issue 251 - January 1994
The game goes on in Mexico City,
though no-one can bear to watch.
There’s a stadium of mountains and volcanoes around the world’s largest city. It’s a grand stage for what, on bad days and from the worst seats, resembles a playing field of asphalt, concrete and rust beneath an evil-smelling cloud of dust and gas. Periodically shaken by lethal earthquakes, the place floats on shifting waves of ground, subsiding slowly into the lake on which, like the great Aztec city it replaced, it was built. When you can see them the terraces of the stadium – green mountainsides in the distance – are empty, as if no-one can bear to behold the spectacle.
My job, however, is not just to watch the game but commentate on it as well, and I don’t even know the rules. The best thing seems to be to start in the middle, and I head for the Zócalo, the huge central square. To get there I have to fight my way through throngs of people queuing outside bookshops to buy textbooks – it’s the beginning of the school year and I’m unsure whether the queues result from a zeal for learning or a failure of supply. Probably both. Either way I’m not the only one looking for a book of rules.
Plumes of wood-smoke rise over tents of plastic sheeting. Underneath them squat hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters, gathered around a large, limp Mexican flag. The Zócalo resembles Tiananmen Square before the tanks rolled in. People stand with collection boxes handing out leaflets.
There are dozens of groups, and some of them have been here for months: fisherfolk from Tabasco on the Gulf coast, where fish stocks have been decimated by pollution from the oil industry; campesinos who’ve marched from Veracruz claiming land; villagers from Guerrero who can’t find the money to get connected to the electricity grid.
They come here to make their demands known, to ‘reclaim’ and ‘require’ things of the President of the Republic, who occasionally appears on the balcony of the National Palace to one side of the square, but does not actually live there.
Perhaps it’s from fear of asphyxiation, of a sudden crushing by the sheer weight of human numbers, that people everywhere in the city make huddles of animated debate, talking tactics. Without a huddle of my own, but desperately in need of tactics, I ask Louise to come to my aid. She is a Canadian who has lived on the brink here for nearly 20 years and is reported to know everyone; to achieve this you must, I feel, have supernatural powers as well as a battered old Volkswagen Beetle. But she too can get lost. Sometimes we pass the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe several times in different directions on our way from one place to the next.
‘Our prisons are full of innocent people,’ says Rosio Culebro of the independent Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights. ‘Most arrests are made without a warrant and are illegal,’ she adds. I want to know if the basic rules of human rights apply here. Mexican law is, she says, fundamentally flawed by a presumption of guilt for those suspected of ‘organized crime’ – which could, of course, be virtually anyone.
Mexico has traditionally pursued a ‘progressive’ foreign policy, condemning the Chilean coup, supporting Cuba, mediating on Nicaragua and periodically accepting political refugees from elsewhere in Latin America. In exchange for Mexican support, there has been little close scrutiny of the country by the international institutions of human rights.
According to Sergio Aguallo, a leading human-rights activist and academic, ‘there were more human-rights violations in Mexico than under the Brazilian dictatorship. In Brazil they had 127 documented “disappearances” between 1964 and 1985; in Mexico there were over 450.’
Cases of human-rights abuses are now well documented and reveal a disturbing picture.
Immediately following the 1988 presidential election political violence erupted. The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) claims that since July 1988 it has suffered 1,537 acts of violent aggression and 136 of its members have been killed. That there is organized violence against the political opposition and independent trades unions in Mexico is not seriously in doubt.
In May 1990 members of Mexico’s Federal Judicial Police assassinated Norma Corona, president of the independent human-rights commission in the state of Sinaloa. The following month Americas Watch described torture as ‘endemic in Mexico’ and denounced a ‘policy of impunity’ that allows torture, rape and murder by the country’s police and armed forces to go unpunished. The National Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations in Mexico has launched a campaign against impunity, backed by the detailed documentation of such cases.
The Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee reported in August 1992 on the abuse of indigenous rights in the southern state of Chiapas. It found ‘repression of the indigenous population of Chiapas to be state policy’. It cited arbitrary arrest and the detention of priests, peasants and hundreds of peaceful protesters to deter social and political activism, and ‘the aggressive enforcement of an oppressive criminal code’.
The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Centre for Human Rights in San Cristóbal, Chiapas, continues to document violations of indigenous land rights and the practice of torture, murder, mass and arbitrary arrests.
Sources: Interview with Sergio Aguallo; PRD Human Rights Commission, The political violence in Mexico, Mexico City 1992; Alicia Ely-Yamin, Justice corrupted, justice denied, World Policy Institute, New York, 1992; Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, Conquest continued, Minnesota, 1992; Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos, La impunidad persistente, Mexico City, April 1993; Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Informe semestral, January-July 1993.
But a Mexican human-rights movement, prompted at first by dissident intellectuals and now by more than 200 groups throughout the country, has blossomed. The Government set up its own Human Rights Commission in response. This has made it easier to register violations. But it has also raised deeper questions. The Commission can only make recommendations, which are by no means always acted upon. So violations go unpunished. The National Law Against Torture, for example, has never been used, despite numerous documented cases of torture by police officers.
‘In Mexico we live with a corporate system,’ says Berta Lujan, a member of the National Co-ordinating Committee of the Autonomous Labour Federation (FAT). It’s early morning and we’re sitting in her office in the FAT headquarters. Around us another hectic day gathers pace with constant intrusions by colleagues and telephones. Poised, sharp, gentle, in control, Berta takes no notice.
