Over a month ago, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, went “missing” after mobilizing and protesting for improvements in Mexico’s educational policy and social system. Within days, authorities had uncovered mass graves; yet the bodies were not of the students, making a bad situation even worse in revealing the depth of murder and “disappearance” of bodies in one of Mexico’s most violent states, where drug gangs have infiltrated not just the police force but the very mayoralty of Iguala itself. (Vice News, of all sites, has a useful timeline here.) As I wrote then, if ” it turns out that the graves aren’t even the students’ remains, then not only are students still missing, but apparently other people have been murdered and dumped unceremoniously in hidden graves in an attempt to “erase” evidence of them, which is even worse.” Yesterday, state authorities announced that the students were indeed dead, cremated (some while still alive, apparently), and their ashes dumped, according to a gang confession.
Alma Guillermoprieto wrote a piece this week that covered not so much the events as their significance, especially with regards to the relationship between the state and society, as a group and class of citizens whose voices the state all too often ignores and whose rights it disregards finally made themselves heard.
Emiliano Navarrete, a slight man in a baseball cap who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was the last relative to speak.
“I am the father of a boy who, for me, is not disappeared,” he began. “For me, he was kidnapped by men in uniform who are municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero.” His face was stretched taut against his skull from tension and the stress of speaking in public, and his stumbling Spanish revealed his Indian origins. “Why does this government act like this?” he went on, searching for words. “We are not sheep to be killed whenever they feel like it.”
Even the cameramen, normally so noisy and cynical, were listening closely. “I haven’t come here to ask for any favor,” Navarrete shouted now, in his rage. “I’ve come to demand [that our children be found], because I am a citizen of Mexico, and I have rights.”
The following day government security forces were deployed by the thousands in and around the towns of Iguala and Chilpancingo. They mobilized in tanks, helicopters, vans, and motorboats.
The Mexican state’s response to the events in Iguala is indeed belated, as Guillermoprieto notes; yet as she also notes, it is in some ways remarkable that the state has mobilized at all, in light of how many times people have been murdered, their rights as citizens disregarded as the state failed to act to investigate or prevent such deaths, something the dozens of bodies who weren’t the students but who were uncovered in the wake of their disappearance reinforces.
Yet of all the parts of Guillermoprieto’s piece that stuck out to me, it is perhaps the last sentence, almost tossed out as an aside, that struck me. She writes,
[T]he spokesman for the families, Felipe de Jesús de la Cruz, has reiterated their position: they will only accept proof that their sons are dead in the form of positive DNA test results analyzed by a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists, who have been acting as independent investigators throughout the search.
The reliance on Argentine forensic anthropologists is notable here. As many are aware, the wake of the military dictatorship that governed Argentina from 1976-1983 murdered and “disappeared” tens of thousands of Argentines, dumping some into the Atlantic Ocean but dumping many more into unidentified mass graves. In the wake of the dictatorship, a unique and previously-underdeveloped branch of anthropology developed, one that sought to be able to identify the bodies the families of the disappeared who sought to resolve the fate of their loved ones. As Rita Arditti has shown, organizations like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo drew on their plight and on their international connections to help spur the scientific community into new areas of genetic testing to identify remains of victims, providing not only closure for some but also helping to identify the “lost children” whom the regime and its allies had kidnapped and adopted after murdering their parents. To the present, Argentine forensic anthropologists are among the best in the world when it comes to trying to identify the bodies of the missing. While Guillermoprieto does not say as much, it seems highly likely that those forensic anthropologists who have worked in uncovering and identifying the disappeared in Argentina have been brought in to aid in Mexico. Their presence serves as a haunting and powerful reminder both of the tragedies of the disappeared in the past and the present, and of the importance of the ongoing quest for justice, be it in the history of Argentina or in the more recent events of Mexico.
I’ve written before of police violence against students in Mexico on a much grander scale. And now, in 2014, it tragically appears we have a twenty-first century version, no less horrific even if on a smaller scale:
Authorities were investigating whether several bodies found in clandestine graves in southern Mexico are those of 43 students who disappeared after a deadly police shooting last week.
The pits were found Saturday on a hill in a community outside Iguala, the town where the students were last seen and where witnesses say municipal police officers whisked several of them away. […]
But two police officers at the scene in the community of Pueblo Viejo told AFP that at least 15 bodies were exhumed from the site, which was cordoned off and guarded by scores of troops and police.
Juan Lopez Villanueva, an official from the National Human Rights Commission, said that six pits were found up a steep hill probably inaccessible by car.
Why were the students missing? Because students in the state had gathered in Guerrero. According to early reports, “depending on the account, they either collected donations for school or sought to hijack buses, as they have commonly done for transportation. The result was police opened fire, killing six people and leaving 43 students “missing.”
It is worth noting that, no matter what they had gathered for, opening fire and killing some, and then apparently killing and attempting to “disappear” others is indefensible and among the grossest of human rights violations. And if protests in Latin America have taught us anything, it’s that the reasons for students gathering is not an either/or proposition; it seems quite possible that many had gathered for donations in one of the poorest states in Mexico, and a small number escalated the activities (as happened with the “black bloc” in Brazil during the 2013 protests). Yet even if that is the case, it does not justify the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters, and it certainly does not justify the methodical kidnapping and killing of citizens, and attempted destruction of their bodies. And in the off-chance that it turns out that the graves aren’t even the students’ remains, then not only are students still missing, but apparently other people have been murdered and dumped unceremoniously in hidden graves in an attempt to “erase” evidence of them, which is even worse.
