by Thomas Rath
This term I have to rejig my seminar class on ‘Mexico since 1968’. Originally I wanted to discuss how official efforts at transitional justice have been feeble compared to elsewhere in Latin America, and civil society unable or unwilling to demand accountability for either Cold War political repression or the wave of atrocities triggered by the drug wars after 2006. As often happens teaching contemporary history, events have demanded a rethink.
On 26 September, the municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero, shot dead three trainee teachers from Ayotzinapa. One body later turned up with the eyes gouged and skin flayed. Later, the police kidnapped 43 other students and, reportedly, handed them over to a gang of narcos (drug-traffickers) who executed the students before incinerating their bodies and throwing what remained into a river. This crime disgusted Mexico, and national and international protests soon mushroomed. The events in Iguala have made me, like many people, alternately sad, angry and – once protests began – oddly hopeful. As a historian I’ve also been fascinated to see interpretations of the event slowly emerge, and think about the different versions of Mexico’s recent past underpinning them.
The events certainly undermine the florid boosterism of the Peña Nieto administration. President Peña Nieto is a member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico through a careful blend of co-option and violence from 1929-2000. The PRI finally lost a presidential election in 2000, but was then voted back to power in 2012. The president portrayed himself as an economic modernizer unlocking Mexico’s latent potential with sweeping market-driven reforms, dumped the militarized rhetoric of his predecessor Enrique Calderón, and downplayed levels of violence.
Much of the international press lapped this stuff up. In The Economist, Peña Nieto claimed it was “Mexico’s moment“. The cover of Time magazine announced that Peña Nieto had “changed the narrative“, a weird, but appropriately vapid headline. All of this sounds pretty hollow now; perhaps it always did in Mexico, at least outside of Los Pinos, gated communities or, say, Monterrey’s hi-tech business parks. What good are 44 free-trade agreements or renewed oil production if your loved ones rot in one of the hundreds (probably thousands) of mass graves perforating the country?
But the stakes are larger than one administration’s rhetoric. The Iguala scandal has engulfed the entire political class: Iguala’s mayor, suspected of ordering the killings, is a member of the nominally left-wing opposition party; the disastrous war against narcos was launched in 2006 by the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in which at least 100,000 have been killed or disappeared. These are levels of violence comparable to those in Iraq over the same period. It has also raised larger questions about where Mexico has been in the last few decades and where it’s going.
It’s worth pondering why public outrage crystallized around Iguala, rather than one of the many other atrocities Mexico has seen in the last decade. Much of the credit must go to the victims’ co-students and families who have been organized and assertive. These poor families in Guerrero, particularly those associated with the traditionally radical normales rurales, are used to dealing with repression in a way others are not. It also helps that no-one really believes the students were guilty of doing anything other than engaging in one of their periodic rowdy and disruptive protests. Some reports initially tried to portray them as criminals – a few still do– though generally the mud of innuendo hasn’t stuck.
As students, the victims also have tremendous symbolic heft in Mexico. The dominant narrative of Mexico’s recent history is (or was until recently) a story of democratic transition– protracted but relatively peaceful- in which the PRI gradually lost control of elections and public debate, and ceded the presidency in 2000. According to many accounts, the government’s 1968 massacre of dozens (maybe hundreds) of protesting students in Mexico City (whose bodies may also have been incinerated) was the event that detonated this long collapse. Civil society gradually awakened from authoritarian slumber, got organised, and demanded democracy and accountability. The fabric of this grand narrative has looked increasingly frayed for years, even before the PRI re-took the presidency in 2012, but Iguala may represent its final unravelling. Perhaps Mexico has not been transitioning anywhere, but going in historical circles.
