Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 243 | Octubre 2001



How Wide Will the War on Terrorism Cast its Net?

Mexico’s politicians may use the "war against terrorism" to try to subjugate the indigenous peoples even further. The new indigenous law is an historical mistake, but it would be even more perverse to identify indigenous discontent with terrorism.

Jorge Alonso

While the world massively repudiated the barbaric terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, a desire for revenge followed shock and pain among the majority in the United States. A Gallup poll done in 30 countries in mid-September asked whether the US government should militarily attack any country where the terrorist perpetrators are based or should request their extradition to stand trial. Pro-attack responses in Europe ranged between 6% (Greece) and a high of 20% (Denmark), but hit 54% in the United States.

Some in the States did speak out for justice rather than vengeance, arguing that war is not the way, but the spirit of revenge prevailed as most rallied behind President Bush’s declaration of what he said would be a long, hard, insidious war against terrorism. Since it will also be an information war, the media, too, is under pressure to demonstrate its loyalty in a world that Bush warned could not remain neutral.

The proposed war will reach into every nook and cranny, using the most sophisticated technology to dismantle the complicated, resilient terrorist networks. Some even called for suspending restrictions on the CIA’s infamous illegal tactics, which means that civil rights and democracy will suffer many casualties. Fundamentalist fanaticism can be expected to rise around the world, fueling more terrorist acts. Authoritarianism and Manicheanism will also increase, as group terrorism is fought by state terrorism. The United States will again test new arms, increasing the danger that chemical and biological weapons will be used in response. In such a predictable spiral of violence, neither side seems to care about the lives of thousands upon thousands of innocent victims, women, men, children and the elderly who are not involved in the conflict.

Even in the face of such implications, Bush did not appeal to international law as much as once in his declaration. The United States obviously has the right to defend itself, but must do so in accord with international law, which it appears, as so often in the past, to have completely ignored.

Will this humiliation
put an end to sovereignty?

While there is no justification for terrorist acts, the wrongs the United States has inflicted on so many countries could not go unanswered forever. Such arrogant power combined with a globalization that is increasingly marginalizing and impoverishing people breeds hatred and resentment.

Many elements of globalization were visible in this attack, one of which was that it was witnessed around the world as it happened. Another was the inescapable symbolism of the targets: the global market and international financial power in one case and the planet’s greatest military might in the other. The humiliation of having been proved vulnerable in the eyes of the world was enormous and may help explain the disproportionate response.

In this first war of the 21st century, the United States is using this tragedy to legitimate its indisputable hegemony since the disappearance of the Soviet Union by bending now not only our continent but also the rest of the world to its "Manifest Destiny." Using the new mechanisms of globalization, it appears to be moving to establish a global police state under its command, subjecting other countries, disciplining them, leaving them no room to exert their own sovereignty. This war will have numerous fronts, including a financial one: the world’s banks will be supervised, which will secure the dictatorship of financial capital.

War is a two-edged economic sword

Wars have always served as a way for great powers to resolve their economic crises. This will be no exception. Airlines and insurance companies—whose previous financial moves give important clues to understanding what happened—suffered the immediate impact and the financial markets are also down. The situation is volatile, but the rising fortunes of companies tied to security and the war industry will compensate for this in the medium term. Many analysts have further suggested that control over oil resources in many Arab countries also underlies the interest in enlarging the scope of action beyond the accused Bin Laden to include dispersed terrorism in that part of the world.

In countries like Mexico, the economic forecast is disastrous. The government expected economic growth to exceed population growth this year, but the US recession will hit the Mexican economy, leading to no growth or perhaps even a negative growth rate. The war may increase oil exports—which will also be subject to speculation—but the export of other products will be severely curtailed. Tourism will be sharply affected. Many companies will have to shelve technical advances. Unemployment will rise and capital investments will shrink. Despite all this, however, Mexican businesspeople have expressed their support for US policy decisions.

Public opinion

Early surveys in Mexican newspapers showed the immediate impact of the terrorist attacks on the population, with 44% of those polled supporting a US attack on Afghanistan if that country were proven to be protecting Bin Laden. A phone-in tally done by a television program several days later showed that 63% felt Fox was doing the right thing, 20% felt he had done too little and 17% felt his response excessive. It must be remembered that those who respond in this kind of survey are program viewers, have a telephone and are motivated to call.

The same survey by Internet showed somewhat less support for Fox, although it remained above 50%, and revealed some other interesting trends. While 73% said they oppose terrorism, the same percentage would not support sending Mexican troops to war. The sentiment was strong enough that the Mexican government was forced to clarify that it would not send troops. Its collaboration would mainly be related to information.

In this light, the Gallup poll question mentioned earlier becomes particularly interesting because Mexico had a world low of 2% in favor of US military intervention vs. asking for extradition of the terrorists to stand trial. In fact, all of the Latin American countries included were even lower than the vast majority of European ones (Venezuela and Colombia topped the continent with only 11% in favor of a US military response). One reasonable hypothesis for this difference is that Europe is more familiar with the threats of terrorism while Latin America is more familiar with the threats of US intervention. Just looking at Mexico, however, the more important illustration is that people respond to a blind question differently than to one offering choices, which is one of the features distinguishing manipulated public opinion from informed public opinion.

