Op-Ed: A call for authentic democracy in Mexico

RELATIVES OF 43 students missing in Mexico since September and believed slain attend a Mass for them in Iguala.
(Jose Mendez / EPA)

There is finally a message of hope coming from south of the border. A powerful new social movement has emerged that could radically transform Mexico’s corrupt political system. The disappearance and probable massacre of dozens of student activists by government officials in Iguala, Mexico, has led to an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity throughout the country and in more than 100 cities abroad.

The central demand of the protesters is the immediate return of the 43 student activists who were forcefully taken away on Sept. 26. The students were abducted by local police in alliance with local drug cartels, while the federal police and military remained passive, according to media and witness accounts. Six people were also killed and a dozen injured. State and federal authorities then let the mayor of Iguala skip town and began to investigate only after protests erupted and the international media called attention to the situation.

Only three months before, on June 30, the Mexican army shot and killed 22 youths at a warehouse in the nearby town of Tlatlaya in the state of Mexico. The immediate response of state and federal authorities was to announce that the dead were alleged gang members and had been killed in a shootout. This turned out to be a lie, but the truth eventually came out after widespread coverage by local and international media.


Up until now, the international community had been fooled by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s propaganda offensive, which has tried to portray him as an enlightened reformer. But recent events are finally bringing worldwide public opinion in line with what is actually happening.

The central problem is that Mexico is one of the only countries in Latin America where the democratic “transition” has not been accompanied by a renovation of its political class. In recent years, nations as different as Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, El Salvador and Peru have all undergone crucial processes of reckoning with the past. Important challenges lie ahead for these nations, but they have at least started to construct new rules for democratic politics and public accountability.

In Mexico this process has not even begun. Indeed, Cuba is the only country in Latin America whose political class has remained as unchanged as Mexico’s in recent decades. Before becoming president, Peña Nieto was governor of the state of Mexico, which has been controlled by his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, without interruption for the last 85 years. Four of the most powerful members of his Cabinet are also former governors of states that since 1929 have been governed only by the PRI. Peña Nieto and his team have no experience playing by the democratic rules of the game.

During the 1990s, the PRI split between what were called “technocrats” and “dinosaurs,” with the former supposedly representing the modern wing of the ruling party and the latter the old guard. Peña Nieto is a “dinosaur” by any definition of the term. He was born and raised in a family of politicians in the city of Atlacomulco, home to one of the nation’s most powerful corrupt camarillas, or political cliques. The leading PRI power broker from there, Carlos Hank González, is known for coining the aphorism “A politician who is poor is a poor politician,” which Mexicans interpret as a cynical public justification for corrupt and dirty politics.

The Peña Nieto administration unsurprisingly has tried to present the crisis as a strictly local problem of municipal governance. But the direct participation of federal officials in the cover-ups in the Iguala disappearances and the June massacre contradicts this theory. In addition, the increasing number of political prisoners under the Peña Nieto administration, including the three high-profile cases of Nestora Salgado, José Manuel Mireles and Mario Luna, indicate the return of old ways. In general, international reviews of human rights in Mexico agree that corruption and the abuse of power are problems that are not limited to the local level, but run from the very top to the bottom of the political system.

It would be irresponsible for the Obama administration and Congress to continue to blindly fund the Mexican “drug war” in the present context. Washington should also work with state governments to aggressively crack down on the flow of weapons south of the border to some of the most violent criminals in the world.


But what is most important is for the American people to reach out and actively support the tens of thousands of Mexican citizens who have taken to the streets in recent days in search of an authentic democracy that respects human rights, combats corruption and guarantees peace and prosperity for all.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine.

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