2015 has been declared ‘The Year of Mexico’ in the UK. But behind the state-sanctioned celebrations lies a darker agenda that emphasises Britain’s willingness to indulge other repressive regimes.
The violence that has engulfed Mexico over the last decade shows no sign of abating, nor of relinquishing its capacity to horrify. Since 2006, when the government of Felipe Calderón launched the ‘drugs war’ against the hugely powerful cartels, over 120,000 people have died as a result of violence, with another 27,000 listed as ‘disappeared’. As Mexicans bewilderedly survey the wreckage of their society, one anguished cry of protest has echoed louder than any other:
Fue el estado.
It was the state.
The words first came to broad public consciousness in September 2014, following the forced disappearance and suspected murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in Guerrero, southern Mexico. The students were detained by security forces while on their way to a political rally and handed over to a drugs gang. Authorities claim they were killed by the gang and their bodies subsequently burnt – a version of events refuted by independent analysis. The atrocity provoked mass demonstrations across Mexico, as citizens vented their fury at a government which, in their eyes, not only stood back and allowed such acts to occur, but played an active role in their execution.
It was the state.
The call was again heard in the aftermath of a brutal mass murder in Mexico City on 31 July 2015. Two of the young victims, photojournalist Ruben Espinosa and activist Nadia Vera, were vocal critics of the authorities and in particular Javier Duarte, governor of Veracruz state. Indeed, a few months before her death, Vera recorded a video interview in which she claimed Duarte would be responsible should anything happen to her. Both Vera and Espinosa had left Veracruz for Mexico City following threats to their safety in the east coast state. Since Duarte became governor in 2010, a number of other journalists have been killed in Veracruz, making it one of the world’s most dangerous places to practice the profession.
The high-profile massacres in Guerrero and Mexico City represent merely the tip of an iceberg of death and chaos. In her book Narcoland, which exposes the corruption and collusion between the state and cartels, investigative journalist Anabel Hernández writes: ‘semi-literate peasants like [drugs bosses] El Principe, Don Neto, El Azul, El Mayo, and El Chapo would not have got far without the collusion of businessmen, politicians, and policemen, and all those who exercise everyday power from behind a false halo of legality. We see their faces all the time, not in the mug shots of most wanted felons put out by the Attorney General’s Office, but in the frontpage stories, business sections, and society columns of the main papers. All these are the true godfathers of Narcoland, the true lords of the drug world.’ Since Narcoland’s publication in 2013, Hernández has required bodyguards, less she wish to suffer the same fate as her father, kidnapped and killed in 2000.
London Mexico Solidarity (LMS) is a UK- based activist group which campaigns against human rights abuses in Mexico. ‘In spite of it being obvious to everyone that the Mexican government has committed these crimes, this war is very profitable for the Mexican state’, says an LMS spokesperson. ‘While it spends money on militarising itself, it also receives money and support from the United States and the European Union, who back the drugs war.’
While Mexico burns, the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto has sought to strengthen ties with foreign governments. Chief among these is its British counterpart, with trade between the two countries reaching £21billion (according to UK government statistics) in 2014. From a UK perspective, if you overlook the genocidal death toll, it’s a no-brainer: Mexico is Latin America’s second largest economy and nothing can interfere with ‘market growth’. This bilateral relationship saw 2015 officially designated the Dual Year of the UK and Mexico (UKMX), a conceit aimed at increased economic, political and cultural interaction. As the official Dual Year website states (badly): ‘Again and again, Mexico will surprise you with new experiences, a different flavour, a unique adventure or a place waiting captivate [sic].’
Mexico is visible in Tube advertisements, event sponsorship and diplomatic pleasantries. What this wave of propaganda ignores is the rampant torture, rape and murder in the country, which, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Computing, has since 2007 had a higher murder rate than Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course, the British government is responsible for a great many of the deaths in those two other killing zones, so perhaps there is logic to this special relationship after all.
‘The deal touches on tourism, education, the energy investment sector and, perhaps most worryingly, military and security cooperation’, says the LMS activist. ‘It is part of the most ambitious economic and political reforms since 1994. The Mexican economy has relied ever more progressively on foreign and private investment, which is encouraged through free trade agreements, and by selling state-owned companies.’
