After Ayotzinapa : Building Autonomy in a War Against the Narco-terrorist Mexican State

Confronted with the escalating violence of state-supported narco-capitalism, ordinary Mexicans are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

By Alessandro Zagato

A vicious war is tormenting Mexico: a silent war that rarely reaches the headlines of the international media. An inner war which many occidental powers have been following carefully, always monitoring their own interests in the area.

This is a war for the appropriation of resources, for infrastructural development, for control over territories, for the implementation of a new order — a war waged against whoever tries to resist or strike back.

Between 2007 and 2014, at least 164,000 people have been murdered in Mexico, more than have died in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq over the same time period. According to the Secretary of Public Security, more than 25,000 people are currently reported missing. These are enormous figures that still fail to account for the amount of brutality afflicting Mexican society, the trauma suffered by countless communities from Sonora to Chiapas, and the magnitude of the social transformation underway.

A peculiar aesthetics of militarism is felt when traveling through the country; ubiquitous military bases and checkpoints, high-caliber weapons displayed by policemen and soldiers in ski-masks. All this along with the military presence in the news, videos of gunfights, and graphic photos of brutalized bodies splashed on front pages. All becoming part of everyday life right throughout the country.

This visual landscape is pushing people into a culture of aggression and fear, generating disorientation and social meltdown. In the military domain, each operation is open-ended and comes backed with intelligence and psychological warfare. “Military operations are truly a manner of speaking,” noted the Invisible Committee, “hence every major operation is above all a communication operation whose every act, even a minor act, speaks louder than words.” Waging war today is “first and foremost to manage perceptions, the perceptions of the set of actors whether close by or far away, direct or indirect.”

The “War on Drugs”

The “War on Drugs” is the narrative device chosen by the government and the media to explain and justify processes of rampant militarization and violence throughout Mexico. President Felipe Calderón introduced this idea in 2006 at the beginning of his mandate. He borrowed it from the United States, which has been applying it for decades in Latin America as a counter-insurgency technique. It is not a surprise, then, that the government’s strategy to supposedly “eradicate” drug trafficking is strictly military in nature.

Like the trope of “Islamic terror” in Europe, the problem of drug trafficking is ideologically constructed as a threat emanating from the disadvantaged sectors of society, whereby young people are supposed to be eager to become the workforce of criminal networks. In a country like Mexico, with poverty levels among the highest in the world, potential “enemies” can be found anywhere. Just like “Islamic terror”, the “War on Drugs” has also served as a pretext to increase military expenditures, which have tripled since 2016, and to diversify law enforcement strategies.

The pipe dream of the War on Drugs crumbled spectacularly under the weight of recent events, which have provided evidence of a very different rationale for violence and militarization. At the time of writing, Rubén Espinosa (31) a photojournalist for the investigative magazine Proceso, was brutally executed in Mexico City, together with activist Nadia Vera (32) and three other women who were with them when the killers broke into the apartment where they had been staying. The victims were tortured before being shot to death. Three of the women also showed signs of sexual abuse.

Both Rubén and Nadia had recently escaped from their home state of Veracruz after becoming the subject of repeated death threats from unidentified suspects they identified as henchmen of Governor Javier Duarte (a member of the ruling party PRI). Rubén and Nadia had been actively opposing Duarte’s repressive administration, publicly denouncing corruption and reporting on local protests.

In an interview with Rompeviento TV, an independent news outlet, Nadia had declared that “we hold Governor Duarte and his cabinet responsible for anything that could occur to those involved in these types of activities.” On another occasion, Rubén had said: “I don’t want to be a number 13 or 14,” referring to the amount of media workers who have been murdered in Veracruz since Duarte took office in 2011.

As usual, cases like this present all sorts of irregularities and inconsistencies and facts get muddled in the investigation, including severe delays in evidence collection, leaks from the prosecutor’s office, unexplored clues, lack of a clear motive, and so on. There is little hope that any official inquiry will reach the conclusion that the murders were, in fact, not related to theft or drug trafficking (a key line of investigation, based on the fact that one of the victims was Colombian) but rather a political assassination.

A New Situation

There is a tendency in Mexico to rhetorically compare current forms of oppression to the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and the 1980s. This analysis is misleading and fails to appreciate the novelty of the situation.

Today, the nexus of power in Mexico is shaped by an unprecedented overlap of state agencies, organized crime and private corporations. However, these forces tend not to converge into a linear project. Their synergy is fluid and crystallizes into dispersed clusters of power, acting independently from one another and eventually clashing with one another.

In such an unstable and fragmented configuration of power, which has inspired talk of a narco-state or narco-capitalism, control and repression do not fully originate from a recognizable centralized apparatus, but mainly from discrete, semi-independent bodies with specific aims. Paradoxically, by using this very unstable scope of alliances and loyalties, state entities can simultaneously act as anti-state forces.

