Interview – Mexico in flames: The challenges facing the movement

Issue: 145

The disappearance in September of 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in Iguala in the state of Guerrero, after the police had shot six people dead, has thrown Mexico into a deep crisis. Mass protests have swept across the country, peaking in a giant demonstration in Mexico City on 20 November 2014. After the march Abelardo Mariña Flores, a leading Marxist political economist and activist in the university teachers’ union, talked to Lucia Pradella.

What are the root causes of the killings and forced disappearances of the Ayotzinapa students in Iguala?

The long-run roots of the violence in Mexico can be found in the authoritarian state that consolidated in Mexico after the Lázaro Cárdenas regime (1934-40). Even during the post-war boom and the so-called Mexican miracle, the repression of social, labour, progressive and leftist movements was permanent and systematic: examples are the movements by miners, railroad and electrical workers, public teachers and doctors, and students. The investigations about the 1968 and 1971 student massacres and the dirty war of the 1970s and 1980s against rural and urban guerrillas have not resulted in the prosecution of any of the guilty. The electoral frauds against leftist coalitions in the 1988, 2006 and 2012 elections confirm this authoritarian nature of the Mexican state.

The medium-run roots can be traced in the neoliberal restructuring processes carried out in Mexico that have involved not only a persistent war against the population through economic stagnation, expropriation of public, social and private wealth, widespread unemployment and labour precarisation, but also the consolidation of criminal activities as part of the day to day operation of the state. The short-run cause is the so-called war against drugs carried out in the last 10 years as an element of counter-insurgency strategies, that has resulted in the militarization of the country and generalised violence: around 150,000 killings and 25,000 disappearances, including of thousands of social and political activists.

What is the social basis of these criminal activities?

In the country, many unemployed and underemployed workers are attracted by the criminal economy because they don’t have any perspectives. The drug business flourished precisely after the imposition of neoliberal reforms. It’s a real industry – that has to be understood. The drug industry and associated industries, like human trafficking, are part of a globalised business, whose centre can be found mainly in developed countries, starting with the United States. The US is the largest market for illegal drugs and is also the place from which the industry organises worldwide. This industry cannot work without money laundering, which is carried out by big banks. In Mexico this industry developed since the second half of the 1980s in competition with Colombia. It flourished in Mexico because it gives employment at the local level, in agriculture production; but also at the national level, in commerce, distribution and financial laundering. In a country were there are not many other employment opportunities this has been a flourishing sector.

And then there is the antidrug war

The war against drugs is part of an anti-insurgency strategy led by the US, not only in Mexico but worldwide. It is an excuse for military interventions. In Mexico at the end of the 1990s the government launched the Plan Puebla Panama with the support of the US. In perspective, this was one of the bases of the start of the anti-drugs war. In security terms, you have an ever-spreading militarisation of this war. The US always plays on both sides: it gives military support to police forces and the military that are fighting, supposedly, against drugs, but it also provides weapons to the drug gangs. This happens also in countries like Colombia. For the US it is important to maintain violence all over the country because it is the perfect context to repress any type of militant political activity.

In recent years, vast parts of Mexican territory have been conceded to western multinationals, with profound impacts on rural communities. Is this antiinsurgency strategy related to this process of land expropriation and resistance in the countryside?

Yes, of course. Since the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) there have been some agrarian counter-reforms aimed at privatising land, attacking the ejidos (communal lands) and communal forms of property. Multinationals have been expropriating land since the 1990s, and this is one of the roots of the social and political unrest in the countryside. The 2013 energy and mining reforms are reinforcing land expropriation because they involve the privatisation of land.

More specifically about the normales [rural teacher training schools] …

The normales were established in 1921, but they got a lot of support in the 1930s under the Cárdenas government. In the context of the confrontation with fascism, Cárdenas developed a Popular Front policy. The Communist Party was legalised in those years and operated openly, and Cárdenas even developed what they called a socialist education to confront conservative forces. This was especially important in the countryside as a counterforce to the conservative power of the church. Education—socialist education—was a means of counteracting the rightist ideas, and the normales conserve that purpose. They were, and are still focused on the poorest sectors of the rural population and provide a solid socialist political formation.

