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Feature 121012 Paterson

Monday, December 10, 2012

Can Mexico Now Uproot Marginalization and Organized Crime?

By Kent Paterson

In Mexico, the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto got off to a violent start. Outside the Congressional building of San Lazaro, where Peña Nieto was inaugurated on December 1, hundreds of mainly young people clashed with security forces that had ringed and blocked off the site as if the country was in a state of siege.

Police rubber bullets reportedly left 67-year-old Juan Francisco Quinquedal, a veteran activist with the pro-Zapatista Other Campaign and other movements, near death, while several other protesters were seriously injured and up to a dozen officers hurt, according to press reports.  A post-inaugural follow-up action, which a growing number of commentators suggest was the production of infiltrators and agent provocateurs, saw masked young people rioting in downtown Mexico City and damaging property.  

On the morning of the inauguration, listeners of IMER, Mexico's version of NPR, got an earful of the political polarization still simmering in the aftermath of the contested July 2012 election.

Broadcast live from San Lazaro,  Citizen Movement Congressman Ricardo Monreal, an ex-governor of Zacatecas and former coordinator of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's presidential campaign, delivered a strident denunciation of previous PRI and National Action Party (PAN) administrations, accusing the two parties of stoking corruption and functioning as "factories for poor people."  Monreal contended that the preceding governments had squandered Mexico's oil bonanza and turned the heralded democratic transition from one-party rule into a "transaction."

On the other side of the coin, a pro-Peña Nieto lawmaker welcomed the ascension to the presidential seat of the 46-year-old former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governor of Mexico State as a "happy day of renovation."  Taking the oath of office in front of U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden and other world leaders, Peña Nieto vowed a frontal attack on Mexico's numerous problems. "Better times are coming for Mexicans," he pledged.

Typically attracting hundreds at each event, anti-Peña protests unfolded across the nation last weekend. In Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city, municipal and state police detained 32 demonstrators who unsuccessfully attempted to bring their message to the city's vaunted International Book Festival. As Frontera NorteSur was going to press, mobilizations continued in Mexico City and Guadalajara demanding the release of 96 protesters still jailed after the inauguration day confrontations.

In Ciudad Juarez, a parade of 125-plus demonstrators staged a peaceful march from Borunda Park to the Santa Fe Bridge on the Mexico-U.S. border before concluding with a rally at the historic downtown plaza. Organized by the 132 youth movement, the Workers Political Organization, the Front against the Imposition, Lopez Obrador's Morena movement/party and other local groups, the protestors railed against the alleged imposition of Peña Nieto and vowed to continue opposing unpopular labor, security and economic policies.

Some also called for the trial of ex-president Felipe Calderon, who was blamed for the wave of violence that engulfed Mexico after 2006, and is now headed off to Harvard University.

In a lengthy statement distributed at the rally, the Juarez Democratic Civic Alliance compared Calderon with a long line of rulers like 19th century President Santa Anna who deepened Mexico's subjugation to Washington and its national security state. The group stated that it was "formulating accusations" of constitutional violations against Calderon for a special, unnamed Mexican tribunal.   

Identifying himself as a binational resident, protest participant Roberto Miranda noted that only 38 percent of Mexican voters cast ballots for Peña Nieto, according to the official election results. Miranda challenged assertions that Peña Nieto represents a new PRI, which has the presidency again after 12 years of conservative PAN executive rule. "The new PRI is a lie," Miranda said. "You know what a dinosaur is, like dinosaurs in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party? The dinosaur behind Peña Nieto is Carlos Salinas." 

University student Antonio Muñoz countered a NPR report aired prior to Peña Nieto's inauguration that contended Mexicans viewed their new president as a handsome young man who won office due in part to the mystique of a new PRI.  The big U.S. news service also was upbeat about Mexico's economic future, portraying the country as a serious jobs competitor with China that is positioned for growth.  "The problem is that the jobs will be minimum wage," Muñoz said. "People don't benefit from these jobs. We want jobs with dignity."

As for Ciudad Juarez's prospects, Muñoz agreed that the public safety situation has recently improved in a city that earned the unwanted tag of Murder Capital of the World, but he added that the structural conditions which inflamed the Great Violence of 2008-2012 are still very much alive in the border city. Many young people, Muñoz insisted, constitute a "reserve army" of organized crime because of their marginalization. "There's been an improvement in security, but the precariousness of the situation continues. Students can't go to school because of the costs," he added.

Bursting with activity the day of Peña Nieto's inauguration, downtown Ciudad Juarez swirled with the contrasts and contradictions of the border and Mexico as a new year loomed.

