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Mexico’s President Pledged to Defend Indigenous Rights, But He’s Attacking Them

AMLO’s aggression toward environmental activists and Zapatista communities gives the lie to his campaign promise.

President of Mexico Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures during the Presidential Daily Morning Briefing on November 13, 2019, in Mexico City, Mexico.

In the early hours of February 20, 2019, Náhuatl activist Samir Flores was gunned down in front of his house in the Mexican state of Morelos.

Since 2011, Flores had been a vocal opponent of the Morelos Integral Project — a government-backed development plan to construct new energy infrastructure, including two thermoelectric plants and a massive gas pipeline running directly through his hometown of Amilcingo.

The day before he was killed, Flores attended a public forum organized by Hugo Eric Flores Cervantes (no relation), a hyper-conservative federal representative for Morelos. Poised before the podium where Flores Cervantes stood, Samir Flores confronted him about the social impact of the megaprojects. In a video circulated widely on social media, Samir Flores is heard exclaiming, “The [multinational] companies first usually think about their capital, their money, and then later about the communities [their projects affect]. I don’t know if this is a project in which they are thinking about us, our children, our grandchildren.”

Five hours after Samir Flores’s murder, the state attorneys general declared that his death was unrelated to his activism, attributing it instead to the activities of organized crime. (A week later the office claimed to have lost the evidence to back their allegations.)

Freshly inaugurated, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, denounced Flores’s murder and called for the swift punishment of the perpetrators. Only 10 days prior, however, he had distanced himself from activists who expressed opposition to the development plan, blowing them off as “far-left radicals.”

Eight months later, Flores’s case is at a standstill; the progress of the investigation — if the will for any serious official inquiry remains — is unknown. His murder is one more demoralizing tally on the list. In the past decade, more than 100 environmental activists have been killed in Mexico. A majority of them have been Indigenous.

AMLO Backpedals on Indigenous Rights

Targeted persecution of Indigenous communities, and activists in particular, is an endemic factor that predates AMLO’s ascent to power. Representatives from the country’s other major political parties present far worse records on protecting human rights defenders and recognizing Indigenous autonomy.

Still, AMLO made the guarantee of Indigenous protections a central issue of his platform. His vision to solidify social rights was so ambitious that he went so far as to say that, after a struggle for national independence, constitutional reforms and revolution, the rise of his new National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party would represent Mexico’s Fourth Transformation: the next phase of democratic development.

Now, nearly one year from the date of Flores’s murder, AMLO’s reneging attitude toward defending Indigenous rights points to more than a trend of anticipated moderation. It highlights a political positioning that has tokenized the visibility of Indigenous groups, co-opted the support of grassroots movements and posed serious threats to Indigenous activists across the country.

Just a few weeks after his inauguration, AMLO presented his outline for the federal government’s 2019 budget. Notably, the president’s plan increased funds for education and agricultural subsidies for under-served Indigenous and Afro-Mexican populations, to be administered under the newly-created National Program for Indigenous Peoples. Speaking from the state of Oaxaca, he claimed that, like never before, the highest offices in government would prioritize the lifting up of impoverished, Indigenous communities across the country.

But the numbers released in September from the proposed 2020 federal budget cast doubts over the strength of AMLO’s resolve. Instead of continuing to expand targeted assistance programs, the 2020 budget proposes drastic cuts to numerous federal initiatives related to the construction of basic infrastructure, the promotion of sustainable economic development and cultural preservation efforts. In its deferral to the remedial assistance programs of previous administrations, the move marks a historic regression in the path to legally recognize and advance the autonomy of the country’s Indigenous communities.

So far, the Fourth Transformation’s responses to criticism have been equally incoherent. Some MORENA surrogates argue that these cuts are a necessary step to fortifying universal assistance programs. Others see the reduction in funding to intermediary agencies — such as the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, a federal agency responsible for promoting responsible development and safeguarding the rights of Mexico’s Indigenous communities — as an effective means to side-step excessive bureaucratic costs.

For a party that condemned the neoliberal regime of the previous administration, discerning any marked changes in fiscal priorities has proven difficult. Its lack of transparency in other matters only adds to the evident hypocrisy.