And so they have also been object of specific attacks and repression

Yes in the neoliberal years there has been a general attack against public education. Specifically, the state has tried to make the normales disappear. Almost half of them have been closed all over the country, and the ones that remain have been fighting to preserve themselves. They are always mobilising because of their political content and formation, linked with popular struggles and rural social movements. But they also mobilise permanently to get financial support from the government to prevent their disappearance.

So you understand the events of 26 and 27 of September against the backdrop of this broader process of criminalisation and repression of social movements?

Yes. The other factor has been the symbiosis that has occurred in the last 15 years between political power and drug trafficking. This has developed at all levels in all the country. In the countryside maybe it’s more visible because the local gang groups, as gangsters, sell protection not only to people in general but also to local government officers. At first it was a sort of an infiltration but there is a moment at which they make bilateral agreements, and this has spread all over the country. Increasingly, local elections are decided by drug gangs, whose candidates win the elections; they give protection, they eliminate political adversaries. In turn, they get support from police forces in their competitive struggle against other gangs. This is a widespread phenomenon.

It has notably happened in the north, in Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas; in the Centre, in Veracruz and Jalisco; in the south, in Oaxaca and elsewhere, although not with the same virulence in all the states of Mexico. But more recently we have witnessed the almost complete collapse of state governments because of this widespread articulation of the local governments, in Michoacán, and now in Guerrero. This symbiosis also exists at the macro and federal level. As I said before, the drug industry cannot exist without money laundering. And the amounts of money circulating cannot be explained without the involvement of big corporations and banks, not only in Mexico but also in the US.

What do you think about testimonies of the involvement of the army in the Iguala killings and disappearances?

In these type of arrangements the army is also involved in the corruption and in the drug industry. Local and regional military forces also sell protection to the specific gangs, and they are involved locally.

So do you think it’s possible that they intervened concretely in the killing and disappearances of the students?

That’s a question. That’s one of the things we want to know. There is clear evidence that, at least, the army knew what was happening with the Ayotzinapa students. The killings and the forced disappearances happened just a hundred metres from a local military base. There is information that the military knew in advance and that they were present when there was a first shooting. Instead of trying to prevent what was happening they harassed the students and prevented the wounded from getting medical assistance. So, they were involved for sure. We don’t know if they were involved in the disappearance of the students. That’s what we want to know.

Who is mobilising now against the state?

The mobilisation started almost immediately among students. The criminal attack in Iguala happened in the context of a series of strikes in the National Polytechnic Institute, one of the biggest higher education schools in Mexico. These strikes generalised at the end of September and became a general strike that is still going. Moreover, the students of Ayotzinapa were gathering money to come to Mexico City to commemorate the 2 October 1968 massacre of students.1 So there was a student mobilisation already going on: in support of the strikes in the Polytechnic, and for the preparation for the 2 October commemoration. When the information started leaking about Ayotzinapa, the students were the first who mobilised: they immediately started demonstrations and demanded for the appearance of the 43 students. Since then, the student movement has led the mobilisations.

The students have been demonstrating and organising all over the country, they have an inter-university coordination, the inter-university assembly, with representation of around 80-90 schools from all over the country. They are the ones that have been crucial in the organisation of all the protests. But increasingly there has been the participation of new segments. In Guerrero, Chiapas, Oaxaca and other states the public sector democratic teachers are well organised. Last year we had a general teachers’ mobilisation against the reform of basic education in the public sector, including a four month sit-in in Mexico City’s Zócalo. These organised teachers have become part of the movement. Other sectors that are starting to join are the peasants’ organisations. But all organisations have been weakened after 30 years of neoliberalism. A national popular assembly has been organised, with meetings in Ayotzinapa, in which these groups have started to coordinate a wider plan of action.

What about the unions and organised labour?

