A Government Trapped in Its Dirty War
Felipe Calderón’s government is illegitimate,
so it’s covering its nakedness in military garb.
The army’s in the streets “to stop drug dealing,”
but the real objective is to prevent and/or repress
the common and increasingly intense social protests.
The list of social activists jailed has reached historic levels.
There’s no more doubt: this is a repressive government
in an increasingly unjust and violent country.
Mexico’s economic, political, social and cultural situation is marked by serious injustices. In very broad strokes: half the population enjoys over 80% of the available income and the other half barely survives on 17.8%. But these halves are not homogenous.
Carlos Slim: The world’s richest manFelipe Calderón’s government is illegitimate, so it’s covering its nakedness in military garb. The army’s in the streets “to stop drug dealing,” but the real objective is to prevent and/or repress the common and increasingly intense social protests.
The list of social activists jailed has reached historic levels. There’s no more doubt: this is a repressive government in an increasingly unjust and violent country.
The inequitable division of wealth is worse now than three decades ago. While 18 million people live in extreme poverty, 10 families enjoy nearly 10% of the national GDP; their fortunes are equivalent to 40% of public spending. One person, Carlos Slim, made a dizzying ascent up the ladder of global wealth and reached the very top. Thanks to the privatization of what was once the state telephone company, with an enormous captive and mercilessly abused market, this one person has amassed a scandalous fortune. Mexico is home to the man who may now be the richest in the world. As economist José Blanco describes it, Slim has dedicated himself to buying failed companies in his and other countries, and “fixing” them, although none of the innovations he has employed are of his own creation; he’s a paradigmatic capital accumulator, not an entrepreneur. It is shameful for one person to be so excessively wealthy when millions have barely enough to eat.
A lacerating inequalityThe man sitting in the President’s office promised in his campaign to be the jobs President, but so far only half a million jobs have been created when there should have been three times that many. In addition, most of the new jobs are poorly paid. One study revealed that 6 out of every 10 workers are super-exploited, lack social security and live in extreme poverty with wages that don’t cover minimal subsistence needs. Each year some 600,000 Mexicans have to leave to seek work they cannot find in the country where they were born. The National Human Rights Commission has had to recognize that economic and social rights are not respected in Mexico. The lacerating inequality has become a serious threat to democratic coexistence.
Army abusesA year after the elections, writer Sergio Pitol, winner of the Cervantes Prize in Literature, declared that President Calderón knows he’s governing illegitimately. Researcher Laura Carlsen of the Washington-based International Relations Center, scholar Víctor Flores Olea, and researcher John Saxe Fernández have all warned that Calderón is trying to assume a leadership he was unable to win at the polls by turning to the armed forces for support. Nonetheless, their anti-drug operations, amply covered in the media, are proving insufficient and ineffective in cutting crime. They merely reveal the government’s weakness and the strength of organized crime, with its powerful financial structure, surplus weapons, and web of complicities in the economic and political system.
In indiscriminately taking to the streets, the army has also clashed with the population. Charges of abuses are increasing. For example, in June 2007, a woman and four children were killed at an army checkpoint in Sinaloa in circumstances that were never clarified. Some witnesses said that the vehicle they were travelling in was fired on before reaching the checkpoint. The governing National Action Party (PAN) tried to minimize the event by saying that the war against crime involves some “collateral damage.” Several days later, a 13-year-old was killed by the army in Guerrero in an aggression the secretary of defense tried to justify. A national human rights organization has confirmed that several military officers raped several young women in Michoacán in May. And the military officers accused of raping 14 women in Coahuila have still not been punished three years after the charge was filed.
The death of ErnestinaThe most scandalous event was the death of Ernestina Ascencio, an elderly indigenous woman in Veracruz, in February 2007. The Veracruz state government first reported that she had been found dead after being attacked and raped by military officers. But President Calderón immediately countered that she had died from gastritis, at which point the local authorities recanted their first statements; the National Human Rights Commission also parroted the government line. After successive contradictory “official stories,” the indigenous authorities announced they would turn to international bodies to seek justice. Jurist Magdalena Gómez said it was public knowledge that the investigations by the Veracruz attorney general’s office indicated that the woman had been raped by members of the army, based on the testimony of family members who heard her last words. Medical reports and other evidence also supported these findings. The official position, caving in to the President’s line, violated fundamental rights related to law and justice and the obvious manipulation of the case.
