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John Ackerman speaks about political violence, corruption, what has made democracy so dysfunctional, and how the Obama administration’s policies towards Mexico are not helping.

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GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Mexico hasn’t made much headlines recently. However, in a recent, major article for Foreign Policy magazine, John Ackerman makes a strong argument for why Mexico is not a functioning democracy. In the article he highlights political violence, corruption, and lack of political freedoms in that country, as well as points out the Obama administration’s failure to address these problems in its relationship with Mexico. To talk to us about these issues, we’re lucky to have John Ackerman with us today, who is joining us from Mexico City. John is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review, and columnist for [Proceso] magazine and La Jornada newspaper. Thanks for joining us, John. JOHN ACKERMAN: Thank you, Greg. A pleasure, as always, to speak with the Real News, and with you in particular. WILPERT: Thanks. Well, let’s begin with the ways in which most of the media seem to be overlooking the deep problems in Mexican politics and society today. One of the few issues that seemed to pierce this ignorance recently was the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico almost exactly 18 months ago, but it seems like this was just tip of an iceberg. Can you tell us more about what is happening in Mexico with regards to these types of disappearances and political violence? ACKERMAN: Yes, well, indeed, the case of the 43 students, student activists who were taken and forcefully disappeared from the state of [Guerrero] a year and a half ago put this on the international scene, the question of not just violence and chaos, because everybody knows that we have a failed drug war, we have violence, we have corruption, and that there are serious problems in Mexico. But, this also has political undertones, or overtones, you’d want to say more correctly, because one of the things about these 43 students is that they were student activists who were protesting against neoliberal policies, and they were forcefully disappeared, not by another drug gang, but by agents of the state half a kilometer from two enormous military bases, and the suspicion is that, well not [only] a suspicion, but [what’s] the investigations which have been happening the last year and a half, is that the military’s actually directly complicit with this, which would not be a surprise, because military bases are there in Iguala Guerrero precisely since the 1970s of Mexico’s dirty war. So you have a historical continuity here. So, that broke sort of the bubble of the idea of Enrique Peña Nieto as somehow modernized [inaud.]. But, still, international public opinion and international politicians continue to treat with Enrique Peña Nieto and the federal government as if this was a normally-functioning democracy. And Enrique Peña Nieto is received with his arms open in international forums from Paris to Washington to China when we should be much more clear about what is actually happening on the ground. People imagine that somehow the problems are just in society: narco-trafficking, or just at the local level: corrupt local mayors. The argument in my article in Foreign Policy, and what I argue in my Spanish stuff as well, is that the problem is at the top. It’s not at the bottom. It’s a structural system in which Peña Nieto himself and the federal cabinet are directly participating in this violence and chaos and corruption, but politicized violence and corruption. We have dozens of political prisoners, for instance, in Mexico. Mexico is one of the countries which is most unsafe for journalists in the entire world. Municipal mayors and politicians throughout the country are assassinated on a regular basis. This is not a functioning democracy. It’s a political system which from top to bottom is corrupted, and needs some serious renovation from down up. WILPERT: Just to give us an idea of the scope of this problem, can you give us some numbers. I mean, we often hear about the numbers of people who are killed in the drug war in Ciudad Juarez and so on, but what about this political violence? What are the estimates for those kinds of numbers? ACKERMAN: There are dozens of political prisoners. There are different ways of counting those up, but there are over 100 in the country. There are particular cases which stand out. So, for instance, when people look at Venezuela, since, supposedly Venezuela, supposedly that’s an authoritarian country because they don’t like the United States, there’s lots of emphasis, for instance, on this guy, Leopoldo Lopez. Well, here in Mexico we have a much more extreme case of Nestora Salgado, who is an indigenous leader, from the state of Guerrero as well, Olinalá. She’s actually a US citizen. She spent 20, 25 years or so in Seattle, Washington, working there, came back to her town and organized a community police force based on laws which recognized the rights of indigenous communities to organize themselves for self defense. And once she started to use these police forces, for instance, to go beyond just petty crime, but actually investigate government corruption and narco-politics, that’s when the state institutions went into action and put her into jail. She–we just had a very important court case yesterday, which has ordered her case to be redone, and she might actually get out of jail in the next couple days. This could actually be the result of pressure that many of us have exercised nationally. But she’s just one case. There are dozens, for instance, of people from the state of Michoacán, one important [leader] who, very similar to Nestora Salgado, Jose Manuel Mireles, also organized his community for self defense. The problem here is that both the military and the police forces and the narcos are against the people. They’re fighting against each other, and [none of] them are protecting the peace, so the people have to organize themselves to defend themselves, and, once again, when those forces start to investigate and attack government corruption, that’s when they’re thrown into jail. And in the state of Puebla, which is just south of Mexico City, we have documented about 112 cases of different people defending their land: environmental activists, journalists, youth, students, who are arbitrarily thrown into jail over the last two years of this most recent