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Mexican Student Movement Confronts Vote Buying and Media Bias in Wake of Contested Election Results

(Photo: ismael villafranco / Flickr)

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Mexico City – Angelina García Acevedo did not tell a living soul who she was voting for before Mexico’s controversial presidential election. But like well over 1 million others across the country, she received a prepaid debit card valid for purchases at the national grocery chain Soriana in exchange for her vote.

“Yes, I voted for Peña Nieto. And I gave the Soriana card that the PRI gave to me to my grandchild as a present,” said García, a 74-year-old native of Mexico City.

On July 1, tens of millions of Mexicans hailing from the tenth-largest voting electorate in the world went to over 143,000 polling stations to elect a new president in the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, with Latin America’s second largest population after Brazil.

The election took place in the shadow of allegations of vote fraud and coercion, including millions of dollars worth of prepaid debit gift cards to Soriana, distributed by the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) in support of its winning candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto. A week later, in the most protracted vote-counting process in Mexican history, the Federal Election Institute officially certified Peña Nieto as the president-elect of Mexico.

There were no celebrations or mass shows of support marking the occasion. Instead, resistance has been organized throughout the country against election results that the student-led opposition refers to as “the imposition.”

From day one after the polls closed, Mexico’s streets and public plazas have been filled with tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating against what they fervently allege was electoral fraud. Mass marches were called for through social networks and held in the capital and beyond, spontaneous demonstrations recalling Mexico’s history of electoral unrest erupted, and a large assembly, with representatives from hundreds of opposition organizations, was held in Atenco in the state of Mexico, the same farming community that suffered repressive actions authorized by Peña Nieto in 2006.

Also See: Mass Protests Against Mexican Election Results

A curious mixture of ire and hope filled the polarized country in the wake of yet another candidate’s election win with less than 40 percent of the vote. There is no runoff voting in Mexico even though the country has three major political parties. The last two presidents have taken office with far less than a popular mandate; both won only slightly more than a modest third of the electorate’s votes.

“I’m sick and tired of all the bullshit the elite pulls off to steal elections,” said Enrique Hernandez while traveling to Cuernavaca. Hernandez is an elderly retired electrician who has seen many elections in his time, but he continues to express optimism about the future: “The pueblo is filled with many people, and the powers that be that screwed this up are far less in number than we. We will prevail, in the end.”

Mexico’s History of Election Rigging

In 1988, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, one of Mexico’s most unpopular presidents, “won” the election. As preliminary results reported heavy losses to his party, the PRI, in the midst of its 71-year stranglehold on the country, Salinas’ predecessor, President Miguel de la Madrid, felt compelled to act. In his 850-page memoir, Madrid wrote that he, “became afraid that the results were similar across the country and that the PRI would lose the presidency.” While the public clamored for results, the government (falsely) said the computer system had crashed. By the mid-term elections that followed the presidential election three years later, and in a deal between the PRI and the National Action Party (PAN), all hard evidence of any vote tampering was burned and destroyed.

To this day, the worst-kept secret in Mexico is that the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party’s (PRD) candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, won the election in 1988.

Flash forward to 2006, and history seemed to repeat itself, when the PAN maintained power over the presidency with its candidate, Felipe Calderón, allegedly winning by a razor-thin margin of less than a half percent over another PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But as Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) co-director Mark Weisbrot recently recalled in The Guardian, 2006 was full of electoral irregularities, including findings by CEPR that Calderón’s lead was nonexistent in a large sample it analyzed from a partial recount that was conducted. The partial recount results were briefly posted on the Internet but were never released in full.

2012: Similar Result, Different Tactics

By Mexico’s 2012 election cycle, lessons had apparently been learned – vote-buying and coercion strategies were revealed well in advance of election day.

Observers and commentators alike could not resist the similarities between the PRI’s victory in the latest Mexican election and a 1980s American film: papers filled with headlines describing the results as “Back to the Future.” However, analysts described this election as distinct in that electoral malfeasance was being alleged before any actual voting took place.

“It was neither a clean nor fair election,” Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, a Mexican watchdog group funded by the United Nations Development Program, told the international press. “This was bribery on a vast scale,” said Huchim. “It was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the country’s history,” concluded the former Election Institute of Mexico City (IFE) official. Huchim’s organization dispatched 500 observers across the country, who found that 28 percent of those they interviewed had been exposed to some form of vote-buying or coercion. Given this finding, it is little wonder that 71 percent of the electorate surveyed just days before the election believed electoral fraud was possible.