The Racist Hypocrisy of Development

As austerity is imposed on vital and active agencies like the Basic Infrastructure Program for Indigenous Communities, whose budget is set to be eliminated entirely in 2020, large capital sums are being funneled into controversial projects. Despite marked popular opposition, efforts to construct an expensive, interstate railway system across the peninsula of Yucatán — known somewhat offensively as El Tren Maya, (“the Mayan Train”) — have proceeded at full throttle. (The government says that the project aims to promote and safeguard Mayan culture, but the name derives from the fact that the railway will connect historic Mayan sites and run through Indigenous lands.)

The 1,500 kilometers of train lines have been framed as a means to better connect cross-country public transport hubs, but the railway will also serve to transport large cargo from the Gulf of Mexico and cross directly through major tourist attractions for international visitors. Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico and one of the wealthiest people on the planet, has already promised his financial support. Meanwhile, corporations like the Canadian Bombardier, the French Alstom and the Chinese Railway Construction Company are all seeking to get involved.

Back in July, organizers from across the country gathered before United Nations representatives to denounce the project’s environmental risks, as well as to contest the results of a rushed, regional referendum related to the project. (Under pressure from activists and what he claims to be the development of a “misinformation campaign” against the project, on November 10, AMLO announced the enactment of a new referendum in mid-December.) The new infrastructure, activists made clear, would not only endanger the country’s ecological reserves and wildlife, but also produce harmful economic conditions for Indigenous residents, similar to those resulting from the creation of Mexico’s internationally popular tourist attractions like Cancún.

To construct Cancún’s resorts nearly five decades ago, Indigenous communities were forced to give up their lands to develop the necessary hotel and highway systems along large swaths of the Mayan Riviera. Financially pressured and deprived of their previous means of subsistence, residents took precarious and exploitative service jobs in the tourism industry. Beside the marked racialized dynamic that continues to characterize this labor configuration, new kinds of inequality and violence have also become pervasive parts of daily life for this class of laborers — especially as surges in commerce have significantly increased the activity of drug cartels and traffickers. With this historic precedent, the concern of this reoccurring along the proposed railway lines is not baseless.

The idea that tourism is a beneficial industry to all active participants has long been debunked. So, the push to accelerate the construction of the Tren Maya in spite of the documented risks, while simultaneously disregarding the demands of Indigenous leaders, underlines the clash between the Fourth Transformation’s curated public image and its present directive. What kind of development are AMLO and the Fourth Transformation seeking, and for whom?

Anastacio Oliveros, a vocal member of the Mayan Alliance for the Protection of Bees and a resident of Calakmul (one of the proposed railway stops), summed up the consensus of his community in July’s forum when he declared, “We want our people to be part of these [development] projects, but on the premise of our conception of development; that does not mean the amassing of billions of pesos, but the [attainment] of a dignified life.”

AMLO’s Drug War

The president’s policy reversals are also evident in his changing attitude toward the militarization of public safety operations. “We need to start taking the Army out of the streets,” AMLO declared back in 2011. A fervent critic of the federal government’s so-called war on drugs — a de facto civil war waged by then-President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa — AMLO struck a chord nationally when he called for the de-escalation of a conflict that ravaged rural areas caught in the crossfire of drug cartels and military forces.

Eight years later, AMLO has flipped. Within his first six months in office, the president pushed to amend Mexico’s Constitution and effectively create a new entity of the armed forces to combat the cartels. Known as the National Guard, its defenders lay the claim that it is a hybrid organization: militarily trained but accountable to a civil mandate. It nonetheless meant that soldiers would assume responsibilities previously delegated to federal police forces.

Reforming existing police and military institutions had ostensibly seemed like a time-consuming and uphill battle. The urgency to reclaim control and governance of territories under narco-rule trumped previous commitments.

The possible enactment of martial law sparked fierce debate about the necessary means to guarantee the rule of law, echoing concerns informed by the experience of Calderón’s disastrous campaign against the drug cartels. Undoubtedly, the militarization of the country undermines efforts to ensure proper accountability given the expanded jurisdiction of the armed forces. In immediate terms, the process poses disproportionate and unique dangers to Indigenous and rural communities, especially in the autonomous Zapatista territories of Chiapas and other regions of southern Mexico.

