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Magdalena M. Holztrattner {*}

Unprotected People

Is there Hope in the "War-torn" Mexico?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2011, P. 531-536
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    It is the civilian population of Mexico that suffers most from the "drug war", which has been dominating the country for five years. The structural causes of exorbitant crime, namely poverty and lack of perspective primarily of the young people, are not tackled. In this situation, the church as an advocate of those who are weak, unprotected and without rights has a high reputation in the secular state.


Mexico "is in a critical and dangerous situation where people are completely unprotected, without any institution to which they can turn in order to claim the protection of their dignity." The Mexican Bishop Raúl Vera Lopez (Saltillo diocese) finds clear and prophetic words about the situation of his nation. He has already won several national and international awards for human rights activities, and at the same time, or for that reason he is threatened and isolated by various parties, but he never ceases to touch the sore spots in the life of his nation.

This North American country with Latin American character has an population of around 110 million; 30 percent are under 15. The richest man in the world is Mexican - Carlos Slim. As media magnate he increases his assets every hour. At the same time the people are suffering from the dramatic rise in prices for the basic food "tortillas", because corn has become scarce due to the European demand for biodiesel.

Mexico is the sixth largest oil producing state and the eleventh richest country in the world. However, the unequal distribution of access to goods is huge: The poorest ten percent of the population must get along with less than two percent of national wealth, while the richest ten percent have more than a third of the annual national income at their disposal.

As the second largest economic power in Latin America, Mexico is heavily dependent on the U.S. economy. Since in 1994 the NAFTA aggreement came into force, more than 80 percent of Mexican exports go to the U.S. and half of the foreign investment comes from there. That's why Mexico was hit particularly heavily by the deep recession of the recent world economic crisis.



Especially the remittances (Remesas) of men and women migrants who emigrated to the USA and are working there declined significantly. But after the oil revenues, the "remittances" are the second largest source of foreign exchange, because approximately 35 million people of Mexican descent are living in the U.S., about seven million of them without valid residency papers, the so-called "Indocumentados". For 2010, the growth rate of the Mexican economy was again at 5.5 percent. But this does not alter the fact that almost half the population (47 percent) still lives in poverty.


"You provide the money - we the dead"

The opening quotation from Bishop Raúl Vera speaks of one of the gaping wounds of his people: the civilian victims of the "drug war". In recent months, the international news about Mexico are filled with dead persons: victims of organized crime and the murderous machinations of the drug cartels. In 2006 the current President Felipe Calderón declared the open war on the drug mafia. Since then about 50,000 soldiers and 20,000 police officers have been fighting across the country against the big cartels, which in turn provide together about 150,000 troops.

The "narcos", on the other hand, fight each other in order to secure the best north-south routes for smuggling drugs or the north-south routes for the smuggling of weapons from the United States. The Mexican "drug war" is a war that is imposed by the northern neighbor U.S., because the drugs are still consumed almost exclusively in the streets, bars and university campuses of the United States. Although, due to the increasing saturation of the U.S. market, the cartels progressively go over to extending the market in Mexico: in part, by forcing bar owners to sell drugs. While the heavy weapons, which are used by both parties in this war, are mostly produced in the United States.

As part of the in 2007 launched plan "Wrida", in 2009 the U.S. had allocated 450 million U.S. dollars to Mexico for the fight against drug crime and thus secured domestic political influence in Mexico. Elite troops of the Mexican military are trained by U.S. specialists. Thus, in recent years it was at least possible to eliminate some leaders of the cartels. Their power, however, extends far into economic and political circles: Between 30 and 40 percent of the gross domestic product are considered to be generated in the context of criminal activities. Approximately 71 percent of local municipalities are supposed to be under the direct or indirect influence of drug cartels.

It is the civilian population that for this war has been providing the dead for five years. There will be 50.000 fatalities up to the end of 2011. Dead persons from all social strata, who usually by chance are caught in the crossfire: women, men, children, journalists and street vendors, young and old, illiterate and teachers - or, as recently, visitors of a casino or transmigrants on their way to the U.S.. They all belong to the "unavoidable collateral damage" of this war, as the President of the Republic repeatedly put it.

What is not waged is the much more effective "war", namely the fight against the structural causes of this exorbitant crime - poverty and lack of perspective especially of Mexico's young people. 50 percent of the young people are unemployed. As "Ni-nis", who are neither able to study nor to get a steady job, young people are an inexhaustible army for criminal organizations. They promise them a short but good life with money, fast cars, beautiful women and strong weapons, whereas they are - metaphorically speaking - left in the lurch by the state.

