EL PASO, Texas: The current news cycle of the world’s media has been focused on Donald Trump since before he won the U.S. Presidency on November 8, 2016. So, North Americans may be forgiven for reading little else but the output of reporters struggling to describe the birth of a new age who are also at a loss about how to excavate the ruins of the previous epoch. These ruins make up the other hemispheric news.
One of these ruinous monoliths extending from the past to the present is Mexico’s contemporary human rights crisis. It is an event known as the “drug war”, a euphemism for an avoidable public policy decision that has implied state authorities’ incompetence, indifference and corruptibility. The epic disaster of Mexico’s version of the global U.S-backed drug war is now entering its second decade. There is nothing to celebrate.
On this inauspicious occasion The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani recently reported an estimate of 200,000 deaths since the overt military phase of the drug war began in Mexico in 2007, an armed confrontation with organized crime ordered by then President Felipe Calderón. The United States is, of course, implicated in the decision to put Mexico’s military on the streets as ill-suited peacetime crime fighters: it has lent political support and financial backing with the Mérida Initiative, a Congressional deal for security funding brokered by Ambassador Tony Garza between the Bush and Calderón Administrations. The Obama Administration has continued to seek funding through Mérida for the drug war.
Along with the drug war’s vast number of fatalities in Mexico, many thousands more people have gone missing, been displaced, tortured, abused, detained without charges, and threatened as the state seeks supremacy in the balance of power over a menagerie of organized criminals, from Baja California in the northwest to Chiapas in the southwest, from Jalisco in the Pacific to Veracruz on the Gulf Coast.
At exactly this moment of horrific brutality, Mexico went through a human rights legal revolution. Mexico’s government put its military and paramilitarized police on the streets and throughout the countryside, but its Congress and Supreme Court also enshrined the obligations of all international human rights treaties into Constitutional law, paving the way for implementing legislation based on international human rights principles. In theory this legal initiative provides victims with mechanisms for individual rights protection, and receives regular commendations from international and regional human rights institutions and organizations. But the rhetorical, legal commitments of Constitutional law have nothing to do with the reality of human rights abuse daily confronted by Mexicans who come into contact with state agents: as the infamous Ayotzinapa case has demonstrated, at a time of domestic war the Mexican government has a greater capacity to kill than to protect its citizens from its own awesome power. Mexico’s human rights disaster is the state as Leviathan resurrected. We are witnesses, and therefore implicated, to this brute’s rebirth.
There exists limited pushback against this war/human rights doublethink in Mexico. There was no official respite when, in 2012, Calderón’s successor to the Presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of the State of Mexico, rhetorically disavowed but then practically continued the militarized drug war. As a result of this war, since 2007 Mexico´s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has received 12,408 complaints against the military for abuse. Given the scale of the problem and its trajectory, with clear demonstration that state violence overwhelms federal bureaucracies, the CNDH has only been able to investigate 4,372 of these cases, issuing recommendations to the armed forces in only 147 instances. The extent of reported abuse suggests that Mexico’s government has not managed to achieve supremacy in this violent conflict with organized crime now entering its second decade. Rather, this year in some jurisdictions (such as Veracruz on the Gulf Coast) the homicide rate again rose.
Even with Trump’s obsessions: building a “beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a human rights crisis in itself; the brewing imbroglio over his campaign threat to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); his “saving” jobs of U.S. factory workers slated for a move to Mexico; or threatening to deport Dreamers below the border he so wants to secure, any texture or nuance about what Mexicans think about this lengthy experience with violence, state incapacity, and human rights abuse has been largely ignored. This moment is precisely when Mexicans struggling and surviving against the odds need to be visible and understood. Although it’s hard to see a Trump presidency ameliorating Mexico’s predicament, it’s obvious that if the President-elect even partially succeeds with his campaign proposals Mexico’s situation will worsen. What “worse” means in a country already plagued by serious, widespread human rights abuses and ongoing impunity for those and other crimes, suggests a need for even more documenting, understanding and comprehension of how Mexicans negotiate this unrelenting war.
Ignoring what Mexicans think, and what the country’s current reality and recent history have actually been is part of long-running American myopia among U.S. policy makers and journalists. That’s a commonplace observation, made by every generation commenting on the bilateral relationship. Policy makers’ shortsightedness makes Trump’s border wall more likely, fostering a groupthink that mentally partitions Mexico from hemispheric significance. “Making America Great Again” implies that Mexico has to become weaker and poorer again, and there’s not that much evidence – beyond the flimsy notion that the country’s middle class has expanded (with much of that wealth seemingly used to finance access to credit lines to buy cars and consumer goods) – that over the past three decades Mexico has become stronger and wealthier. Salaries and wages, as journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto explains to me in an interview to be published tomorrow, provide no incentive to Mexican workers. With powerful imbalances in empathy and understanding between these giant North American neighbors, disastrous policy decisions ensue facilitating the existence of injustice and impunity.