The national government has gotten involved in the investigation, and perhaps the particularly extreme nature of this particular event will remain a question of public memory for some time. Sadly, one of the early lessons of this massacre is that police violence against students is not a remnant of a lost age. Even more sadly, while this incident is particularly extreme, it is all too emblematic of the degree of force that local police forces can and do use in Mexico (and elsewhere); people may recoil at the particularly extreme version of such violence and corruption in this case, but this is a recurring theme on a daily basis for all too many individuals whose stories and lives go unheard and unremembered.
-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.
-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.
-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote) and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.
-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.
-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.
-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.
-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.
-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.
-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.
Forty-five years ago today, Mexican police and armed forces killed hundreds of unarmed, peaceful protestors.
Former President of Mexico Vicente Fox (2000-2006) has said he is the best president of Mexico. Ever. As in, in all of Mexican history.
Suffice to say, this is a rather self-serving interpretation of history, and one that grossly diminishes the achievements of some of Mexico’s past presidents while inflating Fox’s own achievements. Not to dive into all of Mexican history, but if nothing else, Benito Juárez’s own accomplishments in state-building alone are incredible, as he in many ways finally built a strong, stable state apparatus after dealing with the impact of over 30 years of domestic political and military turmoil (including the US’s seizure of well over 1/3 of Mexico in 1848) and economic instability, an occupation by French forces, and constant conflicts both with local oligarchical elites and the Church. Then there is Álvaro Obregón, whose presidency (1920-1924) helped Mexico take the steps to recover from a ten-year revolution that had left well over one million people dead, again providing strong leadership and policy-making in a period and context that saw far greater challenges and uncertainties than anything Fox confronted. And Lázaro Cárdenas’ (1934-1940) status as a reformer who tried to address the social inequalities that had their roots in hierarchical power structures that dated back to the 1800s (and earlier), while perhaps incomplete, still helped improve the lives of millions of Mexicans, leading many to see him as the country’s last “great” president. And that’s just three presidents whose accomplishments at their best far outweigh what modest accomplishments and even failures Fox managed (pledging 7% annual growth for Mexico but only managing to achieve 1% growth; economic policies that led to more unequally distributed wealth in Mexico). Fox pales in comparison to previous presidents even in the limited areas where we can concretely evaluate what his administration actually accomplished.
Which leads to a second problem – that of temporal perspective. Though he’s been out of office seven years, many of the social, economic, political, and cultural processes that began or transformed under his PAN government have yet to play out in a way where we can fully understand his legacy, whereas the legacies of Juárez, Obregón, Cárdenas, and other past presidents (both good and bad) are clearer. Indeed, while we can perhaps say that Fox wasn’t as personally corrupt or repressive as some of the PRI presidents of the latter part of the 20th century (though new documents and information can always change the historical record on Fox’s own qualities), it’s simply far too soon to be able to fully and definitively evaluate his overall successes.
For both of these differing reasons, Fox’s statements really are absurd. Even if we take what he did accomplish and toss out his shortcomings, his positive impact on Mexican society, state-building, diplomacy, economics, and culture pale to the records of some of his predecessors, even with their own warts (after all, though it shouldn’t be necessary, it helps to remind ourselves that nobody’s perfect – not even presidents). Indeed, given his attempt to make such claims and shape the narrative positively so early on, it seems Fox either is really out of touch with the historical record, or so self-absorbed and arrogant as to see himself as Mexico’s greatest political hero. Either way, making such comments strongly undermines the actual argument of those comments themselves.
-Two former executives from Ford in Argentina have been charged (among other things) with having ties to the abduction of 24 workers for Ford during the military regime of 1976-1983.
-El Salvador’s presidential election is shaping up to be a close three-way race, according to new polls.
-Mexico’s government says it will release a report that finds the number of disappeared in Mexico is “much lower” than an initial report that claimed that tens of thousands have been disappeared as part of the violence that has defined part of the drug trade in Mexico. Nonetheless, Mexico’s government has created a special unit to investigate and try to track down the fates of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” caught up in the drug trade and violence in Mexico.
-In what is perhaps curious timing, even while Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide has been annulled, former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the US, where he will face charges of corruption and money laundering. As Mike Allison points out, the trial in the US provides another reminder that, although Guatemala’s courts are not as corrupt as they once were, they still have a long way to go, a fact that the recent decision on Ríos Montt all too tragically demonstrated.
-Speaking of institutional failures and undoing justice, a Brazilian court has overturned the 2010 conviction of landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura for his role in the murder of land activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. It is the second time a conviction of Bastos de Moura has been overturned, though he will remain in jail while a third trial takes place. Meanwhile, three other, poorer men hired to murder Stang remain in prison without having access to multiple trials and a court system favorable to their cause the way it is to the wealthier and more powerful Bastos de Moura.
-Chile has fined Canadian mining company Barrick Gold and suspended all operations at the Pascua-Lama mine after environmental degradation, water contamination, and other environmental issues. Though seemingly large, the fine represents only %0.1 of the cost of operating the mine.
-Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes is facing criticism for his inability to deal with criticisms after he punched a man in the face while out to dinner last Saturday.
-Ten years since the rise of “Kirchnerism” in Argentina, poverty has declined, though to what degree and by what metrics are apparently up for debate.
-Efforts to reforest and aid the environment in Latin America have slowed to a crawl, caught in bureaucratic red tape, political fear of social movements, and a slowness (or unwillingness) of governments to help environmental causes in the region.
-Digital currency business owner Arthur Budovsky, whose company, Liberty Reserve, operates in Costa Rica, was arrested in Spain this week on charges of money laundering.