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John Ackerman: Mexico’s government estimates 26,000 people have gone missing since 2007 and as many as 70,000 killed in drug-related violence.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

In Mexico City around ten days ago, 11 young people were kidnapped in a nightclub. They’ve yet to be seen. A report issued by the Mexican government says more than 26,000 people disappeared during the Calderón regime. Most of them are presumed dead.

How did Mexico become such a state? Narco gangs, violence, mass killings–how did Mexico get there?

Now joining us to discuss all of this is John Ackerman. He’s a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He’s also a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada. He’s editor in chief of The Mexican Law Review. And he joins us in Baltimore.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So my family used to visit Mexico in the 1950s. And there was nothing like this going on in Mexico. It was a place tourists could travel safely. It was poor. But it wasn’t–in much of the country it seems now essentially a collapsed state.

ACKERMAN: What we have is a double failure. Both political and economic reform over the last 20 years, 30 years has failed. Supposedly Mexico, along with other countries in the world–Russia, all the old Soviet bloc, for instance, were supposed to go through Perestroika and Glasnost, right, were supposed to have, you know, a free-market economy and democratic party elections with freedom of the press and all that kind of stuff. But as we’ve seen in other parts of the world–but perhaps Mexico’s a particularly good showcase about how that story has fallen apart at the seams. So Mexico is a particularly clear case of the failure of this story we’ve been told about political and economic liberalization over the last couple of decades.

And that’s what–and these deaths, these–we get calculations from 60,000 to 80,000 to 100,000, over 100,000 deaths beyond the disappeared during the Calderón administration. This is obviously not just the result of a totally irresponsible strategy run by Felipe Calderón, which it was, but on top of an incredible structural weakness, both in economics and politics, which creates the situation which makes this possible.

JAY: Now, that doesn’t necessarily lead to narco gangs. I mean, you can have neoliberalism, you can have privatization, you can have destruction, even of social safety nets, and so on and so on. It doesn’t have to lead to narco gangs. Why did it?

ACKERMAN: Right. Well, to start with your first point, which is very important, we have a total lack of economic growth, right, and vast poverty. Over 50 million Mexicans today are in poverty. And those are conservative estimates. Those are official estimates. Independent estimates go way up. Informal labor force–half of all those employed in Mexico are in the informal sector. We don’t have labor stability. We don’t have economic growth. So that’s obviously the source of the problem.

But then when you put on top of that the closeness to the United States and the outsourcing of death–you know, I mean, Mexico is paying the price for U.S. policies around drugs, around guns, most importantly, and migration. There’s something–everybody talks about the assault weapons ban, which is very important, which came to an end in 2004, 2005. And since then [incompr.] has been this spike in violent deaths. And this is very important. We should have assault weapons banned not only for schools like Sandy Hook, but also for these deaths south of the border, which–also small children die every day because of it.

We should have legalization of drugs, or at least control of this regulation of this market to assure that the money gets to, you know, more serious businessmen and not these killers.

But also migration policy also directly is related to this. So when you increase enforcement–and recent numbers show that Obama has spent more than any administration not only on deportations, 1.4 million deportations, but also on border security itself. When you increase border security, what you’re doing is actually making the services of the [pU’jEtos], right, the guys who traffic in migrants, more expensive and more hotly demanded. So they’re getting more money based on increasing the border security. And this actually–

JAY: Which drives a lot of the gangs.

ACKERMAN: –and this strengthens the gangs, strengthens the power of organized crime in Mexico beyond the drug problem. And so this is–and I think one of the central points is issue of money, following the money. So we have this incredible economic inequality, concentration of economic power in one place, and the government is not willing to or that’s perhaps an innocent [incompr.] or doesn’t want to, because it’s complicit with these businessmen themselves, to actually go after cash flows. Right? So what this leads to is money laundering.

But it also leads to a very low tax base. So Mexico brings in 13, 14 percent of its GDP each year in taxes, which is about half of what the United States does, half of or even less than half of what Brazil does today, for instance.

So the government is not working to redistribute money and to impose the rule of law.

