The U.S. Connection to the Violence in Mexico*
By Jim Cohen
The disappearance and likely massacre of 43 students from the rural teachers’ school of Ayotzinapa in Mexico September 26 has provoked shock and outrage internationally.
Within Mexico, in addition to unprecedented levels of public anger, it has raised serious doubts about the sustainability of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s mode of government, with its aggressively neoliberal economic program and levels of violence as high/higher than under his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who initiated the drug war in 2006 with US collaboration.
Professor of law and political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, John Ackerman explores the sources of growing dissatisfaction in Mexico and sheds light on how the US connection perpetuates Mexico’s social inequalities, endemic violence and authoritarian government.
Ackerman is also editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper. A leading public intellectual in Mexico, he is a frequent contributor to the international media. For the academic year 2014-2015, he is a visiting professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies (University of Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle) and at Sciences Po (PSIA).
Jim Cohen: How long have you been living in Mexico, and what does your work consist of at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)?
John Ackerman: I’ve been based in Mexico since 1993. I’ve been a Mexican citizen since 2000, and you might say as well that I’m a Mexican nationalist. I work at the Institute for Legal Research of the UNAM and teach with the law and political science faculties. One of my classes is on constitutional theory, but it’s actually about the Mexican revolution of 1910 and the origins of Mexico’s world-historical 1917 constitution.
You’re not just a Mexican citizen, but also a nationalist: Could you elaborate on that?
Jim Cohen: Nationalism is a much-abused term, but I’m using it in what I think is the best sense. In the US or European perspective, it is often associated with ethnic exclusionism, but Mexican nationalism is more of the civic sort – very open, democratic, plural, inclusive and forward-looking.
John Ackerman: You emphasize in many of your writings and speeches the positive legacy of the Mexican revolution, and in particular, the 1917 Constitution, whose principles you see as still very pertinent to our times.
Jim Cohen: Yes. This is the perfect moment for the revival of the principles of the Mexican Revolution, and of the constitution that arose from it. It is a product of an earlier period, prior to the Cold War and even to the Russian Revolution, when social reformers had a much broader menu of options.
The Cold War closed down options on both sides of the divide. In contrast, the constitution that emerged from the revolution is very open and plural. Some of it was directly inspired by the radical rationalist ideals of Flores Magón, an anarcho-syndicalist, as well as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. In short, in Mexico there is a plural and even subversive understanding of what “liberalism” means. It provides a very useful way to rethink new directions for progressive politics today.
The US political and ideological establishment, and liberal democracy in general, have been left celebrating their “victory” of 1989 without being able to create new visions for the 21st century.
John Ackerman: Over the past 20 years, it has become clear that the end of the Cold War has meant more of a defeat for (neo)liberalism than for progressive thought. Many people thought that progressive thought was defeated in 1989 because we no longer had the communist referent and the cleavage in politics that it represented; political discourse is dominated by liberal, or rather neoliberal “democracy.” In my view, it’s quite the opposite: Liberalism itself has become hollowed out over the past 20 years. It’s not so easy to claim that “really existing democracy” is about liberty and freedom when the communist adversary has disappeared.
This “democracy” hasn’t gone through any innovation. In a recent speech, Obama declared that his foreign policy is in complete continuity with that of Bush and that the United States must be “just as much of a leader tomorrow as in the 20thcentury” by continuing “to defend the values of freedom, democracy, competition.”
Jim Cohen: This is pure nostalgia. The US political and ideological establishment, and liberal democracy in general, have been left celebrating their “victory” of 1989 without being able to create new visions for the 21st century. As for the left, it has the world open to it. It has more flexibility than in the past because the communist referent was very constraining; one was either for – or against – it.
John Ackerman: Today there is complete freedom to explore new possibilities and that is beginning to happen, as we can see in a whole range of struggles, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to recent movements in Brazil and Turkey.
Jim Cohen: We are experimenting with new ways of understanding politics and power. There is Podemos in Spain, for instance. The left is ahead of the game, whereas liberal democrats – and I’m not sure how liberal and democratic they are any more – are just playing the same old record over and over again.
That is why what is happening in Mexico today is so powerful. [President Enrique] Peña Nieto, with his reforms, was supposedly the poster child of the international press and foreign investors for a supposedly triumphant liberal democratic project.
