On October 30, fifteen people were killed in a single massacre in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. It was, sadly, not even the largest mass killing this year, thanks to the “drug war” raging along the border with the United States.
This massacre was different in one important sense, however: its principal target was Margarito Montes, the leader of the General Worker, Peasant and Popular Union (UGOCP), a peasant organization based largely in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. Montes was killed, along with his wife, his children (of 4, 7 and 9 years of age), and a number of people in his entourage as they drove along a rural highway.
Many in the press quickly blamed the affair on “the narcos,” members of Mexico’s powerful drug organizations. The peasant leader Montes must have somehow been tied up in the drug trade, it was implied.
Another recent event, also widely reported in the Mexican press, had seemingly nothing to do with the October 30th murders. This was the public announcement by a mayor in the northern state of Nuevo León, Mauricio Fernández, that he was forming a private paramilitary organization. It would be composed of “rudos” – tough guys – recruited from the military and police. They would operate outside the law in collecting intelligence and fighting crime. They would be given tasks of “limpieza especial” – special cleansing.
The problem, mayor Fernández says, is the narcos.
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Certainly no one can underestimate the power of the narcos in Mexico, and of organized crime more generally. They own large numbers of local police and government officials, particularly in the north. Public figures that do not cooperate are routinely assassinated, their quartered bodies often dumped in the street. Far more unknown individuals are also killed, often young men in their 20s, their bodies dumped en masse and frequently displaying signs of torture.
Indeed, more Mexicans died due to the “drug war” in 2008 than all Americans killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since both those wars began. The drug war was of course escalated by Mexico’s conservative President Felipe Calderón, who has vowed to somehow defeat the organizations that serve the world’s largest market for illegal drugs: the United States.
Meanwhile, organized crime in Mexico has also increasingly entered into the lucrative business of kidnapping in recent years. It’s historically been the wealthy and near-wealthy that are targeted for kidnapping. But now it’s not just the rich any more. Migrants from Mexico and Central America trying to reach the US are now seized by kidnappers posing as coyotes, the people who facilitate border crossings. Relatives of migrants already in the north are forced give up what little they have to free their loved ones.
Some of the stories of kidnapping are truly horrific. One woman, recently rescued three years after having been seized, had given birth to two children in captivity, due to her having been sexually assaulted on so many occasions. In another case, a captured migrant was tortured with acid until he gave up the phone numbers of his relatives in the US.
Given stories like this, law-and-order policies will resonate with many people. In fact, 76 percent of Mexicans currently support introducing the death penalty in Mexico. Moreover, given the low level of confidence in the police and courts, many people will also look to taking the law into their own hands. Recently, in a town near Mexico City, an attempted kidnapping of a local business owner led to protests and riots by roughly 3,000 people. They blockaded roads, burned cars and set fire to the police station because the authorities would not hand over four would-be kidnappers to be lynched on the spot.
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The elite in Mexico have also stoked and manipulated this fear of crime and violence for their own interests. Narcos and professional criminals have become a super-scapegoat: everything can be blamed on them – including the killing of a peasant leader.
They can be denounced in the press as corrupt noveau-riches that exploit the common people, while little is said about the far more numerous corrupt noveau-riches in Mexico that exploit the common people completely legally. They can be denounced by the government as being at the root of Mexico’s public insecurity, while completely ignoring the country’s growing levels of economic insecurity.
Moreover, the recent spread of illegal violence provides an opening for perfecting the use of legal violence. The various weapons the state develops to ostensibly fight organized crime can and increasingly will be employed against their critics and the left.
And this is where Mayor Fernández comes in. The spread of illegal violence also provides an opening for the rich to engage in their own. The community Fernández represents is one of the wealthiest in Mexico. In recent years, so its fearful residents claim, it has gone downhill. The poor that have always lived in and around town have increasingly turned to the drug trade. Rich narcos now drive around town in fancy cars.
And so it’s time to turn to “special cleansing.” One conspicuous narco, who liked to show off his yellow Lamborghini, was recently rubbed out in Mexico City. The mayor was somehow able to announce his elimination before even the police knew about it.
Privately-funded “special cleansing” groups funded by the rich and upper middle class are already known to exist in various parts of the country. They typically exterminate the sorts of petty criminals – like car thieves – that harass those with money. But it’s also likely that these groups will start expanding their definition of pests that need to be cleansed, if they haven’t already.
One such category of pests are journalists, for example. The Mexican north has already become a dangerous place for reporters asking pesky questions. Eight of them have been murdered in Mexico in the last six months. So: kill a journalist, or a political figure, one who has never been a friend of the local rich. Dump the body in the street. Pin a sign on it signed by one of the cartels. Blame the narcos, and don’t bother to investigate the crime.
If this isn’t happening already, Mayor Fernández’s “rudos” will ensure it does.
Put differently, it’s hard to imagine paramilitary and intelligence organizations, formed directly at the behest of Mexico’s wealthiest people, not acting as an instrument to protect their interests as a social class. And doing so by taking a page out of the narcos’ book.
And it is easy to imagine that such organizations would also come to be used against people like Margarito Montes.
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Perhaps Montes was killed because he was involved with narcos – it’s not unthinkable. Time will hopefully tell. But he had certainly angered plenty of other powerful people over the years.
Montes was a Trotskyist many years ago, a founding member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT) in Mexico in the 1970s. He first started organizing in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca in the 1980s, a place with a long history of agrarian violence. Take the response to just one land invasion organized by Montes in 1991 – local ranchers assembled several hundred armed men to expel the invaders, killing 39 people.
And so Montes quickly became very tough customer, as one has to be to take land from rich people and give it poor people. Two political bosses who lost their land to peasants led by Montes were later found dead and buried, with their ears cut off, on that very same land. In 2005 Montes was linked (but never charged) with the murder of César Toimil Robert and four others. They were members of a notorious armed organization that defended the interests of ranchers and landowners around Tuxtepec, and had fought bitterly with the UGOCP.
Montes had also been accused of collaborating with Mexico’s authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since the late 1980s. Critics say he focused many of his land invasions on the PRI’s political enemies, and particularly those of the “Salinas clan,” the corrupt family of ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The Yaqui people of Sonora, for example, accuse Montes of working repeatedly with the PRI and Salinas to invade lands they claimed as their own. The latest contested land invasion was on the very month Montes was killed.
The UGOCP and other local and national peasant organizations have argued that Montes was killed by a group resembling mayor Fernández’s “rudos” – a death squad assembled by the angry rich. They are demanding a thorough investigation into his death and that of his companions. They are asking how such a large number of assassins could have slipped away after killing 15 people traveling in multiple vehicles on a highway in broad daylight. They suspect the state government had a hand in the massacre, or at least looked the other way.
It’s true that perhaps the best time to commit a political massacre is when massacres over things like drugs are far too common. But whether the government will bother to seriously investigate Montes’ death is an open question.
Better to just blame it all on the narcos.
STUART EASTERLING writes for the Socialist Worker, where a shorter version of this piece originally appeared. He can be reached at: email@example.com