A street ad notified potential workers aged 18 to 35 and interested in promoting Carlos Slim's Infinitum Internet service in the state of Chihuahua to apply at a jewelry store, while another help wanted posting sought English-speaking "customer service" representatives for Xerox's Ciudad Juarez call center in return for a weekly salary of approximately $120 plus bonuses -- a high wage for the border. Mexican government posters promoting a campaign to curb the disappearance of persons were visible, but so were new posters of missing young women and some men, including Laura Janeth Davila Ortiz, a 22-year-old who vanished after leaving work on October 5.

In the endless cat-and-mouse game between the authorities and street vendors who dart in and out of the traffic waiting to cross over into the U.S. on the Santa Fe Bridge, the government had the upper hand as no vendors were visible in the early morning.  But with traffic backed up for blocks leading up to the bridge and vehicles spewing more carbon into the global emissions registry, the informal sellers had plenty of opportunity to hustle motorists.

Falling on a quincena, the biweekly Mexican pay day, December 1 was a day when Juarenses waited for long stretches at ATM machines, in some cases forming lines of 60 or more people, to withdraw cold cash in time for Christmas shopping.

Perhaps anticipating ample demand in the days ahead, pawn shop and payday lender employees were particularly visible, with one business even dispatching a car with a sound system that slowly crawled up September 16 Avenue blaring messages repeating an annual interest rate. Dentists offered $15 and $20 tooth extractions, and taxi drivers pitched visits to massage parlors.

Street vendors were out in force, and one woman attracted quite a crowd with her makeshift, aquatic pet store consisting of creeping crabs, squirming little turtles and bouncing orange frogs all for 30 pesos an animal  An eclectic musical ambiance entertained passerby, punctuated by the street saxophonist celebrating Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Cotton Fields Back Home," a blind man coughing up an off-key Mexican love song and a young man sitting calmly on Avenida Juarez while guarding two sidewalk speakers blasting a narco-corrido that sang of grenade launchers and other such tools of the trade.

In an interview, Gero Fong of the Front against the Imposition placed contemporary Ciudad Juarez and Mexico within the context of a world crisis in which capitalists try to extract more and more profits and resources -- violently in the case of Ciudad Juarez. The U.S. government's anti-drug Merida Initiative, Fong contended, bolstered the repressive hand of the state at the expense of human rights. Ciudad Juarez's violence, he said, had become "normalized," dropping from about ten murders a day at the height of the Great Violence to three or so a day now, and representing a sort of "social cleansing" at work.

The longtime activist dismissed the former Calderon administration's "Todos Somos Juarez" ("We are all Juarez") program, unveiled after the January 2010 Villas del Salvarcar massacre and ostensibly designed to restore security and a tattered social fabric in a battered city, as a media stunt best suited for "taking the photo."  

The non-electoral left, Fong added, will be discussing in coming days how best to respond to Peña Nieto's new government and advance the cause of different social movements. 

In an editorial titled "Peña Nieto: The Great Unknown," El Diario de Juarez also took aim at "Todos Somos Juarez," criticizing the Calderon administration for leaving office without delivering a final evaluation on the approximately $400 million initiative that was announced with great fanfare nearly three years ago. In a broader context, El Diario said that Peña Nieto was assuming office amid great expectations as well as widespread disillusionment after 12 years of PAN governance.

Although El Diario credited Calderon for "maintaining the country in financial stability," the newspaper wrote that the self-proclaimed "employment president" handed Peña Nieto a country with 60 million people who don't earn enough to cover basic necessities, eight million young people who neither work nor study,  a "multiplied informal economy," and "many social shortfalls."

El Diario editorialized that advances in freedom of expression during the PAN years were paradoxically accompanied by the murders of 72 journalists nationwide, including the slayings of El Diario employees Armando Rodriguez and Luis Carlos Santiago.

Seizing the moment, Mexico's new president rapidly rolled out a broad five-point program addressing violence, justice, poverty, the economy and competition. "The countryside, tourism and industrial development will be essential on the road for transforming Mexico into an emerging economic power," stated a message from Peña Nieto's office. The five goals were then transfigured into the Pact for Mexico, an agreement which was quickly accepted by the leaders of the PRI, PAN and PRD parties, much to the chagrin of some members of the latter center-left grouping.  

Whether the bulk of the population is paying much attention to political developments is always a big question this time of year. A peculiarity of the Mexican political system is that the new president is sworn into office just as the country is embarking on the long winter holiday and vacation season.  

Already, street processions are leading up to Virgin of Guadalupe Day on December 12,  followed by Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day and Three King's Day. Mixed into the slew of religious observations are secular rituals including "The Day of the Innocents," an April Fool's like-chance for pranks on December 27-28; family excursions to Acapulco; the guzzling of Noche Buena beer; the giveaways to pliant journalists known as "chayote;" and truce appeals to warring narco gangs.  

Nonetheless, December has been a month when tax-hikes, economic collapses and uprisings slip through the cultural cracks. One thing is for certain: come January, the issues and conflicts that riveted the body politic in 2012 are sure to retake center stage.

Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted with authorization from 
Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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