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When Do 43 Casualties in Latin America Matter?

In Latin America last year, there were two events that each produced 43 casualties. Which elicited greater outrage?

For the U.S. media, it was the “violent crackdown” leaving “43 people dead” (NPR) in “an autocratic, despotic state” (New York Times) run by “extremists” (Washington Post). Surely these charges were leveled at Mexico, where 43 student activists were murdered in Iguala last September. In their forthcoming A Narco History, Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace describe how the victims, “packed into two pick-up trucks,” were driven to a desolate ravine. Over a dozen “died en route, apparently from asphyxiation,” and the rest “were shot, one after another,” around 2:00 a.m. The killers tossed the corpses into a gorge, torched them, and maintained the fire “through the night and into the following afternoon,” leaving only “ashes and bits of bone, which were then pulverized.”

Initial blame went to local forces—Iguala’s mayor and his wife, area police and drug gangs. But reporters Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, after reviewing thousands of pages of official documents, reached a different conclusion. Hernández explained “that the federal police and the federal government [were] also involved,” both “in the attack” and in “monitoring the students” the night of the slaughter. Fisher added that the Mexican government based its account of the massacre on testimonies of “witnesses who had been directly tortured.”

The Hernández-Fisher findings reflect broader problems plaguing the country. “Torture and ill-treatment in Mexico is out of control with a 600 per cent rise in the number of reported cases in the past decade,” Amnesty International warned last September, pointing to “a prevailing culture of tolerance and impunity.” The UN concurred this month, and “sharply rebuked Mexico for its widespread problem with torture, which it said implicates all levels of the security apparatus,” Jo Tuckman wrote in the Guardian.

Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has done his part to escalate state violence. He gave the orders, while governor of México State, for what Francisco Goldman calls “one of the most squalid instances of government brutality in recent years”—the May 2006 assault on the Atenco municipality. Some 3,500 state police rampaged against 300 flower vendors, peasants and their sympathizers, beating them until they blacked out and isolating women for special treatment. Amnesty International reported “23 cases of sexual violence during the operation,” including one woman a trio of policemen surrounded. “All three of them raped her with their fingers,” a witness recalled.

Peña Nieto responded by asserting “that the manuals of radical groups say that in the case of women [if they are arrested], they should say they’ve been raped.” Amnesty stumbled into a trap laid by attention-desperate women, in his opinion. Regarding Atenco, he stressed: “It was a decision that I made personally to reestablish order and peace, and I made it with the legitimate use of force that corresponds to the state.” Surely this is the “autocratic, despotic state” the New York Times criticized.

The paper’s archives lay bare its views—that Peña Nieto can “do a lot of good,” given his “big promises of change” and “commendable” economic agenda. The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth interviewed Mexico’s president just before the Iguala bloodbath, dubbing him “a hero in the financial world.” A Post editorial praised his ability to summon the “courage” necessary to transform Mexico into “a model of how democracy can serve a developing country.” The Post clarified, with a straight face, that Peña Nieto displayed his bravery by ignoring “lackluster opinion polls” as he pushed through unpopular reforms—a truly “functional democracy,” without question. There was no serious censure of the Mexican president in these papers, in other words. The charges of despotism and extremism, quoted above, were in fact leveled at Venezuela—the site of the other episode last year resulting in 43 Latin American casualties.

But these demonstrations, from February until July, were dramatically different from the Mexican student incineration. What, in the NPR version, was “a violent crackdown last year against antigovernment protesters,” in fact—on planet Earth—was a mix of “pro- and anti-government protests” (Amnesty International) that “left 43 people dead in opposing camps” (Financial Times). “There are deaths on both sides of the political spectrum,” Jake Johnston, a researcher with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, affirmed, noting that “members of Venezuelan security forces have been implicated and subsequently arrested for their involvement.” He added that several people were apparently “killed by crashing into barricades, from wires strung across streets by protesters and in some cases from having been shot trying to remove barricades.” Half a dozen National Guardsmen died.

In the wake of these demonstrations, the Post railed against “economically illiterate former bus driver” Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president, for his “hard-fisted response to the unrest” and “violent repression.” The New York Times lamented his “government’s abuses”—which “are dangerous for the region and certainly warrant strong criticism from Latin American leaders”—while Obama, a year after the protests, declared Venezuela a national security threat. His March 9 executive order, William Neuman wrote in the Times, targets “any American assets belonging to seven Venezuelan law enforcement and military officials who it said were linked to human rights violations.”

Compare Obama’s condemnation of Maduro to his reaction to the Iguala murders. When asked, in mid-December, whether U.S. aid to Mexico should be conditioned to human rights, he emphasized that “the best thing we can do is to be a good partner”—since bloodshed there “does affect us,” after all. The Times followed up after Obama hosted the Mexican president at the White House on January 6, noting that “Mr. Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington came at a time of increased cooperation between the United States and Mexico.”

This cooperation has won some major victories over the decades. NAFTA shattered poor farming communities in Mexico, for example, while promoting deforestation, environmentally ruinous mining—and corporate profits. In 2007, U.S. official Thomas Shannon stated that “armoring NAFTA” is the goal of Washington’s security assistance, which “totaled $2.5 billion between FY2008 and FY2015,” the Congressional Research Service reported. The result is a death zone, with perhaps some 120,000 intentional killings during the Felipe Calderón presidency (2006-2012). Tijuana’s Zeta Magazine published a study claiming the slayings have actually increased under Peña Nieto, and the nightmare has deepened to the point where the murder rate “exceeds that of Iraq,” according to Molly Molloy.

None of these developments infuriated Washington like those in Venezuela, to be sure. After Chávez’s first decade in power, “the poverty rate ha[d] been cut by more than half” and “social spending per person more than tripled,” while unemployment and infant mortality declined, the Center for Economic and Policy Research determined. And the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean found, in May 2010, that Venezuela had the region’s most equal income distribution. In Mexico a year later, the Los Angeles Times noted, “poverty [was] steadily on the rise.” Throughout this period, Washington’s aims included “dividing Chavismo,” “protecting vital US business,” and “isolating Chavez internationally,” as former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield outlined the strategy in 2006.

Reviewing this foreign policy record in light of recent Mexico and Venezuela coverage makes one thing obvious. There is, most definitely, a free press in the U.S.—it’s free to print whatever systematic distortions it likes, so long as these conform to Washington’s aims.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com