The disappointing record of Mexican democracy after 2000 has already changed how professional historians see things, along with some new sources released by post-2000 administrations. Searching for clues to the current crisis, historians are questioning old images of stable, hegemonic PRI-rule, addressing neglected themes (violence and terror, the press, drugs), and trying to create a better picture of how politics worked before the transition. New work has also tended to narrow the interpretive gap between Mexico’s modern history and the rest of Latin America. (The victims’ use of slogans from human-rights struggles elsewhere – “they were taken alive, we want them alive” – and the presence of an Argentine forensic team are, among other things, symbolic rebukes to Mexico’s strain of historical exceptionalism). Mexico’s public museums are also beginning to commemorate contemporary atrocities in real time, making comparisons with more famous human rights abuses elsewhere. Some distinctly cold comfort, then: the drug wars have imposed appalling costs on Mexican society, but have had some salutary effects on historiography.
If not democratic transition, then what is the big story? Is the PRI simply taking Mexico back to the future? Is this Passive Revolution? Is the state decomposing, or are we seeing the emergence of a new, militarized narcostate? Much debate in Mexico has addressed these underlying questions. The official line, promoted by the attorney general, is that Iguala is an isolated crime, masterminded by the mayor and his narco-affiliated, politically ambitious and intolerant wife. Perhaps this is true; although efforts to portray the case as an aberration have not been helped by the way investigators keep stumbling on other anonymous mass graves.
By contrast, many people blame the State, with a capital S. Protesters daubed “it was the State” across Mexico City’s enormous zócalo. Many have also drawn parallels to the centrally-orchestrated political repression of the 1960s and 1970s, likening Peña Nieto to the notorious President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970). It’s certainly easy to hear echoes of Guerrero’s 1970s dirty wars in Iguala, particularly if it turns out the federal military garrison was involved. The clumsy, Manichean rhetoric of the president and his press allies also sounds eerily familiar to any historian of Cold War Mexico. A wiser, more able politician would have at least made some effort to acknowledge that Mexicans have many good reasons to be angry and disillusioned. (A wiser, more able attorney general would also not have ended a crucial press conference by blurting “ya me cansé” – roughly, “that’s it, I’ve had enough”.)
Many historians and journalists have pondered the historical significance of all this. Enrique Krauze, probably Mexico’s most famous historian, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times mourning the return of “barbarous” violence. Krauze grasped that the state’s legitimacy is at stake in how it deals with Iguala, but painted the historical background in rather broad brushstrokes. He noted that Guerrero has been “a violent and ungovernable place since colonial times “. This is the kind of vague, reified description of violence that bedevils much journalism on Latin America. Krauze argues that efforts at creating more accountable local government have been hampered by high levels of poverty and low levels of education. This smacks of stale modernization theory more than precise analysis; in Mexico, there isn’t a very clear correlation between all the different kinds of violence at play (state repression, abductions, extortion, cartel warfare) and poverty or illiteracy, let alone a causal relationship. A few years ago Krauze defended Mexico from accusations of being a “failed state“, and some of this seems to filter into a rather odd description of public protest in which Mexicans demand that the government “refute those who would say that the country…has become a virtual narcostate”.
The anthropologist and historian Claudio Lomnitz took a different tack, arguing that Iguala should force Mexicans to face up to the historical and ongoing weakness of the state, and look to society as much as the government for solutions. Lomnitz’s point about state weakness is sound and very important. The share of GDP taken by the Mexican state in direct taxation has long been one of the lowest in the world. Political scientists sometimes talk about “low-quality democracy” in Mexico, and the bargain-basement phrasing seems apt. In Mexico, government has long been done on the cheap. Mexico needs a better state, but it also probably needs a bigger one. This flies in the face of other historical accounts- including those of Krauze– which tend to portray Mexico’s state as hulking, centralized and powerful. Likewise, it is not hard to find ugly social attitudes lurking in social media. (Some see the students as unworthy of such a fuss and call them nacos – the Mexican equivalent of chav or pleb, but racially-tinged, and probably worse). Still, Lomnitz’s account of public outrage also seems slightly askew. I’m not sure the belief in the omnipotent power of the presidency is the force it once was; it may have always been more of a polite fiction designed to spur some kind of response.