For the Financial Times he was the perfect president, “the answer to Chávez” and the “populism” of the South. They even said he was going to revive the “Washington consensus.” But after less than two years in office, that project has come tumbling down and been exposed in all its hollowness. The people of Mexico and the world are demanding something else. In Mexico, these demands are made more powerful and pregnant by the revolutionary legacy.
The oil expropriation of 1938 was not about ideology or even so much about oil – it was about labor! It was carried out in response to blackmail by international oil companies, which refused to recognize collective bargaining and Mexican labor legislation.
People are wondering who is going to lead today’s uprising in Mexico. How will it be channeled? Will a new political party arise? I’m not so concerned about that, precisely because of the legacy of the Mexican Revolution. When you listen to the people who are taking to the streets today and their leaders, in particular those in the state of Guerrero – they’re democratic and humble leaders – they are looking to recover the revolutionary ideals and promises of equality, justice, rational and egalitarian development, sovereignty and separation of church and state. We don’t really need a new ideology when so much of it is there already!
Yaqui Indians of northern Mexico who have been captured after uprising against unjust seizure of their land. Sold as debt peons slaves to the infamous henequen (for rope and twine) plantations in the Valle Nacional,Yucatan where they faced a life expectancy of 6 months. It was cheaper to buy more Indian slaves than to keep them alive.Yanqi Indians made up a large part of the army of Obregon and fought with a desperate fury. Conditions such as these lead to the Mexican Revolution .Photo from the muckraker book Barbarous Mexico by John Kenneth Turner
John Ackerman: The 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa were training to be teachers in a rural teachers’ school in Guerrero. That state has a particular history of social struggles in which these schools have played an important role. How exceptional, then, is the case of Guerrero?
Jim Cohen: There are a few dozen such schools in Oaxaca, Michoacán and other states. But Guerrero has been very special ever since the days of independence and the revolution, a particularly intense place of struggle, because it has a more sophisticated political consciousness than elsewhere. It’s one of the poorest states in the country, but critical consciousness has very deep roots there. People claim their ties to indigenous traditions, but also to national, revolutionary and independence traditions.
John Ackerman: Speaking of these traditions, could you say more about the legacy of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), of whom you’re an admirer?
Jim Cohen: Today’s “techno-saurs” – that is, technocrats who are actually dinosaurs – think of Lázaro Cárdenas as the representative of the “old guard,” as if he were Stalin in person – statist, authoritarian, “populist.” He’s supposedly a figure of another era, which “modern” Mexico needs to escape . . . through liberal, democratic, market-based reforms. That is an enormous mistake.
Cárdenas is a very special figure. The closest equivalent in the US would be Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a state-builder and could be even considered the “father” of the modern Mexican state. He gave material form to the promises of the revolution and Mexican independence. Without him, it would be impossible to imagine the exceptional stability of the Mexican regime from 1940 to the present, with elections with alternation of power every six years. Many other Latin American countries have had civil wars and coups. Mexico has been authoritarian, and, since the creation of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) in 1946, neoliberal, elitist and exclusionary, but entirely stable.
The oil expropriation of 1938 was not about ideology or even so much about oil – it was about labor! It was carried out in response to blackmail by international oil companies, which refused to recognize collective bargaining and Mexican labor legislation.
The Mexican Supreme Court threw out their case and [the companies] decided to suspend oil production if they weren’t allowed to operate by their own rules. Cárdenas said no – either I accept an enclave in my country or I make my country whole in terms of the rule of law.
If he hadn’t expropriated oil in 1938, Mexico would never have been able to defend its sovereignty as it did throughout the 20th century, and subordination to US interests would have advanced much more rapidly. Oil would have been privatized a long time ago; we would have US military bases all over the country today. There would be much more poverty, much less development.
With the birth of the PRI in the year he took office, the revolution was transformed from a project and a compass for political action into pure ideology and state myth-making.
Enrique Peña Nieto, upon entering office in 2012, proclaimed his “Pact for Mexico.” One of his central objectives was to declare war on the legacy of the Mexican Revolution and Lázaro Cárdenas. In June 2014, about three months before the students’ disappearance, I wrote an article for La Jornada saying that this attack on the Mexican revolution and the Cardenas legacy would have unexpected consequences and suggesting that Peña Nieto might not even be able to finish out his term of office. That is not an implausible outcome.
John Ackerman: After Cárdenas left office in 1940, how was his legacy lost? How did the process of growing dependency on the US and US capital advance?
