As in 1968, Mexico’s political elites are once again using fear to silence the millions of protesters who demand justice for the Ayotzinapa students.
I woke up in fear, and for the rest of the day it controlled my life the way fear tends to control people’s lives. It dominated my thoughts the way it dominates people’s thoughts and actions, paralyzes them until they are deprived from all hope and the very basic human capacity to change the world around them.
My fear was provoked by a nightmare, not one I saw in my dreams, but rather a nightmare I have been unfortunate enough to observe with my own eyes and come to know intimately. It was the fear of waking up and realizing my friends have disappeared at night; lifted from their beds by men in uniforms, leaving friends and family behind who from that day on can only guess after the fate of their loved ones.
This fear is not imaginary. This is the fear I struggled to understand when talking to my friends and fellow students when I lived and studied in Mexico. It is a fear that is incomprehensible for someone who has not lived in a country where more than 100.000 have been killed and disappeared in less than ten years.
Although I participated in social and political movements in the country and was actively involved in student activist groups, I was still incapable of comprehending the terror that my friends felt when they saw the police or the army on the streets. I used to think it was exaggerated and they should not let themselves be influenced by this strategy of control. One can only understand this feeling when it becomes personal, when you wake up and feel the need to call your friends in order to be sure they are alive and well.
Students under Attack
On Saturday, the night before I woke up in horror, an undercover policeman shot and injured two students on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the biggest public university in Latin America. It is worth mentioning that the UNAM is an autonomous institution and as such it is a police-free territory. Exemptions to this rule can be made only if the police are asked to step in by the high administration of the institution.
This breach of autonomy is not without precedent: in 1968 the President at the time, Diaz Ordaz, ordered a military takeover of the university. The army moved in as journalists were ordered to move out. This happened in the context of the large-scale, countrywide student protests which actively opposed the Olympic Games. To show their opposition against the Games being held in a country characterized by increasing inequality the students took to the streets, shouting slogans like: “We don’t want games, we want revolution.”
After the shooting last week, students organized and attacked the aggressors. They burned their car and confiscated their documents, proving they were undercover police. The government then sent five hundred riot police to deal with the issue who subsequently clashed with autonomously organized groups of students at the doors of the institution.
These events do not happen in a social vacuum. The repression of the UNAM students comes at a moment when hundreds of protests, direct actions, marches, sit-ins and strikes organized by people from all walks of life and many different backgrounds are organized to demand social and political justice. This new wave of popular dissent was provoked by the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero on September 26 earlier this year.
The students of the rural school in Ayotzinapa protested to condemn the extremely poor conditions of their school and education in Mexico and to protest the neoliberal reforms in education. The police opened fire on them, killing six and arresting 43 of the student-activists. It is now months later and nobody is sure where they are, but the terrifying suspicion, confirmed by various sources, is that they have been brutally killed and some of them probably burned alive.
The political crisis that is shaking the country threatens to evolve into full-scale revolt with students, armed guerrillas, anarchists and indigenous groups raising legitimate demands for the President of the Republic to resign and for policies ensuring the basic social, human, political and ethnic rights of the population.
Bloody Past, Bloody Present
The Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto already has blood on his hands from previous atrocities, such as the one in Atenco in 2006, when he was Governor of the State of Mexico. In this event he ordered the police to take over the city during popular protests, resulting in 207 people subjected to brutal and degrading treatment, 145 arbitrary arrests, the sexual assault of 26 women, and the deportation of five foreigners.
Upon returning to Mexico after a tour of China and Australia, Peña Nieto openly threatened the popular movement that he is going to use of force, if necessary. Translated, this means sending in the army and the newly created national gendarme against the protesters. This, of course, is hardly the only example of extreme violence carried out by the security forces of Mexico during Peña Nieto’s presidency, but it illustrates how decisive he is on cracking down on popular protest with brute force and at any price.