Organised labour in Mexico is very weak. In all these years of neoliberalism they have been the sector that has been more attacked, because neoliberal restructuring has implied the closing of complete industries. Most of the industries that developed during the import substitution process have disappeared; thousands of workers have been fired and trade union rights have been widely shut down. This was reinforced with the privatisation of public industries. Besides, since the 1950s most of the trade unions were incorporated into a corporative system through the official party, and subordinated to the government.2 Since any type of democratic activism within the official unions or outside them was repressed, there are very few independent trade unions, most of them very small. The exception are some university trade unions that are big but not too militant.

But some unions have participated in the 20 November march

Yes, mainly university trade unions, some democratic segments and activists in unions of the public sector, and the remains of the electricity company that operated in the centre of Mexico and was shut down 4 years ago. There is participation, but the movement is weak. Many of the unions that have attended the demonstrations are part of what we call a neo-corporative trade unionism; they are not directly linked and subordinated to the government, but they are subordinated to the employers. The best example is the trade union of the telephone company. When the telephone company was privatised, the union made a good deal with the company preventing lay-offs. Afterwards, the company has grown mainly through subcontracting, which the trade union accepts. So the trade union has been efficient in terms of defending the wages, benefits and employment of their affiliated workers, but they have turned into a neo-corporatist union linked to the strategies of its owner. So in many demonstrations they protest against national economic policies but at the same time support the company and the Carlos Slim family.3 This is a clear example of this type of neo-corporatism.

Let’s come to two closely interrelated questions. What is the balance sheet of the movement, in your opinion, and do you think we are witnessing a crisis of the Mexican state?

I think the balance sheet of the movement is good. We have been protesting for two months, and the protest has been extending. We can see new sectors incorporating into the movement: as I said before, teachers, peasants, some urban workers and also segments of the so-called middle classes. People are increasingly informed about what has been happening in the country. So I think that’s a big success. Smaller successes have been the detention of some of the people involved (around 60) in the Ayotzinapa crimes, although they are not the only ones guilty, and the dismissal of the governor of Guerrero (although he was given another job). But I think the most important gain is that this movement has been able to deepen the deterioration of the legitimacy not only of the state and federal government but also of the political system as a whole.

This is very much related to the second question: yes, I think the Mexican state is in a crisis, in a crisis of legitimacy. The main contradiction is that the different government and political institutions cannot tell the truth, the whole truth, because if a real investigation were carried out a lot of people would be incriminated. Local, state and federal officers, the executive, judiciary and legislative powers, as well as the army and leaders of the main political parties (PRI, PAN [National Action Party] and PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution]), are involved by action or omission in what happened in Ayotzinapa, not only in the immediate events but in their antecedents as well. The allegations of criminal activities by the mayor of Iguala were known to different local, state and federal authorities and by leaders of the main political parties; and they didn’t do anything.

So this is a big problem for the state as a whole: we demand to know the whole truth and we want all those responsible to be investigated and all the guilty to be punished. But if this would be carried out, the system would openly lose all of its credibility. So that shows a state of crisis of the state due to the fact that no real and thorough investigation is possible. This is a difficult situation. The other solution is open repression. And here a very important issue is the international visibility of the Ayotzinapa crimes and the demonstrations in Mexico. This international visibility has been the main factor that has prevented the federal government from carrying out a widespread repression with killings and mass arrests.

So in your opinion this is indeed a crisis of the state.

Yes, I think this is a crisis of the Mexican state. But I want to make clear that this crisis does not necessarily mean that the state is weak. I understand this crisis as a crisis in the balance between violence and consensus. The existing balance, however deteriorated in the past years, is not working now. Things are going to change necessarily. If we continue struggling, I think we can change this balance in terms of more democratisation, an end to impunity, attainment of justice and against state violence. It’s going to be a long struggle that would result in a general progressive move. But the risk of a change of balance in favour of open repression is also present.

What are the challenges of the movementthe strategic issues that it needs to face?

