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Ferguson… or why the U.S. is not Mexico, nor Mexico the U.S.

26 November 2014

I was rather appalled a while back by the reaction by U.S. commentators to the news that three gangsters  “confessed” to killing the 43 normalistas with the help of the local police.  Things like “I hope they get the death penalty”.  Uh… considering Mexico hasn’t had the death penalty since 1964, and the United States is about the only place in the Americas with one not only on the books, but often enough carried out, I suppose that can be “excused” as the usual provincial thinking.   When I mentioned that such thinking was considered “barbaric” here, one gringa took me to task, “daring” me to say that to the parents of the missing (and presumably dead) students.  She was rather taken aback when I said I’d be happy to, but it would be preaching to the converted.  I pointed out that none of the families had mentioned any wish to see these particular guys harmed (imprisoned yes, but other than that, nothing),  nor was the anger (even among the victims’ families) directed at these particular gangsters, but rather at the conditions that allowed these kinds of crimes to occur.   If there is a call for vengeance, it is against not against individual trigger-men, but against those who allowed criminality to flourish for their own selfish ends.

In Ferguson, Missouri, where another murder is being protested (much more violently than here in Mexico), I notice the anger is directed NOT at the “system” that allows the abuses, but at the individual policeman who pulled the trigger.  While there is a sense that “the system” is rotten, it seems that it is more important to the people in Missouri to see the individual actor punished, and only after that, to consider what lay behind the crime.

While both here and in the United States, calls by the government for “calm” (meaning for people protesting police abuse not to unduly inconvenience the police, apparently) are rather grotesque.  While what violence has occurred here is blamed either (by the protesters) on agentes provacatuers or (by the government) on “anarchists”… either of which might be true, or both true, it was rather minimal, and both the state, and the dissidents, both claim to have had a common interest in preventing it.  Both sides were rather apologetic for what violence occurred, and are at pains to distance themselves from it… the state doing its best to justify “regrettable” actions, and the dissidents going to great lengths to claim those who were arrested were “innocent bystanders” or random scapegoats for state violence.

In the U.S., the assumption was that there would be violence, and both sides seemed to welcome it.  Those sympathizing with the protesters (myself, from afar, among them) tend to see “righteous rage” while the “law-n-order” types are almost gleeful in reading into the violence their own prejudices and preconceptions about minority people and the “left” (or what passes for the left in the U.S.).  And, in the U.S. there are pro-police demonstrations, and those who support the individual police officer.  Naturally here, no one is going to picket in favor of a couple of gangsters, but what open support was shown for police violence has been condemned by just about everyone on the grounds of bad taste, if nothing else.

While I’m aware that there are those who read the deeper meaning of entrenched racism into the “symbolic” crime in Missouri, and are fed up with it (and justifiably angry about it), the protests don’t seem to be going beyond this one “symbolic crime”.   Here, its as if the “symbolic crime” — the disappearance of the 43 normalistas — is only the platform for a discussion (a rather noisy discussion, punctuated at times by the sound of breaking windows and illuminated with molotov cocktails) of our deeper issues, and a willingness to bring up even the theories of governance.  That the systemic racism and assumptions about class in the United States is rooted in the system of governance and economic assumptions is only raised by the most “radical” of voices, and only in the most fringe of media outlets.  Here, the possibility of changing the way political parties work, or the existence of political parties, the present Constitution, and the economic system itself are all fair game for the mass media.

Whether either country will see more than some tweaks in the system is doubtful, but worth noting is that while U.S. media calls this a “failed state” for not protecting its minorities, no one would say the same of the United States, although in both countries, there is a obvious failure to meet the needs of its citizens.  That in the U.S., the anger is channeled into minor reforms (and the need for “punishment”) probably means less — not more — meaningful tweaks than we are likely to see here, where one may not enjoy the vicarious thrill of seeing the guilty punished, the groundwork for imperfect change has been laid.

Not just drugs

25 November 2014

I am heartily sick of the meme that the U.S. end of the so-called “drug war” is the entire cause of violence here… drugs may be part of the U.S. caused problems, but only one part.  in Al Jazeera:


Beefed up state security extends beyond counter-narcotics efforts, and includes economic objectives that journalist Dawn Paley has dubbed “drug war capitalism.” The incentives include assuring foreign investors of the safety of their investments, supporting privatization, and enriching military contractors and arms manufacturers. Militarized security also facilitates the political repression of groups resisting historical exploitation and neoliberal policies, including activists, trade unions, teachers, and indigenous and campesino communities fighting dispossession, such as those in the impoverished state of Guerrero that is home to the Ayotzinapa teachers’ school. In fact, reports suggest that the vanished students may have been targeted in part because of their poor, rural left-wing school’s activism against regressive educational reforms.

Mexico’s war on drugs also plays out against the backdrop of U.S. trade policy. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement has had a devastating effect on the country: Depressing wages, displacing small farmers, increasing migration to the U.S. and exacerbating poverty, which in turn fuels continued activism against the government.

What child is this?

24 November 2014


One of the best known Mexican photographers of the late Porfiriate and Revolutionary era took this photo of his daughter about 1910.  His great-great grandson, is a well-known contemporary Mexican photographer.  That he bears the same name as the turn of the last century photographer often is overshadowed by having the same family name as the girl in the photo, his great-aunt, Frida.