Critical opinions awaken

The event and its aftershocks kept millions of Mexicans numbly glued to their TV screens. While the propaganda they saw and heard clearly influenced people’s responses, many independent analyses were heard. And as with all terrible events, black humor and apocalyptic interpretations were not absent.

Many of the letters to newspapers echoed the sentiment of Noam Chomsky, who described the attacks as "an atrocity in response to the US atrocities." They condemned terrorism and urged a coherent position that would also condemn the inveterate state terrorism practiced by the United States with complete impunity for decades. They agreed with Umberto Eco, who described the US crusade as "insane." A large group of Mexican intellectuals repudiated Bush’s speech for fanning his country’s most aggressive feelings.

One very important alert warned people not to allow the internationalist anti-globalization movement to be criminalized. Preventing the movement’s persecution and even annihilation under the pretext that its street protests encourage "terrorist acts" was defined as an urgent task.

Mexican analysts agreeing with Chomsky added that the holy war called by Bush would undermine the law. The rational response to an irrational crime is to bring it to justice and punish it in accord with the law, not to engage in a unilateral punitive response as criminal as the original and deliver ultimatums to any who think differently.

Fox: Unconditional support
Fuentes: Partners, not servants

The Mexican government was quick to line up as an enthusiastic US ally. Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda declared that the United States had the right to "seek reprisals" and that his government would not bargain with its support. President Fox asked Mexican migrants in the United States to support Bush and the US army, arguing that Mexico and the United States are more than neighbors, they are a family, and when "an evil-doer attacks their house, he attacks our house." Fox also announced to US citizens wherever they might be that they could count on the Mexican government for any help they might need.
For its part, the United States hastened to finalize procedures for regularizing Mexicans’ stay in that country, one of which involves enlisting in the reserves. US Spanish-language television stations reported that Latinos are ready to answer the call and have been among the first to sign up to fight because they are so brave.

Criticisms of the Mexican government’s undignified subordination of the country without consulting the citizenry became increasingly sharp. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) called for the foreign minister’s resignation, describing his statements as incongruent with international law and contrary to Mexico’s noninterventionist foreign policy position and pacifist tradition. Carlos Fuentes stressed in his response to Bush’s "you’re either with us or against us" thinking that Mexicans are partners of the United States, not its "servants."
Mexico’s Inter-Religious Council, which brings together representatives of the Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican Churches as well as Buddhists and Jews, called a day of civic brotherhood and spoke in favor of peace.

Our migrants: how many died?

An estimated half a million Mexican migrants live in New York. Most are there illegally, from impoverished regions in the state of Puebla and the suburban area of Neza in the state of Mexico. Some worked in cleaning and cooking jobs in the World Trade Center. The government has explained the difficulty of determining exactly how many died and who they were since many did not use their real names for fear of being deported. In his visit to Washington only a week before the attacks, President Fox had proposed the need for a migration agreement between the two countries, and Bush’s favorable response was seen as an important achievement for Fox’s government. With the attacks, the plan was either moved to the back burner or dropped off the US agenda altogether.

An organization known as Tepeyac has done important work in the Mexican community in New York. Days after the attack, it sponsored a march by a group of Mexican migrants through the streets of New York to repudiate terrorism, mourn for the dead, denounce the manipulation in the mass media and call for peace. Although they are in the minority, many groups like this are proposing peaceful alternatives, and the crisis might help to build a peace movement.

Against "those the
color of the earth"

Mexican intellectual Adolfo Gilly warned that this war is aimed against "those who are the color of the earth," pointing out that the violent act of a handful of terrorists may paralyze the organization of the oppressed and expose them to retaliation by the powerful. According to Gilly, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was brutal and symbolic, but rather than diminish US military and financial might it helped legitimize its terrible vengeance. And since the people hurt by that might are almost invariably people of color, we must predict that they will be the ones accused of being terrorists and vengefully exterminated. This war without borders will be waged against the wretched of the earth, with anyone who protests against injustice risking denunciation as a potential terrorist and exposure to political and even physical annihilation.

For years, many peasant farmers and indigenous people, especially in Guerrero and Oaxaca, have opted for a long guerrilla war in response to their increasing misery and the impossibility of working through local political structures. In a world war against terrorism, this guerrilla movement, which encompasses a number of different groups, could easily become a target. At the beginning of August, the FARP placed three explosive devices in Mexico City banks that had no destructive capacity and were intended only to spotlight the group’s existence and demands. The government was startled and blew the event out of proportion, while the PRD demanded that it try to talk and reach agreements with the rebel groups. In mid-August, the army and the Attorney General’s Office detained five suspects and announced that guerrilla cells had been organized in eight states. Those detained denied belonging to the FARP, although one admitted belonging to another guerrilla group, the ERP.