I think the main issue is an organisational one, not only the formal organisation but also the intellectual and conscience organisation. In Mexico, as elsewhere, the power of the media is very strong. But in a poor country – in which people receive information mainly from private TV and radio, in which many people don’t have access to the internet – people are not very well informed about what’s been happening. We have to involve more people by spreading information at the local level, in the countryside, in the neighbourhoods; we need to discuss Mexico’s conjuncture in a historical perspective and involve the people in the struggle. Everybody has been affected by state violence in Mexico. But when you are not well organised and well informed, fear comes, and fear suffered individually paralyses people. So I think a very important issue is to organise intellectually through information and discussion along with the formal organisation of this discontent.

What do you mean by formal organisation? Do you think that there is a strong presence of horizontalism within the movement (I think in particular of the heritage of the Zapatista movement) and do you see new forms of organisation emerging?4

First of all, in Mexico, although attacked by neoliberalism, traditional communal forms of solidarity are still very strong. Especially in the countryside but also in the city we have a long tradition of communality that still survives. When workers lose their job they know that they will find support in their wide family; that happens all over. Politically, originally the Zapatista movement made a real change, not only in Mexico but also all over the world by claiming horizontal ways of organisation. This claim has been very important as a political inspiration for many organised movements in Mexico. The strike in UNAM 15 years ago; the movement 132 two years ago always claimed, not always too successfully, horizontality as one of their main aspects5 So yes, what we are seeing nowadays is the development of horizontal forms of organisation, among students evidently, but also academics are starting to do it. The idea of horizontality to confront an authoritarian state is very widespread. I think we should focus on developing this form of organisation in all sectors, even in the labour movement, which is very weak, in the middle classes, etc. One reference that is important is the experience of Spain, of the M15 movement of 2011, which was very strong at the local level, with this idea of horizontality. We should explore and analyse all these forms. Another important issue is the crisis of institutional political parties. The latest neoliberal reforms approved in the past two years were supported by the three main parties (PRI, PAN, PRD) through the so-called Pact for Mexico agreed in December 2012.

Morena (National Regeneration Movement), the new left party that just attained its legal registration in July and, therefore, has not participated yet in any elections, and has played an important role with an outright opposition to the federal government and a radical critique of the other parties. Organised in one year, it has more than 600,000 affiliates all over the country. If it will be able to assume horizontal ways of organisation and action, Morena could be an alternative electoral platform for the social movement. In fact, many people that are demonstrating nowadays are members of Morena. I think the main focus now should be in developing horizontal forms of organisation, not of civil society in abstract, but of concrete sectors (economic), segments of population (workers, students, women), and regions. These should link their specific demands to the overall social and political transformation of Mexico.

Just a last question about the challenges of the movement and its relation to political parties. One of the main positions that has emerged in this movement is that the state is responsible for the crimes of Ayotzinapa and beyond. The implicit demand is therefore not only for a change of government but for a more radical change. What do you think about this?

The big task is to start constructing an alternative programme, which should pass through a change of government but has to address the need for a set of legal and constitutional frameworks in the direction of building a different kind of state. The task is very difficult because the critique of the state is still very intuitive with a lack of strong organisations. The possibility of developing this critique into political proposals is not easy. Horizontality has its advantages but in order to challenge the existing state this horizontality should also develop forms of articulation from the local to the national levels, and evidently to link with international movements, not just in terms of solidarity but of common action. So as I said before the struggle is going to be hard and long, but I think all these issues should be addressed as soon as possible. Well, they have been addressed but the struggle should be focused on a wider radical perspective.


1: On 2 October 1968 army and police surrounded and open fire on a student demonstration in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Estimates of the dead range as high as 300.

2: The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held power continuously from 1929 to 2000, for much of that time presiding over a one-party state. The PRI recaptured the presidency with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012.

3: Carlos Slim exploited the privatisation of the Mexican phone industry to become one of the richest people in the world.

4: The Zapatista National Liberation Army had a worldwide impact after they launched an uprising in Chiapas state in January 1994.

5: Students went on strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City between April 1999 and February 2000 in protest against the imposition of tuition fees. The movement “Yo Soy 132” (We Are 132) emerged in opposition to Peña Nieto and the media support that allowed him to win the 2012 presidential election.