It was later learned that the President had declared death by gastritis with no evidence whatsoever. Andrés Manuel López Obrador described the case as an offense against the entire nation. Jurist Clemente Valdés said that in no case did the army’s fight against drug trafficking justify attacks and violations of the fundamental rights of any of the country’s inhabitants. Putting the army in the streets to do police work has not contributed to the government’s reputation, but rather led to an increasing number of human rights violations and revealed its enormous incompetence.
In alliance with “a mafia”Another alliance that is discrediting the government is Calderón’s relationship with the anti-democratic leadership of the teachers’ union under Elba Esther Gordillo. In its June 4 issue, the journal Proceso denounced that over the past two decades, this woman has handled some $10 billion in members’ dues and public resources without keeping any precise records on their management. In exchange for her help in manipulating the elections, Calderón has given Gordillo control over the Secretariat of Education and several positions in his enlarged cabinet. Basking in her relationship with the President, Gordillo has proclaimed herself “president for life” of the teachers’ union, which she is running as her own personal fiefdom.
Education specialists lament the open hand-over of educational policies to what they describe as a “mafia.” For their part, union dissidents have sharply criticized Calderón’s decision to cede education to “a corrupt killer and a dictator” and announced that they would fight back. They have mounted massive demonstrations to repudiate changes in the law related to state workers’ pensions and demand reforms in the national education policy.
Is the court independent?In July, the Supreme Court agreed that the main points of what is known as the “Televisa Law”—a set of reforms to the country’s broadcasting law that would grant even greater power and influence to the two biggest broadcasters—are unconstitutional. This awakened hopes that the Supreme Court would defend the Constitution beyond supra-legal accords reached with other branches. The Court also discussed the case of Oaxaca, but simply took note of what was happening without touching those in the federal and state governments who are responsible.
Over 2,000 people demanded that the Court intervene in defense of the constitutional rights of journalist Lydia Cacho, who bravely denounced an influential network of pederasts in her 2005 book, Los demonios del Edén (“The Devils of Eden”). Cacho’s defenders argue that what is at stake in this case is whether common citizens can count on the state
to protect them from criminals operating in alliance with public officials. The investigating commission demonstrated that the governor of Puebla, Mario Marín, and the heads of that state’s judicial branch had seriously violated the journalist’s rights, but any hope that the judicial branch could be trusted to serve the public interest soon crumbled.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) leadership threw its full weight behind its governors in Puebla and Oaxaca, and it became clear that it and the PAN were supporting each other. In early July, the press published a photo in which Calderón and Marín stood together, smiling broadly. Faced with this alliance, the Court shied away from condemning Puebla’s governor.
Six months after the Court established a commission to investigate human rights violations against the population of Atenco when police occupied the municipality last year, it was announced that no date had been set for the Court to issue a report on the case. It was also leaked to the press that the Court had consulted the President’s office before deciding the Televisa case, further evidence of its lack of autonomy.
Poorly executed public worksShortly after that, a hill above a highway in the state of Puebla crumbled and buried a bus and all its occupants. The editorial in the newspaper El Universal noted that this wasn’t a mere accident of nature, but rather the result of a tangled web of official irresponsibility, negligence and corruption in public works and even cynicism on the part of the state’s governor. The highway had been built without doing geological or mechanical studies or considering the area’s geographic characteristics. It was also revealed that the governor had directly assigned 116 works, without open bidding. Only days later, Calderón and the governor inaugurated another stretch of highway, in yet one more sign of the close alliance between Calderón and the PRI governors.
Oaxaca continues to burnIn mid-June, an editorial in El Universal noted that Oaxaca was smoldering. “The killing of opposition figures by paramilitary forces on state orders, according to ample evidence” made it morally impossible for Governor Ulises Ruiz to remain in his post. The Grassroots Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) organized a people’s court on human rights violations in the region. At the trial, evidence was provided on illegal detentions that are effectively kidnappings, the use of psychological and physical torture against those detained, the persecution of family members and political opponents, and the use of state terror in an attempt to subjugate the population.