Back in 1968, President Diaz Ordaz stood up in front of Congress and warned that he had been tolerant for too long and that he would have to resort to force to pacify the students. He, as the majority of Mexican Presidents, was a member of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country without interruption between 1920 and 2000. Peña Nieto is also a member of the same party which returned to power in 2012 after Nieto’s electoral victory that year.
Some of the party representatives shocked the country in the previous days with their public declarations. Luis Adrián Ramírez Ortiz, a militant of the PRI’s youth league, compared the protesters to “wild beasts who do not deserve to live” and invoked the spirit of Diaz Ordaz, stating that Mexico needs to be headed by someone like him in order to preserve its image to the world. The ex-Federal Deputy Marili Olguín Cuevas, also a member of the PRI, published a status on Facebook saying “kill them so they don’t reproduce.” Another member and syndicate leader loyal to the PRI stated after the clashes in Mexico City days ago: “And then they wonder why they are burning them. Rednecks.”
Apparently, a significant number of contemporary PRI officials would welcome a return to the days when Diaz Ordaz still ruled the country. Back in 1968 the President answered the popular call for “revolution instead of Games” by mobilizing the country’s security forces against the protesters. On October 2 that year, snipers attacked the mass demonstration at Tlatelolco square, causing an upheaval that legitimized sending army troops and tanks into the square. This day is remembered as the Tletelolco massacre, in which hundreds of students were either shot dead or simply disappeared.
The aftermath of the massacre saw a proliferation of policies that allowed for a total crackdown on social protests, eventually culminating in a dirty war in the state of Guerrero, not unlike the ones that characterized the military regimes in Argentina and Chile. Back then, the resistance in Guerrero was headed by two teachers from the very same school attended by the 43 disappeared students.
They were forced into clandestine resistance and the government could crush the popular support in the state only by leveling entire villages and attacking the civilian population with napalm. During this rebellion, hundreds of local peasants were murdered or disappeared. This is the scenario some PRI party members and officials evoke as desirable if the current protests continue.
Commemorating the horrors of ’68 will not stop them from happening again, on the contrary: they are already happening. It would be an understatement to note that the repression is getting worse. Mass graves are being found all over the country, and evidence of more and more police and army brutality is being made public by victims and relatives who were until now too scared to step forward.
Indigenous groups rise up against five hundred years of genocide, challenging the neoliberal agenda that destroys their land and eradicates their culture. Parents of the disappeared are organizing to demand justice. Migrants march on the capital in order to stop the murders that have taken away the lives of more than 20.000 since 2006. Students and activists raise voices over the brutality and repression that were meant to silence their revolt against market-driven reforms in the education.
Anarchists and activist groups shout in solidarity with comrades who are condemned to life in prison. Women shout “not a single one more!” in reference to the devastating level of femicides in the country. Guerrillas in Guerrero declare their preparation for war against a state that condemns half of the Mexican people to live in poverty. The Zapatistas in Chiapas march in thousands to demand justice for Ayotzinapa and the indigenous groups around the country.
Meanwhile, the only answer all these different groups get from the corrupt and unscrupulous political elite is: “we do not care about you — and if you dare to resist, we will send in the army. We have done it before and got away with it, we will not hesitate to do it again.” These threats arise from a climate of fear which has taken shape in the years of the so-called “War on Drugs,” which was used as a pretext to militarize the society and crack down on any movement for change.
This fear is a weapon of control, stronger than any gun, tank or helicopter, stronger than bullets and executions. This fear is the one I woke up with. And I woke up with it, because my friends in Mexico stopped waking up in fear and flooded the streets, rejecting the fear that negates their humanity.
Fear and justice are and will be part of the battle of those fighting for their lives in the streets of Mexico. What is at stake is the question whether the government will be allowed to keep repeating the horrors of 1968. My fear is to wake up and discover that my friends have had the dignity not to accept the threat and sacrificed themselves in the face of a machine of death and destruction — or, as the Zapatistas say, that they have decided to “die in order to live.” Their fear, meanwhile, is that their children will have to repeat the tragedy they are witnessing now, if fear conquers the movement once again.
Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years.