Mexico’s nationwide general strike on Thursday, Nov. 20 is a unified rallying cry to end the corruption, crime and violence that have plagued the country for decades and are symbolized most recently by the apparent slaying of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. But, lest we Americans consider ourselves outsiders, observing another nation’s mayhem with detachment, it is important to clarify that Mexico’s problems are in large part our doing.
Communities in Guerrero, Chiapas and other states in Mexico have seen their lands stripped of resources to appease the lure of foreign investment via the North American Free Trade Agreement, championed by the U.S. under various presidents starting with Clinton. Concurrent with the rise of poverty caused by free trade has been a steady increase in organized crime and narco-trafficking. The U.S. funding of a “war on drugs,” which was supposed to take aim at the traffickers, has instead largely fueled collusion between law enforcement, politicians and criminal syndicates.
The students at the heart of today’s crisis are the victims of this wretched collaboration. Here is the story that has emerged so far: The 43 men were studying at a teacher training school called the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa. They had traveled to the nearby town of Iguala to protest what they saw as discrimination in hiring practices and also to raise funds for their school. Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, fearing that they would interrupt a speech that his wife was giving at a conference, ordered the police to round them up. The police apparently turned the students over to a local drug cartel called Guerreros Unidos that is said to count the mayor and his wife as high-ranking members. Some of the gang members arrested in connection with the missing students claim they killed all 43 men and incinerated their bodies.
If politicians, police and criminals are working together to disappear people, what measure of a civilized and democratic society remains? In answer to that question, communities have organized themselves to provide for their own security as best as they can.Roberto Flores is a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles and the founder of Eastside Cafe, a space in El Sereno, Calif., that was in part inspired by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. In an interview Monday on “Uprising,” he stated, “What’s happened in Ayotzinapa … and the response to it, cannot be understood without understanding the influence and impact of Zapatismo from 20 years ago.” What Flores is referring to is the moral force behind the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which first emerged in the indigenous communities of the state of Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, the same day that NAFTA went into effect. The Zapatistas armed themselves, confident of their own ability to provide security and stability in a community they consider “autonomous.”
In cities like Ayotzinapa, a similar sense of autonomy has taken root in response to state violence, and inspired to an extent by Zapatismo. A model of what is known as “community policing” has reportedly spread to nearly 80 towns and villages in Guerrero. Flores explained that “the development of an autonomous community with its own security system is a way to move in the direction of independence and the beginnings of a resolution to the whole narco-state.”
Antonio Arias is a Los Angeles-based activist who works closely with local autonomous communities in Guerrero. Speaking alongside Flores in the interview, he contextualized the case of the missing students, saying, “Just a year ago, the Mexican minimum wage was comparable to Haiti’s, so the attacks on communities by the elite is pretty severe. Add to that the mass killings all over the country. [All that was needed] was just one thing that would set it off.” I asked if the story of the missing students was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” to which he responded, “it was a pretty big straw.”
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a strong U.S. ally, faces the biggest challenge of his short tenure in the protests that have erupted. So far he is not handling the situation well. When protesters burned the door to the National Palace in Mexico City during angry demonstrations, Nieto responded, “Mexican society says no to violence. … We say yes to justice, order, harmony, tranquility, and we say yes to the application of justice.”
Flores said those statements were “the height of hypocrisy” and “sophistry to the max. It’s amazing that he can even say that when we know that what he means by justice is violence, brutality, terrorism—it’s fascism.” Arias explained, “This government has no place to hide. Its only way out is violence. They’re pretty cornered.”