Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 333 | Abril 2009



A State Less and Less Willing to Tolerate Social Protest

Indigenous, youth and neighborhood groups met in Jalisco in February and March to discuss the Mexican state’s mounting repression of social movements. Its obvious aim is to instill fear and resignation, inhibit the protests and teach a lesson to any who dare participate.

Jorge Alonso

Repression has been on the rise in every corner of Mexico, particularly due to the criminalization of social protest and the surge in violence and insecurity. The national press confirmed that crime has shot up since the start of President Calderon’s six-year term and the UN indicated that 37% of Mexicans feel fear even in their homes.

Violence with a war logic

In late February the US government was forced to admit that the Mexican state’s war on drug trafficking was taking a high toll on society due to the long list of civilian casualties. The US report stated that high levels of impunity were leading many victims not to report crimes and as a result, corruption was rife at all government levels in Mexico. It also singled out the indigenous population as being the most vulnerable to arbitrary detentions, torture and intimidation. Yet right as this report was released, the US House of Representatives endorsed a bill that included hundreds of millions of dollars for the Mérida Initiative, which would further Mexico’s militarization and its inefficient fight against drug trafficking.

The Miguel Augustín Pro Human Rights Center has charged that the state’s public security plans are being conceived with a war logic in which loss of civilian lives is viewed simply as collateral damage. It has also documented the obstacles that military influence in civilian life implies for a country’s democratization. In March 2009 writer Carlos Fazio argued that the United States had Mexico in a “Columbianization” phase, a “larval intervention by stages.” Mexico, he said, had been put in a position of limited sovereignty under the euphemism of military cooperation while the self-styled fight against drug trafficking had created a national-level policy against social struggle.

Early this year Amnesty International announced it was investigating the human rights situation in various Mexican states, looking in particular into threats and aggression suffered by human rights defenders and activists. In Guerrero, after having been threatened “for defending Indians,” two members of a human rights organization were kidnapped during an official event and subsequently tortured and killed. Many national and international human rights defense organizations and networks condemned the lack of state effectiveness in safeguarding the physical integrity and lives of human rights defenders in Mexico, demanding that these extrajudicial executions be investigated and prosecuted.

There are strong calls for independent investigations to uncover the truth, given signs that authorities are involved. Various political prisoners from Oaxaca also sent a letter to the second Ordinary Congress of the Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly in February to publicize the repressive situation experienced by various Oaxacan communities. They asked the congress not to forget that they were prisoners for having fought at their people’s side.

Reviewing history

The groups that met in Jalisco to examine the situation reviewe Mexico’s history of repression, going back to World War II. At that time the United States pressured Mexico to pass legislation condemning people who worked on behalf of the Axis powers (Germany-Italy-Japan). That was the birth of the law on social dissolution, although it was never applied during the war. The authorities first used this law during the fifties to imprison opposition leaders when their social and political movements refused to accept either the lack of union democracy or the price increases for food and services.

Student movement leaders were condemned for this same offense in 1968. A year after the student massacre, an independent legislator managed to get the offense repealed. But the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran the country for 70 years, found new ways to incriminate social activists, especially during the “dirty war” of the seventies, which to this day remains unpunished. During that period the repressive state apparatus practiced torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial execution.

Also reviewed were political disappearances, which involved a constellation of human rights violations such as torture and the existence of clandestine jails. In the seventies the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, Disappeared, Persecuted and Exiles was born. Its slogan was “They were taken alive, we want them back alive.” Later on activists from different leftwing factions formed the National Front against Repression, which took up the demand that the state return alive those it had “disappeared,” reveal the truth about the dirty war and punish those responsible.

Following the path of repression

The state continued to repress movements of indigenous peoples, peasants, workers, students, residents of poor neighborhoods, women, ecologists, people fighting for electoral democracy, etc. in the eighties. To study the situation since the nineties, the groups used the research done by political prisoners Gloria Arenas and Eugenia Gutiérrez called “The Path of Repression,” which examines political persecution between 1990 and 2008. Its rigorous compilation and analysis of piles of information reveals the Mexican state’s repressive machinery. The first part of the study focuses on the imprisonment of activists, sympathizers and militants of social movements and detects regions and groups where persecution has been unremitting. Following the path of popular movements the authors also discovered the path of repression.