One way to skirt the trap of willful ignorance is to actually read news by Mexicans about Mexico, avoiding all articles and authors who use the cliché of clichés in commentary about Mexico, a quote now so void of nuance it is impossible to finish on the page, “Poor Mexico, so far from …” . Articles in that vein always manifest outrage about the United States being Mexico’s neighbor, in other words a nationalist expression commonly heard throughout North America, generating more division and less understanding. Mexico and the United States live in a relationship defined by the nationalist conclusion of the U.S.-Mexico-Indian War in 1848.
But whatever the nationalist experiences since 1848, one thing any reader of Mexican news can learn is that its people confront more pressing concerns than the bilateral relationship, than Donald Trump’s election, and that there are significant reasons for concern over Mexico’s ongoing weakness, especially in human rights protection, especially at the local level. All effective human rights protection has to occur at a local level, which is the challenge for international human rights organizations – how to enforce protection where it counts, in locations of corrupted government institutions and unpunished criminal violence?
That’s what this week’s guest editing of the blog is all about. Learning a little bit more about a couple of localized issues of national prominence that bedevil Mexico: impunity for killing journalists, and, corruption in the country´s government and business communities. The two are joined in one example: Veracruz, a byword for what happens when corruption and violence precipitate state failure.
For years in Veracruz its state’s legitimate professional journalists and social media activists reported on the corruption of its state government and the weakness (or complacency) of the interest of the federal government and the international community to bring the state into line. Local journalists reported not only about Javier Duarte de Ochoa (2010 to 2016) but also about his PRI-ista predecessors, too, Fidel Herrera (currently serving as Mexico’s consul general in Barcelona) and Miguel Alemán (empresario, owner of airline Interjet). The PRI-ista establishment met these troublesome journalists with threats, beatings, and assassinations. Victims of human rights abuse received very little legal or financial support from the international community (solidarity is never in short supply) whose non-profit officers have been too afraid to spend any significant time in Veracruz. When Duarte resigned the governorship earlier than the end of his term because of a vast financial scandal defrauding the state of funds, few remembered that Veracruz’s journalists had long pointed out the lies behind his governorship.
Duarte’s disgrace is bittersweet because during his rule various critical journalists were silenced, like Regina Martínez (murdered in 2012, a recent Associated Press report restates the problems in the investigation of Martínez’s killing), or Gregorio Jiménez (murdered in 2014), or Moisés Sánchez (murdered in 2015). Other journalists, such as Veracruz-based photographer Rubén Espinosa Becerril, died in mysterious circumstances as a refugee in Mexico City sheltering from violence in Veracruz. Weeks earlier in summer 2015, Espinosa fled his home and ceased reporting from Xalapa, the state capital. Questions about Espinosa’s murder still have not been fully investigated.
Common elements exist in all these cases: doubts surround official explanations for most if not all of the 18 journalists murdered in Veracruz since 2010 when Duarte took office. These reporters also shared the trait of documenting public corruption, in the state bureaucracy or in their particular communities. They feared what their reporting might bring down on themselves or their families. They were right to fear. The family of one of Veracruz’s more recently murdered journalists, Pedro Tamayo Rosas, has, in the relatively few months since his murder in July 2016, suffered arson, threats and officials’ harassment of close relatives. Duarte may now be gone, but the legacy of impunity for human rights abuses, especially of journalists and their friends and families continues, a situation recently denounced by the General Assembly of the Inter-American Press Association (SIP-IAPA) at its 67th annual meeting in Mexico City this past October.
In a seamy, well-populated and cultured state like Veracruz — resource-rich both on land and offshore — indeed throughout Mexico writ large, public corruption permits organized crime to flourish, undermining basic democratic values and practices. And with public power turning a blind eye to organized crime, violent excesses set in. Consider Guerrero, or Tamaulipas, or Sinaloa, or Chihuahua, or Veracruz. Once organized crime and public officials have helped root violence in a region, it’s very hard to root out this co-dependence.
