Mexicans Thinking Egyptian

Can the Growing Protest Movement Save Mexico's Democracy?


“This is going to be huge, like nothing Mexico has ever seen before,” says college student Arnulfo Manriquez. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

Today, thousands of Mexicans are taking to the streets to demonstrate against the violence that has overwhelmed their country since President Felipe Calderon launched a war against the drug cartels in 2006. The main march starts in Cuernavaca, 55 miles west of Mexico City, and ends in Mexico City’s massive plaza, the zocalo, on Sunday.

At least 40,000 have been killed and more than 15,000 people estimated missing. The numbers surpass the dead in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. This week’s march grew out of the tragic death of well-known poet and writer Javier Sicilia’s son, Juan Francisco, who was murdered in March by drug cartel members in Morelos. The protesters have adopted various slogans “Ya basta” (enough), “No Mas Sangre” (No More Blood) and “Hasta la Madre” which loosely translates to “We’ve had it up to here.”

The grassroots protest movement includes groups across a wide swathe of Mexican society from the Catholic Church to the indigenous Zapatista movement. It’s estimated at least 150,000 people may participate in Mexico City alone. Several marches in solidarity will also take place this weekend in other regions of Mexico and in the rest of the world, including Austin, Dallas and Houston.

Manriquez, an anthropology and history student at UT Austin, is organizing the protest march here in Austin at 2:00 on Sunday in front of the Mexican Consulate. Manriquez is originally from Chihuahua City – one of the regions hardest hit by the drug violence.  “When I was a child, Chihuahua was a beautiful place, now my mother is telling me not to come home because it’s too dangerous,” he says. “This was a war imposed on us by Calderon and the United States but they never asked the Mexican people.”

Ricardo de la Rosa, 43, owns a grocery story in Chihuahua City. But these days, he spends most of his time online organizing a social media campaign around the national march. “We need  to see what the people of Mexico can do because the Mexican government has done nothing for us,” he says.

The grocer said that everyone has been affected by the violence in Mexico. “This is a national protest movement coming together and we are really energized by what happened in Egypt,” he says. “We’ve been suffering for six years. It’s time to do something.”

De la Rosa said many different causes are united in the national protest. “There has to be a better way of fighting the cartels,” he says. “Some want to send the military back to their bases. Some are simply marching to mourn the dead. There are better ways to fight. They can freeze the cartels’ bank accounts and go after the arms shipments,” he says.

John M. Ackerman, a Mexico City law professor, who writes for several prominent magazines in Mexico, including Proceso and La Jornada, says the social movements in the Middle East have inspired Mexicans. “It’s made people believe that they could actually have an impact,” he says. “Curiously, up until now political leaders in Mexico have said very little about the movement. It’s purely an authentic civil society movement.”

The protests have put President Felipe Calderon on the defensive. In a recent national television address he said he will not change his military offensive against the cartels, despite the growing protest movement.

Mexico has very real and challenging issues to overcome besides the current wave of violence, Ackerman says. “The 40,000 dead is a symptom of deeper problems: corruption, impunity and profound political and economic inequality,” he says. “The stagnation and inequality has created optimal conditions for the drug cartels.”

The democratic transition that occurred in 2000 after the PAN party toppled the 71-year rule of the PRI was never fully realized, he says. “There was never a break with the past, never a truth commission or cleaning up of the government apparatus. In many ways the impunity and lack of accountability has gotten worse.”

The organized citizen marches could be the beginning of much needed change for Mexican society. “The political climate is heating up with the presidential election in 2012,” he says. “Politicians will be more open to citizen demands.”

But citizens won’t be content this time with symbolic pacts and accords, he says.  “People are going to need to see clear signs of change — this doesn’t mean vigilante justice — but real signs that society is taken into account,” he says. Ackerman likened it to the political reform that took place in the mid-90s after people mobilized en masse because of the economic crisis.

But Mexican politicians aren’t the only ones who should be paying closer attention to Mexico’s citizens, says Ackerman. The U.S. government’s support and funding of Calderon’s militarization strategy is short sighted and damaging to both countries.  Instead of militarization, the United States should be working with Mexico on creative ways to bring about the social and economic development it needs. “Peace, stability and the rule of law are in the best long term interests of both countries,” he says.

But Ackerman is cautious about any short-term success for the protesters this week. “It’s very unlikely they’re going to achieve a change in Calderon’s strategy. He’s already been clear that he’s not moving an inch,” he says. “But they might achieve something even more powerful by pushing Mexico’s democratic transition forward and achieving steps forward in tackling impunity, poverty and accountability, which is really at the heart of Mexico’s problems today.”