The people’s court found Ulises Ruiz guilty of crimes against humanity and delivered the documentation proving his crimes to the Mexican House of Representatives. APPO urged the government institutions to take this last chance to demonstrate that they’re capable of taking efficient, timely action to prevent violence. But soon afterward, there was a resurgence of the violence.
Repression in the GuelaguetzaFollowing an earthquake in 1931, Oaxaca’s government came up with the idea for a celebration it called the Guelaguetza, in which indigenous people from 16 different language groups present their traditional dances and songs. “Guelaguetza” means “to participate cooperatively” and is understood to mean that while the indigenous groups offer their creative gift for free, reciprocity is implied. The Oaxacan bourgeoisie very soon took over the festival, however, especially the economic benefits it brings. When APPO emerged last year, it proposed recovering the festival and announced that it would hold a popular Guelaguetza on July 16 with free admission.
Since an enormous crowd of people came to the plaza, many headed off to the Cerro de Fortín, site of the official, commercial Guelaguetza, to be held a week later. It was guarded by the police, who began a confrontation that lasted hours. Some 50 people were wounded and an equal number detained. One member of a human rights committee was arrested and struck so hard he nearly died, even though he put up no resistance. This was not an isolated case; movement members and even passers by were victims of the police brutality. APPO accused President Calderón and Governor Ruiz of responsibility for the violence. The government set bail for each of those detained at $200,000.
A week later, while the governor was celebrating the official Guelaguetza with government bureaucrats and PRI activists attending, APPO and the teachers organized a massive demonstration to denounce the illegal detentions. The Zapatistas expressed their support for the grassroots movement in Oaxaca and the Grassroots Assembly of the People of Guerrero called a demonstration to demand that the disappeared in Oaxaca be presented. Dissident teachers managed to reach the offices of the Secretary of Government to demand talks with Calderón’s government, but were refused. Analyst Carlos Montemayor charged that, instead of holding talks and responding to people’s demands, the federal and state authorities had opted for a strategy of selective repression.
The satrap of OaxacaSeveral social and political organizations issued a joint declaration charging that Oaxaca was again experiencing government violence. They said the state was being run by an abuser of power and that impunity was stronger than ever. They insisted that the roots of the conflict were extreme poverty, marginalization, lack of opportunities for a decent life, miserable salaries when there is work, forced migration and anti-democratic leaders. They said they were prepared to fight this “asphyxiating situation” and demanded that violence be replaced with true dialogue.
Several organizations have charged that the government in Oaxaca is acting as it did during the “dirty war” of the 1970s. A statement to the national and international public by the Center for Economic and Political Research on Community Action condemned the path of violence the three levels of government in Mexico—federal, state and municipal—have chosen in response to the legitimate demands for justice and democracy of the Oaxacan people and the country as a whole. It noted that the grassroots movement in Oaxaca is the result of a democratic, pluralistic process, and that its struggle expresses people’s strong opposition to the abuses they’ve suffered, as well as to the imposition of a neoliberal, ultra-right development model that increases inequalities, social and economic exploitation, exclusion and oppression.
The Center blamed Ruiz, Calderón and his secretary of government for the brutal repression and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the detained, the immediate withdrawal of all repressive and paramilitary forces, the end of the media campaign against the social movements and criminalizing of social activists, and the removal of Ruiz as governor of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca sparks international concernThe International Civil Commission of Observation of Human Rights, the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center and the Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture released a statement expressing their alarm over the events in Oaxaca. They emphasized that for a year the federal and state authorities had failed to stop or prosecute the murders, tortures, arbitrary searches and detentions and a whole series of other violations of individual and collective human rights.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States also expressed its deep concern over the events in Oaxaca after receiving reports about detained people whose whereabouts are unknown. It reminded the Mexican state that it is duty bound to respect human rights. Amnesty International announced that it would visit Mexico in the first week of August to look into the situation in Oaxaca. Scholar José Antonio Crespo recalled that the illegitimacy of Calderón’s government lies at the heart of the problem and noted that there are clear signs that the PRI has agreed to pact with Calderón in exchange for impunity for its governors and thugs.