In this life-threatening situation, the Mexican people is left to its own devices and unprotected. As most people cannot afford armored cars, barbed wire fences secured with heavy current, or high walls in front of their homes. Around 50 percent of the ordinary population live in large cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey or Nezahualcóyotl. Since they must predominantly live on less than two dollars a day, they live in the misery belts of those cities - in unplastered houses or huts, often without electricity and drinking water, without adequate medical and educational infrastructure, and surrounded by noise, stench and the everyday hazards of poor neighborhoods.

Above all women are exposed to those everyday risks, and the quality of their lives is thus severely reduced. Ciudad Juárez in the north of the country, is known for its nasty female homicides. The fact that the life of women in the state of Mexico is much more dangerous is little circulated: Within four years the number rose there from 97 to 200 feminicides per annum. The ordinary population cannot count on state justice, because scarcely more than two percent of all in Mexico committed murders are legally clarified and brought to justice. In Mexico there is therefore de facto impunity. The Mexican Abel Barrera Hernández, who was recently awarded the sixth human rights prize of Amnesty International Germany, established that there is an increasing number of human rights violations especially among the poor populations in the southern Mexican states since the militarization of those regions.



So the government forces that were sent to war in order to protect the population abuse, rob, rape and kill their own people just as the paramilitaries, who are often hired by major corporations.

Especially the southern states are (still) rich in natural resources, water, forests and fertile soil. In promoting economic growth, governments award concessions to transnationals - often over the local people's head and disregarding their legal rights -, in order to place Mexico also in the future on the list of the economically strongest countries in the world.

Production of energy by large dams, mining of minerals especially by Canadian mining companies, export of tropical timber, patenting of herbal medicinal products by European and U.S. pharmaceutical companies, usage rights to drinking water inter alia by the "Coca-Cola Company", and expansion of international tourism are propagated as economic engines. Civilian groups who react against the by law legitimized theft of land, water and raw materials are intimidated, and denounced and antagonized as terrorists by the media, whereas the perpetrators often go unpunished.

For example, on 22 December 1997 in Acteal (Chiapas) 45 indigenous people, including children and young people were killed by paramilitaries. They had peacefully fought against the abuse of their rights. The governments of Mexico and Chiapas degraded the case as an ethnic conflict. Human rights organizations, however, saw a direct connection with the fight against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional - EZLN). The "material" perpetrators of the massacre of Acteal were admittedly caught and imprisoned, but in 2009 set at liberty by the ruling of the Supreme Court. The civilian population is thus still unprotected and exposed to the attacks of the assassins.

Also the families of the buried miners of Pasta de Conchos are left alone. On 16 February 2006 in the northern state of Coahuila there was an explosion in a mine of the largest national mine operators "Grupo Mexico" and buried 65 miners. Two of the miners were found dead. The company refused to rescue the remaining 63 victims and used all its economic and political influence against it. While the anniversary of the Chilean miracle of San Jose was recently celebrated, the families of the victims of Pasta de Conchos are still fighting for a dignified burial of their dead, and for getting the widow's and orphan's pension to which they as surviving dependants are entitled. The federal and national politics is not interested in it.

What the major political parties in Mexico are interested in are the upcoming presidential elections in 2012. The 70-year autocracy of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) was interrupted after the victory of the right-wing PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) with President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and since 2006 with President Felipe Calderón. This democratic transformation of Mexico with the formation of a multi-party system with alternating political alliances is a recent achievement.


Fear of Exercising Democratic Rights

For the day of the presidential election on 1 July 2012, the PRI with its candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, who is supported by the mass media, is working on the return to power. Although the party currently in 19 of the 32 states provides the governor, it is not seen automatically as winner. It also depends crucially on the further developments of the other parties: Are the right-wing PAN and the left-liberal PRD (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica) able to form a viable coalition? Will the PRD be able to agree on a candidate (the top candidates are the mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, and the loser of the last presidential elections, Andrés López Obrador, who was hit by reaching 0.57 percent fewer votes)?

The big question however is whether people will go to the polls. In the last gubernatorial election in the northern states, the voter turnout was in part just under 30 percent. The population has been intimidated inter alia by the assassination of several mayor candidates. More and more citizens refuse to work as campaign workers. The drug cartels have become a political power: It frightens people into refraining from exercising their democratic rights. At the same time the satisfaction of the people with democracy in the country is very low. And the great politicians' interest in the ordinary population? In the past 11 years of the PAN government, figures have risen above all in the following politically relevant areas: unemployment, poverty, cost of living.

