mexico alone is responsible,” Sánchez insisted.


The victims of military aggressions, including destruction of property, theft and rape, flail desperately at whoever will listen because the federal administration denies that the offenses occurred. Courts refuse to examine testimony from community members protesting the arrests and assassinations of those who tried to stop illegal clear cutting of their forests. “We want to be heard,” human rights advocates whose documented reports of violations are shelved, journalists who coworkers have been beaten or killed, indigena communities whose homes are raided and burned by government-equipped paramilitaries, church-p eople who see drug dealers openly recruit adherents in their communities, writers who report the private enrichment of high-ranking government officials and have defamations charges filed against them and thousands of others throughout Mexico shout, write, and demonstrate to no avail.


Meanwhile the government of the United States sends millions of dollars worth of military hardware to Mexico, drives migrants who want to work into the hands of the drug exporting organizations it is trying to contain, whitewashes the massive exportation of arms and military-type weapons and ignores the dangers that the country with which it shares a 2,000-mile border faces as it becomes explosively desperate in its desires for change.  


Robert Joe Stout’s books include Why Immigrants Come to America and The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives. His works have appeared in The American Scholar, South Dakota Review, Conscience and America, among other magazines and journals. He lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo 1: 100 injured and 92 arrested during inauguration protest. Photo 2: Student protest. Photo 3: Massive demonstration in Mexico City against the new president, July 2012. Photo 4: Street confrontation with the police during protests in Mexico. Photo 4: President Enrique Pena Nieto waving to his supporters.