The authors see the state’s aim as reducing grassroots movements to a resigned state so they only dare express their disagreement halfheartedly and in fact prefer inaction to repression. They describe it as part of an extensive plan for ongoing and constant extermination to halt the advance of any show of rejection of human rights abuses (social, economic, political, cultural and environmental). The instruments of political persecution include imprisonment, disappearance, murder, persecution with or without an arrest warrant, job dismissal, vilification, exile, harassment, threats, aggression, disqualification, torture, sexual violence, massacres, massive repressive coups with huge detentions and, finally, militarization. They rightly argue that state violence is occasionally directed at a single person, as was the case with journalist Lydia Cacho, who denounced child sexual abuse networks protected by governors, but it produces social repercussions and that gives it a collective character. The purpose of repression is not just to inhibit protests but even more importantly to teach a lesson to those who dare engage in them.

The inventory compiled by social activists Arenas and Gutiérrez takes as its starting point the repression of the movement against the fraudulent elections in 1988 and subsequent years. There is a constant muted repression, but there are also moments when it becomes strident and such cases reveal the modus operandi of those in power. For example, in mid-1995 a group of Guerrero peasants were headed to the city to protest the disappearance of some of their leaders, when the governor of Guerrero, who belonged to the PRI, ordered a road block in a place called Aguas Blancas. The police fired on the farmers with no motive at all, killing 17 and wounding 24. The police tried to plant weapons on them to make it look like there’d been a confrontation but a reporter gave the lie to the official version with graphic evidence. So great was the ensuing scandal that the governor had to resign.

Another example: at the end of 1997 a group of paramilitaries in Chiapas, protected by the army and the police, massacred 21 women, 9 men, 9 girls and 6 boys who were praying in a chapel. Those at the top who were responsible have never been brought to justice. The following year several peasants who provided support to the Zapatistas were killed and their executioners haven’t been punished either. The repression of the inhabitants of San Salvador Atenco and of the Oaxacan grassroots movements in 2006 is exemplary for its cruelty and the lack of punishment for the guilty.

A hundred political
prisoners per month

These are the most scandalous examples of the repression, but there were 26 massive repressive blows between 1990 and June 2008. A search of the records reveals that there has been a monthly increase of more than 100 political prisoners since 1997, and that figure shot up to several hundred in May 2004, August 2005 and May and November 2006. The number of social activists in prison totals several thousand. Those persecuted aren’t accused of political offences but of phony common crimes. The state’s revenge against social leaders takes the form of protracted imprisonments, as in the case of the leader from Atenco, who was sentenced to a consecutive prison sentence of 112 years. Several of those detained have been sent to prisons far from their homes to prevent their families from supporting them.

Some people have been imprisoned not for participating in some movement but for being related to those who have. There are also cases of people detained for political motives who have not been brought before the judicial authorities. The study details tortures, beatings, kidnappings, rape, evictions, torching of fields and houses, destruction of community radios… Many social activists have had to go into hiding, unable to visit or have contact with their families. One outstanding element of the repression is the business opportunities that accrue to the repressors, since as well as imposing exorbitant fines on those who suffer repression, the captors usually steal their possessions.

The repression is always marked by injustice, impunity and complicity by the repressors. The study’s authors show that repression is a violent state reaction to outbreaks organized by disgruntled social movements that affect the economic interests of some powerful minority. Persecution seeks to instill fear, doubt, blame, weariness and desperation in social movements to slow up their advance. In short, it’s generalized governmental terrorism to block dissent.

Zapatista ideas and plans
to deal with the repression

The groups meeting in Jalisco to reflect on this history recalled that in mid-2007 the Sixth Commission of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) proposed setting up a national forum against repression because the groups in its Other Campaign were being besieged, persecuted and repressed. They decided they needed to think about repression in order to know how to deal with it. Those taking part in the Other Campaign realized that repression involved disinformation, adverse propaganda about social activists, threats, harassment, persecution, kidnappings, deportations, forced exile, imprisonment, disappearances and assassinations of social activists.

While displaying many similarities to previous repression, the repression today also has many differences. Previously it was a weapon by the state party against the people. Now it’s used by all parties, even those that claim to be leftist. The weaker the government, the more easily it resorts to repression. Repression is a daily occurrence for indigenous peoples, thousands of whom have had to flee their homelands to avoid being killed. Human rights defenders continue to be harassed and many have lost their life. More recently, protests against the effects of the capitalist system, more numerous due to the crisis, are being persecuted.

