By Asad Ismi
The 21st anniversary of NAFTA in September finds Mexico in the throes of a shocking human rights crisis that, since 2006, has seen more than 150,000 people killed and more than 27,000 disappeared. According to Amnesty International, torture in Mexico is “out of control,” and police and security forces have “blood on their hands.”
Canada, which prides itself on its global human rights record, has yet to make a single public statement about the Mexican crisis. Meanwhile the Mexican government is stonewalling efforts to get to the bottom of what Human Rights Watch has called “the worst case of abuse to take place in Latin America in the past few decades.”
Kathy Price, a campaigner for Amnesty International Canada who focuses on Latin America, told me her group “is deeply concerned about a very acute and worsening human rights crisis in Mexico that is characterized by very serious violations of human rights including a massive increase in disappearances, torture, extrajudicial executions by state security forces, threats, repression, misuse of the justice system and a climate of impunity.”
According to Price, there is a correlation between the government’s militarization of its fight against organized crime and the increase in reports of very serious human rights violations. “There are organized crime groups in Mexico that are very violent, but the state bears responsibility for the human rights crisis because these violations are being perpetrated by state actors.”
She cites as an example the September 2014 kidnapping of 43 students from a teacher training college in the town of Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state. About 80 students from the college had bussed into the town of Iguala to collect money for their studies and protest school hiring practices. Local police blocked their route back to Ayotzinapa and opened fire on the busses, killing several people before taking about 20 students into custody. Unmarked cars believed to be carrying drug gang members then arrived on the scene, the shooting resumed, and more people were killed or disappeared.
“This egregious crime opened up the eyes of the world to what is going on in Mexico and shows the level of infiltration and collusion between state actors and organized crime,” said Price. “The question is why were these students attacked?”
The Narco State
Jorge Luis Clemente Balbuena believes the killings were a direct state attack on a community that is working to change the status quo in Mexico. Balbuena is a spokesperson for the 43 kidnapped students from the Raul Isidro Burgos teacher training college where he also studies. He and Hilda Legideño Vargas, the mother of one of the students kidnapped last September, visited Canada this spring to ask the federal government to put pressure on the Mexican state for a proper investigation, and to educate the Canadian public about the crime.
“Our school has been attacked for a long time by the repressive Mexican state, which has tried to silence us because we have been fighting for the rights of farmers, students and the community,” said Balbuena. “The 43 students were kidnapped to stop our resistance. This is also why the Mexican government wants to eradicate the entire national network of teacher training colleges, which are full of progressive students like ours. These schools organize their community, which is precisely what the state fears.”
Involvement of Mexican officials in the now paramilitarized drug trade is well documented, and the student kidnapping shows how deep this collusion goes. “The government says that the kidnapping was committed by criminals but the problem is that in Guerrerro state and Mexico, we are ruled by criminals,” Vargas told me. Balbuena concurred: “All public officials and the police in Mexico are involved with narco-traffickers and are corrupted by the drug trade and taking part in it. The kidnapping was directed by the state and the narcos attacked us on its behalf.”
The former governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre, resigned in October 2014 in response to the crisis, and though 100 people have been detained, no officials have yet been charged in the kidnapping. At the end of June, Vice News reported that Mexican authorities were stonewalling an independent investigation convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The IACHR wants to speak to 36 members of the Mexican army who might have been involved.
“Many respected analysts have talked about the ‘Colombianization’ of Mexico,” Price said, referring to the widespread implication of private but state-sponsored paramilitary groups in the displacement and murder of thousands of civilians in Colombia.
“The Mexican military even warned a student trying to help one of the 43 who had been shot in the mouth that, ‘You’re going to end up being disappeared like the others.’ This is very disturbing. The role of the military in this crime has not been investigated and needs to be. We are very concerned about the fact that the official investigation of this crime has been a whitewash.”
The Failure of Free Trade
An economic crisis in Mexico, linked to free trade, parallels the human rights crisis, driving the spread of drug trafficking and increasing the influence of organized crime.
