“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
— Albert Camus
The winds of change are blowing in Mexico.
A growing wave of resistance is gathering momentum and can be found in the jungles and mountains of the south and in small indigenous communities and big cities alike. It is present along the coasts and across the plateaus, up to the bastions of power in Mexico City and beyond to the regions of the north, so badly scarred by the war on drugs.
While Mexico has a long history of protest, social unrest and revolution, in the last 12 months, the country has witnessed new forms of organizing and the reappearance of groups forgotten by the mainstream. In large part, the wave of discontent that has swept the country has one factor in common: the failure of the government in several key areas – national security, education and employment.
Back in 2011, following increasing dissatisfaction with former president Felipe Calderon’s failed policies on the drug trade, poet Javier Sicilia joined with others to start a mass protest movement that decried the thousands of innocent lives lost to the war on drugs. To date, approximately 70,000 people have died in Mexico since the launch of the war on drugs in 2006 and a further 9,000 are missing.
Sicilia himself had a son murdered by drug traffickers, so the connection to the cause could not have been more personal. The protesters mobilised under the banner Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and hundreds of thousands joined in protest marches across the country.
It was in this context that former president Felipe Calderon’s PAN party lost the July 2012 election. Too many lives had been lost for too little gain.
The election instead heralded the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years under a regime of corruption and repression, until ‘democracy’ was restored to the country in 2000. In reality, the long reach of PRI continues to dominate politics at both the national and local levels.
In the lead up to the July 2012 national elections, the new and vocal protest movement #YoSoy132 burst onto the scene. The movement was initially made up of students and university professors who boldly declared their intentions in an online manifesto: “We do not want the one-eyed world that the media constructs everyday to distract us… We are the Mexico that woke up… We long for the revolution of our parents. We long for a future that could be.”
At the core of it, the #YoSoy132 movement has called for greater transparency and inclusion around political processes and for the democratization of the media. Groups affiliated with the movement have popped up in many different parts of Mexico in a short space of time, thanks to the use of new and interesting forms of organisation. As the name suggests, the #YoSoy132 movement has been very closely tied to social media and both communication and organisation have been facilitated through accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
Affirming the importance of their digital connections, in their initial manifesto the #YoSoy132 movement also stated that “we come from the networks, from a world of zeros and ones, from a world that they don’t know and will never be able to manipulate”. The movement has linked in with other like-minded causes overseas, such as the Occupy movement in the US and UK, the massive student protests in Chile and the austerity protests in Greece and Europe more widely.
Some have dismissed the movement for being too bourgeois and for not representing the poor of Mexico. Others have criticized them for trying to work within the confines of a corrupt system, rather than pushing for radical change. These may be valid points, but the mobilization of the middle classes is an important indication that discontent with the status quo is growing rapidly in Mexico.
Indigenous resistance models a new way of being
In Mexico over the past year, many movements from the grassroots have shown that a new way is possible. Often coming from small indigenous communities, these fierce critics of the current system remind us of the gaping void that continues to exist between the wealthy and the poor. Some are fighting for recognition and the right to self-determination, while others are battling for their very existence.
One interesting example is the small town of Cherán in the western state of Michoacán, comprised of some 18,000 residents. Following an extensive blockade of the town, the people of Cherán formally declared their independence from the Mexican state in 2011, based on the legally recognized system of usos y costumbres (uses and customs). This allows indigenous communities the autonomy to take on roles previously held by government officials and to make decisions collectively in accordance with traditional practices.
In the build up to the federal elections in July of last year, the community of Cherán barred all political candidates from entering their autonomous town. They threatened to abstain from voting altogether, as many in the town considered the system of electoral politics illegitimate. The residents of Cherán have removed themselves from the national political system and instead they decide their own fate locally.
Later in the year, as the Mayan calendar came to an end, the almost forgotten Zapatistas emerged from the shadows to recapture the world’s imagination. On December 21, tens of thousands of Zapatistas in the southern state of Chiapas staged a silent march through the streets of the very same towns they first occupied back in 1994. The Zapatistas marched with dignity and composure, not to reaffirm their declaration of war against the government, but rather to remind the world of their existence and to point to a different way of life.
In a communiqué from the Zapatistas we learn that their communities have flourished without support from the state and that they have managed to sustain their way of life in harmony with nature and their cultural heritage. As Zapatista leader Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos wrote: “We have achieved all of this without the government, the political class and the media that accompanies them.”
The Zapatistas did not wait for permission from above, nor did they continue to struggle against a system so firmly stacked against them. They simply took decisions out of the hands of their oppressors and implemented a form of self-governance based on consensus and inclusion.
Paramilitary repression: the dark side of Mexico
There is also a dark side of the story to be told, as some communities have faced extraordinary obstacles in trying to exert their autonomy in Mexico. There is a little known indigenous group in the southern state of Oaxaca called the Triqui. In 2007, residents of the town of San Juan Copala tried to claim independence from the state under the law of usos y costumbres. This is usually a fairly straightforward process, but the town has been so marred by paramilitary violence that rather than enjoying their newfound democracy, many have instead fled in fear for their lives.
A Triqui protest camp had been set up in front of the government palace in the zócalo (main square) in the city of Oaxaca for over two years. However, just before Christmas the encampment was forcibly evicted by state and municipal police. It seems that the camp was cleared in order to make way for the many tourists that visit Oaxaca over the festive season. While the sight of the Triqui camp had become a normal part of life in the zócalo, ironically the eviction has served to push the plight of the Triqui back into the news.
While a new Triqui protest camp has sprung up one block south of the previous one, the future of the former residents of San Juan Copala remains in limbo. It is too dangerous for them to return home, as too many people have either died or disappeared at the hands of the paramilitary groups. The protesters are simply asking the state government to provide them with safe passage home, but the state for their part have stalled on negotiations and made false promises of support.
Unlike the Zapatistas, the Triqui have struggled to carve out a space to practice their traditions and they have received little support in their ongoing struggles. However, what is remarkable about their story is that they have taken a stand and sent a firm message to state authorities that they will not be forgotten. From the depths of tragedy, strength and courage can be found.
There are many other examples of communities in Mexico rising up against the state. For the most part it is done out of necessity. When relying on the government is no longer an option, it forces communities to look within and become resourceful.
As the Zapatistas announced, in Mexico “a new form of social life is blooming… When they silenced us, we continued to exist. And here we are, existing.” Indeed, in Mexico many forms of resistance continue to exist and they set an example for the world to see — if only people will continue to pay attention and see the interconnections between these and other struggles around the world.