Mexico: US and corporations key factors behind most violent year yet

November 12, 2019
Students marching in Puebla to demand the truth about the 43 disappeared student teachers on September 26. Photo: Tamara Pearson.

This year has been the most violent year on record for Mexico, with almost 26,000 intentional homicides between January and September.

Following the murder of nine United States citizens on November 4, US President Donald Trump offered to send the US army to “help” fight drug cartels in Mexico. The comment lacked awareness of the already disastrous outcomes of the so-called “war on drugs” in Mexico and the role the US and transnational corporations have played in fomenting human rights abuses here.

Murder rates have risen by 2.4% compared with the same period last year, despite President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) swearing in last December. AMLO ran on a platform of tackling violence.

As the US heads into an election year, any criminalisation of Mexicans should be countered with a profound understanding of the impact of US foreign and economic policy in Mexico.

In September, Amnesty International declared that Mexico was experiencing “one of the worst crises in human rights”. Femicides are also rising, with 748 so far this year, compared with 654 in the same period last year. Migrant detentions also rose by 69%, with 123,000 in the first seven months of this year.

Official figures cited are the minimums, as people are reluctant to report crimes, and many are not tracked, with various states not registering kidnappings, femicides or acts of extortion at all.

Nevertheless, the human rights violations are broad. Impunity rates (unpunished crimes) are estimated at 99.3%. There were 389 attacks on journalists last year. Children in rural areas are working for about 20 pesos (US$1.10) a day. Nine women are killed daily on average and more than 40,000 people are currently forcibly disappeared (the 2018 figure, as the new registry of disappeared people has yet to publish any data). There were about 7.5 million extortions in 2017, of which only 1.7% were reported or investigated.

Human rights abuses and crimes have significantly increased since 2006, when Mexico and the US's relations became extremely close and the “war on drugs” kicked off. This year, Trump has forced Mexico to send troops to its southern border and detain documented and undocumented migrants, by using threats of tariffs.


September 26 was the fifth anniversary of Ayotzinapa, when 43 student teachers were likely murdered. No one has been held responsible or punished yet. There was a rally in Puebla's main square and a range of speakers, rappers, and singers took to the stage.

One speaker handed copies of a poem he had written to people in the crowd and asked them to read out a verse each over a roaming microphone. The first person to read began crying within the first two lines and had to pass the microphone on to someone else.

There was the strong sense that the impact of the murders and disappearances here go beyond those directly affected and permeate people's every day.

Luis Armando Soriano Peregrino, a defender of human rights activists, and president of Citizens' Voices for Human Rights, told the crowd: “If you think differently, you could disappear.”

Later, in an interview, he denounced US and Canadian companies for directly violating human rights in Mexico.

Soriano originally worked as a lawyer for the Puebla state government, but after speaking out against the government for sacking hundreds of workers, he switched to defending workers and activists.

In the process, he lost his office, after officials threatened his clients, and he was sacked from the institute where he gave classes after his boss was also threatened. He then lost his house and car as he sold them to survive, and lost friends and family.

“Whoever ends up as president of the US, ends up being a leader of Latin America,” Soriano said. “Mexico is close to the US, and that is fundamental in almost all the policies that Mexico implements.

“A lot of what the government decides on has to be agreed on with the US first, because if it doesn't, we're vulnerable to attacks.” 

He pointed out that most of Mexico's trade is with the US and Canada, and that also makes it hard for the country to go against orders from the US.

“Mexico is rich in resources, so it is a treasure chest for many countries. Some people in the US see Latin America as their backyard — the region that gives them avocados and beans, and parties in Tijuana, and that's what we're here for,” he added.

Transnationals and the “war on drugs”

With the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and the election of Vicente Fox (previously head of Coca Cola) in 2000, Mexico became further entrenched as a country that gives transnationals free reign.

These corporations, in their reckless race for profits, trample over human rights. Last month here in Puebla, a judge ruled in favour of Walmart and against the indigenous Totonaca people, paving the way for a hydroelectric power plant that will only serve Walmart, cause environmental damage and leave locals with less access to water.

"Mexico creates all the right conditions so that the US and Canada can profit here,” said Soriano. “They benefit from a network of corruption when they buy our avocados, when they buy property cheaply and build tourist paradises.

“Canada, through its mining and fracking, and the US, are both benefiting from human rights violations and from trafficking in Mexico.”

The other front waged against Mexicans’ human rights is the so-called “war on drugs” (2006–present) and the Merida Initiative (2008–present), where the US collaborates with the Mexican military to supposedly combat drug trafficking and organised crime.

About 70% of murders in Mexico are committed using guns from the US, and cartels grew by 900% during President Felipe Calderon's administration (2006–2012). Researchers behind that figure at the Center of Research and Economic Development say the “war on drugs” has worsened security conditions in Mexico.

Blaming Mexico for the violence criminalises Mexicans while, in reality, most crime networks are international, as are the drugs and arms trades (though most arms manufactures are US-based).

Transnational organised crime groups make US$2.2 trillion a year. Their industries, which include the trafficking of arms, people, drugs and natural resources, involve bankers, politicians and arms manufacturers.

The lucrative business of human rights

In a country where neoliberal policy permeates everything, even human rights themselves have become a way to make money.

Soriano described how national and international organisations and government agencies fund projects, but that money is often siphoned off into individual's pockets.

"A person says they have an organisation and that it has 200 affiliates,” Soriano explained. “They send proposals to the state or national government, and they are given resources, multiplied by their 200 supposed affiliates. And so that one person gets all the money.

"Human rights defenders are often people who hand out balloons in squares, or academics who give classes in human rights. Others are working for the government.

“That human rights are portrayed like this, means a lot of people think that it probably isn't worth doing anything," he said.

This amounts to a climate where business people and criminals can do what they want. Activists opposing large developments are killed with impunity, while there is little separation between corporations,  judicial powers, institutions and government.

Soriano explained that corporate criminals join institutions and use their structures, while the legal system is run by “judicial powers involving a mafia of families, and there are no organisations that monitor these bodies”.

Traumatised nation

The murders and disappearances are the tip of the iceberg. Fear, impunity, violence, and lack of rights together make most people here feel like they are not looked after or considered and that there is little point in standing up for yourself.

"Here in Puebla, and in Mexico, violence and human rights violations are normalised,” Soriano said.

Mexican sociologist Raul Romero, writing for Memoria, said: “Living daily with terror, clandestine graves, with dismembered and decapitated bodies and with the normalisation of violence, we understand that the boundaries of what is permissible are broken daily.”

In Venezuela and Ecuador, where I have also lived, when a bus driver would skip a stop, everyone on the bus would cry out. Standing up for what was right was the dominant way of being. In Mexico, people tend to stay quiet. The other day, a man would not get off the women's train carriage (a measure in place to prevent sexual assault). No one said anything, as I firmly told him to get off.

Resistance happens when we believe we are deserving of reasonable treatment and dignity. But in Mexico, daily life is about not denouncing injustice, because it is so often committed or supported by the police, and staying quiet about the broken roads and buses, or the institutional hoops that prevent people getting a pension, or the lack of water.

People stay quiet because there are too many battles and few are worth it. They are exhausted, stressed, bitter and unvalued.

"I've been in a lot of battles – participating or leading them, and we've lost almost all of them,” Soriano said. “But the few that we've won tell us that it is possible to win.

“Every action that we take has to break with individualism and neoliberalism and see a community which seeks more from life than generating wealth.”

[Tamara Pearson is a long-time journalist based in Mexico. She is the author of The Butterfly Prison and blogs at Resistance Words.]

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