No other vote buying strategy attracted more attention and scorn than the Soriana scenario. Demonstrators piling into the Zócalo, the main plaza in the capital’s downtown historic center, brought plastic Soriana bags and signs condemning the national grocery chain, accusing it of contributing to widespread election fraud. A boycott was organized, resulting in some $414 million dollars in losses to the embattled Soriana within just nine days of the election’s end.

“The PRI promised up to 1,000 pesos worth of pre-paid debit cards in exchange for a vote. But the day after the election, there were so many people piling into the stores, that they had to close at least one store in Azcapotzalco,” said Aldo Rojas, a 25 year-old art historian.

Consumers reportedly panicked amidst post-election rumors that the pre-paid gift cards were due to be canceled, and many Soriana stores had to close down due to overcrowding. Many were upset to find out that the value in the cards did not amount to what many were promised – $80 – and instead were valued between only $8 and $50.

The week before the election took place, a leading PAN official angrily held up a debit card to the press. The cards were allegedly issued by the bank Monex – which has historic links to money laundering – and distributed to PRI coordinators in order to buy votes. According to the López Obrador campaign, this was done as early as April and through June.

According to López Obrador, “millions of votes [were] behind these [Soriana pre-paid debit] cards … and we know that other mechanisms were used to buy votes … which represents a dishonest, anti-democratic action.”

Details are still emerging about the exact nature and extent of the Soriana bribes, but early signs point to the possibility of a sophisticated and widespread vote-buying scheme.

López Obrador’s campaign recently presented over 3,000 Soriana cards to IFE, the elections institute, and a July 3 AP story reported that a woman and her father said they were told to turn in photocopies of their voter identification cards in order to receive their gift cards.

The PRI reaction to most of the accusations was that they were orchestrated by the PRD as an excuse for having lost the election. For his part, Peña Nieto pledged this past Monday to jail anyone caught and convicted of playing a role in vote buying, a bold proclamation considering the extent of evidence already presented, and one that many regard with skepticism. Others quipped sarcastically that if this was ever brought to fruition, Peña Nieto would have to jail himself.

Enrique Peña Nieto and His Nemesis: #YoSoy132

As late as early May, analysts and commentators alike were dubbing the campaign as the most boring, stage-managed and uneventful election Mexico had ever seen. Peña Nieto, already the presumed president-elect of Mexico, was coasting smoothly to victory and enjoying comparisons to John F. Kennedy.

Peña Nieto’s intellectual capacities and preparation have not won comparisons to Kennedy, however.

In a post-election article based on an interview with Peña Nieto, The Los Angeles Times referred to critics who described the president-to-be as “the creation of a cabal of PRI chieftains and a highly favorable, omnipresent television network.” It also noted that Peña Nieto appeared to be anything but his own description of “loose” – surrounded as he was by a team of “aides in suits with Blackberrys.”

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Peña Nieto’s campaign had been riddled by media gaffes dating as far back as last November (when he was unable to cite three books that had impacted his intellectual development) and as recently as early May (when he was unable to state the price of a tortilla, explaining that he was not a “housewife”).

Nevertheless, Peña Nieto’s campaign was scarcely taking a hit in any of the leading polls. The opposition attributed this unlikely state of affairs to the protectiveness of the nation’s leading broadcast network and the conformity of Mexico’s mainstream press. However, the explosion of a nationwide student movement made a dent in Peña Nieto’s sizable lead in the polls.

The movement catapulted into the campaign, albeit late in the game, on May 11. A spontaneous outburst of opposition came unexpectedly from the campus of the elite and private university, the Iberoamericana, where Peña Nieto was making an appearance. In the instant it takes for a smartphone-posted tweet to circulate, everything changed – and not only for Peña Nieto. Some argue that the emergence of a burgeoning, social-media-powered and nationwide student-led social movement has changed the future of Mexican democracy itself.

On May 11 at the Ibero, hundreds upon hundreds of students started shouting at Peña Nieto, telling him, “Fuera, fuera, fuera!” (Get out!) Signs were unveiled pointing to Peña Nieto’s role as governor in authorizing repressive acts toward a movement hailing from Atenco, a farmer-based autonomous community located in the state over which he presided. (In Atenco, hundreds of protesters were arrested and beaten on the way to prison in May 2006, and over two dozen women filed official complaints that they were raped.) Other signs railed against a return to the PRI’s rule.

The students who gave Peña Nieto the shout-down at Ibero were instantly attacked, and one by one, the accusations were repeated by the Mexican TV news media duopoly: “They didn’t look like Ibero students”; “They’re intolerant and anti-democratic”; “The authorities should investigate them”; “They had to be paid protesters,” bellowed a variety of high-ranking functionaries of the PRI and its allied parties.

But the Ibero students fought back – successfully.