governor. Since December 1, [2002], I mean this really started on December 1, [2002], when Enrique Peña Nieto came into power, when the old-guard, pre-authoritarian party came into power. Since then, in almost every single protest, especially when students are out on the streets, arbitrary arrests, arbitrary jailing and even political assassinations are the order of the day. So, if this happened in, you know, once again, Venezuela, or Cuba, or Russia, this is immediately front page news. But in Mexico, since we’re supposedly a democracy with a president who’s very pro-American and [inaud.] liberal, all this is sort of put under the rug. Biden was here yesterday, and he gave an interview to a newspaper which suggested some of these things, but basically he backslapped Peña Nieto. The same happened even with the pope. The pope was here last week. The great, progressive pope spoke a good game, but refused to directly question and point the finger at the Mexican government actually being complicit with this violence and this authoritarianism. Everybody just blames it on the narcos, blames it on local politicians when this is a structural, national problem. WILPERT: Yes, that leads me, actually, to the next question, which is: How is this all organized? I mean, you’re saying that this is not just local, but this is organized on a national level, but who exactly is it behind, is behind this. I mean, you mentioned the [PRI], but who are they connected to, and what is kind of the organizational structure one can talk about that’s behind this kind of political violence? ACKERMAN: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know how much time we have, but the people who make up the federal government today, Enrique Peña Nieto himself and his closest team within the executive are all ex-governors of states which, to this day, have not undergone any kind of, let alone democratization, not even alternation [of] power. In the state of Mexico, that’s what one of the states is called which Enrique Peña Nieto is ex-governor, and also one of his leading members of his cabinet, has been ruled by the same party, the Party of the Institutional Revolution, the PRI, for 87 years. His other important people in his cabinet, Osorio Chong, [inaud.] from the state of Mexico, Murillo Karam, who is no longer there, but he was the guy who botched the whole investigation, the 43 students. All these guys are ex-governors of states which have been controlled by the same party for 86 years. These are people who have no experience or respect or understanding of democratic politics, or plural competition, or transparency, or accountability. These are words they don’t even understand. What they have done is, and at the local level, the state level, there is a problem at the state level, what we have are these informal networks of corruption between businessmen, between the narco-traffickers themselves and government institutions, which have now, these same networks, have now taken the federal government. We weren’t in a good situation before either with Calderón or with Fox, but now we’ve, sort of, the depths of the informal, mafia-style politics, which used to be particularly characteristic of the local/state level, has now been nationalized, has been federalized. And when you put that together with the neoliberal assault and the privatization of everything, right? Most importantly of oil and education and flexibilization of labor codes, then you have the interaction between, sort of, these old mafia style way of doing politics wth the new, international, high-level corruption which leads to this kind of explosive, almost festive for them, situation of new opportunities to use international financing to fund these networks of corruption on the national level. So, I don’t know if I’m getting a good picture out there, but that’s what’s really happening: the complete decay of any idea of institutions as responsible for the people. The national institutions are being used by these mafia networks to connect these what used to be local networks to international financial flows, and that just leads to international, supposedly positive valuation of these guys, and the depth of corruption here in Mexico, because they have more money than they ever had before to purchase elections, to purchase hitmen. You know, so it’s a pretty dangerous situation we’re living here in Mexico right now. WILPERT: Well, in this little time that we have left, maybe you could just briefly address also the issue of how the Obama administration has been relating to Mexico, and how it could be relating differently. I mean, very briefly. ACKERMAN: Yes, sure, of course. It’s a big question, I mean, you know, read the article in foreign affairs and we can have another interview [inaud.], but the big thing is that Obama has totally failed to actually innovate in bilateral relationships. He promised from his very first campaign, 2008, that he was going to have a more open relationship with Mexico, particularly involving civil society, social movements, this was not just going to be a relationship between elites, political and economic elites, but between the peoples of America, of the United States, and Mexico, as it should be, because there are almost 30 million Mexicans in the United States, many Americans in Mexico. This is natural. But Obama has failed. He’s just, he and Hillary Clinton have just left this at the level of elite politics. When they come to Mexico they just deal with the oligarchs, with the same, old, corrupt politicians as always. Biden was just here yesterday. It was, you know, case in point of what’s wrong with this relationship. The hope was that someone like Bernie Sanders, if he ever gets to the White House, that we’d built, actually innovate and create a more sort of grassroots, bilateral relationship, but what we’ve been seeing so far is a real disappointment for anybody who would expect the United States to defend human rights or honesty in government. It’s just been complete pragmatism, national security, oil, and patting on the back [of] the corrupt, repressive leaders we have here in Mexico. WILPERT: Well, we’re out of time, so, but we definitely want to keep an eye on what’s going on in Mexico. It’s such a large country just to the south of the United States. But thanks so much for joining us, John. ACKERMAN: Thank you so much. It’s an honor and a pleasure. I’d love to be in touch again in the future. WILPERT: Okay. And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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