Furious protesters in Mexico City set fire to the presidential palace and chanted, “They must all go” last week.
Tens of thousands have joined protests demanding justice for 43 abducted students, creating an unprecedented challenge to the corrupt network that dominates the country.
Three gangsters have now said they killed the students. But the charred remains could take months to identify.
A combination of neoliberal politicians, crooked cops and violent drug lords have made Mexico one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Contrary to racist caricatures, there is nothing inherently Mexican about this—it is a product of capitalism and imperialism.
Much of the violence can be traced back to US policies and the so-called “war on drugs”.
The students were taken away by police after a protest in the city of Iguala. The officers are believed to have handed them over to a drug cartel.
Almost immediately afterwards the local police chief, the mayor and his wife—who was also his chosen successor—went on the run.
They have known links to drug cartels, and are believed to have had the students targeted.
They belong to the opposition party PRD. But the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico for 73 of the last 85 years and the right wing PAN are equally compromised.
Former president Felipe Calderon was named in one drug baron’s confession, and mountains of evidence have amassed against top cops and ministers.
In 2006 Calderon started a “War on Drugs” that was really a war between drug lords.
By 2010 there had been 53,000 arrests. But only 1,000 of those involved the gang closest to the government, the Sinaloa cartel. With its rivals taken care of, Sinaloa boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman became Mexico’s tenth richest man.
Up to 80,000 people were killed or disappeared during Calderon’s time in office.
Investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez calls Calderon “the president of death”, arguing the death rate is worse than in Chile under the dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Little has changed since Enrique Peña Nieto took over in 2012.
Both presidents took office amid mass protests against electoral fraud. Peña Nieto faced widespread accusations of voters being bribed or harassed by thugs and gangsters.
Mexico’s development has always been distorted by being in the “backyard” of the US, its imperialist neighbour.
Today the border is militarised to keep poor Mexicans from migrating to the US. Yet the 1994 Nafta free trade agreement means they have no protection from US capital.
Its privatisation and cuts to services and subsidies had a devastating effect on peasant farmers. In 2007 tens of thousands of poor Mexicans protested because a surge in prices meant they couldn’t even afford their staple diet of tortillas.
For many poor families growing marijuana is the only way to survive. And trying to get ahead in the cartels can seem like the only shot at a better life.
But the reality of working with the cartels is horrific.
The border city of Juarez saw its murder rate go up 300 percent for males and 600 percent for females from 1994 to 2001.
Hundreds of women workers at the new “maquiladora” factories—where US firms were outsourcing their lowest paid work—were murdered.
The gap between rich and poor in Mexico is the second highest of the 34 OECD countries. It is home to the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, alongside a 78 million-strong workforce with the longest average hours in the world.
It has vast oil and gas reserves, currently being privatised, and is regularly singled out as one of the best emerging markets to invest in.
The hated cartels are part and parcel of this capitalist success story. The Sinaloa cartel is estimated to have links to more than 3,000 legal businesses.
These links offer the cartels vital channels for laundering money, and allies to lobby against measures that would target them.
As Mexican law expert Edgardo Bruscaglia puts it, “The hand of the hitman is also that of the above-board businessman”.
The US creates the demand for trafficking through the repressive drug laws. Pressure from below is finally pushing some states to relax them.
Without prohibition, neither cannabis nor cocaine would sell for much more than other processed crops.
This trafficking inevitably passes through the US-Mexican border.
But the Mexican gangs used to be junior partners of the narco-paramilitaries that grew out of a terrible counter-insurgency against the peasantry in Colombia.
That is until the “Iran-Contra” affair three decades ago.
The US has always sought to dominate Latin America militarily as well as economically.
Sometimes this involves its own troops, but more often proxies.
And some of the proxies are too repulsive even for US politicians to be seen backing openly.
So they need more covert ways of raising money—and there are few better than flogging drugs. It’s a tried and trusted technique that has also funded wars in Cambodia and Afghanistan.
By the 1980s the US was terrified that the left wing Sandinista movement in Nicaragua could bring
revolutionary upheaval to Central America. The CIA had to arm the brutal counter-revolutionary Contras despite a ban from Congress.
Mexican drug cartels were the ideal partners to get cash, guns and training venues for the Contras. The collaboration won them prestige, power and access to the US market that eclipsed their Colombian partners.
As the truth about “Iran-Contra” came out, calls for military repression of drug trafficking gained support.
This brought new levels of violence as the US paid its allies to kill the traffickers it previously backed.
The gangs, whose dealings with the state previously amounted to effectively paying a tax, now did everything to divert its repression onto their rivals rather than themselves.
Bribes big enough to make a politician’s career were no longer too much to ask. Neither were political assassinations. The cartels recruited armies of agents inside the police and government.
These different pillars of Mexico’s establishment are united by fear as much as profit.
Politicians repeatedly repress those who stand up to the cartels—from protesters to self-defence squads. And the cartels help the politicians stay in power.
They know that anger is simmering that could one day overthrow them both.
‘All the politicians are in it for money’
Mario Villasante, a student in Mexico City, spoke to Socialist Worker
Everyone knows about the close relation between the government and “narco-politics”.
When I heard about the disappearances, it was automatic—I thought this is because of the personal interests at the top of the government.
The party that started this, the PRI, is now back in office.
Even when I was a child the talk was of how they knew where the narcos lived, but instead of going after them they gave them protection.
The same party massacred student protesters in 1968.
That’s how they rule, especially outside the capital. People who disagree with them get beaten up or disappear.
But when we had another party in power, the PAN, they just passed conservative policies that escalated the violence.
Most protesters don’t believe in any of the parties. If there was ever any difference between what they stood for, now it’s completely forgotten. Politicians keep switching from one party to another.
They are in politics to make money, not to make Mexico a better place. Everyone knows you are never going to change this situation through politics.
These protests can be a turning point. A lot of people are angry.
But 120,000 protesters are not enough in a country of 120 million—especially when almost all of us are students.
I come from Oaxaca, where more than half the population joined protests against the state governor in 2006. But they fell away after the police were violent.
There are many stories like this, so I am not optimistic.
In the meetings I say we must reach out to other parts of society—especially workers, who have economic power in their hands.
That won’t be easy, and most activists don’t see it as the priority. But we can’t win until it happens.
Narcoland: the Mexican drug lords and their godfathers
by Anabel Hernandez, £10.99
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.
Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk