Mexico: Civic Responses to Insecurity & Militarization

By Armando Chaguaceda 

Map of Mexico.

HAVANA TIMES, August 7 — Every week, news agencies reporting on what’s happening in Mexico tell us about dozens of deaths caused by violent confrontations between various criminal bands as well as these groups with the police and the military.  They also speak of civilian victims of murder and kidnapping or those caught in the cross fires of armed crashes.

In the following interview we look into the assessment of this situation held by Celia Alvarez, as an activist and professor at the Universidad Veracruzana, as well as the perspective of actor and social activist Damian Alcazar, who has been the leading character in memorable films such as “La ley de Herodes” and “El infierno.”

HT:  Frequently socio-economic factors (poverty, inequality, massive unemployment) are pointed to as being the causes of the persistent insecurity and high crime rates that are suffered in the countries of our continent.  However, it’s known that societies with similar characteristics can experience different situations in terms of their levels of violence.  In your opinion, what are the structural elements that are producing the current wave of violence in Mexico?    

Celia Alvarez: Anabel Hernandez points out in her book “Los señores del narco”1 (The lords of narco-trafficking) that high-level public officials themselves have been the ones who have promoted drug trafficking in our country.  Likewise, they have generated chaos by selling their “positions” (or areas where groups can commit their misdeeds) to various rivals bands.

Celia Alvarez. Photo; uv-mx

In such places, violence has been unleashed over territorial disputes.  President Felipe Calderon rolled out the army onto the streets with the mere desire to legitimize his government — the product of an electoral fraud — without weighing the consequences that would be felt by shaking up the wasps’ nest.  This is how we’ve arrived at this current state of barbarism. The question is:  Where did all those drug traffickers come from, all those people who are today active in the ranks of organized crime?

They are the products of social injustice, poverty, misery and years and decades of massive suffering.  These are people who have no other option but to turn to crime and, in addition, people for whom things are less difficult if they go down that path.  That’s the difference I see between Mexico and other countries, that fatal combination of social injustice and corruption that embraces businesspeople who launder drug trafficking funds and the bankers who protect that money.

This is because the lords of narco-trafficking are not only the capos; these are also their hired assassins and “hawks,” as well as the authorities, the owners of companies that invest dirty money and people from the banks who benefit from the high returns.  All those who are in collusion are responsible.

Damian Alcazar:  It’s undoubtedly those factors — poverty, inequality, injustice, unemployment and terrible wages — that are the cultural broth of the violence.  In cases like Mexico, we have to add other factors that have to do with the wasting away of the little that the post-revolution was able to give to the most vulnerable citizens: education, health care services, trade unions, agrarian reform.

Similarly, though the corruption has always reigned among our politicians, they had a force born of nationalism that got lost in the closing off and the protection of the interests of the party; and then, with all the other parties that came on the scene and the contention over large sums of money, the interests of the people began to get lost.

The people are losing out because the budget for everything social is decreasing every year, but never those line items for the politicians, officials and judges.  This has also conditioned a situation in which corruption is now institutional.   All of the politicians, except for notable exceptions, are known cheats.  Corruption is the fountain from which drug trafficking has grown and assumed such vitality.

HT:  President Felipe Calderon, immediately after assuming the presidency, declared an open war against drug trafficking.   What reasons led him to prioritize this strategy within his political agenda for his whole six-year political term?  

Celia Alvarez:  As I’ve written previously, Felipe Calderon assumed power wrapped in a halo of suspicion, because citizens were aware that electoral fraud had been carried out.  Subsequently, he decided to legitimate his mandate through the incursion of the army in the streets, wrapped in the mantel of the colonial empire.  Today the war that was unleashed is so bloody that not even they could have foreseen it when making that decision – which was unilateral, by the way, because the opinion of the people was not consulted.

That is what should have happened in a democratic country.  Calderon declared a war that the Mexican people never wanted, and it was one that they would not have approved had they been consulted.  Unfortunately the consequences are being paid for by the people, who are the ones getting killed.

Damian Alcazar. Photo:

Damian Alcazar: Calderon’s strategy was not exactly to put an end to drug trafficking; it was to be validated in the eyes of society with the backing of the army.  Any person with three fingers in front of them knows that to put an end to drug trafficking requires putting an end to its economic infrastructure, and this is where there are many people sheltered by “legality.”   They have and do good business.  Let’s add to that the prevailing corruption and we’ll see that much personal and group wealth, and even many political careers, have been promoted by drug trafficking.

HT: The widespread presence in the streets of troops from the army and navy taking on tasks of internal security has led many people to speak of the “militarization of Mexico.”   Is this phenomenon really effective in stopping organized crime?  To what degree does it affect democracy?  What should be the limits of its imposition and duration?   

Celia Alvarez: As it is visible and palpable, the increase of the number of army and navy troops in the streets has not only failed to control the problem, but the escalation of violence is reaching new heights every day.  I believe that in a democratic country the army shouldn’t be in the streets, much less in the current circumstances in which the military itself is violating the integrity of civilians; they’re raping, torturing and murdering innocent people using the excuse of “cleaning up” the country.

As long as the root of the evil isn’t severed, as long as drugs are not legalized on the one hand and on the other there’s no investigation into businesspeople who launder drug trafficking money or looks into the bankers who guard it, as long as the cancer of corruption that embraces officeholders at all levels isn’t extirpated, as long as police officers and the military collude with the underworld, the problem won’t be solved.

Afterwards, we’ll have to deal the thousands of youth who’ve been hired as assassins, or the thousands of people who have spent years augmenting the ranks of the cartels due to their poverty and the lack of employment, due to their desperation or lack of conscientiousness.  This is the other problem to solve.  In a country where there are not enough jobs and those that exist are degrading because the wages are a pittance, it won’t be possible to prevent either massive emigration or people joining the armies of crime.

Damian Alcazar: The militarization of a country always opens the way to the hardening of the rules imposed by the government on the citizenry.  The army is not qualified to deal with the citizenry; they don’t defend the citizens, and they don’t know how to respect human rights.  They are people trained for war and destruction; they only know how to obey the orders of their superiors, and this is why they’re used.  The help they can give in instances of natural disasters is indeed very important, but it’s minimal.  The current use of the army and the navy is the preliminary step for total control of power.

HT: The poet Javier Sicilia has headed a national movement against Calderon’s war.   However there have been differences between Sicilia and other actors of the movement regarding a demand formulated this past June 10 on the CD “Juarez.”  It called for, “The immediate end of the war strategy, demilitarization of the police and return the army to the barracks.”  Among similar radical calls, as well as in gradualist and reconciliatory proposals, what must be the essential approach if Mexican civil society is to stop this war that has already cost the lives of 40,000 citizens?  

Celia Alvarez:  The figures have risen and at the moment there have been more than 50,000 people who have died as a result of this devastating war.  Javier Sicilia did what he could: spontaneously he pushed everything to one side as he was burdened with the pain of having lost a son in the most terrible way, and he rushed forward to demand justice and peace.  Later he politicized the movement and his meeting with the president served nothing because they were a succession of monologues.  But all of that is not his fault; fixing the country is not in his hands.

Sicilia did a lot by announcing the truth to the world, far from the official versions about what is happening in Mexico.  Others will have to continue that action.  The whole weight of the national tragedy cannot be loaded onto the back of a single man, who in addition is a poet, not a politician or a demagogue.

What should be done?  What is paramount is that the collective consciousness wakes up, that citizens become aware of what’s happening, that truthful information circulates (not the distorted and made-up information that they sell to the broadcast media) and that citizens understand the root of the problem.

The next step would be for people to demand the changes that the country needs: an honest and efficient government that generates jobs, one that promotes quality and equal education to put an end to inequality and social injustice, a state that provides free and effective medical care for all Mexicans, as well as decent housing, productive agriculture, programs for development in all areas.  And the demand would include this being guided so that the country prospers and so that it’s possible to distribute wealth equally.

I see youth who are very active in social networks struggling for change, following the trail that is left by the specter of revolution that covers the world, from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe and even in some countries of the Americas, like in Chile and Argentina, where people are now being organized.  I believe that what is coming is a global revolution that will also set fire to the spirit of the Mexican people.

We live in a convulsed planet that desires like never before to be freed from the chains of this modern slavery, which is what capitalism is – along with its favorite son: voracious consumerism.  When the reign of selfishness and individualism dies, and we begin governing ourselves based on a system of community, one of collective good relying on the dictates of universal love, only then we will begin to know what peace is.

Damian Alcazar: Participation in democratic life is not in fact the distinguishing characteristic of Mexicans, and I’d even say that it won’t be.  Ignorance, demoralization and the impoverishment of the great majority of the Mexican population do not allow them to participate actively in social processes; moreover, any attempt at participation is immediately controlled by the government.

We need only recall how — during the earthquake of ‘85, when seeing that people had taken responsibility for organizing the relief strategy — the government called out the army to take control of the action, and citizens were compelled (even violently) to no longer participate in the rescue operation.

Another of the strategies of the government to handcuff society in such momentous instances of social and historical change is to rely on the fatigue and wearing down of the people.  The sole thing that Mexican society can do is demonstrate and to try to organize itself over and over again.

But, in my opinion, all attempts at change arising out of that society will only be attempts, ones undermined by the strategists of the group in power.  I would like to be much more optimistic regarding the initiative and impact of citizens in social changes, but I’m not, though I personally will always be engaged in the civic struggle.

1  I recommend the reading of this thesis work, which as a result of its publication, by the way, the author’s life is being threatened by the secretary of Public Security, Genaro Garcia Luna)