Jim Cohen: The first step was World War II. Already in the 1930s, Mexico cooperated in the US war economy through a combination of coercion and willingness. But the break from the revolutionary sovereign legacy of Mexico really began in 1946 with President Miguel Alemán (1946-52). The first civilian president after a series of generals, he was a young technocrat and an early neoliberal. With the birth of the PRI in the year he took office, the revolution was transformed from a project and a compass for political action into pure ideology and state myth-making. The Mexican political class, now fully allied with Washington, used the revolution’s legacy to support its own legitimacy while undermining in practice all the revolution’s principles.
Alemán was famous for purchasing his suits in Hollywood and his Rolls Royce in London. He was an actor of global financial capitalism. He was also perhaps Mexico’s most corrupt president to date; the comparison with Peña Nieto is striking.
He was a union-buster who sent the military to break up a strike of the oil workers’ union; he attacked the railroad workers’ union and placed the corrupt Fidel Velázquez at the head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), where he remained until his death in 1997. That is how pro-US neoliberal authoritarianism in revolutionary packaging was born.
In contrast, the fable we’re told today is that up until the 1980s we had a supposedly nationalistic, anti-American political class, and that the change took place beginning in the late 1980s, with presidents de la Madrid, Salinas and Zedillo. No! These three presidents have followed in Alemán’s footsteps.
In Mexico, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the US will always favor authoritarian stability over democracy fueled by popular movements and demands.
The PRI as such has always been pro-American and has always covered that over with revolutionary mythology. The economic growth in the years of the “Mexican miracle” (1950s and ’60s) was very much linked to foreign capital. There was some import substitution industrialization, but never extreme protectionism. All the presidents had close ties with the US government. The US government was complicit in the 1968 student massacre.
What remained unattractive from the dominant US perspective were the PRI’s “peak organizations” of unions of workers and peasants, inherited from the revolution. These were top-heavy, highly corrupt and clientelistic, but they did assure some sort of accountability of the politicians to workers and peasants. Progressively since 1946 these popular gains have been peeled away.
The official democratic transition was celebrated in 2000 with the first clean presidential elections, in which the PRI lost to the Party of National Action (PAN). But Calderón of the PAN won an extremely dubious victory in 2006, and there are also doubts about 2012, when the PRI returned to power using lots of material incentives to corrupt the vote.
The so-called “democratic transition” is little more than a separation between the political class and the people. The standard view of Mexico considers the PRI’s peaceful acceptance of its loss in the 2000 presidential elections to be proof of the democratic nature of the new regime.
Regarding US policy in Mexico with regard to the drug war, the central objective is to make sure that the violence stays south of the border.
However, the celebration of elections and peaceful alternation of presidential power were already the norm in Mexico. I look at the 2000 election as just another changing of the guard. The new coalition led by the PAN on the basis of “neoliberal spoils” in the early 1990s had to present itself as “different” without empowering citizens in the slightest. The 2000 elections were no more “free and fair” nor less authoritarian than earlier ones, from 1940 on.
John Ackerman: How do you see the progressive parties that have come along since then? First the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution, founded in 1989) and, recently, Morena (Movement for National Regeneration), founded by Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his followers, who quit the PRD and condemned it for reproducing the opportunism it claimed to be opposing?
Jim Cohen: We’ll see what happens with Morena, but institutional politics as such has run out of steam. One of its great weaknesses has been its inability to link together social struggles and political action, or to provide adequate connections between the local, national and international dimensions of resistance. The left needs to take stock of these weaknesses if it is to generate new spaces of convergence for a broad range of talented people and interesting proposals, while refusing the corrupt clientelism of the parties, the self-interested “solidarity” of the NGOs and the intolerant sectarian politics of the ultra-left.
John Ackerman: How would you characterize the role of the US throughout the transition you’ve described?
Jim Cohen: The United States has been trying to make sure that Mexico’s transition doesn’t “get out of hand.” It has always supported the political class and the institutions, while never actively opposing the corruption and the human rights abuses. In Mexico, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the US will always favor authoritarian stability over democracy fueled by popular movements and demands.
Calderón’s war on the drug cartels upon taking office in 2006 caused the levels of violence to spike, which gave the US an opening to provide military and security “aid.” How would you fit this recent chapter into the broader story of US military policy?
Calderón’s legitimacy problem due to the circumstances of the 2006 election, which pushed him to militarize the drug war, is comparable to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq after the 2000 elections. Both covered over legitimacy problems by rolling out the military.