But it’s not just an absence of the state. And this is really important, because this is what even Peña Nieto says today. He says, oh, yeah, with Calderón and the transition, we have a weak state. We need to strengthen the state.

JAY: And Peña Nieto is the new president.

ACKERMAN: Enrique Peña Nieto is the new president of Mexico. So he is talking about, well, the problem before was that–of the Calderón administration, the previous administration, which was the PAN right-wing government, although the PRI is also right-wing, but the–different party, he says we had a weak state before, and now we need to strengthen the state. And when he says strengthen the state, what he’s saying is bring the president back into power and put everything together. The problem is decentralization. We have all these local lords now. Beforehand, under the PRI, the Party of Institutional Revolution, authoritarian state, we at least had control. So what he’s saying: we need to bring things back under control.

But that’s wrong. The problem is that the state has always been, both under the PRI, the old authoritarian party that’s now back, and the PAN, the party that’s been in power the last 12 years, the PRI, the state [incompr.] state is actually quite powerful, just tilted towards supporting specific interests against others. That’s the real problem.

We need a state which comes back into the hands of the people. And that’s what we haven’t had. Mexico has been absent from this pink tide throughout Latin America, right? Almost all of the countries in Latin America have turned left, for better or worse, radically, moderately, however you want [incompr.] But almost all of them, except for–surprise, right–Colombia and Mexico because of the U.S. interests that are there [incompr.] also have been directly intervened to make sure that leftist politicians don’t get into power.

JAY: Now, when I talked about the kidnapping of these young people in the club and the number of disappeared people over the years, I didn’t mention that on Thursday three political activists, social activists, were kidnapped, and then they were found dead. Their bodies were found yesterday, on Monday.

ACKERMAN: Yes. This is a particularly worrisome case. I mean, all these cases are very worrisome. But this took place in the state of Guerrero. Guerrero’s a southwestern state, a state historically very important in terms of social movements. Even, you know, leftist guerrillas were holed up in Guerrero for a long time.

The teachers movement more recently has been very active in Guerrero, even unifying with these armed self-defense groups in Guerrero. Based on the absence of, lack of rule of laws, these communities have started to organize and have their own self-defense groups. They have joined with the teachers movement, which has been rebelling against privatizing neoliberal economic education reform. Guerrero has turned into a real hotspot today, as it was in the past, of social mobilization.

And some activists have been killed or oppressed, but this case is particularly worrisome because there was three leaders in a town who basically just closed off a road for some hours demanding very basic demands for regulating businesses in the community and other basic demands in the community, and they were disappeared last Thursday and now showed up dead.

And we’ll see whether this kind of actions detonate something like a Turkey scenario. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time in Mexico.

The thing is this is actually good–the positive story about Mexico is that the Mexican population is very conscious, very aware, and are not buying the story of, you know, the return of the PRI, this old authoritarian party is going to resolve their problems, or of neoliberalism. So in the last election, of July 4, 2012, only–I’m sorry; it was July 2, 2012–Peña Nieto, who’s the present president, only got 38.2 percent of the vote. The leftist candidate, López Obrador, who was running for a second time after having barely lost by 0.5 percent in 2006, got over 16 million votes, right?

And particularly the youth and urban population are radically anti PRI, anti Peña Nieto. They’re not necessarily pro López Obrador as a particular figure. López Obrador himself, I wonder whether he will run again. He’s not necessarily the savior for the country. But we do have this very powerful youth consciousness which came out during the last election and which continues to be there today, which the government’s trying to infiltrate. The government’s trying to send provocateurs, trying to intimidate. And they’ve been doing this systematically. But it’s hard to disappear consciousness through these kinds of strategies.

JAY: Now, Mexico has a very revolutionary history. The people are independent. They have a sense of wanting social change. I mean, to what extent does the narco gang culture act as a sort of an agent to suppress political opposition?

ACKERMAN: Well, that’s a big question. Recently with the teachers movement, for instance, in Guerrero, the government has been trying to disqualify this teachers movement as somehow linked to the narcos or the guerrillas, which of course are put in one sack by the politicians [incompr.] being a guerrilla and a narco are the same thing, ’cause they’re, you know, armed vigilantes.