The centrepiece of the Dual Year was the three-day state visit of President Peña Nieto and First Lady Angelica Rivera to the UK in March 2015. Riding together in a horse-drawn carriage and chinking glasses of champagne, the Queen and the Mexican President demonstrated the close bond that unites the two countries. Many people expressed anger at their Head of State’s willingness to indulge a regime implicated in extensive human rights abuses, amassing of vast wealth and repression of marginalised groups.
But it wasn’t only Mexicans who were incensed.
Criticism also came from sections of the British media and public. Downing Street felt these calls warranted a brief comment from a spokesman, who said, ‘You can expect the prime minister to raise concerns that have arisen with regard to human rights and the judicial system in Mexico.’ The manifestation of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘concerns’, or indeed proof of their existence, was never revealed.
With most MPs content to toe the official line — Jeremy Corbyn’s was a rare dissenting voice in a sea of parliamentary indifference — opposition to the Dual Year, and to the role of the Mexican state in the ongoing catastrophe in the country, has been led by Mexican activist groups based in the UK. These groups have organised demonstrations, talks, film screenings and so on, aimed at highlighting the reality of Mexico today — a reality Britain wishes to downplay in order to legitimise its support for the Peña Nieto regime.
The British Museum has emerged as an unlikely battlefield. To mark Mexico’s Day of the Dead, on 1 November, the Museum staged a weekend of events as part of the Dual Year. The museum was decorated with elaborate imagery and staged performances and talks celebrating the 3,000-year-old tradition. Also on prominent display were the names of the main sponsors: the Mexican government and British Petroleum (BP), which is lobbying the Peña Nieto administration to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion devastated the region in one of the worst manmade environmental disasters in history. The culprit? BP.
The inconvenient truths of forced disappearances and environmental destruction were absent from the family-oriented celebrations. As such, London Mexico Solidarity and BP or Not BP, which opposes oil company sponsorship of cultural institutions, staged a protest during the main evening performances. Wearing costume, activists convened inside the museum, where they staged a counter-performance to symbolise the cosy arrangement between big business and the Mexican political establishment. Protesters chanted anti-government slogans while holding aloft images of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students. ‘We were hoping to tell the truth, to make visible the humanitarian and ecological crisis in Mexico, and to show the conditions under which the UKMX deal was signed’, says the LMS activist.
‘The remembrance of the dead is an important part of every culture and Mexico has a particularly vibrant way of commemorating the deceased’, said Mexico’s UK ambassador, Diego Gómez Pickering, prior to the Day of the Dead event. Judging by recent Mexican history, this involves concocting stories, impeding independent investigations and threatening those who demand greater transparency and justice. For the thousands of dead and disappeared consigned to statistical footnotes in Mexico’s Violencia, there is nothing ‘vibrant’ in their families’ suffering, nor will their deaths be ‘commemorated’ in expensive propaganda showpieces.
One thing is certain, however: the killing will continue, fuelled by drugs wars, poverty and international legitimisation for a governing structure riddled with corruption at the highest levels. Meanwhile, the British political and business elite will continue to profit from Mexico’s social disaster, whether through investment opportunities and increased trade or illicit activity. The establishment’s willingness to collaborate with the Mexican cartels was evidenced in the HSBC money laundering case, in which Britain’s largest bank deposited hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money during the 2000s.
‘Historically speaking, the origin of the agents of violence, of drug cartels and organised crime is the state’, says the LMS activist. ‘That is the case, for instance, of [drug gang] Los Zetas, whose origins go back to an elite troop that deserted the Mexican Army. The aim of these criminal organisations is to profit from violence. Corruption is the second tool through which both criminal organisations and the state profit. Corruption starts to unveil the falsehood of the war against drugs, because the line dividing the state and criminal organisations is either non-existent or blurry.’
There are clear parallels between British and Mexican governing structures that ultimately resort to violence to achieve their primary goals, whether within their own territories or in the Middle East. As long as mutual interests are upheld, support and legitimisation for human rights-abusing regimes is, and will remain, forthcoming.
In the meantime, the people of Mexico will continue to resist with the only weapon they have: their voice. The Mexican state is a brutal and repressive system. In Britain, it has found the perfect match.