Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Atenco Warning

Photo
President Enrique Peña Nieto, of Mexico, in 2015. CreditYuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
MEXICO CITY — Can organized crime and government, at least sometimes, be considered one and the same? For many exasperated and frightened Mexicans the line between the two has become increasingly blurred.
On May 11, 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto, then the governor of Mexico State and the presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the P.R.I., came to speak at Ibero-American University. Mr. Peña Nieto, far ahead in the polls, was poised to regain, in the coming election, the presidency his party hadn’t held in 12 years, after having ruled Mexico for seven decades. Mr. Peña Nieto had refused to speak at a candidates’ forum at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the public university in Mexico City regarded as a leftist hotbed. But “La Ibero,” an elite private Jesuit institution, must have seemed to promise a polite reception, where students would ask well-meaning questions that the future president would be prepared for.
Mr. Peña Nieto was pitching himself as the representative of “a new P.R.I.,” a modern, reforming party, respectful of democracy and the rule of law, rejecting the corrupt, often violent authoritarianism of the P.R.I.’s past.
That May 11 appearance sent out a warning to Mexicans and to the world that I’m sure many now wish they had heeded.
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Instead of Mr. Peña Nieto’s neo-liberal economic reforms, the students at La Ibero wanted to talk about San Salvador Atenco, a town in Mexico State. In 2006, as governor, Mr. Peña Nieto had ordered 3,500 state policemen into Atenco to put down protests stemming from the eviction of 40 flower vendors, all linked to a land-rights group, from their market stalls. Two people were murdered: A policeman shot a 14-year-old boy; a university student was clubbed to death by the police.
Hundreds were arrested, including dozens of women who reported being sexually abused by the police, some repeatedly raped. Among the abused women were foreign human rights observers and students who were quickly deported. When the women denounced what had happened, the Peña Nieto government called them liars; the women were prosecuted, not the policemen.
“Atenco will not be forgotten,” the students at La Ibero chanted. They demanded answers from Mr. Peña Nieto, who finally responded, “It was a decision that I made personally to re-establish order and peace, and I made it with the legitimate use of force that corresponds to the state.”
Students erupted into chants of “Murderer” and “Get out!” The candidate returned a steely glare and was hustled from the stage by his security personnel.
That event set off the student movement known as #YoSoy132. That night Peña Nieto spokesmen claimed on television that the protesters weren’t students but professional agitators working for the leftist candidate. In response, a student made a video in which 131 students from La Ibero displayed their college IDs and said they had participated; the video went viral. The movement spread quickly to universities across Mexico, and soon, certainly in Mexico City, it seemed as if everybody, not just university students, wanted to be “Student No. 132.” In the end, the movement failed to persuade Mexico and the world that a Peña Nieto presidency would be a disaster for the country and its vulnerable democracy, but the controversy turned the election into a nail-biter.
Since then, Mr. Peña Nieto’s presidency has been marked by exposed acts of corruption, incompetence and negligence; the country has been battered by shocking crimes that remain unsolved, including the disappearance of 43 college students in Iguala, and the unpunished murder of one journalist after another. The leader of the New P.R.I., as an article in The New York Times recently put it, has been “recast as an out-of-touch, corrupt politician with abysmal approval ratings.”
Mr. Peña Nieto, the article also recalled, came into office “promising to lift Mexico to its rightful place on the world stage” and offering “hope that the nation’s democracy was coming into its own.” At the core of that promise were proposed reforms, to privatize the national oil industry, for example, and to open the telecommunications industry to competition. In much of the American media, enthusiasm for those reforms was translated into enthusiasm for Mr. Peña Nieto and the New P.R.I. On the cover of Time magazine, Mr. Peña Nieto was hailed as the “savior of Mexico.”
A question that haunts me, and that seems relevant to pose not just regarding Mexico but generally, is why are such pro-business reforms interpreted by many as promising modern democratic values and respect for the rule of law? Why, by contrast, is a candidate’s record of disrespect for human rights, personal security and dignity, especially regarding women, not interpreted as a warning of retrograde, anti-democratic values and of disregard for the rule of law (which will probably turn out to be “bad for business” also)?
The students at La Ibero didn’t need investor forecasts to understand what Atenco revealed about the New P.R.I. Now, as was widely reported last September, the Inter-American Human Rights Court has taken the cases of 11 of the women who were sexually tortured and raped by the police after their arrests at Atenco; the court is investigating the crime’s chain of command up to Mr. Peña Nieto.
I remember a conversation in 2012 with Alejandro Páez Varela, director of the journal SinEmbargo. He said that some of the proposed reforms were necessary but that he would never trust Mr. Peña Nieto and his corrupt circle to carry them out. Many influential people didn’t want to see Mr. Peña Nieto’s flaws — there was more than just Atenco. As a result of that willful blindness, Mexico’s democracy is in crisis and reeling.
It has recently been reported that Mexico’s government purchased Pegasus mobile-phone spyware — solely authorized by its maker to infiltrate terrorist and crime organizations — that has allegedly been used against journalists, human rights activists and lawyers, even against a man who drafted anti-corruption legislation. Luis Fernando García, head of a digital rights group, was quoted in the Times article as saying that “the fact that the government is using high-tech surveillance against human rights defenders and journalists exposing corruption, instead of those responsible for those abuses, says a lot about who the government works for.”
Whom does the government work for? In the case of the 43 missing students, the government went to extreme lengths to cover up collusion between a drug gang and the state, even discounting what an international panel of experts investigating the crime presented as filmed evidence of the government’s chief investigator planting false evidence.
As the journalist John Gibler recently remarked, in Mexico “It’s infinitely more dangerous to report on an assassination than it is to commit it.” The latest proof is the killing of Javier Valdez, one of Mexico’s most admired journalists. This question also haunts me: Could Pegasus be used to track journalists to the spots where they are then assassinated, and if so, by whom, exactly?
Mr. Peña Nieto last week denied that the Mexican government spies on anybody. Then how did that spyware, sold to the government, turn up in the mobile phones of journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and others? Mr. Peña Nieto has now promised an investigation into the matter. Ask the parents of the 43 missing students, whose lawyers say they were targets of the spyware, how much confidence they have in that investigation. Ask the women of Atenco.

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