But the real situation here is that we do have this long tradition from the Constitution itself of 1917 up through today, when many of these very important articles are still in the Mexican Constitution, which the ruling coalition’s trying to get rid of.

Now, the role of the narcos themselves–this is–in the relationship between narcos and social movements is very interesting. I think first of all we have to be very careful of mixing them, because that’s the strategy to disqualify any social movement. But on the other hand, there is an interesting read in terms of seeing the narco violence as a totally reprehendable and violent way of expressing this, but in the end a way of expression of social discontent, right, that what we’ve been living over the last six or seven years in Mexico is a sort of armed revolution, totally without ideology. This is not like Colombia. We don’t have a FARC rebellion there. And actually those activists today have no links to the narcos. I don’t want to suggest that. But it’s not just about sort of a violent culture. There is also a feeling that Mexicans are moving and acting and are rebelling against the system in some ways, in a positive way in terms of these student movements, and in some ways in a violent, highly destructive way [crosstalk]

JAY: I mean, that would–that’s been some of the stories even in the United States of organized crime, that new immigrant groups arrive, and the only way to kind of get ahead is they get organized and get involved in illegal crime rather than legal crime, which is mostly monopolized by the people that already got here.

ACKERMAN: Exactly. I think it’s important–we have to be careful with the terms we’re using, but it is important to approach the issue in that way, because the other way is–ex-secretary of education of Calderón used to say, the violent problems or the narco problem is due to the fact that these kids didn’t get a good education at home, they didn’t get a good Catholic education at home, so they don’t know how to respect human values and human life, when actually I think your point of view is a better way of looking at it. No, this is a rebellious spirit coming out in a totally distorted, unjustifiable way, but it doesn’t reflect a lack of, you know, family values. What it reflects is a lack of legitimate ways of getting forward and demonstrating your independence.

JAY: But I also have heard that when the state and the army does move in to try to deal with, suppress some of the violence, what they actually are doing is suppressing one gang in favor of another.

ACKERMAN: Of course.

JAY: So there’s actually kind of alliances, either individual members of the state, or even more in a more organized way.

ACKERMAN: The movie Traffic–I don’t know if you remember this movie about ten years ago or more–continues today to be, I think, required viewing for anybody who wants to understand Mexico today. It’s very beautifully done, that movie, in terms of showing how the police and the military, you know, often have these big televised shows of taking, you know, guns and drugs from one gang when in the end this is just making space for another gang to move through.

The suspicion for a long time was that Calderón was in the pocket of “the Chapo” Guzmán. The fear with the return of the PRI is that it would be the Zetas, who are on the eastern side of–who are much more violent and bloodthirsty than “Chapo” Guzmán, they would be the ones who would come back with the PRI. We don’t know what’s exactly happening now. What is clear is that the new government, run by Enrique Peña Nieto with the return of the PRI, although it talks about peace as its central plank, and even talks about sovereignty and independence from the United States, which at least sound good on the surface, in the end what we’re seeing on the ground with these cases like Mexico City, which is not normal–Mexico City had been up till now protected from these kinds of–

JAY: You’re talking about the kidnapping.

ACKERMAN: –this kind of kidnappings, what we’re seeing is that it’s more of the same. It’s more of the same. It’s using the government to favor one gang over another. And now Calderón has left the situation in such a discombobulated way by knocking out all the leaders that it’s even more confusing and dangerous than it was before.

JAY: It sounds like Baltimore. There’s–I mean that there’s a thing. You talk to some of the cops here, they say one of the products of the war on drugs was actually cracking down on some of the more organized forms of drugs gangs, and they’ve created more chaos and [incompr.] there’s more street shootings and more violence, because they–and not only that, they actually say there’s more drugs, period. The war on drugs helped spread drugs in a way that wasn’t before, which in part two of our interview we’re going to talk about more, which is the role of U.S. policy in what one might call the destruction of Mexico.

Please join us for part two with John Ackerman on The Real News Network.


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