Taking Away City Hall Reform Brings Reprisal in a Mexican Town BY ANDREW REDING MONG OUR MORE serious national flaws is an often-excessive pride that makes us exceptionally vulnerable to the flattery of foreign “friends” who deliberately indulge our narcissism. As dictators from the Somozas to the Shah of Iran and paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping have sung Washington’s tune, we have been at pains to recognize faults in their leadership. Not until the Sandinistas, the Ayatollah, and Tiananmen Square jolted us into facing reality did our government and mass media overcome their reluctance to see, hear, or speak any evil of “friends” who were either “fighting communism” or “instituting capitalist reforms.” Thus have we repeatedly become victims of our own willful illusions. There are signs we are now repeating this pattern this time next door. We have long felt frustrated, if not insulted, by the jealously guarded nationalism of our Mexican neighbors, as expressed in their independent foreign policy and their reluctance to assimilate our economic and political cultures. Yet silice the inauguration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, much has changed. Salinas, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, is privatizing the economy, harmonizing Mexican foreign policy with that of the United States, and proposing to set aside nationalist concerns altogether in favor of a free-trade agreement. So well does he speak our language that Washington and Wall Street have elevated him to the status of a model foreign leader, and are reluctant to take his promises to modernize Mexican politics and root out corruption at anything less than face value. The view from Mexico, however, is sharply at odds with the reassuring rhetoric of its president. For while Salinas is vigorously pursuing economic reform, he is obstinately blocking political reform. Despite his promise of “clean elections,” the ruling Instituto monopolize the electoral machinery, the broadcast media, the army, and the police. This April, while our attention was focused on Soviet tank convoys in Lithuania, Presi An drew Reding is Director of the Mexico Project of the World Policy Institute. The Mexico Project is supported by grants from the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, the Max and Anna Levinson Foundation, and the Tides Foundation. 8 SEPTEMBER 16, 1990 dent Salinas ordered Mexican tanks into the west central state of Michoacan to recover town halls occupied by townspeople unwilling to accept electoral fraud. Like the tanks in Tiananmen Square, the tanks in Michoacan are a reminder that political and economic liberalization are ultimately indivisible. The thwarting of democratic expression ends up jeopardizing economic reform as it leads to repression, reinforces corruption, and saps popular support and participation. These are the fruits of Salinas’s policies, as vividly exposed in the continuing ordeal of a Mexican town that was seemingly fortunate enough to have an opposition victory recognized by the government. Aguililla “Little Eagle” in Spanish is a rural community in the Pacific range of Michoacan, one of the larger states of west central Mexico. Like most of rural Mexico, the region has been impoverished by government policies that have restricted credit, education, and extension of services to small landowners and cooperatives, and that have mandated artificially low prices for agricultural commodities. The results have been twofold. Migrants have streamed to the squatters’ belts that ring Mexican cities and northward into the United States. Meanwhile, many of those who have managed to adapt and survive on the land have done so by shifting to cultivation of illegal, yet profitable, crops. Primary among these are marijuana and poppies, locally called the “holy herb” and “the little flowers of the fields” by residents grateful to have been spared destitution. Yet, as always, the bulk of the economic benefits of clandestine cultivation has been concentrated among a few kingpins and corrupt local officials and police forces. In addition, the mafia-style organization of business has produced a climate of fear in which ordinary citizens neither dare to speak freely nor leave their homes after nightfall. All of which was acceptable enough to Mexican authorities as long as the arrangement provided for a sort of rural peace, and as long as a share of the benefits flowed to the PRI and its enforcers. Last December, however, there was an electoral revolution in Aguililla. Availing itself of the secret ballot, the citizenry removed the corrupt local PRI government that had, as it has in most of Mexico, ruled uninterrupted for half a century. By a landslide of more than three to one, they cast their ballots for the newly formed Party of the Democratic electoral revolution of July 6, 1988, in which party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is widely believed to have won the Mexican presidential election that the ruling party refused to recognize. Heading the ticket in Aguililla was Salomon Mendoza, a besandaled farmer of papaya, corn, sorghum, and watermelon who proposed to confront the municipality’s problems at their source. In accord with his party’s proposed national agricultural policy, the new municipal president argued for state and federal reinvestment in the longneglected Mexican countryside. As a matter of local initiative, meanwhile, he was promoting the cultivation of legal crops with healthier profit margins, such as melons, as an alternative to narco-agriculture. Presumably, Mendoza would be precisely the kind of leader both Washington and Mexico City would want to encourage. Only four months into his term, however, the soft-talking reformer with the gentle smile was imprisoned in Mexico City, in a tale that demonstrates the contradictions of the war on drugs, and, more broadly, U.S. perspectives on, and policies toward, Mexico. THE TROUBLE BEGAN in midNovember 1989, in the home stretch of the December 3 municipal elec tions. With the ruling PRI facing defeat, antinarcotics agents of the Federal Judicial Police suddenly identified Aguililla as a problem area. In sweeps of the municipality, without any arrest warrants, they detained dozens of citizens a violation of the Mexican Constitution. According toProceso, the Mexican newsweekly, they also sacked the home of PRD leader Alma Griselda Valencia, removing her jewels, two cars, and a thousand dollars in cash, then peppered the house with gunfire. Outgoing PRI municipal president Marisela Tones, by contrast, was not even questioned about her reputed close ties to the local drug mafia and corrupt police forces, even though those ties are the talk of the town, and have contributed to the ruling party’s unpopularity. Repeated protests, including a march led by Mendoza = in the state capital of Morelia some 200 miles away were to no avail. In the months following inauguration of the new PRD government, the Federal Judicial Police intensified their harassment of the community. A series of raids, all conducted without any semblance of due process, created a climate of fear and resentment,’ and finally led to tragedy on May 5. On that day, the accused citizens, who as in every other in
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