For example, the living conditions of migrant women: With her colorful blouse and long, night-black hair, the seller of religious articles on the forecourt of the cathedral in downtown Mexico City does hardly stand out, although she differs from the mass of people in her culture, her language and her appearance. In her attempt to gain a foothold in the Moloch of the city and to earn for herself and her children a better future, she is one of about 500.000 indigenous women who have left their land, their cultural area, their origins for economic reasons, in order to try their luck in the metropolitan area of Mexico. The socio-political disregard for the dimension of the rural exodus is evident in cities such as Valle del Chalco or Nezahualcóyotl.



Although more than a million people have settled closely together, the urban infrastructure development is lagging far behind. Water is partly supplied by tanks; the sewage seeps away into the ground and mixes with the brown broth that flows as a channel through the city Nezahualcóyotl. Electricity is abstracted without permission from the public power supply mainly to watch TV. Only in the pre-election period, the political elite is interested in the indigenous inhabitants of those cities, who in recent years and decades migrated from more distant states.

As migrants from rural areas they do somehow not quite belong to the others. They come "from elsewhere". As indigenous women they are under great pressure to adapt themselves to the national-ethnic hegemony of a lifestyle that is orientated towards Western standards. They are urged to deny their language and culture and to give up their "cosmovision", which "is somehow not understandable." As women, they also suffer a third dimension of discrimination when they, namely their work, thought and feelings are held in low esteem by the machismo, the patriarchy of Mexican colour.

Especially church organizations and religious orders cooperate with these women (and men), who have been made invisible, in order to strengthen them in their dignity and their cultural ways of life. They accompany them on their way to find themselves in the metropolis - and a new home.

The situation of transmigrants, namely of those especially young men who come to Mexico only as a transit station in order to reach the "Promised Land" U.S., is different yet similar.

More than 300,000 people a year are coming mostly from Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador, in order to get the 5000 kilometers from the southern to the northern border of Mexico over with. They have not only left their homeland and their loved ones, they are also on a life-threatening path. As they are not fitted with residence papers, they are already on the Mexican territory exposed to the machinations both of criminal organizations and state officials. Extortion, robbery, rape, abductions and killings are the order of the day. To improve the situation of the approximately 35 million Mexican immigrants in the U.S., the Mexican authorities as an extension of the U.S. immigration authorities help to secure the southern border of Mexico against Central American immigrants.

What in 2010 in the northern Tamaulipa was conspicuously reported in the global newspapers is another sad reality: transmigrants are a large mass of outlawed "nothings" that are often "worth less than the bullet that kills them" (Eduardo Galenao). They are forced by the drug cartels to work as drug couriers or hired killers. But their death rarely bothers the Mexican authorities. Migrants simply disappear. Now the relatives of disappeared Central American migrants have protested: Accompanied by press and television, the Caravan "Step by Step for Peace" went the route of the death train, in order to draw attention to the fates of their missing relatives. Like the Caravan for Peace.


Caravan for Peace

On May 8, the main square before the cathedral of Mexico City was filled with people of different political and social backgrounds. They were united by one wish: The shedding of blood in the drug war should finally come to an end. After a days-long silent march tens of thousands of people came from the south-western located Cuernavaca into the capital of Mexico, in order to protest peacefully under the scorching sun and to listen to the man who is the voice of so many people: the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son Francisco - as many children of those present - had been killed by members of a drug cartel. In front of the heavily guarded presidential palace the poet cried out in accusation about - the "painful nakedness" of the dead, the impunity as a "modus vivendi" of society, and an economy whose maxim it is to gain more and more possessions at the expense of others.

With creative banners and body painting, the caravan drew attention to the by then 40,000 dead, the 1,400 bodies in mass graves, the 10,000 orphans, 10,000 kidnapped immigrants and the 30 murdered mayors of the "drug war". In a list of demands to politics, there are listed the fight against corruption and impunity, a safety policy based on human rights, society's public memory of its dead, the eradication of the economic roots of organized crime.

From the capital, the march went on northwards, to Ciudad Juárez. In a second part, in September the path led from the capital in the south. The "procession", as Javier Sicilia calls the movement, is also supported by the Church. Even if Raúl Vera is the only bishop who publicly joins the caravan, this "march for peace in justice and dignity" is quite according to the wishes of Mexico's Catholic population.

Although since the revolution of 1910 Mexico is a secular state which over decades took the historical privileges away from the Catholic Church, the church in her various forms plays an important role in the private and political life of the Mexican population. As advocate for the weak she is committed to the poorest of the poor: in human rights issues, in providing board and lodging to immigrants, in improving the educational, medical and social infrastructure in remote areas, in creatively developing indigenous theologies and a church whose celebrations are inculturated.