Inspired originally by radical Catholic priests, the FAT has managed to survive and grow by performing a delicate formal dance with Mexican labour legislation, which outlaws ‘unregistered’ federations. On the wall are plaques commemorating FAT’s support for strikes.
‘Social organizations, unions, peasant groups, citizens’ organizations from the barrios, were all co-opted by the PRI, the political party in power,’ she says. ‘For more than 40 years the workers’ struggle in Mexico has been very controlled, very repressed. Some of us believe, however, that it must be democratized.’
The official Mexican Workers’ Federation (CTM) regularly ‘presents’ the support of the ‘labour movement’ to a grateful government which in the early 1980s cut real wages in half and is now dismantling Mexican labour laws. The CTM’s nonagenarian leader Fidel Velazquez ‘appears’ on TV from time to time to croak invisibly from behind a battery of microphones, and for all I can tell no longer exists at all.
We clatter past the Virgin of Guadalupe once more and reach a backstreet where there’s a co-operative of furniture makers.
There are co-operatives everywhere in Mexico. They’re as much a tradition as an ideal. The factory of the Sociedad Co-operativa Union de Muebles La Villa is dark and filled with ancient machinery, sawdust, the jointed limbs of dead trees and the smell of sap. Some six years ago the 47 members of this furniture-making factory went on strike because they had not been paid. The longer the strike went on the more the owner owed his staff in unpaid benefits. Eventually he owed them more than the business was worth. The workers were entitled by Mexican labour law to take it over, and they did.
How much difference has it made? ‘Work is work,’ they say. Times are hard. They feel themselves to be under threat. Canadian furniture-makers, who visited recently, can get wood at one-third the price and have smarter machines. So there’s a brewing contest between the price of human sweat in Mexico City and the price of wood and technology in Canada. The rules for this particular game are, of course, laid down by NAFTA. Victory goes to the cheapest, with no exceptions and no appeal.
One evening I drive into Mexico City over the high mountains to the east. Shafts of evening sunlight, like searchlights in smoke, splay down onto the floor of the great valley. Small volcanoes resembling pre-Columbian pyramids sprout from the flat surface. This was the sight that greeted the Spanish conquerors five hundred years ago, filling them with awe and greed.
Today there hangs over the city a slab of purple night, thick thunderclouds and smog stirred into an opaque flashing fluid. A deluge falls upon the shacks of the barrios that reach into the distance on either side of the road. Streets turn to rivers, squares to lily-ponds of garbage. You drive without stopping (there are no ‘official’ crossroads or traffic lights here) for perhaps 15 minutes through such scenes before you reach a sign that says ‘Welcome to Mexico City’. No-one knows exactly how many people live in these barrios: it could be anywhere between two and five million people.
After the terrible earthquake in 1985 the government machinery proved as fragile as the buildings. Citizens took matters into their own hands, giving birth to a sense of ‘civil society’ and a plethora of self-help and ‘action’ groups that transformed the political face of the city. For every situation there is now a citizens’ organization.
In this case it is the Asamblea de Barrios – or rather two Asambleas de Barrios, following a leadership split. I arrive as arranged at a large open-air theatre beside the inner ring-road in the city centre. There is no-one there.
Then, slowly, they make their entrance. Stately grandmothers, wizened rural faces, children bright-eyed before the show, women chatting, joking, remonstrating. A sound system, microphones. A photographer, Héctor Guevara, has no cameras – pawned for his daily bread. I take a gamble and lend him mine.
Eventually there are perhaps a thousand people crammed into every available space. Marcos Rascón, a busy figure, grabs the microphone and shouts. The compañeros campesinos and the fishing workers in the Zócalo, from Tabasco and Veracruz, step forward to say a few words. They are applauded. A compañero from the Workers’ Party in Brazil apologizes for his halting Spanish and he is cheered. The compañero reportero from New Internationalist – I rise from my seat and wave a half-clenched fist – brings solidarity from England. Appreciative applause.
I wait for an appearance by Superbarrio. This media megastar has been around the barrios of Mexico City for a decade or so. Dressed in a modified Superman outfit, and reportedly a professional wrestler, Superbarrio is far from being the jester he was originally taken for. He really does turn up when called to points of conflict in the barrios and gets things sorted out. He’s a mite portly around the midriff and his disguise also has the advantage, I imagine, that it can be donned by almost anyone with a similar physique.
His example has been followed by Superanimal, who has a keen interest in stray dogs, and by the mysterious Senador No, a candidate in a recent local election who wears a gas mask and is therefore assumed to have something to do with the environment. But none of them shows up.
No-one who values their sanity tries to make perfect sense of a place like Mexico City. No Superbowl, however wealthy or crazy, could possibly have invented it. It’s out of control, for sure. But somehow it keeps working. The population has swelled threefold to perhaps 18 million in 30 years as if by some kind of centripetal force: if 18 million people think it’s a good idea to live here then you have to come up with a pretty good reason to live somewhere else.
Perhaps many Mexicans do not have one, particularly in impoverished parts of the countryside. Perhaps it is sheer folly on the part of the Government to promote free-enterprise policies that appear to make the situation of such people worse. Perhaps environmental Armageddon, Moctezuma’s true revenge, is the only conceivable outcome. But the game goes on, even if no-one knows the rules.
You just have to play.