Regarding US policy in Mexico with regard to the drug war, the central objective is to make sure that the violence stays south of the border. There’s much less interest in reducing the violence as such, or even in cutting the flow of drugs. It’s absolutely logical from a US national security perspective: They don’t want beheadings and disappeared students north of border; they want them south!
The real problem is more on the Mexican side. The Mexican government has no humanitarian concern about its own people. The Mexican state has assumed the US’ priorities in the “drug war,” under Peña Nieto, just as under Calderón. The US government would not allow a similar strategy in its own country, precisely because of all the violence it would engender.
The US offers technical, intelligence and direct military support which the Mexican government is happy to receive because it means money, intelligence information and increased power in the hands of those Mexicans who manage the helicopters, the weapons and the intelligence.
There is complicity between Mexican leaders in their impunity and the “national security” concerns of the United States, and that is what leads to this dead-end street.
It gives them enormous power to conduct surveillance and shoot people at will. Those involved want more political power, not less. That leads to complicity between the corrupt, authoritarian Mexican political class and the Pentagon. This has been creating disaster in the country. Neither Obama nor the US Senate have said much about human rights violations or corruption in Mexico – they’re off the table – even though it’s internationally recognized that Mexico is among the most corrupt countries with the worst human rights violations in the world.
Pancho Villa (June 5, 1878 – July 20, 1923)
John Ackerman: Doesn’t the US State Department’s website carry information on human rights violations in Mexico?
Jim Cohen: Yes, there is an annual report on the situation of human rights that they have to do for any country that receives military support, and Mexico is in that report, but that’s where it stays.
When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, Congress tried to impose some conditionality on the reauthorizing of those funds, but that never got very far. There is never clear intervention in favour of human rights and against corruption in Mexico. The word on the street is that the former US ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual (2009-2011) was kicked out because he was too interested in investigating corruption.
In short, there is complicity between Mexican leaders in their impunity and the “national security” concerns of the United States, and that is what leads to this dead-end street in which nobody can move, because the United States is totally invested in the drug war and present on the ground. Recently the Wall Street Journal ran some exposés about how US Marshalls dress up as Mexican Marines for special missions such as the capture of drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán in February 2014. In 2011, CIA agents were shot and wounded by Mexican federal police in Morelos. Drone flights over Mexican territory began under Obama in 2010.
In Mexico, the United States hasn’t dared try a Colombia-type solution with actual military bases, but they do have so-called “fusion centers” throughout the country for intelligence-gathering.
In short then, the Mexicans offer the US what it wants: keeping the violence to the south of the border; the Americans offer the Mexicans what they want, which is power – including power over specific drug gangs, on behalf of other drug gangs.
In the economic domain, it’s the same: The Mexican oligarchs are very interested in having good relations with US corporations because it gives them power and influence, and US corporations are also very interested in that relationship because they can insert themselves into the Mexican system and make big profits. Nobody is actually fighting for the Mexican people. The Mexican economic and political transition is comparable to that of Russia, with the same concentration of wealth and power among a handful of oligarchs, starting with Carlos Slim.
What NAFTA has clearly done is destabilize the countryside by making it increasingly difficult for small peasant producers to make a living, while increasing the power of agribusiness.
The transition, in short, has been mostly about the growing isolation of the political class and the concentration of oligarchic power, as both groups get closer and closer to the Pentagon and Wall Street. This has created a sclerotic, lifeless system. Today, with a mass movement building, the system is having a “heart attack.” You can get over one heart attack, but the next one may be more deadly – which would be a good thing, because this system needs to die and the prospect of its death raises great hope.
John Ackerman: What, in theory, would replace today’s system in crisis?
Jim Cohen: The contemporary opposition movement in Mexico is not based on religious fundamentalism or on fascism, but on radical democratic social liberalism, which traces its source to the Mexican Revolution. That’s what is coming to the surface now, and that’s why everyone should support the new Mexican Revolution. It’s about inclusion, democracy, sovereignty and healthy relations with the United States. Nobody in Mexico is talking about cutting off relations with the US and building walls – they want the walls to come down! They want to support their brothers and sisters in the US. Everything about these new grassroots social forces challenging the existing system of US-Mexico relations is positive – I see almost no risks.
John Ackerman: Could you talk about NAFTA and its effects on Mexican society?
