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What’s at stake in the Mexican student revolt?

By Rico Rodriguez

On 26 September, a protest by students in Iguala, a city of over 100,000 people, in the state of Guerrero in southwest México, was heavily repressed with police opening fire on the demonstrators. Six people were killed, many more injured and 43 students arrested. Since then none of them have been seen again.

On 8 November, the general prosecutor announced to the media that the police handed over the students to criminals, who murdered them and incinerated their bodies. Since this announcement México has been in a state of mounting fury. The scale and brazenness of the events shocked the country into action, with tens and eventually hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to demand justice, an end to the killings and corruption and eventually the resignation of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The 43 students of Ayotzinapa

Ayotzinapa is a tiny village of only 84 inhabitants in the Mexican state Guerrero. The teacher training college located the village, the Escuela Rural Normal de Ayotzinapa, is known for the radicalism of its students. On 26 September a group of the students went to Iguala, a nearby town. Their aim was to get to México City to participate at a protest to commemorate the Massacre of Tlatelolco, in 1968, when between two and three hundred students were killed by the police. For this they wanted to collect money by protests, a common method of protesting and raising funds at the same time, which is a recognized practice of students in Iguala and other places in México.

What they didn´t know was that this time the mayor of Iguala was not willing to let any protest take place in the town. The reason was that his wife was planning to start her election campaign on the same weekend – aspiring to the office of her husband for the next term. José Luis Albarca ordered his police to repress the protests by any means. The officers obeyed. They confronted the demonstration of the students and opened fire at them. Three students and three other people, apparently not participating in the protest, were killed. Many others were injured, and 43 were arrested and “disappeared”.

After one month of investigation, on 8th of November the general prosecutor of the country, Jesus Murillo, announced at a media conference in México City what many couldn´t believe. The students were, apparently, handed over to members of the drug cartel gang Guerreros Unidos by the police. Three members of Guerreros Unidos had been arrested and revealed the facts to the police. According to the official version, the gang took the students to the landfill of the neighboring town Cocula. Already on the way, about 15 had died of suffocation in the transporter. The survivors were killed by a shot in the head, and their bodies burned at the landfill.

However, until now, these claims have not been officially confirmed. Investigators have as yet been unable to determine the identities of those murdered at the landfill. The association of the parents of the students announced that they don´t believe the story until such evidence is found, and accused the general prosecutors of trying to close down the case as soon as possible.

José Luis Albarca, mayor of Iguala, was denounced by police officers as having given the orders to hand the students over to the drug cartel thugs. He fled together with his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, on 22 October when an order of arrest was issued against them. As has now been officially recognised, both of them had close links to organised crime. Investigations revealed that María Pineda was even in charge of the finances of Guerreros Unidos in Iguala! Two of her brothers were founding members of the criminal organisation and killed during internecine feuding. After this she took over the business.

Alive they took them, alive we want them!

Not that news about such corruption, links between politicians, police and organized crime, and the huge number of murders ordered by them, are news to Mexican people. Over 120,000 people have died in crimes of violence in Mexico and 27,00 are missing, since early 2007 when the military involvement in a supposed “war on drugs” began . But the case of the students of Ayotzinapa was just too cruel, too brutal, and too unbelievable to be ignored any longer. Millions asked themselves: how is this possible?

Before Ayotzinapa, the official story was that Mexico was on the road to “reform” and prosperity President Pena Nieto was determined to “open up” of the oil sector. International oil companies, above all from the US, and speculators were yearning to get their snouts in the trough. Pena Nieto was praised to the skies by the international capitalist media as the man to modernise the country. The Economist proclaimed enthusiastically that this was “Mexico´s moment”.

But after Ayotzinapa everything changed. The country is facing one of the biggest protest waves ever seen. On 11 November, protestors set fire to the local office of the Partido Revolucionário Institucional (PRI), the party of President Pena Nieto, in Chilpancingo (capital of Guerrero).

The day before, students, teachers and relatives of the disappeared occupied the airport of the famous tourist town Acapulco. The mass protests took off on 20 September, when the parents’ association of the missing students called for a national demonstration in México City. The police talked first about 15,000, then 30,000, and finally had to admit that more than 100,000 people joined the protest in the Zócalo, the vast central plaza.