Targeting Zapatistas

Since 1994, Zapatista communities have functioned somewhat ambiguously outside the control of Mexican state authorities. While promoting the preservation of Indigenous customs and languages, their residents have maintained a framework of mutual aid that has prioritized access to health, housing and educational services. Moreover, this anti-systemic, anti-imperialist and horizontal functioning has helped to galvanize support for Indigenous movements across the country and the globe for nearly three decades.

In August, 56,000 National Guard troops were deployed across the country to assist existing federal security forces in combating the violence of organized crime. In Chiapas, where the National Guard already operated, an additional 2,424 troops were deployed, ostensibly to assist with migration enforcement and anti-trafficking operations at Mexico’s southern border. However, in a state with a history of military occupations and aggressive quelling of rebel forces, the boom in National Guard presence looks more like a continuing counterinsurgency strategy against autonomous zones rather than a humanitarian mission. Since August, reports on the ground have documented the targeted persecution and abuse of community members at the hands of armed personnel in the states of Morelos, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The aggressions come after months of vocal calls from the Zapatista rebels and other Indigenous organizations to resist the construction of the Tren Maya and other megaprojects, including a second railway line that aims to connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific and compete with the Panama Canal.

This encroachment of Indigenous territories and onslaught of harassment follows on the heels of the murder of two representatives of the Independent Regional Peasant Movement, Noé Jiménez Pablo and José Santiago Gómez Álvarez, in January 2019. A UN report notes that the two human rights defenders were participating in a protest before city hall in Amatlán, Chiapas, when they were attacked by an armed group and forcibly “disappeared.” The day following their disappearance, the two were found dead. (At the time of his death, Jiménez Pablo was a beneficiary of the government’s Protection Mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders.)

In response to the deployment, the Zapatista National Liberation Army issued a declaration of its change in strategy —from operating under the radar of state and federal authorities to the adoption of an offensive against the armed forces by expanding the number of autonomous hubs in previously unaffiliated zones. Currently, the standoff continues.

Despite AMLO’s justification for the militarization of the country, the targeted deployment of the National Guard to the Zapatista zone warrants great scrutiny. Indexes of violent crimes in liberated regions are among the lowest in the country. Under the present pretense, the National Guard should have theoretically been deployed to parts of the country more visibly engulfed in cartel activity. More than a strategy of security, this appeared like a declaration of war.

To paraphrase a recent letter of support — signed by figures like world-renowned dissident Noam Chomsky and literary theorist and political philosopher Michael Hardt — the National Guard, like other historic security forces, does not distinguish between crime and resistance. If any coalition embodies a long-standing and historic struggle for a participatory democracy, it is certainly the Zapatista movement. The targeted harassment and persecution of its members by the Fourth Transformation only proves that the party has a lot of terrain to recover if its intentions are to solidify any kind of progressive governance.

Reorienting the Fourth Transformation

The groundwork that the Fourth Transformation put forth before capturing majorities in both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency accurately captured the essence of long-standing demands forged from below. Its record thus far has denied them any credibility. Since MORENA’s rise to power, repression against Indigenous groups has only worsened.

“Whatever plan the government chooses to enact should be rooted in an approval process based on recognized rights — in this case, in the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, and in the case of the Tren Maya, the Mayan people.… This isn’t a matter of agreement or disagreement with [the federal government’s course of action]. But rather, I believe that the project is simply not being enacted in accordance with international human rights standards,” says Alberto Velázquez, member of Indignación, a Yucatan-based civil society organization focused on the promotion and defense of human rights. “Changing leadership doesn’t imply that there will be political change, because the institutions continue to be corrupt … I think that the current government is very aware of this, but I don’t know how they are going to resolve it.”

If the Fourth Transformation still seriously entertains any possibility of achieving any genuine, democratic transformation, it will remain to be seen how — after marked resistance and vocal opposition from grassroots organizations — it will reorient its priorities. Will AMLO and his surrogates recommit to the legislative and fiscal priorities that they campaigned on?

One thing is certain: For any genuine change to Mexico’s business as usual, guaranteeing Indigenous rights will need to be a central pillar. For now, there is still a lot to lose.

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