Investigating the fraudA year after the presidential elections, a third of the population still views the electoral process as “very bad,” and nearly half could not say there was no fraud. While election officials describe these elections as “felicitous” and Calderón announced that his project would continue beyond the end of his term, a strong civic movement has proposed establishing a Truth Commission to investigate the 2006 fraud. A large part of society has not forgiven the powers that be for this assault on the nation.
The PRI’s presidential candidate published a book in which he complains of his betrayal by Elba Esther Gordillo and describes the presidential elections as fraudulent. López Obrador, the PRD candidate, also published a book explaining how a mafia made up of former President Fox, big business and the media stole the presidency. He describes the fraud as a state operation in which the election institute played a fundamental role, and polling places were taken over by electoral criminals.
One important indication of fraud was the unusually high turnout in some 9,000 polling places, so high that it surpassed the elemental rules of probability. Furthermore, nearly half the votes at these same polling places, were cast for the PAN candidate and only a quarter for the PRD candidate—a difference of over 15 points, compared to the national average of just half a point. Several election experts have surmised that most of these votes were false.
A movement that A huge event held a year after the 2006 elections again filled Mexico City’s Zócalo. The celebrated writer Elena Poniatowska described Fox’s interference in those elections as a betrayal of democracy. She urged the people gathered to use “the critical exercise of memory woven with the unbreakable strands of history” to oppose the forgetfulness urged on the public by those responsible for the fraud.
resists and advances
In his speech, López Obrador emphasized that the powers that be have been unable to destroy the movement that emerged in opposition to the election fraud. He called the government officials’ scandalous incomes and benefits unacceptable and the idea of a country with poor people and a rich government intolerable. He spoke in favor of changing the course of economic policy and demanded the resignation and punishment of governors Ruiz and Marín, as well as punishment of those responsible for human rights violations.
López Obrador also expressed his pleasure at finding in a tour of the country that millions of people are ready to take up a peaceful fight for real change. Despite the information blockade put up by the mainstream media, this movement is not only resisting but advancing. Faced with a rotten political society, the transformation the country so desperately needs has to come from the bottom up.
Calderón refuses to The journalist Carmen Aristegui asked López Obrador whether he would be willing to debate Calderón, and the opposition leader replied that he would indeed. He said he would ask Calderón for a full explanation of the waste in public spending and government contracts, of why he had given the Secretariat of Education and the funds from teachers and other state workers to Elba Esther Gordillo, why the army is being managed as it currently is, and why Calderón had refused to agree to a vote recount.
debate López Obrador
Calderón did not agree to the debate. One of his spokespeople replied that the presidential office only speaks with other government institutions. The PRD asked why, if this was the case, he has kept up a congenial public dialogue with Elba Esther Gordillo. Calderón responded with a verbal attack on the Federal District’s PRD government. The daily La Jornada noted that Calderón’s undeniable aversion to the district’s authorities contrasts with his obsequious attitudes towards discredited and indefensible governors like Ruiz and Marín. In an interview with Proceso, historian Lorenzo Meyer said that the Right is afraid of democracy, and this could lead it to any means, including violence.
A murky case that A scandal that further discredited the federal authorities was the case of Zheni Ye Gon, a figure who passed himself off as a prosperous, respectable Chinese businessman. He was granted Mexican citizenship in 2002 after an unusually rapid process and was given his documents by Fox himself in a public event in early 2003. In March 2007, some $205 million in cash was discovered in his luxurious residence. It was learned that he had been involved in importing raw materials for illegal drug producers as well as for the pharmaceutical industry. But to bring in large quantities of strictly controlled substances, he must have had the consent of the Secretariat of Health, which grants the necessary permissions, as well as the customs office. Zheni Ye Gon was arrested in late June in the United States, but the government clarified that he was arrested on charges filed by the US Drug Enforcement Agency and not because of what had been discovered in Mexico.
remains in the shadows
There were also accusations that he had supported the campaigns of PAN and PRI candidates. After the 2000 presidential campaign it was proven that both parties had illegally handled campaign funds, and it appears that Calderón’s government was concerned about possible evidence of illegal management of his campaign funds as well.