Also several trade union delegations took part in that protest. The Telmex workers’ union (telecommunication company) organised a four-hour “break” in solidarity on that day. Other unions present were the national finance workers’ union, the university staff union STUNAM and the union of flight attendants and pilots. On the same day a meeting with representatives of students, trade unions and other organisations was held at the bureau of the SME electricians union to coordinate further action, including the call for a 24 hour-strike on 1 December.

On 8 November in Mexico City the doors of the National Palace – seat of the Federal Executive on the Zócalo, – were set on fire by demonstrators, and in the state of Michoacán the office of the right wing party PAN was attacked.

On 1 December another protest wave shook the country. There were protests in at least 10 Mexican states. Apart from the solidarity and the anger about the 43 disappeared students, the demand for president Pena Nieto to resign was most visible. In México City, where again thousands protested, a parents’ representative of the missing students rejected the president’s attempt to calm down the situation: “We had to leave our works, land and houses to go searching for our sons, because the state doesn´t do it. […] I want to tell Pena Nieto that he is not Ayotzinapa; we have dignity!”

He also denounced the attempt of the ex-governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, to silence them with money. In Chilpancingo, capital of Guerrero, and also in Acapulco protestors shut down the commercial district. In Michoacán, the access roads to the city of Lázaro Cárdenas and its industrial district were blocked in a protest organized by the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE). And in Oaxaca the international airport “Benito Juarez” was occupied by activists of the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca (APPO, Popular People´s Assembly of Oaxaca).

In the protests around the country participants included the Coordination of Education Workers of Guerrero (Ceteg), the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), the Electricity Workers Union (SME) and the recently created National Student Coordination (CNE). Many students, teachers and professors around the country were on strike.

What is at stake in México?

The outcry demanding justice for the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa revealed the rotten condition of the Mexican capitalist state. Everybody knows that this is just the tip of the iceberg. During the search for the dead bodies many others were found (officially 38 by now), and it was announced that at least 30 students had disappeared in July in Cocula, the same town where the secundaristas from Ayotzinapa were supposedly taken to and killed. In June 2013, three peasant leaders in Guerrero, Arturo Hernández Cardona, Ángel Román Ramírez y Rafael Bandera Román were killed by drug cartels.

Unfortunately, these are not exceptions, but just a few single examples. Since the “war on drugs” was declared in 2006 by the former president Felipe Calderon (PAN), tens of thousands of people have been killed. Official numbers range between 60,000 and 80,000, other estimates go up to 120,000 and more. The country has been heavily militarised. The war on drugs launched by PAN President Felipe Calderón was in fact a social war, undertaken as a result of pressure from the USA. It has – like Prohibition in the USA in the 1920s and 30s – merely increased the size of the banned trade, the profits and the violence of the gangs in their war with one another and the state. Calderón’s use of the army only increased the slaughter and gave cover to the state to target students and workers fighting for their rights. The only way to end its devastating consequences for México is to legalise drugs and instead launch a war on poverty and mass unemployment – the soil out of which drug abuse grows, creating armed popular militias to guard the communities and disarm both the drug lords’ gangs and the police.

The so-called war on drugs is in reality a war on the poor, who suffer from the violence from both sides, the drug cartels and the state. It is a big business for the US war machine, which sells weapons to both the Mexican military and the criminals. This politics has created huge profits for the participating corporations, and changed nothing about the drug market and the power of organised crime. On the contrary, the case of Ayotzinapa shows how strong politics, police and crime are linked together. The “war on drugs” is a success for the ruling class and a social catastrophe for the poor.

The two right wing Mexican parties, the PRI and the PAN, are involved in in the conflict but so too is the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), founded by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1989, once a left populist party aiming to clean up Mexican politics. It too has sunk into the morass of corruption and violence as evidenced by the fact that the mayor of Iguala and his wife were both members of the PRD, which supported them! And so too was the governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre Rivero, who resigned on 24 October. President Enrique Pena Nieto, from the PRI, is also involved in a corruption scandal about a private residence which he was acquiring for him and his wife from a construction company who received profitable contracts from the government.

