The Mexican "drug war" has taken a turn for the worse. Since the return of the old guard Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) to the presidency in 2012, violence has expanded and increasingly targeted political activists, journalists and human rights defenders. And two recent massacres committed by government officials indicate that the country may be headed towards a rerun of the "dirty wars" of the 1970s, in which the government hunted down and killed or jailed thousands of activists.
It is time for international public opinion to shift Mexico from the "democratic" to the "authoritarian" column. The upcoming Senate hearings on President Barack Obama´s nomination for the new US Ambassador to Mexico, Maria Echaveste, present an excellent opportunity to take a hard look at the crude reality south of the Rio Grande.
This past June 30th, soldiers brutally executed 21 youth in a warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya, less than 90 miles from Mexico City. Both federal and local officials immediately covered up the incident by announcing that the dead were supposedly kidnappers and had died in a gun fight. It took independent reporting by the Associated Press, and a public exposé by a witness in the Mexican media, in order for the massacre to come to light. It is now clear that the Mexican military, which has received billions of dollars in US assistance in recent years, assassinated dozens of youth in cold blood.
This past September 26th, another massacre has confirmed suspicions about the use of the "drug war" as a cover for political repression. In the city of Iguala, less than 50 miles from Tlatlaya, local police opened fire on dozens of peaceful, unarmed youth activists, all students at a local teacher training school renowned for its commitment to social change and progressive education. Six people were killed, over a dozen injured and more than 40 have disappeared. One cadaver later appeared with his face brutally skinned, sending a clear message that the choice of victims had not been accidental. This weekend various mass graves were discovered nearby with the burned corpses of what are likely the students.
In order to reduce international scrutiny, the Mexican government has tried to present these two massacres as cases of isolated human rights abuses. But both cases go far beyond simple abuse of force by law enforcement. They involved premeditated attacks by agents of the state on groups of youth whose did not present a serious threat. The massacres are therefore best categorized as crimes against humanity.
The picture becomes even clearer when we consider the spike in human rights violations and attacks on journalists, documented in recent reports by distinguished NGOs such as Tlachinollan, Article 19 and Human Rights Watch. The new regime has also strictly controlled the media, coopted opposition political parties and sent dozens of activists to jail on trumped up charges.
The underlying reason for this attack on the Mexican people is the growing popular discontent in the Peña Nieto administration. Approval ratings for the sitting president are lower today than they have been for any former president over the last two decades. The regime is therefore desperate to find ways to pacify the opposition.
Under former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) there was generalized suspicion about the government taking sides in the "drug war" by favoring particular cartels. In addition, Calderón was criticized for preferring high profile displays of military force to boost his approval ratings over practical policies such as corruption control and improving the investigation of crimes. The result was a blood bath of enormous proportions, with over eighty thousand dead during his six years in power.
Instead of correcting for Calderón´s mistakes, Peña Nieto has chosen to sweep them under the rug. Political concerns once again have trumped a serious commitment to the rule of law. The only difference in strategy between the two presidents has been at the discursive level, with Peña Nieto preferring to talk about economic reforms instead of the drug war. Unsurprisingly, crime continues to expand throughout the country. But the recent massacres demonstrate that the violence has taken on new particularly perverse and dangerous forms.
Many foreign observers were willing to give the PRI the benefit of the doubt in 2012. Despite the party´s questionable past as well as widespread accusations of electoral fraud, vote buying and irregular funding for President Enrique Peña Nieto´s campaign, the hope was that public institutions had become solid enough to resist dictatorial temptations.
More recently, think-tanks have bathed Peña Nieto in praise. Last month the Atlantic Council gave him its "Global Citizen" award. And a new Council on Foreign Relations study chaired by David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and commander of military operations in Afghanistan, and Robert Zoellick, former chief of the World Bank, glorifies the Mexican president´s "ambitious reform agenda". Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze has even compared Peña Nieto to Franklin D. Roosevelt in an op-ed.
Current events force us to reconsider this ungrounded optimism. Indeed, the exaggerated praise for Peña Nieto in such a context makes one think of the recent New York Times exposé of how foreign governments pay for "independent" research and opinion in order to further their agendas in Washington. Such behavior would be fully consistent with Peña Nieto´s unprecedented public relations spending in Mexico and abroad.
Peña Nieto is best compared not to Roosevelt, but to Augusto Pinochet or Vladimir Putin. Like Russia, two decades of simultaneous economic and political "liberalization" have not ushered in a new era of citizen empowerment, honest government and public debate, but consolidated the same corrupt, authoritarian tendencies of the past. And like Chile under Pinochet, in order to impose unpopular "structural reforms" on the economy Peña Nieto has used an iron fist to purge and frighten the opposition.
Fortunately, the Mexican people have started to rise up in response to the return of authoritarianism in Mexico. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for the dead as well as an increased role for society in politics and education. Those interested in supporting democracy in Mexico urgently need to cut through the government hype and listen directly to the Mexican people.