It is hard at this point to tell how involved the rest of the state was in the crimes of Iguala and, more to the point, the government shows no great interest in clarifying the matter. Given the long pattern of judicial incompetence, official indifference and entrenched impunity, it seems sensible not to rule out some kind of state complicity- and much of Mexican society has drawn the same conclusion. Ed Vuillamy argues that what is new and shocking about Iguala- and differentiates it from earlier state repression- is the way it shows how power is now wielded by a murky, disorienting alliance between elected politicians, narcos, and security forces, whose shifting interrelations remain opaque.
I don’t think Iguala means we should jettison the narrative of democratization entirely, at least if we want to understand how and why Mexico has changed in the last fifty years. Elections are contested by more parties than they used to be, and the Supreme Court has recently shown hitherto unknown signs of autonomy. One of the reasons journalists keep being killed off, and Peña Nieto places so much emphasis on image-management, is that many bravely still insist on trying to do their jobs. In the drama of Mexico’s recent history, democratization has to share the stage with some other crucial forces: enduring state and judicial weakness, the growing wealth and power of cartels, and waves of neoliberal economic restructuring. Many of the pathologies of Mexican democracy are different in scale but otherwise similar in kind to those elsewhere: militarization, unaccountable security forces, cronyism, a lack of genuine choice in electoral contests, disillusionment and disengagement. It’s important not to obscure these connections and continuities.
If we keep the baby of democratization – feeble, and unhealthy looking as it is – we can certainly throw out the bathwater of unrealistic expectations and teleology that often surround it. Perhaps Mexico should serve as a stark reminder of the limits to what liberal, representative democracy can in itself accomplish. This is especially the case in a profoundly unequal, poor, fragmented country situated next door to another well-known country which consumes illegal recreational drugs and sells military-grade firearms like no other. (Of course, Mexico is also embedded in a global financial system in which launderers of dirty money do so with few consequences; some even get to serve in other well-known elected governments).
In short, without concerted pressure from below there is a good chance that the hollow, impunity-ridden democracy Mexico has is not a transitional phase en route to something better, but what it ends up with. This would fit a larger pattern since the 1980s, where Latin America has seen routine national elections, weak or declining social and civil rights, and numbers of violent deaths higher than in any other region of the world.
Will we see that concerted pressure? Perhaps it will come from social movements with more substantive and direct understandings of democracy. Perhaps it will come from Mexicans simply demanding that the opaque and dysfunctional judicial system does its job and delivers truth and justice, and is reformed so it can do this more reliably in the future. Already demands have emerged for some kind of independent truth commission. This has been tried before though, and the results were not encouraging; any successor would need a far better design and clearer remit, and perhaps international participation. Intriguingly, some have likened the protest movement to Roberto Bolaño’s notion of literary infrarrealismo: unsentimental, free-wheeling, diffuse, uncompromising, and resolutely dismissive of conventional wisdom on either the Right or Left.
It’s also significant that Mexico City is mobilized – including its tie-wearing office workers. In his memoir of life in Mexico City over the last couple of years, Francisco Goldman ponders the capital’s relative insulation from the drug wars. Chilangos have grown used to the surreal experience of reading about unspeakable brutality elsewhere in the morning papers, and then going on with life more or less as usual. Goldman offers several possible explanations: a narco-state pact; the presence of expats, and business and political elites in the city; the fact that the Federal District may already effectively have its own cartel – that is, the police.
More optimistically, Goldman argues that Mexico City is simply too big, complex, visible, vibrant, left-wing and full of students to be governed by crude terror alone. Capital-dwellers know that if they organize around discreet issues they can get some kind of government response, and from time to time they do. On the other hand, Goldman also worries about how determined and organized Mexico City’s student groups really are, at least compared with their hard-bitten counterparts in Chile, forged in the struggle against Pinochet. In the coming weeks we may learn which of Goldman’s hunches is correct.
I’m still working out quite how to teach this class, but I’m looking forward to it. In any case, I’m fortunate to have some curious and smart students who will have their own ideas.
About the Author:
Thomas Rath is lecturer in the history of modern Latin America at UCL. He is the author of Myths of Demilitarization in Postrevolutionary Mexico,
1920-1960 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). He’s working on a study of the Cold War politics of foot-and-mouth disease in Mexico, and a history of public debates about the Mexican military since 1960.