It wasn’t clear where the money siezed from Zheni Ye Gon ended up: the government reported that it had been deposited in the Bank of America and then returned to Central Bank vaults, but without giving a convincing explanation for this move. The official newspaper simply reported that since the money had been abandoned, it had become the property of the Mexican state. Economist Mario di Costanzo called attention to the fact that the movement of the funds looked like money laundering to erase the tracks of how an individual came to have so much cash in hand. The confiscated money should have been left untouched as evidence for a trial in this case so laced with contradictions. López Obrador demanded that federal authorities do an in-depth investigation rather than engage in a media campaign to mitigate the impact of the scandal.
An explosive sabotageSeveral serious fires at facilities of PEMEX, the state oil company, also sparked political tensions. According to official reports on June 22, a bolt of lightning struck a tank in a refinery in the state of Nuevo León. On July 5 there were explosions in oil ducts in the state of Guanajuato, and a few hours later, another duct exploded in the state of Querétaro. Although the accidents happened in unpopulated regions, thousands of inhabitants had to be evacuated.
The first official report of the events were that illegal extraction had lowered the pressure in the pipes and this had led to the fires. Later, however, the People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR) claimed responsibility for planting eight explosive devices in the pipes as surgical strikes. The EPR announced that it was conducting a national campaign “against the interests of the oligarchy and the illegitimate government,” indicating that these actions would not stop until the governments of Calderón and Ruiz presented two of its members who had been detained and disappeared at the end of May in Oaxaca.
The government had to admit that the PEMEX facilities had been attacked. Political analyst Octavio Rodríguez Araujo said that some will seek ways to act against institutions that don’t work or are used to repress social movements, and emphasized that the guerilla groups emerged from the governments’ unwillingness to respond to the people’s growing demands. Journalist Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa recalled that the authorities had failed to respond to a public demand in early June to present the two people later named in the EPR statement. Both the federal and Oaxaca governments denied holding them, and the army mobilized its elite troops.
Carlos Montemayor, an expert in Mexico’s guerilla forces, explained that such groups invariably arise because of social issues and cannot be dealt with through military measures alone. The government hasn’t learned that there are consequences to defending despots like Ruiz. The EPR’s statement revealed a resurgence of some of the dirty war’s main features, such as forced disappearances. As the height of cynicism, a plan appeared in the PAN’s ranks to accuse López Obrador and the PRD of responsibility for the attacks, when his movement has demonstrated for over a year that it has chosen a peaceful route despite the many attacks against it.
Was it the guerrillas?Some continued to insist that the attacks were likely carried out by drug traffickers to distract the army. Surveys showed that some 60% didn’t believe the EPR was responsible and over 40% felt the explosions were a smoke screen to distract attention from other problems. In a later statement the EPR insisted that the disappeared were in the hands of the federal police and military forces and named a general responsible for their torture. They said it was not a question of smoke screens or pitiful speeches about poverty and social struggle, but of a political reality.
Instead of resolving matters, however, this statement aroused greater suspicions. Some thought it might have been planted by the government to create confusion, because it seemed to imply that the movement in Oaxaca was led by the EPR and suggested a “settling of accounts” that could lead to greater repression.
Víctor Flores Olea said the explosions, which had affected production in many of Mexico’s industrial facilities for several days, had the ring of a provocation to promote the privatization of PEMEX. Commentator Luis Hernández, however, continued to argue that the explosions had to be recognized as the work of the EPR and that the political class should understand that they are an actor on the national political stage.
In any case, it’s important to remember that the guerilla groups in Mexico have been infiltrated. Meanwhile, an EPR splinter group that calls itself the People’s Armed Revolutionary Forces issued a statement in late June criticizing Plan Puebla Panama for not proposing development alternatives for the poor or productive projects or the creation of socially beneficial companies, but only large investments of oligarchic capital.
A lack of justiceNeither the Fox nor Calderón governments have been concerned about human rights. Fox had promised that justice would finally be done in the long-pending cases of student repression in 1968 and the dirty war waged by the Mexican state against dissidents. But the commission established to this end was disbanded with no results. On learning that one of the main people accused in this war, former President Luis Echeverría, had been granted amnesty, Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, a persistent fighter for the presentation of those disappeared in the dirty war, stated that this revealed the complicity of the PAN and the PRI. For its part, the Committee of 68 announced that it would ask the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate this denial of justice. Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa wrote that in no country do politicians who exercise power enjoy such social and judicial impunity as in Mexico.