Jim Cohen: I’m not an economist by specialty, but what NAFTA has clearly done is destabilize the countryside by making it increasingly difficult for small peasant producers to make a living, while increasing the power of agribusiness. Its direct effect on Mexico’s sluggish economic growth over the past two decades is a separate question that I’m not qualified to answer, but socially it has meant an enormous displacement of people from the countryside and increased migration to the US. Migration has decreased recently, but in the first decade of the 21st century, there were half a million people crossing every year. That in turn has fed narcotrafficking, because in these same regions, the youth need to find some option, and if the militarized border makes migration more difficult, how are you going to make a living?
Reinforcing the border with more walls and Border Patrol agents increases the income of the polleros who take the migrants across. It’s gotten harder and more expensive to get across, which increases the role of human traffickers, some of whom are also narcotraffickers and violent assassins.
All of this illustrates why violence in Mexico is so much the result of US policy. Beyond the complicities between dominant economic and political actors on both sides, there is the money of US drug users coming into Mexico and funding the narcos; the laundering of money through the banking system, which the banks themselves encourage, as is well documented. Then you have the tens of thousands of guns crossing the border into Mexico each year, with the backing of the gun lobby. Obama tried a few years ago to institute increased reporting requirements for gun sellers, but it was total window dressing.
The mass deportation of undocumented immigrants from the US also feeds the fire, in two ways. First, as Obama himself said when announcing his recent executive order, the US will now only send back the criminals, which of course will further boost criminality. Second, reinforcing the border with more walls and Border Patrol agents increases the income of the polleros who take the migrants across. It’s gotten harder and more expensive to across, which increases the role of human traffickers, some of whom are also narcotraffickers and violent assassins. There’s a perfect (or imperfect!) storm brewing; it’s hard to imagine that this is sustainable.
John Ackerman: Does Mexico, as a partner to NAFTA, still belong to Latin America? What does the North American referent actually mean to Mexico?
Jim Cohen: Although it borders the US, Mexico – the political class included – has always thought of itself as part of Latin America, and even as a buffer against US imperialism in the region. But since Peña Nieto, the message has been, rather, “Let’s not even call ourselves Latin Americans, we are North American!” A few days before his inauguration in December 2012, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post (11/23/2012) calling for greater integration and even for “North American energy independence.” No Mexican politician, even the most neoliberal, had ever gone so far in speaking of Mexico as part of North America rather than Latin America. I’m against this. Mexico is and should remain a Latin American country.
And yet, if we’re going to take North America seriously, let’s take it seriously! How many Mexicans live in North America? About 120 million in Mexico and over 30 million in the US. “Non-Hispanic whites” in the US number less than 200 million – only slightly more than 60 percent – and they are very mixed in terms of ethnicity or national origin. In that sense Mexicans make up a much more unified population than whites.
Canada’s population is small. If we’re going to talk about a North American region, it should take seriously the interests and the democratic vision of Mexicans! There is an enormous potential for solidarity between Mexicans in the US and Mexicans in Mexico. That could really change North America for the better. If it’s only the Mexican people battling against its own political class allied with the US, that’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of the Mexican people, but if they have the support of Mexicans and others in the US, that could be the way out of the impasse.
Last December 3, protest actions were held in 43 US cities in solidarity with the 43 missing students. This involved not just Mexican-Americans and Latinos, of course. We are reliving the moment of solidarity with Latin America in the ’70s and ’80s, at the time of the Chilean coup and the Reagan administration’s interventions in Central America, only now it involves a close neighbor. Such solidarity can really make a difference.
John Ackerman: What would you reply to someone who says that it’s not for US citizens to decide how Mexicans run their government and that criticism of the Mexican government simply reproduces imperialist relations?
Jim Cohen: After the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009, Obama declared that it was hypocritical to criticize the US both for intervening and for not intervening. It was his way of justifying the US’s inaction against the coup. My response: The idea that the US can somehow “not intervene” in Latin America is a fantasy! The question is not whether they intervene or not but how they intervene. Militarily? In favor of authoritarian regimes? Or rather in favor of democratic social movements?
Many people have told me that Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t have a minute to think about Latin America because he’s too worried about the Middle East. I find this very hard to believe. The US is always fully involved in Latin America; it’s just a question of how that involvement is directed. Yes, the US should withdraw all military and security funding for the Mexican government – Colombia also. But instead, let’s have a Marshall Plan! Let’s support development, progress and democracy, instead of covert CIA missions.
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