Consider Ciudad Juárez. Earlier this year some respected international journalists began to claim a calm in the city after the hyperviolence from 2007 to 2013. But later this year the homicide rate started spiking again, with officials attributing the cause to re-invigorated smuggling routes for methamphetines and Mexican heroin. The rise in Juárez’s violence returned Mexico’s military to sharing patrols with the city and state police. Just this week, the U.S. Department of State upgraded its Mexico travel warning, its paragraph on Juárez alarms, “Exercise caution in all areas.” Ciudad Juárez is, of course, neighbor to El Paso, Texas, with the artificial division in the metropolis of 2.1 million people being the U.S-Mexico border, running along the Rio Grande’s riverbed. The number of people who cross every day from Juárez to El Paso is about 30,000.
Astute observers of the complicated Mexican panorama always mention something about Juárez. It serves as a bellwether. But these observers must also include Veracruz in their view. If Mexico is to break free of the violence of the drug war, a test transitional case must be Veracruz.
In Veracruz, high stakes dictate what’s at risk: it is a strategic location for migration and trade to and from the United States. Veracruz is home to most petrochemical production by Mexico’s state oil producer, PEMEX, exposing the south of the state around Coatzacoalcos to immense environmental degradation. But it is a bankrupt state (another “gift” left by Javier Duarte to his successor) plagued by organized crime, government corruption and incompetence, attracting only the indifference of federal authorities and the international community.
Hope in Veracruz comes from dozens of civil society human rights activists who learned for six years how to resist the violence and abuse of one of Mexico’s most corrupt governors, Javier Duarte. Xalapa, the state capital, houses the central campus of the Universidad Veracruzana (UV), the largest provider of higher education in southeastern Mexico. Satellite campuses scatter through the rest of the state. Duarte indebted the UV, denying it funds, partly accounting for why the public security and financial crises resonated among students and faculty, spurring political activism. Schooled in a struggle against abuse it is hard to see how the local activists, journalists, students, and teachers will disappear: indeed, the father of one missing young woman has filed a complaint with Mexico’s federal attorney general accusing Javier Duarte of her enforced disappearance. Before he left office to go on the lam, few dared to bring human rights complaints against the governor. One such person who did bring a successful human rights complaint against Duarte was Rubén Espinosa, the photojournalist murdered in Mexico City in 2015.
Now that Duarte is out of power and his opposition party successor in the governor’s office seems more sympathetic, especially to families of the disappeared, some sort of progress on respect for human rights in Veracruz might be possible. One of the ways to pursue accountability would be to locate and prosecute Duarte and the other Veracruz officials who facilitated his abusive, kleptocratic rule. And, with the dubious distinction of having the highest fatality rate for journalists in Mexico, a truth commission in Veracruz about murdered and disappeared journalists would, from a human rights legal perspective, seem to be an urgent necessity. Without such measures, there is a possibility of repeated human rights abuses, presenting Mexico with an impermissible situation given its constitutional commitment to international human rights law.
The only way, though, to learn about the urgent and pressing human rights issues in the Americas is to read more, much more, in this case by Mexicans about Mexico, in translation or in the original Spanish. Francisco Goldman, who writes for The New Yorker, has produced some of the best English language journalism about Mexico to date. And, importantly, Goldman has lent his support to a translation initiative aimed at high school teachers and students from Words Without Borders. It’s good to see people writing and thinking about reading works in translation about Mexico. The more people read about struggles for justice in Mexico (check out Mexico Voices), optimism suggests that more minds might generate creative responses to what has now become Mexico’s infinite present: intractable violence, impunity, and incompetence. With understanding as its end, in this human rights week guest editorship I present an interview with veteran investigative journalist Sandra Rodriguez, based in Mexico City, and articles from Nuestra Aparente Rendición’s book, Tu y yo coincidimos en la noche terrible, commemorating journalists murdered or disappeared in the drug war. El Paso Community College student Efraín Rodríguez Rodríguez translated these articles.
In other news: read about Mexico’s morass.
Patrick Timmons lectures in History at El Paso Community College. He holds a doctorate in Latin American History from the University of Texas at Austin and an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex. He writes about Veracruz, Mexico, freedom of expression, Texas’ gun laws, prisons and state killing, and human rights law. He has published infrequently: in the Daily Texan, the Texas Observer, CounterPunch, the Latin American Research Review, and the Radical History Review. He has collaborated on translations of news articles from Spanish to English with the Trans-Border Institute since 2014. Recently he published an article about Noé Zavaleta, a journalist threatened in Veracruz, for NACLA. He is working on several books.