Mexico: A country at the breaking point

Three months after a flashy news conference, the government was forced to revise its crime statistic

Mexico continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, writes Driver [AFP]

“Mexico, wake up, the Narco governs!”

“The School of Music repudiates the crimes and violence of the Narco-State!”

“You can bury us and disappear us, but you can’t kill the struggle or our ideas!”

Students carried these signs as they participated in some of the largest protests in Mexico’s history over the past month. On September 26, 43 students from the Escuela Normal Rural Raul Isidro Burgos, which is located in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, were on their way to a protest when they disappeared. Subsequent revelations allege the involvement of the mayor, who had ordered the police to turn the students over to Guerreros Unidos, a local drug gang. This pointed to the close relationship between government officials and “narcos”, a relationship that has been documented around the country and in human rights violations that implicate the army and police in cases of disappearance and murder.

Authorities, in a series of missteps, announced the discovery of the students’ bodies in a narcofosa (graves of drug-gang victims), only to find that the mass grave contained different bodies. And then more narcofosas were found in the area, but none of them contained the students’ bodies. The graves made the widespread problem of disappearance impossible to ignore.

Image problem

When President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December 2012, he began to sell violence as an image problem (as in, it doesn’t exist, the media just shows it too much). He exerted pressure on media outlets not to report on or show photos of homicides, and he immediately went to work cooking the books on homicide and disappearance statistics.

Fault Lines – The Disappeared

Three months after a flashy news conference in which his government announced a steep drop in disappearances, the government was forced to revise its numbers.

But Pena Nieto did a good enough job that Time magazine put him on its February cover under the title “Saving Mexico”. Human rights organisations estimate that since 2006, as many as 200,000 people have disappeared, although the government only admits to 26,000 disappearances. The truth is that there are no reliable statistics because the government has no interest in tracking them.

When I interviewed Juarez journalist Julian Cardona in 2013 for a film about violence in the Mexican media, he argued: “The media can be understood as a company that makes tacit or under the table agreements with governments to control how newspapers cover such government entities. You don’t know who is behind the violence.”

Pena Nieto’s close ties with Televisa, the largest media company in Latin America, have been widely documented and even earned him the nickname the “Televisa candidate” during the elections.

To create confusion, the Pena Nieto administration has pursued the strategy of making splashy high profile narco arrests, and of blaming all criminal activity, including murders and disappearances, on the fact that everyone involved was part of the drug trafficking business. This approach makes victims responsible for the violence they suffer, and it is promoted in the media in a way that makes all victims become suspects. People then are afraid to report disappearances or other violence because they know they will be investigated and perhaps tortured and forced to confess to the very crimes they reported.

On November 7, the Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam continued to follow this strategy in his news conference on the 43 disappeared students. He blamed the drug gang Guerreros Unidos and described how they chopped up the bodies and burned them on a trash pile. Making drug gangs seem inhuman and barbaric is a strategy for deflecting attention from the fact that the drug gangs were apparently working with the police and the mayor to deal with the protesting students. Conveniently for the government, the drug gang left behind no remains to be identified.

Unanswered questions

Several questions remain unanswered: Why did the mayor order the police to arrest the students and hand them over to the gang? Why did the governor of the state fail to investigate the disappearances? This is yet another example among the many human rights abuses that have been documented in Mexico under Pena Nieto, in which the government and the narcos appear to be working together to orchestrate the murder and disappearance of protesters and other dissidents.

At the press conference Murillo Karam was dismissive when asked questions, and he tried to cut the press conference short by saying “I’m tired.” This set off outrage on Twitter that trended worldwide under the hashtag #YaMeCanse (#Imtired): “How can they declare 43 people dead when they only have bags of trash and they have no DNA? #YaMeCanse?” asked Mariano Castillo.

The main point is that this incident is not the first of its kind in Mexico; it is one of a series of documented massacres in which there is evidence that the government and organised crime worked hand in hand to disappear protesters (mothers protesting the disappearance of their daughters, workers protesting inhumane treatment, students protesting a lack of educational opportunities). Because there is such tight government control of the media and because the country continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, this extreme violence gets silenced in the media.

When I interviewed Mexican journalist Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez in 2010 about how he was kidnapped, beaten, and left on the side of the road after reporting on the murder of women in Juarez, he said he believes that narcos form, “a network of enormous scope that reach up to the highest public office in Mexico. They control banking and everything else because they have invaded society. This is the problem with Mexico, the rise of organised crime that is very powerful and is integral to its institutions. It is not an external agent made up of drug traffickers hiding from bullets. Not at all… They are inherently linked to the political and economic system.”

At an October 22 rally, protesters in Mexico City held signs that read, “Your child is my child.”

The country has reached a breaking point, but is it enough to dismantle the narco-state?

Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women’s rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico.