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Ferguson and Ayotzinapa

Mourning and outrage are shaking parts of the United States and Mexico. As U.S. families grieve and demonstrators denounce the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many more at the hands of the police, people are also protesting state violence and police impunity throughout Mexico. Just this past week, the body of Alexander Mora was identified as one of the 43 Mexican students from Ayotzinapa Guerrero who were disappeared after being confronted by police.

In recent interviews, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry critiqued the crimes happening in Mexico as having “no place in civilized society.” They offered U.S. assistance “to get to the bottom of exactly what happened [to the missing students in Mexico].” Such a response is part of a long practice of demonizing Mexico as a corrupt nation in need of the assumed superior support of the U.S.

U.S. officials would do well to heed their own words and get to the root causes of what is happening in both the U.S. and Mexico. These struggles in Ferguson and Ayotzinapa are tied. The state violence against Black and poor indigenous young people must be seen in the context of rabid class inequality and racism where the working poor and people of color are criminalized and treated as disposable.

Corporate-driven economic transformations and policies such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) have ravaged communities in the U.S. and in Mexico. Once industrial hubs, U.S. urban areas have been gutted of industry leaving a crumbling infrastructure and few living-wage jobs in their wake. Many of these neighborhoods are now being “revitalized” by pushing the Black and Brown urban poor out through gentrification. In the Mexican countryside, imports of subsidized U.S. grain, the growth of industrial farms, and the expansion of foreign companies combine to expel families from their livelihoods and communities. As a result, inequality has grown in both countries, and is among the worst of all developed economies.

According to a 2013 study by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, of its 34 member countries the United States has the 4th highest level of income inequality, and Mexico the second. When controlling for inflation, the income of those in U.S. households in the top ten percent of the economic ladder – those making over $150,000 per year – has increased over 30% since the 1970s. In contrast, the income of those in the bottom half of the economy has basically stagnated, or slightly decreased. And, the minimum wage in both countries is far from a livable wage. The working poor often have to work several jobs to try to make ends meet.

Wealth and power disparities are closely correlated with race. Both countries have witnessed a boom in the number of millionaires and billionaires, including producing the two wealthiest people in the world Carlos Slim and Bill Gates who according to Forbes have a combined net worth of over $150 billion.  In contrast, researchers with Mexico’s national evaluation agency, find that 46% of the total population lives below the poverty line, and 20% reside in extreme poverty. Throughout the county, the rate of extreme poverty is five times higher for indigenous peoples than for the general population. In the southern states, where the majority of Mexico’s indigenous populations live, poverty rates are between 15 and 30 points higher and in the state of Guerrero (the home of the disappeared students) 70% of the population lives in poverty. In the U.S., the compounding generations of racism and class inequality are such that Latina/o and Black households have a median net worth of less than $7,000 compared to over $110,000 for White households.

Since the 1980s, as a result of neoliberal reforms, both countries have slashed public programs in education, health care, transportation, social security, and public housing. Privatization and the ideology of free trade seeks to eliminate most state social programs leaving the poor to fend for themselves in an economy that looks to bargain down wages to maximize profits. While these support systems were not as strong as they could have been, they were important reforms that were won through popular struggle, and their erosion has hurt the working poor and the historically marginalized most.  For the youth of working poor there are diminishing opportunities.

As the U.S. and Mexico disinvest in social programs, they divert funds to police poor communities through the war on drugs and other tough on crime policies. In the U.S., according to a Justice Policy Report, since the early 1980s spending on police protection has skyrocketed over 400% — from about $40 billion to nearly $200 billion. The number of state and local sworn officers has also increased over 50% during this period.

The war on drugs has been a war on poor people of color. Although multiple studies suggest that the majority of drug users are White, Blacks have been the most impacted by drug prosecutions and punitive polices such as mandatory minimums. As Law Professor Michelle Alexander reports, there are more Black men in the prison industrial complex than were enslaved in 1850 – devastating families and fueling the prison industrial complex where private prisons and immigration detention centers are big business.

The power elite in Mexico has increasingly militarized the state in an attempt to maintain order for foreign investors and domestic capitalists to expand their markets.  Under the guise of the war on drugs and Plan Mérida, the U.S. has poured billions of dollars into military and police assistance in Mexico. Critics argue that the training and weaponry has been used against social movements and human rights activists. Collusion between criminal operations, military, government, and police officials occurs making it difficult to distinguish who is perpetrating the violence. Over the past decade, approximately 100,000 Mexicans have been killed in the failed “War on Drugs.” According to the UK newspaper The Telegraph, since 2007 nearly 23,000 Mexicans have been disappeared (over 5,000 this year alone!) through cartel and police violence, the two often working together.

The recent killings and grand jury verdicts in communities from Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and Ayotzinapa must also be placed in the context of a legacy of racism. The roots of racism in both the U.S. and Mexico are as deep as the economic fissures. They are embedded in society’s laws, institutions, and government structures. In the U.S., they are apparent in police profiling and the unequal application of zero tolerance and stop and frisk policies, the mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos, the deportation and destruction of immigrant families, and the impunity by which members of the police force can kill primarily Black boys and men and have those atrocities supported by state policies — such as the Supreme Court’s 1980s rulings justifying the use of deadly force by officers. In Mexico, similar disregard for the lives of poor and indigenous people is rampant. Mexican journalist Fernando Camacho Servín reporting in La Jornada finds that the “effects of racism include the criminalizing of certain groups by their physical appearance, to blame them for their poverty, to displace them from their lands, or simply depriving them of their basic rights.”

In the wake of massive dissent against state violence, Presidents Barak Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto have suggested new policies. These focus on policing, impunity, and corruption. While they are small step, none of these changes will go very far unless the foundations of such atrocities are addressed head-on.

Enrique C. Ochoa is professor of Latin American Studies and History at California State University, Los Angeles.

Gilda L. Ochoa is professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona College

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Enrique C. Ochoa is a Professor of Latin America Studies and History at California State University, Los Angeles.  

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