According to Dawn Paley, a Mexico-based Canadian journalist and author of the 2014 book Drug War Capitalism, U.S. agricultural exports flooded into Mexico after NAFTA was signed, decimating farmers and making local corn tortillas, a staple food, too expensive for many to buy. NAFTA has effectively replaced well-paying industrial jobs with a notoriously low-paying, export-oriented Maquiladora sector. Poverty is increasing in Mexico, which has encouraged many people to turn to drug trafficking, she said.
Paley further argues that the U.S. and Mexico have used their war on drugs as a cover for extending the control of multinational corporations over even more of the Mexican economy.
“The drug war is not about stopping the flow of drugs, but is actually aimed at expanding the territories available for transnational capitalism, which includes U.S. and Canadian corporations, through the processes of militarization and paramilitarization,” she told me recently. “It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people to discourage their resistance to corporate control. I document in my book how some paramilitary drug cartels have already attacked opponents of the operations of certain Canadian mining companies in Mexico.”
The militarization of the drug war in Mexico really took off after 2008, when the U.S. Merida Initiative began funding Mexico’s efforts “to fight organized crime and associated violence,” in the words of the U.S. Department of State. At least $2.3 billion has been spent since then to upgrade Mexico’s police force and army, but some of the money is for legal reforms. According to Paley, these “less-talked-about hidden aspects” of the Merida Initiative are actually meant to help “overhaul of the legal system in Mexico to make it more favourable for transnational corporations, something which has been sought after by the corporate sector.”
While in Canada, Balbuena and Vargas spoke before an April 28 meeting of a parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights. Vargas told the Conservative, Liberal and NDP MPs present how desperate she was to find her child. She requested their solidarity and pleaded with the MPs to, “ask the Mexican government to carry out a real search for our children. We want to see how you can make a decision and communicate with the Mexican government so that our case can be dealt with.”
Balbuena added how dangerous it was going to be for the pair to return to Mexico.
“I would like to say that at this time we are very afraid for our individual safety, for the safety of our parents, our family members, our students, the social organizations, and the professors, but mainly the parents and the families who stayed in Mexico,” he told MPs. “I just wanted to add that because the Mexican government has never ensured anybody’s safety. They are very repressive. We fear there will be a greater impact.”
Luis Tapia Olivares, a lawyer for the Mexican human rights organization Centro ProDH who also travelled to Canada this year to address the same parliamentary committee, told me last year’s kidnapping and the Mexican government’s response must be addressed at the highest levels of government.
“Knowing the political and business interests and relations between Canada and Mexico, the Canadian government should be pressured to recognize that there is a serious human rights crisis in Mexico and that it should set conditions for its relations with Mexico based on guaranteeing respect for human rights there,” he said. “This should be the condition for there being relations between the two countries.”
But Price said she worries the Canadian government has not recognized the seriousness of the human rights crisis of its NAFTA partner, “and obviously that has a lot to do with Canadian economic interests in Mexico.” She said the MPs that Vargas, Balbuena and Olivares spoke to were “deeply concerned by what they heard, which is heartening,” but that the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has not publicly called for a full investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students. “The department says that they have brought this issue up with the Mexican government privately but this is obviously inadequate,” she said.
There is considerable Canadian investment in Mexico and a million Canadian tourists visit the country every year, giving Canada real clout. Price said she would like to see the federal government make it clear that it finds the current situation in Mexico unacceptable.
“Given the massive scope of human rights violations in Mexico currently how can you be silent? When more than 27,000 people have disappeared? These are huge numbers. The scope and severity of the human rights violations are shocking and the situation is getting worse. These are the same scale of human rights violations that we usually see under military dictatorships but Mexico is supposedly a democracy.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, September/October 2015,
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Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor‘s international affairs correspondent and author of the anthology The Latin American Revolution which can be ordered from the CCPA by writing to <email@example.com>.