This year has been the most violent year on record for Mexico, with almost 26,000 intentional homicides between January and September. Following the murder of nine US citizens last week, US president Donald Trump offered to send the US army to “help” fight drug cartels in Mexico. The comment lacked awareness of the already disastrous outcomes of the so-called “war on drugs” in Mexico and of the role the US and transnationals have played in fomenting the levels of human rights abuses here.
Murder rates are up by 2.4% compared to the same period last year, despite President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) swearing in last December. As the US itself heads into an election year, any criminalization of Mexicans should be countered with a profound understanding of the impact of US foreign and economic policy in the country.
In September, Amnesty International declared that Mexico was experiencing “one of the worst crises in human rights.” Femicides are also increasing, with 748 so far this year compared to 654 in the same period last year, and migrant detentions also rose by 69%, with 123,000 in the first seven months of this year.
Official figures cited are the minimums, as people are reluctant to denounce crimes, and many aren’t tracked, with various states not registering kidnappings, femicides, or acts of extortion at all. Nevertheless, the human rights violations are broad, with estimated impunity rates (unpunished crimes) at 99.3%, 389 attacks on journalists last year, children in rural areas working for around 20 pesos (US$1.10) per day, nine women killed daily on average, and well over 40,000 people are currently forcibly disappeared (the figure is from early 2018 as the new registry of disappeared people has yet to publish any data). There were some 7.5 million extortions in 2017, of which only 1.7% were denounced, with an investigation opened.
Human rights abuses and crimes have significantly increased since 2006, when Mexico and the US’s relations became extremely close and the “war on drugs” kicked off. And this year, Trump has forced Mexico to send troops to its southern border and detain documented and undocumented migrants, by using threats of tariffs.
September 26 this year was the fifth anniversary of Ayotzinapa, when 43 student teachers were likely murdered. No one has been punished yet. There was a rally in Puebla’s main square and a range of speakers, rappers, and singers took to the stage. One speaker handed out copies of a poem he had written to people in the crowd and he asked them to read out a verse each over a roaming microphone. The first person to read began crying within the first two lines and had to pass the microphone on to someone else. There was the strong sense that the impact of the murders and disappearances here go beyond those directly affected and permeate people’s every day.
“If you think differently, you could disappear,” Luis Armando Soriano Peregrino, a defender of human rights activists, and president of Citizens’ Voices for Human Rights, told the crowd.
Later, in an interview, he denounced US and Canadian companies for directly violating human rights in Mexico. Soriano originally worked as a lawyer for the Puebla state government, but after speaking out against the government for firing hundreds of workers, he switched to defending workers and activists. In the process, he lost his office after officials threatened his clients, and he was fired from the institute where he gave classes after his boss was also threatened. He then lost his house and car as he sold them to survive, and he lost friends and family, he said.
“Whoever ends up as president of the US, ends up being a leader of Latin America,” Soriano said. “Mexico is close to the US, and that is fundamental in almost all the policies that Mexico implements. A lot of what the government decides on has to be agreed on with the US first, because if it doesn’t, we’re vulnerable to attacks.” He also pointed out that most of Mexico’s trade is with the US and Canada, and that also makes it hard for the country to go against orders from the US.
“Mexico is rich in resources, so it is a treasure chest for many countries. Some people in the US see Latin America as their backyard – the region that gives them avocados and beans, and parties in Tijuana, and that’s what we’re here for,” he added.
Mexico is run by transnational interests and a US-backed “war on drugs”
With the onset of NAFTA in 1993 and the government of Vicente Fox (previously head of Coca Cola) in 2000, Mexico became further entrenched as a country that gives transnationals free reign. And these corporations, in their reckless race for profits, trample all over human rights. Just last month here in Puebla, a judge ruled in favor of Walmart and against indigenous Totonaca people, paving the way for a hydroelectric plant that will only serve Walmart, and will cause environmental damage and leave locals with less access to water.
“Mexico creates all the right conditions so that the US and Canada can profit here – they benefit from a network of corruption when they buy our avocados, when they buy property cheaply and build tourist paradises. Canada, through its mining and fracking, and the US are both benefiting from human rights violations and from trafficking in Mexico,” Soriano argued.
The other anti-human rights front waged against Mexicans is of course the so called “war on drugs” (2006-present) and the Merida Initiative (2008-present), where the US collaborates with the Mexican military to supposedly combat drug trafficking and organized crime. Some 70% of murders in Mexico are committed using guns that came from the US and cartels here grew by 900% during president Felipe Calderon’s administration (2006-2012), with researchers behind that figure at the Center of Research and Economic Development (CIDE) saying the so-called fight against drug trafficking decreased security conditions in Mexico.
Blaming Mexico as the point of origin of violence criminalizes Mexicans while in reality most crime networks are international, as are the drugs and arms trades (though most arms manufactures are US-based). Transnational organized crime groups make US$2.2 trillion per year, and their industries – including trafficking of arms, people, drugs, and natural resources – involve bankers, politicians, and arms manufacturers.
The lucrative business of human rights in Mexico
In a country where neoliberal policy permeates everything, even human rights themselves have become a way to make money. Soriano described how national and international organizations and government agencies fund projects, but that money is often siphoned off into individual’s pockets.
“A person says they have an organization and that it has 200 affiliates, then they send proposals to the state or national government, and they are given resources, multiplied by their 200 supposed affiliates. And so that one person gets all the money. Unfortunately, yes, it’s a business,” he said.
“Human rights defenders are often people who hand out balloons in squares, or academics who give classes in human rights. Others are working for the government. That human rights are portrayed like this means a lot of people think that it probably isn’t worth doing anything,” he said.
What this all amounts to is a climate where businesspeople and criminals can do what they want. Activists opposing large developments are killed with impunity while there is little separation between corporations, the judicial power, institutions, and government.
Corporate criminals join institutions and use their structures, while the legal system is run by “judicial powers involving a mafia of families, and there are no organizations that monitor these bodies,” Soriano argued.
The murders and disappearances are the tip of the iceberg. The fear, impunity, violence, and lack of rights together make most people here feel like they are not looked after or considered and that there is little point in standing up for yourself.
“Here in Puebla, and in Mexico more broadly, violence and human rights violations are normalized,” Soriano said.
“Living daily with terror, clandestine graves, with dismembered and decapitated bodies and with the normalization of violence, we understand that the boundaries of what is permissible are broken daily,” Mexican sociologist Raul Romero wrote for Memoria.
In Venezuela and Ecuador, where I’ve also lived, when a bus driver, for example, would skip a stop, everyone on the bus would cry out. Standing up for what was right was the dominant way of being. In Mexico, people tend to stay quiet. The other day, a man wouldn’t get off the women’s train carriage (a measure in place to prevent sexual assault). No one said anything as I firmly told him to get off.
Resistance happens when we believe we are deserving of reasonable treatment and dignity. But in Mexico, daily life is about not denouncing injustice because it is so often committed or supported by the police, and it is about staying quiet about the broken roads and buses or the institutional hoops to prevent people getting a pension or the lack of water. People stand down because there are too many battles and few are worth it. They are exhausted, stressed, bitter, and unvalued.
“I’ve been in a lot of battles – participating or leading them. And we’ve lost almost all of them. But the few that we’ve won tell us that it is possible to win … Every action that we take has to break with individualism and neoliberalism and see us as a community that seeks more from life than generating wealth,” Soriano concluded.