She creates an awareness of crimes against nature and the environment; she is a critical carrier of people's hope in view of multiple factors of depression which put people in danger to become tired and to despair. The Mexican Bishops' Conference, too, finds time and again clear words about the situation of the people.

Around 82 percent of the Mexican population still belong to the Catholic Church. But also in the second largest Catholic country in the world it is clearly felt that the Pentecostal churches enjoy an increased clientele. 73 percent of all children are admittedly still baptized, but only every second wedding ceremony takes place before the altar. In this regard also the five visits of Pope John Paul II have not changed much. However, it seems likely that the broad, educationally underprivileged population was little affected by the publication of the criminal acts of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel. Or by the bitter confrontation between the mayor of Mexico City and the bishop of Guadalajara about the question of impunity of abortion and homosexual couples' entitlement to marriage and adoption. On the walls of the houses of ordinary people there is usually no cross but a color picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint; 95 percent of the population avow themselves to be her devotees.


In the Most Dangerous City in the World, Journalism is a Deadly Occupation

A religious phenomenon, which is perceived as new but was mentioned already during the time of Mexico's colonization, is the cult in the context of death. In recent decades, the figure of a dressed skeleton, which is called Santa Muerte, Santísima, Santa or Niña Blanca, conspicuously adorns various house altars. The worship of the "Santa" is closely connected to the rituals of the Catholic faith: The believers pray repeatedly a Our Father and celebrate liturgies, without the need for a dogmatic definition or a hierarchical authorization for those who lead the prayers and liturgies. The "Holy Death" was formerly associated with prostitutes, criminals or homeless people, whereas today ordinary people up to senior politicians render homage to "Santa Muerte".

The rush of recent years originates considerably in the great fear, intimidation of and threat against the population. Everybody is "on the line of death", because nobody can protect people from sudden death, assault or unwanted involvement in a criminal machination. The political, economic, social and religious crisis, which has been shaking the country for years and in which most people cannot do more than simply trying to survive, compels them into the arms of Death - at least figuratively speaking.

Also the journalists in Mexico need the protection of the "Santa Muerte". Not only in Ciudad Juárez, the most dangerous city in the world, journalism is a deadly profession. Reporting on the machinations of organized crime is a ticklish thing. The criminal gangs want to communicate a message of fear by the manner of their crimes. But the journalists have to be careful not to be used for the spreading of these messages. At the same time they should represent an alternative information platform to the official reporting of government. For they often bring evidence forwards which the police does not consider.

Critical journalism is thus always also criticism of the official governmental and police system. The result is that journalists are increasingly often arrested without any further explanation. They are treated like criminals and assassinated. Since the year 2000 in Mexico alone 74 journalists and women journalists have been murdered. According to a police reporter from Ciudad Juárez, most attacks on this profession are not made by cartels and criminal gangs but by members of the police. For journalists, Mexico is thus the most dangerous country in the world. And this 100 years after the social revolution, whose demands are still highly topical.

For the right-wing conservative President Calderón and his government, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 with its centuries-old social demands is an abomination. That's why one dilutes and smoothes history, whereas the "bicentennial" is over-emphasized, i.e. the memory of Mexico's (fiscal) independence (of the then political and economic elite) of the Spanish colonial power in 1810.

Would there be another revolution in 2010? People put this question the less the closer the commemorative year came. More and more members of social grass roots movements, critical minds and ordinary dedicated people were killed. Social commitment and civilian resistance are increasingly persecuted and intimidated by terror laws. There is already talk of a "social cleansing" of political movements by "narcos" and the army. For the social conditions resp. the socio-cultural ideals, which in 1910 caused the revolution to explode, are the same as today. However, instead of an intensive analysis of the revolutionary past, the first concern of revolutionary intellectuals is their survival.

It is increasingly difficult for the citizens of Mexico to claim their protection and respect for their dignity. People are apparently left to their own and are strengthened only by a few prophetic people from the arts, church and culture.



However, the current "March for Peace with Justice and Dignity" shows a nation that is on the way. People of all religious, political and social origins have set off together: Moved by the great desire for a peaceful and dignified life in their Mexico, they put up peaceful resistance.


    {*} Dr. Magdalena M. Holztrattner (born in 1975) studied in Salzburg Catholic theology, lectureship in religion and Hispanistic. In 2008 she obtained her doctorate with an interdisciplinary project on participatory poverty research with adolescents. She has completed several research residencies in El Salvador. Since 2009 she has been working at Adveniat as country specialist for Mexico and the Dominican Republic.


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