It’s necessary to fight repression and impunity. The Zapatistas suggested anticipating repression in order to know how to recover from its blows. Seeing how starting from zero would be a serious problem, it was decided that each group would work on its own, accumulating and synthesizing everyone’s experience and not waiting to be hit before reacting.

At the same time, though, all agreed on the urgency of putting up organized resistance regionally and nationally, given that fragmentation and disconnectedness lent itself to the success of the low intensity warfare strategy. If for each victim of the repression not only one replacement but two appeared to occupy their place, if two autonomous groupings came into being every time one was struck, it would show the futility of repression.

In 2008, the Other Campaign pushed the idea of a forum for freedom and organization and against repression. Given that the state was using new forms of repression, it had to think of other methods of struggle so the repression wouldn’t leave social activists just looking for the disappeared and freeing their prisoners. Organizing autonomously was shown to be very effective against repression. In this way Zapatismo has been organizing the search for mechanisms against repression and state terrorism so as not to get trapped in immobility.

A policy of public insecurity

In September 2008, on its 20th anniversary, the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center published a document titled “Human rights under siege: Public security and justice in Mexico.” It argued that the state uses the public security debate to safeguard its power and avoid dealing with the population’s real security needs. It has resorted to iron fisted policies and showy operations behind which it customarily hides its inaction in responding to the structural roots of crime and insecurity. The iron fist hasn’t lessoned criminal violence, however. The statistical average of deaths attributable to organized crime doubled between 2005 and 2008, without including civilians killed by state actors violating human rights in their operations against crime. On the judicial side, repressive legislative reforms have been proposed but disdain for human rights has meant decreased rather than increased public security.

This document severely criticized the militarization of public security under Calderón’s government given its serious violations of fundamental rights. It also analyzed the Mérida Initiative as reinforcing a dysfunctional public security policy. Many civic organizations have warned that this initiative will extend the Mexican government’s failed politics. The Human Rights Center argued that the lack of deterrents in Mexico’s penal justice system didn’t grow out of a lack of severe punishments but rather high indices of impunity. It recalled, among other things, the repression on May 28, 2004, during the Third Latin America, Caribbean and European Union Summit in Guadalajara, involving dozens of illegal detentions and torture. It also recalled that there were 50 or so women among the victims of human right’s violations in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, many of them tortured in addition to being sexually abused and even raped by the police.

Two scandalous cases

In March 2009 a reporter revived the case of three Ñahñú-speaking women, sentenced two years ago to more than 20 years in prison for allegedly kidnapping six armed agents, after the prison director admitted to him that the accusation was not only unfounded but not even credible, as who could believe that some unarmed indigenous women could have kidnapped six armed police. The journalist reconstructed the events: when villagers surrounded several police agents who had arrived to destroy and steal, they got scared and sent for reinforcements. Once their chiefs arrived, they agreed to repair the damage and left one policeman as a guarantee. They did indeed return and paid for the damage, so everything seemed to be sorted. But the police wanted revenge and sometime later filed a kidnapping charge against the three women who had taken part in the popular resistance. They couldn’t accept people, particularly women, defending themselves against their abuse. This case is only one example of thousands of innocent people who have been imprisoned merely for daring to stand up for their rights.

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) confirmed that a joint operation was conducted in May 2007 between the federal army and Oaxaca State police in which two guerrillas of the People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR) were detained and immediately disappeared. The CNDH made a recommendation about the disappearance of the two men in 2008, which was rejected in March of this year by Oaxaca’s PRI governor, Ulises Ruiz. Writer Miguel Angel Granados Chapa charged that by rejecting it the governor was incriminating himself as the head of the team that had captured the two EPR members, because had he not done so he would have been in the awkward situation of investigating the behavior of police agents acting on his orders.

The Supreme Court rules
on the Atenco case

Because the Atenco case has been especially scandalous, the country’s Supreme Court got involved. This February, after a long time, Justice José de Jesús Gudiño presented a finding for examination by the court plenary. It confirmed that there had been a serious violation of individual guarantees and constitutional rights to life, physical integrity, sexual liberty, non-discrimination on the basis of gender, inviolability of the home, personal liberty, due process, decent treatment of detainees and the right to justice.