The ERP said that two of the people detained were children of one of its members but denied that any were active in its group. It also accused the government of reenacting the dirty war of the 1970s and called on the country’s revolutionary armed groups to unite and prepare to respond politically and militarily to the government "witch hunt." The mayor of the Federal District urged Fox not to crush his adversaries but rather to open channels of dialogue with them. The legislature’s Harmony and Peace Commission stayed out of the debate, explaining that its legal mandate only concerned talks with the EZLN.

The Attorney General’s Office then announced it would seek out guerrillas in the National Autonomous University. At the end of August, Fox announced that the government had begun investigating 400 "very dangerous" people involved in guerrilla movements and working in public and private institutions, a campaign clearly aimed at discrediting the university. Many faculty members felt that a kind of "cold war against culture and knowledge" was being stirred up and charged that the government was not looking for ties between university members and the guerrillas but rather trying to block the democratic proposals emanating from the university.

Similar actions followed the FARP lead. The Villista Revolutionary Army of Pueblo placed two explosives in the Stock Exchange and the Department of Agriculture, which the police deactivated. The group admitted that it had placed the explosives and explained that its purpose was to express its opposition to the government’s economic policies, broken promises and refusal to listen to the demands of broad sectors of the population. Days later, the José María Morales y Pavón National Guerrilla Coalition claimed responsibility for two more small explosive devices. The Government Secretariat warned that people should express their social discontent through legal channels or be prepared to bear the brunt of the law. The destructive process of passing the reformed Indigenous Law and the government’s failure to find peaceful responses to the demands of many indigenous groups have shown that talks are useless and seem to have encouraged such responses as these.

Legal battle against
the indigenous law

After the executive branch published the reforms to the Indigenous Law in its official newspaper in mid-August, the EZLN went silent, while the indigenous communities and municipalities have continued to speak out against the new law in many ways. Oaxaca’s state government and legislature lodged a petition of unconstitutionality with the Supreme Court, arguing that the law negatively affects 418 municipalities that elect their authorities in a traditional way; the petition was joined by 247 of these municipalities. Petitions continued to stream in throughout August and September, as indigenous communities and municipalities from several states, including Chiapas, Guerrero, Mexico, Michoacán, Jalisco and the Federal District, sought protection from the reforms. By the end of September, some 300 legal files against the indigenous legislation had piled up. Nonetheless, Fox praised the reforms in a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and again during his visit to Chile.

Indigenous leaders, anthropologists, lawyers, academics and representatives of grassroots organizations continue to insist that the new law violates several legal instruments. Its approval and publication demonstrates the Mexican state’s lack of political will to recognize indigenous peoples and their cultures, institutions and rights. It is one more sign that the government has abandoned the search for dialogue and consensus with the country’s indigenous peoples. One indigenous rights lawyer described the law as the political class’s blow to the peace process, the national indigenous movement and the sectors that joined the resistance to a cultural hegemony that brings an economic project under its wing.

Indigenous peoples demand decision-making and organizational power, but instead of offering them autonomy, the government has offered condescending policies aimed at protecting and assimilating them. Former bishop of San Cristóbal Samuel Ruiz, who was awarded an international peace prize in Germany, together with former National University rector Pablo González Casanova, charged that the new law not only fails to fulfill the San Andrés accords but also promotes violence. The NGO forum at the World Conference against Racism held in September in Durban, South Africa, condemned Mexico’s constitutional reforms on indigenous rights as failing to meet the conditions for a just, negotiated peace in Chiapas. In Tuscany, 130 representatives of Italian organizations in solidarity with Chiapas rejected the new law and voted to confront President Fox on his visit to Italy.

Spring died in autumn

The head of the National Indigenous Institute in Mexico has recognized that the "war against terrorism" could be used to subjugate indigenous peoples even further. The Zapatista march in the spring of 2001 was the march of those the color of the earth. The autumn has withered the buds of that hope and the current correlation of forces is dangerous for indigenous peoples and those who fight with them for their rights.

Now more than ever, we must combat the notion that there is only one way to think, or that the revenge of wounded imperial pride seeking to use this macabre opportunity to impose globalization under its military and financial dominion can be called justice. Those the color of the earth cannot abandon an idea of justice as equal opportunity for all social groups in which respect for cultural differences is not excluded. The search for peace involves repudiating all forms of terrorism, including state terrorism. In Mexico, the grassroots forces are faced with the challenge of forcing the government to return to the principles of self-determination and non-intervention, to respect for international law and a search for balance, patience and good judgment. Even in this extremely complex global context, we must force it to return to the path of true dialogue to resolve the deep-rooted national problems that have pushed the excluded to desperation and despair.

With each passing day, it becomes clearer that Mexico’s political elite has embraced the wrong solution to the indigenous question. It would be even more perverse for them to identify indigenous discontent with terrorism. Imposition always leads to new and deeper problems. This difficult global situation could offer an opportunity to step back from the wrong path and start again, with authentic talks that lead to truly consensual solutions. Will that be possible?

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