México is the second biggest economy in Latin America, after Brazil, and one the most important trade partners of the United States. Since the US, Canada and México signed the NAFTA free trade agreement in 1994, many US companies outsourced their production to México to benefit from the low wages and the weak labour protection laws. On the other hand, US agriculture companies export subsidised food to México – ruining hundreds of thousands of local farmers. Canadian mining firms came to the country to exploit resources and workers and leave behind ecological disasters.

All this was announced as a huge benefit for the country and its development. Indeed, México is a rich country. Nevertheless, official numbers indicate that as much as 52 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America, the number increased from 42 per cent in 2006 to 52 per cent in 2012 – coinciding with the “war on drugs”.

México needs a revolution

All this reveals that México is not facing a conjunctural crisis but a systemic crisis of the entire edifice of the state, its institutions, the main parties, the police, the judiciary – in short, the capitalist system as whole. The masses no longer have any trust in its personnel, be they policemen, judges or politicians. The demonstrations reveal the extent of the popular anger.

In 2012 people began to organise self-defence groups in order to defend themselves against drug gangs, but also against the corrupt police, above all in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán. In Guerrero an Asamblea Nacional Popular has been founded, based on local committees, on students’ and teachers’ organisations. In order to coordinate further protests, students founded the Assamblea Inter-Universitária and the Coordinación Nacional Estudantil (CNE).

Over recent decades a rich tradition of organising local protests has developed in México. Starting with the uprising of the Zapatistas in Chiapas in 1994, who have defended their autonomous territories until the present, or the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO), which created the embryo of a dual power organisation to the official state institutions. In the last years there were also major struggles by workers in the oil, electricity and mining sector against violations of their rights and against the privatisation plans of the government (which are definitely still on the agenda). Until now, this accumulation of popular and workers’ struggle has not merged into the creation of new political parties, as in other Latin American countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil).

The time is ripe for organising a new revolutionary party. The core characterisation of Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation is developing rapidly – the rulers are unable to carry on ruling in the old way and the ruled are unwilling to carry on being ruled in the old way.

The left reformist party Morena (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional,), which originated from a split from the PRD and is led by the former president candidate Andrés López Obrador, is trying to present itself as an alternative. This is certainly one of the biggest obstacles for a revolutionary alternative, since Morena represents a degree of institutional power and also support, but wants to reform the capitalist state machine instead of smashing it.

What is necessary in México is a leadership which is built from below, bringing together the militants from the struggles of recent years, connecting the student protests to the workers’ and the peasants’ struggles and culminating in a revolutionary programme for the overthrow of capitalism. It is urgent to coordinate the existing organisations and discuss the perspectives for the protests, including:

  • The organization of an indefinite general strike to bring down the government
  • Generalise and coordinate the experiences of self-defence organisations. No more trust in the capitalist police and army apparatus. Build soldiers’ councils to fight alongside with the people
  • Build elected popular tribunals, based on the parents’ organisation of the missed students, to bring the murderers and their allies to justice
  • Build workers’ and peasants’ councils to coordinate and lead the struggle and to take the power out of the hands of the police, the judiciary, the state bureaucracy and the capitalist class
  • For a workers’ and peasants’ government, based on councils and the popular defence groups. Take on the source of corruption, misery and injustice: the capitalist system

Obviously, such a revolutionary movement must discuss as a next step the urgent measures to end the misery of millions of Mexicans: a minimum wage based on the real needs of the workers and peasants, a plan of work for all, the expropriation of the capitalists, the rich and the landlords (latifundarios) etc.

In their struggle against repression and poverty the Mexican workers, students and peasants are not alone, but part of a worldwide protest, which is recognising more and more that the capitalist system offers no solutions for the growing problems of society. A “real democracy” can only be brought about by a revolutionary movement, which builds a government based on the self-organisation of the working class. This must culminate in a worldwide movement and organize in a new world revolutionary party, a fifth International.

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