The document maintained that public force had been used excessively, disproportionately, inefficiently and indolently; that the Mexican state had used the police force in an irresponsible and arbitrary fashion. The authorities’ intervention had negative results, given that it instilled mistrust in the state and fear, fertile ground for insecurity, injustice and impunity.

Despite the weight of this ruling, the Court disassociated itself from the recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission with reference to the violation of the guarantee of minors and to the young man who had died of a gunshot wound. The Court declared it had no proof that the shot had come from a police weapon. In the case of the women, it admitted that the aggression they charged could constitute acts of torture forbidden by national and international law and that the police had violated the sexual freedom of the women sent to prison.

The judgment questioned the attitude displayed by both the federal attorney general and the one in Mexico State for not conducting the necessary tests on the evidence or collecting the statements required in investigating accusations of sexual abuse. But most of the justices did not want to find out who was responsible and with their resolution sought to hand impunity to high-level officials.

An unusual sentence: All but one

During the discussion, Justice Genaro Góngora argued that there was enough proof to consider that the young man had been killed by a police weapon, but the others cleared the police of responsibility.

Justice Góngora directly blamed the state by pointing out that what had happened had been an act of vengeance in which superior commanders had intervened with crowd control techniques used in the dirty wars in South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Guatemala, Vietnam and Mexico in the seventies. He argued that its tactical nature meant it couldn’t have been an improvised operation since it required forward planning that could only have been the result of coordination among different administrative and political groups. For Góngora, they were dealing with an operation that couldn’t have been carried out without the orders of high-level political authorities, and he severely condemned the excessive brutality of this act of repression.

His colleagues disagreed. And though the majority accepted that serious violations had been committed through the excessive use of public force, 10 of the 11 justices exonerated the governor of Mexico State. The man in question, who was secretary of Federal Public Security when the attack on the Atenco people took place, also happened to be the PRI’s front-runner for the 2012 presidential candidacy and the current attorney general of the republic. Seven justices said the violations had only been committed by some police and intermediate commanders. The Court resolved that the investigations should be widened in order to issue guidelines and considerations and concluded that legislation should be passed to regulate the use of public force.

Macro-impunity on top
of macro-repression

On receiving this result, members of the Atenco movement shouted at the justices that they were corrupt and were murdering justice. The president of the Senate Human Rights Commission, social activist Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, declared that the highest tribunal in the country had fallen into disrepute with its decision. The president of the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Human Rights Center considered it disgraceful that the Court had shied away from exercising its power by naming those at the highest level responsible for planning and ordering the Atenco operation. From Barcelona the International Civil Commission of Human Rights Observation commented that the ruling once again buttressed the impunity with which the Mexican state responds to serious violations of fundamental human rights.

The Supreme Court’s conclusions in the Atenco case confirmed negation of justice as the standard state response. To the violent repression suffered by Atenco’s peasants must now be added judicial repression, as their legitimate aspirations of obtaining justice have been violated. Lawyer Magdalena Gómez wrote that political reckonings had led to “failed justice.” It was an aberration that a social activist who had neither robbed nor killed anyone was sentenced to over 100 years in prison for defending his land, a sentence not dished out to even the biggest criminals or drug traffickers.

In the 2009 carnival celebrations, the Atenco peasants’ movement included in its traditional ritual the demand for its prisoners to be freed. One commentator said that if there had been macro-repression in Atenco in 2006, macro-impunity was striding the land in 2009.

These are times of civil rage

The Court handed down its ruling on the Atenco case in a context qualified by one retired justice as “civil rage” against the sitting justices’ pro-oligarchy and anti-grassroots judicial rulings. This is further aggravated by the scandalous size of their salaries, with benefits hitting half a million pesos a month, next to a population submerged in crisis-deepened poverty. The newspaper El Universal wondered what kind of confidence citizens can have in a judicial branch that lives in privileged conditions that offend social sensitivity and a sense of justice.