Cases of human rights violations have been reported day after day as this was going on. In Mérida several young people were arrested for opposing neoliberal globalization. In San Luis Potosí people were persecuted for opposing ecological depredation by a mining company. In Toluca an adviser of Mazahua women was jailed for teaching them to defend themselves. In Oaxaca yet more social activists were jailed. In Atenco those who defended people’s right to the land received maximum sentences, something that not even the largest drug traffickers get.
The list of social activists jailed under the PAN governments has reached historic levels. When Calderón visited Europe, he was met with protests over the Atenco and Oaxaca cases. In his meeting with Calderón, the Italian prime minister expressed his concern over human rights in Mexico. Carlos Montemayor has noted that Calderón’s government is trapped in the logic of the dirty war; instead of dialogue it has chosen to torture, kill and disappear social activists.
Raúl Vera: A persecuted bishopMexico is a country of impunity. Although the International Labor Organization called on the Mexican government to investigate the tragic explosion in the Pasta de Conchos mine, those responsible still haven’t been punished nearly a year and a half later. And federal entities have sought to harass, persecute, and intimidate Bishop Raúl Vera for standing alongside the miners’ families and the women raped by military officers in this state.
Bishop Vera has stated that both he and the miners’ families believe the company is hiding the bodies of the workers buried by the explosion because they don’t want it known that the “accident” was caused by lack of maintenance. He has noted that both the company and the federal government have lied to the miners and their families, and is asking for impartial mediation to determine the real causes of the tragedy.
He has also called on the government to return the military forces deployed throughout the country to their barracks and to deal with organized crime networks by intervening in the financial institutions where they have been allowed to make illicit investments. The bishop has expressed his concern about the recent turn of events in Mexico, where the army is given carte blanche to act, as though we were living in a dictatorship.
A repressive military regimeBishop Vera has not given in to those who have tried to silence him, but has instead charged that from the Pasta de Conchos Mine case under Fox’s administration through the most recent events in Oaxaca, what has prevailed is repression exercised by a small group that sees all who fight for a small measure of justice as criminals. He has accused the current government of having formed “a repressive regime.”
Participants in the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign have held public events in which they have demanded that the federal authorities stop the policy of harassment and terrorism against social organizations and free all political prisoners. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has asked for evidence to begin a suit against the Mexican state for human rights violations. Amnesty International has described the Calderón government’s human rights record as disappointing and called for in-depth investigations of the Atenco and Oaxaca cases. Porfirio Muñoz Ledo has suggested that a special prosecutor be named to investigate Fox and insisted that the current impunity must cease.
A group of intellectuals who have gathered together as the “Grupo Sur” issued a statement arguing that Calderón’s government lacks legitimacy and has decided to cover its nakedness in military garb. They said the army is supposedly in the streets to fight drug trafficking, but that the real objective is to inhibit, repress and criminalize social protest, adding that the country is witnessing the institutionalization of lies. The group called on people to work from the trenhes to develop more effective and bold resistance, to move beyond responding to the daily aggression and take a more proactive stance.
The temptation of violent responsesThe institutionalized violence in Mexico foments the oppression and exploitation of the majority, who live in terrible poverty. The proclaimed transition to democracy has not happened, merely a change within the regime. Corruption has been consolidated, while the corporativism invented by the PRI has been refined and perfected by the PAN. There is no democracy in Mexico. The small spaces for negotiation have been closed and the police and military repression against social protest has increased. In this climate, some have been tempted to respond in kind, with violence, but this only aggravates the situation. The official powers and the powers that be, all enemies of the people’s causes, hold the most sophisticated weapons and the most resources.
Violent responses won’t bring about justice. The only viable path to true change is found in two large movements: the Other Campaign and the one that arose in response to the electoral fraud. Both have chosen to patiently organize the discontent of those from below. We have to oppose the multiple and destructive violence of the official and unofficial powers with the construction of an active non-violence.
Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS West and envío correspondent in Mexico.