One hundred and thirty-one students uploaded testimonials proving that they were not paid protesters and were, in fact, authentic students at Ibero. They did so by making sure to include images of themselves along with their student credentials. Soon after, the Twitter hashtag #Somos131 was created. The students’ quick counter to the media attack spread like wildfire through social media. Overnight, the mainstream media myths were destroyed – much to the embarrassment of the media moguls and to the consternation of the Peña Nieto campaign.

The student movement was soon dubbed on Twitter and beyond as the #YoSoy132 movement – which translates to “I am 132,” a reference to everyone beyond the 131 Ibero students who were supporters of the movement. It exploded like none other in recent times in Mexico. Support flowed throughout the country’s Internet veins as fast as the tweets that helped organize the anti-regime protests in Egypt.

Given how the movement started, it should come as no surprise that its main target is just as much Televisa – the broadcast network which controls two-thirds of the nation’s free-to-air channels – as it is Peña Nieto. Protests have been held on a regular basis in front of the network’s offices. In a validation to the movement, several investigative reports later surfaced in June from The Guardian, revealing a series of favorable agreements between Peña Nieto and the network.

“We are trying to change the country and are protesting the monopoly of Televisa. The people are left with false impressions of the country and don’t know what is actually happening,” Teresa Beatris Nava, a 21-year-old biology student from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told Truthout during a protest at Televisa’s offices.

Support for Status Quo Clashes With Election Results, Movement

In one camp stands the #YoSoy132 movement and millions of other Mexicans who expressed their opposition to long-held policies on the drug war through the trouncing of the PAN in the election. Firmly planted in another stands important heads of state and traditional allies of Mexico, who rushed to congratulate Peña Nieto on his victory and sought assurances for the continuance of the status quo. For the United States, this is especially the case with respect to security and military policy.

President Obama placed a telephone call to Peña Nieto the day after the election before all the ballots were counted, congratulating the candidate on having won what Obama described as a “free, fair and clear” election. Obama also shared his expectations for “tight cooperation” on issues such as “security in the region and around the globe” with Mexico’s president-elect.

Peña Nieto did not disappoint, as one of his earliest pronouncements following the call from Obama was that he would not significantly alter any of Mexico’s existing security policies with respect to the drug war. Officials in Washington continued to express satisfaction with the president-elect, who was showing a knack for learning important lessons quickly and efficiently.

Other leaders from traditional allies of Mexico followed suit, including President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cuba’s Raul Castro.

While congratulations were being dealt out to Peña Nieto and he was giving assurances that he would maintain the status quo in relation to the drug war, the PAN suffered a serious blow at the polls, a reflection of what many analysts feel is a deep discontent with the very policies that Peña Nieto has pledged to continue.

Meanwhile, the party which intensified the militarization of the drug war, resulting in a breathtaking 60,000 fatalities since Calderón took office in 2006, suffered major losses on election day. This was an expected result: even the head of the Chicago Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Special Agent Jack Riley, expressed disappointment – in light of the DEA’s deep support and satisfaction with the PAN’s approach to the drug war – about the expected loss in an unpublished December interview with this author.

The Mexican people did not vote as the DEA would if it could, and the PAN candidate (arguably the most right-wing of the three) finished in last place among the three major parties. In the nation’s capital, where a fourth of the country resides, several Mexico City delegations shifted from PAN control to PRD, while the PAN also lost a key governorship in the state of Jalisco, home to Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara. In terms of the Mexico City mayoralty, the PRD won a super majority percentage of the electorate, with over 60 percent of the vote.

According to analyst and long-time Mexico resident Laura Carlsen, the PAN was paying the price for unpopular policies and its political patronage with the PRI:

The PAN’s twelve years [spent controlling the Mexican Presidency] were characterized by a weak economy and corruption, poverty and unemployment, which drove many people from its ranks. In addition, the PAN is paying the price of leaving intact the PRI political machine. The decision to form an alliance with the PRI against the PRD allowed the PRI to rebuild its forces on the same base of patronage and caciquismo that marked its authoritarian rule. The party’s impunity for past crimes by PRI strong men such as Ulises Ruiz in Oaxaca and Peña Nieto himself in Mexico State meant that the PRI was able not only to avoid being brought to justice, but also to avoid the political costs of its acts of repression and corruption in the past. Now it’s the PAN that is paying that political cost by having given the PRI a safe pass.

The student-led movement has strong ties to the peace movement led by the poet Javier Sicilia, who lost his son to drug violence in March of last year. Currently, Sicilia is leading a caravan in the United States in order to drum up support for treating drugs as a public health issue, as opposed to a military one, in the midst of the United States’ own presidential election campaign.