Also in March, members of the national and international campaign “Freedom and Justice for Atenco,” including Bishop Raúl Vera and Dominican priest Miguel Concha, went to the prison where social activist Ignacio del Valle and 14 other political prisoners were being held. They were forbidden to talk to the detainees on the grounds that they were under maximum security. The visitors argued that they were political prisoners and that the legal system had been used against them illegitimately because they’re not criminals but members of a land defense movement. One legislator who was taking part stated that the prison authorities were accomplices in holding innocent prisoners. The group called for the struggle against the governors to continue to keep them from manipulating the law according to their whims.

The symbolic case of Lydia Cachos

The Supreme Court’s behavior in the Atenco case followed the same path as in Lydia Cacho’s case, where most of the justices blatantly and cynically protected the governor of Puebla. The only thing achieved in the Cacho case was that in March of this year the National Human Rights Commission detected probatory elements determining that the journalist had been subjected to physical and psychological torture and that her rights to legality, juridical security and protection of her health, integrity and personal security had been violated. It thus issued a recommendation to the governments of Puebla and Quintana Roo that they investigate whoever had directly taken part in the journalist’s detention and make amends for the damage. But Puebla’s governor, shown by a telephone communication to have been the person who gave the order for these outrages, has not been brought to justice.

On International Women’s Day several civil organizations, including the Eureka group and “Children for identity and justice against oblivion and silence,” demonstrated in front of the Supreme Court building demanding that more than half a thousand political disappeared be presented alive. The resounding slogan again that day was the historical “They were taken alive, we want them back alive.” In particular, the demonstrators demanded that the women who were disappeared during the dirty war be presented and insisted that justice be done for the women assaulted in the Atenco operation. As part of the celebrations that day the Zapatistas held an international forum dedicated to a woman whose sons had been disappeared for political reasons. A Mazahua indigenous woman, persecuted and imprisoned in the Atenco operation, took part, sharing with those present the messages of solidarity and love she received during her imprisonment. Zapatista Captain Elena asked when bad governments would stop harassing them, stating that when women organize and protest they are persecuted, insulted and even murdered.

It’s necessary to learn to
“read” the repression

The existence of so much repression has not prevented grassroots resistance. The Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly held its second congress precisely to rescue and continue the process interrupted by the repression. They made alternative government proposals through assemblies and suggested a new way of doing politics, of governing themselves from below, rescuing the experience prior to the repression.

The grassroots and indigenous groups that have been reflecting on repression stress that it’s is a unilateral action by the state to contain those who question it. Repression instills fear and imposes violence in order to maintain power over those who struggle and resist. The state’s justice and its laws are part of a system based on repressive domination.

These groups have emphasized that acts of repression oblige movements to concentrate on legal mechanisms to free their prisoners and while that is certainly important, they need to ensure that such efforts don’t consume all their energy. They examined various scenarios set up to imprison social activists: police infiltration into the movements, and both paid and spontaneous provocateurs.

Just as the state learns from the movements in order to try to control them, the movements must also learn from government repression to try and avoid it and know how to confront it, given the general response is improvised and not very effective voluntarism. To resist the notion that repression is inevitable, it needs to be understood that avoiding it is feasible, given that there’s nothing determined or absolute in the political game. It’s necessary to learn from one’s own mistakes and read the signs of repression. Those ordering the repression want to convince us that the only way to avoid it is by not fighting. This way of seeing and dealing with repression should be turned around. It’s not necessary to wait to be taken prisoner and beaten, ways to neutralize it before it happens need to be examined.

Repression isn’t uniform, it has many guises, and being assimilated is one of them. There’s also a structural repression that manifests itself in day-to-day life. Families are also repressed in order to deactivate social movements. Solidarity action is an element that always hinders repression.

Operate underground
and stay autonomous

Many reflections were shared in Jalisco. There’s a growing conviction that entering power’s space and time puts the grassroots social movements in a very fragile position. They need to leave this setting and use their own space and time to build on. Visibility exposes; it’s more advisable to fight underground. There are many forms of self-defense in neighborhoods and the community that aren’t visible to those in power. Another key is information; one has to be well informed. A repressive environment can be effectively confronted based on solidarity and the construction of autonomies. From a long-term perspective the struggle against repression has to be aimed at constructing and spreading autonomous self-management processes that bit by bit cast doubt on the capacity of the state and the capitalist system to reproduce themselves.

Conclusion: we shouldn’t confront repression with the logic of those in high places, but rather with the logic of the mission of those below.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher for CIESAS West and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

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