January 18, 2015

Mexico: Fear and Loathing

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE tragic disappearance of 43 students in late September while they were proceeding to a protest meeting has triggered a national outcry in Mexico threatening the stability of government of President Enrique Pena Nieto. After riding high in the opinion polls and being toasted in the financial capitals of the world, his popularity has now taken a beating. He now is being dubbed as the most unpopular Mexican president in recent history. Pena Nieto had won the elections two years ago with a comfortable margin. Under his leadership, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) once again took control of government after more than a decade in the opposition. The PRI ruled the country for most of the 20th century. Mexico has been witnessing unprecedented demonstrations in all its major cities since September. In late November, demonstrators even managed to burn down the main gate of the Presidential Palace. The popular demand is now for the resignation of the president and the holding of new elections. Demonstrators have blocked highways and attacked the offices of the three main political parties. On November 20, the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, demonstrators burned an effigy of the president in Mexico City’s Central Zocalo square while chanting “Pena Out” and carrying banners which described Mexico as a “narco-state”. A Mexican journalist Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez has said that the reach of the drug cartels extends to the highest public office in Mexico. “They control banking and everything else because they have invaded society. This is the problem with Mexico, the rise of organised crime which is very powerful and is integral to its institutions”, he said. According to an American journalist, John Gilber who has authored a book To die in Mexico, $25 billion in illicit drug money enters the Mexican and global financial system every year. POLITICAL TURMOIL The current crisis erupted when the young students from a rural Teacher’s College in Ayotzinapa situated in the state of Guerrero were arrested at the orders of the mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca. The police had surrounded the bus in which the students were travelling in and then opened fire. Three students were immediately killed and several wounded. The remaining 43 students were made to disappear. The mayor, according to reports, did not take kindly to the political activism of the students. The Teachers College had a reputation of being a bastion of Left wing student movements. The police force, apparently hand in glove with the local drug mafia, handed over the students to a gang working for one of the notorious Mexican drug cartels, the “Guerreros Unidos” allegedly at the behest of the mayor and his wife, who had political ambitions of her own. From the evidence that the Mexican authorities have provided so far, the students were brutally killed and their bodies incinerated in a wooded area. DNA tests have conclusively identified the remains of one of the students. The mayor and his wife could only be arrested in November despite a nation wide hunt for them. According to reports, the mayor ordered the arrest of the students to prevent them from interrupting a speech his wife was scheduled to deliver at a political event. The parents of the students, backed by public opinion, have been demanding definitive answers from the Mexican president. Pena Nieto finally met them 33 days after the incident was first reported. One of the relatives of the disappeared students asked the president to explain why the army did not bother to attend to the injured among the students despite being in the vicinity. In the five hour meeting with the president, the parents and close relatives of the missing students accused the central government of being complicit in the killings. They demanded answers for the undue delay in nabbing the mayor, when he could have been arrested on the first day itself. The mayor belonged to the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), the third largest party in the country. The main opposition party is the Authentic National Party (PAN) which was in power at the centre for most of the last decade. The three major parties had joined hands in a “Pact for Mexico” that provides a blueprint for the overhauling of the country’s economy. All the parties have agreed to the implementation of a neo-liberal agenda for transforming Mexico into an engine of growth for the entire region. The state oil company, PEMEX, has been partially privatised and there is an ongoing effort to curtail trade union rights. The pact has proved to be unpopular among large sections of the Mexican population. The slaughter of the students has further fuelled their anger and has contributed to the current political turmoil. On the emotive issue of the students, Mexicans were particularly angry with the government for not taking action against the mayor of Iguala for previous killings. In 2013, the federal authorities allowed the mayor to carry on in office, despite credible reports that he had personally participated in the killing of agrarian activists. In June 2014, according to reports in the Mexican media, the military executed 22 young men in Tlatlaya, which is not far from the site of the latest student massacre. A Mexican military battalion is posted in Iguala just meters away from where the students were first fired on and later abducted, tortured and killed. The federal government has refused to open an investigation into the role of the military in the disappearance of the students. Many Mexicans feel that if the current government would have properly investigated the 2013 killing of students, the latest heinous incident would not have happened. Human Rights organisations in Mexico have estimated that more than 200,000 people have “disappeared” since 2006. The government has admitted to only 26,000 disappearances. SORRY TRACK RECORD OF INVESTIGATIONS The country’s attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam told a press conference in late November, that the 43 missing students should be presumed to be dead. He based his conclusions on the basis of confessions from arrested gang members and the uncovering of the mass grave near Iguala. The students and activists want definitive proof that all the 43 missing students are dead. The government has been able to provide solid incontrovertible evidence regarding only one of the missing students. The Mexican government has a sorry track record as far as investigations into crimes are concerned. Statistics have revealed that Mexican authorities bother to investigate only around 6.2 percent of all crimes. The numbers of kidnapped and “missing” persons have risen sharply in recent years. When the authorities were searching for the 43 students they stumbled on hundreds of unmarked graves containing bodies of the “missing”. Among the bodies was that of a Nigerian Catholic priest, kidnapped earlier in the year. The Mexican president has announced a 10 point plan to reform the country’s security and justice system. These include the removal of police powers from local authorities and an overhaul of the judicial system. Over I800 municipal police forces would be effectively disbanded and would be put under the control of the state governments and the federal authorities. Corrupt local governments would be removed from office and the economic disparity between the northern and southern part of the country would be remedied, President Pena Nieto pledged. The president during a televised address to the nation in late November also promised transparency in awarding government contracts. The president’s wife had come under a scanner after it was revealed that she had received a big loan from a businessman who was awarded a contract to build a high speed rail line. Washington has announced that it would provide $68 million in aid over the next five years to support efforts to reform the Mexican judicial system. The Obama administration has been uncritical of its neighbour’s human rights policies. Pena Nieto’s pivotal role in privatising the oil sector has been well appreciated in the corridors of power in Washington. Big Oil has already rushed into Mexico hoping to make a killing. Instead, the US has further increased its involvement in the so-called war against drugs in Mexico. Billions of dollars have been given to the Mexican government to prosecute its war against the drug cartels. There is very close cooperation between the American and Mexican intelligence agencies with the United States sometimes deploying its military personnel inside Mexican territory to fight the drug-lords. Many of Mexican drug cartels have close links with politicians in their own country, cutting across the political divide, as the recent incident involving the 43 students has illustrated. In November, 2014, three American citizens were killed in the Mexican border state of Tamulipas allegedly on the orders of the mayor of Matamoros. Both Mexican and US officials have been linked to Mexican drug cartels. Recent investigations have also revealed deep seated corruption on the US side of the border. The nationwide protests show no signs of subsiding. The opposition leader, Andres Lopez Manuel Obrador, who lost the elections to Pena Nieto in 2012 on the PRD ticket and has since formed his own party, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA), has denounced the president “as the representative of the Mafia in power”. Obrador had refused to acknowledge the results of the 2012 elections, claiming that they were rigged. He has called for the holding of fresh elections to “create a new form of politics that permits the rebirth of Mexico”.