#YoSoy132, however, has shown more interest in organizing opposition to what it considers to be the “imposition.” And it has already continued its equally stringent criticism of and opposition to Televisa and neoliberal economic policies. Even children of Mexico’s middle-class families worry about the viability of their country’s economic future, given the long-stagnant and recession-prone economy they have grown up in.

Peña Nieto’s closest economic advisers trace back to the aforementioned Salinas administration, which ushered in an economic era of neoliberalism that continues to lack popular support and is the object of much criticism by economists from UNAM, which is the nation’s leading university. Following the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico ushered in a curious era in which, for the first time in history, Mexicans were eating tortillas made from corn grown not in Mexico itself, but in the heavily subsidized cornfields of the US heartland. A litany of monopolies across different industries was also established, particularly in the telecommunications sector, where Mexicans pay some of the highest telephone and Internet rates in the world, only to be faced with some of the slowest connection and download speeds.

Movement Retains Organic, Spontaneous Character as it Eyes the Future

The #YoSoy132 movement, its leaders and organizers are quick to point out, started in a spontaneous and organic manner as an unplanned outburst of opposition to Peña Nieto’s mere presence at Iberoamericana’s campus. This character has continued beyond the birth of the movement as mass marches and spontaneous opposition continue, without official endorsement by movement leaders and representatives.

To be sure, opposition goes beyond the leaders and organizers of #YoSoy132, who backed away from outwardly supporting some of the more recent mass marches after skirmishes between police and protesters occurred a few days after the election in front of the IFE offices. Reports trickled in, so organizers explained, of agent provocateurs with plans to disrupt the protests and provoke violence.

The lack of an official endorsement for the marches turned out not to matter, as several young protesters explained. “This is the digital age, and you don’t find out about protests from leaders appearing on the television; you hear about it from the Internet and your friends online,” said Alejandro Rodriguez, a 17-year-old high school student. As it turned out, the Zócalo was once again filled for the first Saturday protest following the election, notwithstanding the lack of support from the spokespersons of the #YoSoy132 movement.

Blocks away from the Zócalo, a new protest was brewing. A small group of about three dozen protesters had caught wind of what Televisa was broadcasting, which was not the mass protest itself, but rather the made-for-TV real-life wedding of soap opera and Televisa stars Eugenio Derbez and Alessandra Rosaldo.

A nervous Univision reporter, usually dispatched to cover celebrity news and gossip, was thrown into the uncomfortable position of covering the protests. “Why, on a happy day like this, are you protesting?” the reporter asked one of the demonstrators.

Daniel Goroztira Ochoa, a 32 year-old architect, answered confidently: “We’re here to show our opposition to the network, and against Televisa’s clear support of Peña Nieto. We’re not against Eugenio, but against his employer.”

Derbez, as it turns out, made it a point to sport a #YoSoy132 T-shirt inside the protected confines of the church and his wedding. That symbolic act was overshadowed by events outside the church, where what started out as a small protest spread by social media into a massive spontaneous demonstration.

The tweets started flying, text messages were furiously sent, Facebook posts were mounted and the otherwise trendy historic downtown pedestrian street of Calle Regina was filled to the brim with tens of thousands of angry demonstrators.

A new generation, not raised on television alone, was clearly present here. And a newer generation was also being raised: two young boys and local residents of the area joined the protesters and started mimicking them: “Fuera Televisa, fuera Televisa!” (Out with Televisa, out with Televisa!)

Over the weekend of July 14, over 300 organizations converged at Atenco, including representatives from #YoSoy132, the National Teachers Union, the Electricians Union and an autonomous organization from Atenco itself. Atenco is the city which has become a symbol against Peña Nieto given the past repression. Given that Atenco continues to play host to some of the most important and influential activists in the region, #YoSoy132 representatives and other supporters accepted an invitation to come to democratic agreements about how to chart the movement’s future and to realize its objective to prevent the “imposition” from coming to fruition, as well as how to plan its opposition to the policies it knows Peña Nieto will try to implement.

By the end of the weekend, plans were hatched for a host of lofty goals, including nothing less than preventing a Peña Nieto presidency. Major actions were slated to take place, some of which included direct action protests, such as a planned occupation of Televisa. Mass marches were planned for later in the month, some in public plazas, others in front of Televisa. The targets remain consistent: Peña Nieto and Televisa.

Will Mexico’s youth-led movement and newer generations change the very fabric of its country’s fragile and belabored democracy? Despite the PRI’s and PAN’s combined 90 years of consecutive rule – the PRI’s 71-year-long grip on power was the longest in any representative democracy – Mexico’s future appeared anything but certain in light of a student-led movement that shows no indications of slowing down in the near future.

NOTE: Additional reporting for this article was undertaken from Cuernavaca, Taxco, Temixco and Tepoztlan.

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