“I walked into such a sad time at the station…”

23 November 2014


Two threats: Anarchism and Peña Nieto

23 November 2014

So… are the “anarchists” who disrupt peaceful protests “infiltrators” or are they a legitimate threat. Well, yes… maybe.

Gibrán Ramírez Reyes, Emeeques (21 November 2014)… my translation:

The “anarchist” violence during protests comes from infiltratrators say those in the streets. The “anarchist” violence is an orchestrated attempt to destabilize the country, foolishly writes [Journalist and PRI “cultural affairs” official] Beatriz Pagés on behalf of Enrique Peña Nieto; scorching the doors of the National Palace door bears the signature of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and, according to the PRI cultural czar, so do protests in Guerrero, and guerrilla actions there as well. For the citizens, doubt and prejudice are at least understandable: the PRI are old hands when it comes to infiltrating and disrupting social movements. Therefore, the opposition has a knee-jerk reaction, suspecting infiltration based on minimum evidence, and seen as working for the benefit of those in power. But, on the other hand, the press has not done much in the way of reporting on the anarchists (sometimes simply out of the assumption that these groups are organized by the federal government).

When it comes to our dismissal of anarchist violence, the government discourse is by far the most dangerous. Witness Peña, really angry, suggesting Carmen Aristegui is probably complicit in a conspiracy to destabilize not only his government but, according to him, something much more worth defending… a cause: the “national project”.

In varying degrees the Federal Administration, the PRI (including the lamentable Pagés claims), the Mexico City government, the business community, the conservative press and Coparmex [the National Chamber of Commerce], which is demanding a return to “order” – seeks to shift the discourse for two reasons. First, violent anarchism is a real concern that the Mexican government now shares with the US government; and secondly, the discourse itself – visually shocking as it is — is a useful tool in forging a strategy to recover the smokescreen of Peña Nieto’s leadership.
The claims of Peña and Pagés, and those that echo them, appeal to that part of the middle class that is frightened by more radical forms of protest, and speaking of them instills in them the fear of an uncertain future. Demands for political change challenge the conservative instinct to preserve what one has: family, possessions, life itself. The key is to make people frightened that “our Mexico” – that of the middle-class majority – is going to change when the thinking is “well, at least WE’RE alive, and living quiet lives”.

The scheme aspires to govern with the complicity of a silent majority, which would sooner avoid “destabilizing” the national project —and a life of “normality”, even if the assumptions of normality are based on inequality and death. The historian Ariel Rodríguez Kuri documented that there was a broad social support for suppression in 1968, when the official discourse was of anticommunism, so irrational and violent at the time, that columnists reflexively referred to protesters as “assholes” for trying to dampen the national spirit.

Certianly, right now Peña is facing the worst of all worlds. What brought him to power was the claim that force was needed to maintain order. But public outrage over the use of force required a change in national policy. Nobody is happy and everyone’s viewpoint has shifted. However, it appears that imposing authoritarian political solutions in his DNA, at least in the first part of his term. The simplest strategy for him, is to apply a real problem (violent anarchism) to an imaginary threat (instability and the derailment of the national project), which requires national unity and, consequently, scares Mexico into chosing a side: that of destabilizing the country, or going on with the national project

To say that there is orchestrated effort to destabilize suggests that there are one or more villains ready to make the attempt. Perhaps there’s an iota of intelligence that could serve as the basis for a telenovela to the taste of that silent majority. Peña and company are quite capable of it, but more likely are the outbursts of a stagnant regime that hasn’t a clue how to react.

On the other hand there is a real concern about violent anarchist cells. So far, the Federal District’s investigations and prosecutions have been, to say the least, ineffective. Intelligence work has been predictable and awkward and, as the lack of results has been alarming.

This type of anarchism first broke on the scene in the United States in 2004, but came to Mexico in 2006 during the Oaxacan conflict, when local activists exchanged methods of agitation with foreign “revolutionary tourists”, and spread to other states in Mexico. Since then, there have been sporadic actions reported on the inside pages of popular newspapers and in the nota rojas [crime pages], while intellectuals, sociologists and political scientists have ignored them, or assumed anarchist actions were infiltrators or agentes provacateurs, without any empirical support for their assumption.

In the Federal District, although little is known about such groups, there have been attacks, the largest being the firebombing of a car agency in Tlapan, as well as attacks on ATMs as well as letter bombs sent to academics by those opposing scientific research or technological innovations based on their supposed potential for enslaving the people. These cells had their greatest growth during Marcelo Ebrard term as Governor of Mexico City. The prosecutor in charge of the investigation at the time was Miguel Mancera – who received a letter-bomb – and one of his top aides, not Secretary of Public Security, Jesus Rodriguez Almeida. Both saw the groups not as a political problem, but as a police matter, one that could be solved by infiltrating a few cells, and making arrests “in flagrante delicto”. Today we see the results.

Along with everything else going on

22 November 2014

Volcán Colima is active… spewing up a three-kilometer high plume yesterday a little past noon.

The Magna-marcha

21 November 2014

Beyond a “mega-marcha” presumably. While too early to say this is a “historic” event, or to read any long term meanings into it, it’s safe to say that the impact of videos like this are going to reverberate socially and politically. Filmed from the Terrace atop the Hotel Majestic, facing the Palacio Nacional across the Zocalo, 20 November 2014


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