Hope for change as people mobilise against violence in Mexico’s mid-term elections

The occupation of Chilapa, underway. EPA/Jose Luis de la Cruz

With mid-term elections around the corner the surge of violence continues in Mexico. The forces at work are nothing new, but they are engulfing new regions of the country on a scale not seen before.

One example is the small city of Chilapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, where 30 people were reported missing between May 9 and 14, when the town was virtually occupied by a group of armed civilians, and on May 1, one of the town’s mayoral candidates was shot dead.

The occupiers claimed to be members of “community police forces” from nearby towns and villages, but in reality, they were probably members of one of the two drug cartels fighting for control over the poppy cultivation and heroin trade. Worse still, the occupation happened with military and federal police forces stationed inside the town.

Chilapa is 150km south of Iguala, the city where 43 students from the teaching training college of Ayotzinapa disappeared in September 2014. The lack of success in that case has been met with outrage by the students’ relatives and political activists – the government has tried hard to close the case, but pressure to keep it going has remained strong.

The incidents in Chilapa and Iguala are just two points in a cycle of violence that has bedevilled Mexico ever since a so-called “war on drugs” was launched by then president Felipe Calderon. The focus of the violence has shifted over the years, but as things stand, the western and southern states – including Guerrero – are bearing the brunt of it.

The actual number of people who’ve gone missing in Chilapa since November 2014 is thought to be much higher than reported. The victims do not seem to have any prior involvement with the criminal organisations; they include students, fruit vendors, construction workers and taxi drivers. It’s not clear whether they were kidnapped as revenge for supposedly collaborating with rivals or simply taken for forced labour.

The state of Guerrero in particular combines many of the factors behind the crime wave and human rights crisis in the country as a whole: weak institutions, years of wrongheaded economic policy and the effect of having the United States for a neighbour.

Negligence, incompetence, corruption

During the seven decades of hegemonic part rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the judicial system was turned into a tool of social control and repression, with weak institutions that served the interests of the political regime. The system of administration of justice was plagued by corruption, impunity, paltry investment and poor training for police forces and judges, but a certain degree of order was reached through the network of clientelistic relations that granted access to justice to groups of the population as long as they remained loyal to the PRI.

Mexicans hoped that democracy would put an end to corruption and bring about a fairer and more effective system of justice. That has not happened.

The aftermath of an attack in Michoacan state. EPA/STR

When the old regime began to crumble, no new institutions were created to replace the ones that fell apart. In many parts of the country, that left a vacuum of power that has been filled by new criminal organisations.

The last two governments have managed to dismantle some of the traditional large cartels and capture many of their leaders. But far from extinguishing the violence, this has actually fuelled fresh violence in some places. As the old cartels fragmented, new ones appeared whose members are even more prone to brutality. So in Guerrero as elsewhere, smaller but more violent organisations are filling the vacuum.

Wrong track

Meanwhile, there’s another unwelcome factor that can explain the surge of violence in Mexico: persistently high levels of poverty and inequality. Mexico now has one of the most liberalised economies in the world, but the three decades of liberalisation that got it there have not brought the Mexican people the prosperity they were promised. Economic growth has remained meagre and poverty and inequality have not only not decreased, as in other Latin American countries – they’ve actually increased.

The benefits of growth have been shared very unevenly across Mexico’s regions, and even where they are concentrated, the new jobs that have been created come with extremely low wages. Wages have been kept low for years to boost competitiveness and attract private investment, and the minimum wage has lost almost 30% of its real value since 1994. When demands for wage increases grew recently, the governor of the central bank, responded by arguing that productivity needed to increase first; a statement that even the conservative media labelled as insensitive.

The real winners in all this have been large private corporations. Taking advantage of low wages, tax deductions and other government concessions offered in return for investment, multinationals have expanded their business in the country dramatically. Native companies have also soared, producing a new wave of homegrown billionaires. At the same time, the primary sector has been left devastated because Mexican farmers are unable to compete with their counterparts from the US and Canada. Isolated from industrial and trade corridors – and with a weak institutional architecture – southern states such as Guerrero are especially disadvantageous position.

The only business that has grown in the mountains of that state in recent years is the cultivation of poppies for the production of heroin – a newly rampant demand for which comes from the US.

Bad neighbourhood

Porfirio Diaz, who ruled the country between 1877 and 1910, is credited with coining the phrase: “poor Mexico, so far away from God, so close to the United States” – a statement that remains all-too true today. Neighbouring the largest market for illegal drugs in the world is a serious liability and Mexico’s cartels have only really got in on the act relatively recently. Until the 1990s, the US drug market relied on powerful Colombian cartels shipping through the Caribbean Sea to the state of Florida, where the city of Miami was practically built with money from the narcotics trade. The Mexican cartels were mere providers of cheap marijuana, or sometimes transporters or intermediaries for the Colombian cartels.

Come on in. EPA/Michael Reynolds

But the situation changed when the Miami route was closed. With the decline of the Colombian cartels, the Mexican cartels began to expand their operations to South America.

Helping them along, the US’s demand for illegal drugs is far from in decline; on the contrary, the recent surge in the demand for heroin is already having dire consequences for regions of the south of Mexico, where the weather is perfect for poppy cultivation. And while drugs are trafficked from south to north of the border, weapons flow from north to south. The vast majority of weapons used by the cartels are purchased in the US and illegally brought into Mexico. In the border regions of the state of Texas there are more gun shops than gasoline stations.

Vote for Mexico

In the midst of this violent context, on June 7 2015 Mexico will hold its mid-term elections. The entire Chamber of Deputies is on the ballot, as are the governors in nine states and for municipal mayors in several big cities.

The former governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre Rivero, who was forced to resign after the events of Iguala, has reappeared on the political scene under the aegis of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Many believe Aguirre should have been removed from office and prosecuted over the missing students – at least for negligence – and yet the PRD has sought his support for his political networks.

Meanwhile, dozens of candidates are suspected of having connections with drug cartels, particularly in Guerrero and neighbouring Michoacan, where violence has also soared in recent years – but parties have picked them because of their potentially lucrative connections.

On the march. EPA/Mario Guzman

The only hope for change is to look outside the established political system – and this is finally starting to happen. Independent candidates were not previously allowed, but now they’re gaining unprecedented popularity. Nuevo Leon, the country’s wealthiest state, could be about to elect an independent governor for the first time in Mexico’s history, while a candidate with an independent record is tipped to win the election for mayor in Guadalajara, the country’s second largest city.

There has been parallel increase in social mobilisation. Agricultural workers in the state of Baja California have organised to demand better salaries, while the students of Ayotzinapa college have continued their campaign to find out what happened to their 43 missing comrades. A new anti-corruption system that, according to specialists, holds some promise at tackling impunity, has just been approved after strong pressures from civil society organisations.

Given the enormous problems Mexico faces, it’s encouraging to see its people rising to the challenge. And since the current political class seems abjectly incapable of improving the situation, the only hope is that the Mexican people can do it themselves.

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