This past November, during its 25th annual convergence at Fort Benning, Georgia, Roy Bourgeois of School of the Americas Watch made a momentous announcement. In 2016, this event will instead be held in early October in Nogales, Arizona — divided from Nogales, Mexico, by security forces and barbed wire-topped walls.
Puzzled at first by the move, we’ve become keenly aware that there’s much more we need to learn about this neighbor with whom the US shares a nearly 2,000 mile-long border. So, in January, we joined one of several Witness for Peace (WFP) delegations to Mexico this year. These low-cost, no-frills delegations — ours cost $1,100 plus airfare — seek to raise gringo consciousness about the coyentura, the conjuncture of economic, military and geopolitical forces shaping Latin American reality.
WFP is a nationwide grassroots organization that, since the early ’80s, has been working to expose US hegemony in Latin America and render US policy there more humane and neighborly. Our delegation focused on the militarization of Mexican police and the criminalization of social movements. As activists ourselves who have had brushes with militarized police and who have been incarcerated for our activism, that theme struck a chord.
Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker house of hospitality in Mexico City near the Monument to the Revolution, served as the base for our 17-member delegation. Throughout the delegation, we met with a rich array journalists, former prisoners, relatives of the disappeared, human rights monitors, Indigenous and emigrant rights activists. We also had presentations by attorney and professor Camilio Perez Bustillo, anthropologist and political journalist Gilberto y Rivas and Dawn Paley, author of Drug War Capitalism.
One day we had lunch at Tochan, a safe house providing longer-term shelter for those mostly bound for the US seeking official status or a humanitarian visa. Tochan depends a lot on teachers and students from the National University of Mexico (UNAM) for volunteers and financing. As we were about to drive away, a couple of the young men came out to our van to sing us a song they had written about their dangerous refugee lives.
On another day, we met with Comite Cerezo at UNAM. The committee works with victims (including relatives) of arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killing and forced disappearance. UNAM, with over 300,000 students, may be the Spanish-speaking world’s most prominent university. Its buildings are covered with striking murals, some several stories high. As with many countries’ public universities, UNAM tuition is free.
After a week in the capital, we traveled seven hours by charter bus along an Interstate 81-like toll road, through the sierra to the restive and largely Indigenous southern state of Oaxaca One day, we hiked all over Monte Alban, the ancient and partially reconstructed mountaintop city overlooking the valley of Oaxaca. Monte Alban, with its monumental pyramids, was founded 2,500 years ago by the ancestors of the Zapotecs. Our guide told us that, as with Mexico’s lucrative oil industry, this World Heritage site is threatened by privatization.
Oaxaca City itself draws both Mexican and international tourists. Oaxaca’s wonderful food, colonial architecture, Indigenous markets and crafts, intriguing art galleries, bookstores and sidewalk cafes and music on the zocalo (main plaza) are balm to the soul. But police in twos and threes patrol on foot. And trios of soldiers with automatic weapons roam the city in the back of pick-ups.
A Fatal Embrace
Thanks to this trip, we’ve come to see that Mexico is more deeply embroiled in US imperial politics than we knew. Since 2007, Mexico, a nation of over 120 million, has endured over 150,000 killings and 25,000 disappearances, according to the UN High Commission of Human Rights. Some say Mexico is the world’s third largest killing field.
While under-publicized in the US, the US is over-implicated in this grim picture:
- US (and Canadian) corporations seek to clear people from communally-held Indigenous land and to impose large-scale infrastructure (mines, highways, airports, even wind energy projects) to extract resources. That agenda also includes overhauling Mexico’s legal system to better mesh with corporately-subservient US law.
- The impunity and extreme corruption of Mexican government, military and law enforcement is abetted by the US. (Of course, many US politicians are also bought by corporate donors. But — pot calling the kettle black — we habitually describe other political systems as “corrupt,” implicitly and invidiously contrasting them to the more abstract corruption [campaign finance e.g.] prevailing here in the US.)
- The US is determined to have its Mexican client stanch US-bound emigration. This means Central American refugees fleeing violence and displacement are much more likely in Mexico to be exploited or even disappeared. Mass graves sprinkle the perilous routes to El Norte. The 2008 US-financed Merida Initiative provides, among other things (see below), for the militarization of Mexico’s southern border to deter these undocumented refugees.
- There’s an open faucet of illicit drugs flowing out of Mexico to US consumers. Several times we were told this couldn’t happen without official — both Mexican and US — complicity. Drug cartels easily acquire weapons directly from private US dealers and indirectly from US agencies. Both the US and Mexican media use these same cartels as handy scapegoats for the considerable non-drug related violence perpetrated by the police, the military and the paramilitary.
- On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect and, in response, the mostly nonviolent Indigenous Zapatistas rose up in Chiapas, Mexico. From that date until 2008, the US provided Mexico with over $60 million in military aid annually. Between 2008 and the end of 2014, such aid totaled over $2.3 billion, largely spent in the US on US companies and contractors.
- Since 1994, US training of Mexican military in “anti-insurgency” tactics — i.e. armed repression — has surged within Mexico. The training of Mexican military also surged at the Pentagon’s School of the Americas (a.k.a. “the school of torture” and rebranded as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation/WHINSEC). Colombia and Israel also provide such training.
- US corporations have connived to both heavily arm our Mexican client and make it more hospitable to US investment. The Merida Initiative — a Plan Colombia clone, sometimes called “NAFTA-plus” — fosters such investment and the privatization of Mexico’s national patrimony.
- These corporations use local proxies to do their dirty work, whether they be police, uniformed military or paramilitary (whose shape-shifting personnel are sometimes interchangeable). This state terrorism seeks to deter Indigenous and other oppressed and disenfranchised peoples from resisting encroachment on their land and on their human rights. The terrorism of course is also designed to deter popular resistance to privatization.
Our two weeks in Mexico recalled the similar repression we had seen elsewhere in Latin America. But before this delegation, we only could speculate about theparallel and kindred realities just beyond our border. Thanks to our time outside the US bubble, on October 7-9, 2016, when we’ll be in Nogales with SOA Watch, we’ll have a heightened awareness of all that’s at stake.