Military and paramilitary gangs related to various levels of state power operate in the shadows, without any defined material or geographic limits. They offer no respect for the law and society and act solely in the name of whoever is paying — be it a narco boss, a politician, a state agency, a multinational corporation, or a coalition interested in, for example, intimidating a group opposing the implementation of a mining project on their communal lands.

These clusters of power move through periodical divisions and shifts in loyalty, making each situation complicated and very dynamic — and therefore difficult to interpret. Fabio Mini, a NATO general, has noted that the problem of soldiers and police officers today “is not to understand why they are performing a given task, but to understand who they are working for.” From a different perspective, a member of the Popular Movement of Guerrero (PMG) said that “when a cop shows up, you never know if he is coming to you as a state official or a killer.”

Entire sections of the police and the army can easily turn into mercenary forces, as happened in the remarkable case of the Zetas, one of the most feared of the Mexican narco cartels, whose founding members had previously belonged to elite units of the Federal Army. These men had been trained in the 1990s by the American secret services, the Guatemalan Kaibiles and elite troops from the Israeli army to be employed as a counter-insurgency force against the Zapatistas. Their exit from the regular army did not cause a complete rupture with the state, but established complex new pathways of cooperation.

Even more than the widespread and extreme forms of abuse and arbitrariness shaping the situation, what is striking is the generalized condition of impunity benefiting the criminals, which paradoxically becomes one of the concrete principles for the cohesion of Mexican statehood itself.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recently denounced Mexico’s 98 percent impunity rate, noting that “most crimes aren’t even investigated.” This approach sends a clear message to both those who own the means to commit abuse and those who are resisting and fighting against injustice.

An Environmental War

An essential aspect of this war is that it assists the implementation of tremendous infrastructural mega-projects that bring about enormous social and environmental impacts, such as the construction of new highways and airports, the new extractive policies for which 25 per cent of the national territory has been handed over to mining and oil corporations, the massive implementation of mono-culture systems in rural areas, and the elaboration of new “schemes” by the Federal Government, like the one establishing “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero.

According to Treasury Secretary Luis Videgaray Caso, “in these states the positive effects of the entry into force of the Free Trade Agreement and of Mexico’s entry into the global economy haven’t been observed.” A key concept behind SEZ is to facilitate the appropriation of these regions and their resources by capital through special tax-regimes, a strategic geography and cheap labor.

The impact of these infrastructural developments and the violence that is used to apply them brings to mind an environmental war: the environment is modified to cause physical, economic and social decay. Environmental war requires traditional forms of armed struggle, but as Fabio Mini highlights, it can also adopt new technologies and psychological warfare, which includes the denial of access to information, services, knowledge and technologies.

At the same time conflict and resistance proliferate, especially in regions where the population has a tight economic, cultural and political grip on the territory — like in the tierras ejidales, where local communities manage land collectively. It is towards these groups that the aggression is felt the most. As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas (now renamed Galeano) has noted:

It is necessary to destroy the conquered territory and depopulate it, that is, to destroy its social fabric. Speaking here of the annihilation of everything that provides cohesion to a society. But war from above does not stop there. Simultaneously, destruction and depopulation is believed to be how the reconstruction of that territory and the reordering of its social fabric will come about. But now it comes with a different logic, a different method, different actors, and a different objective. In short: war imposes a new geography.

The final aim seems to be the disruption of any cooperative bonds between people and the spaces that they inhabit: their individualization, their submission and their dependency on external forces, which is to be the prerequisite for the enforcement of a rationality of plain profit.

According to Raúl Zibechi, mega-projects and extractivism generate “a society without subjects,” because “there can be no subjects within a scorched-earth model… There can only be objects.”

Far from being an exceptional event, the ambush orchestrated on the night of the September 26, 2014 against a group of first-year students of the Escuela Normal Isidro Burgos of Ayotzinapa (Tixtla, Guerrero) fits into the context of civil war, catapulting yet another sinister message out to all those who dare to disrupt the plans of the powerful in Mexico.

Nevertheless, it is hard find a coherent explanation for the aggression, taking into account the scale of the event, the excess of violence which the victims endured and the fact that 43 of them are still missing. It is also hard to imagine how the perpetrators could possibly think they would get away with such an offense.

Some clues stem from the fact that one of the biggest Latin American gold mines is located some meters away from where the attack took place. It is supposed to hold more than 60 million tons of gold. Ayotzinapa is also home to a region known by locals as “New Afghanistan” due to its massive production of opium poppies and the processing of heroin.

The “43” of Ayotzinapa

The student body of the Escuela Normal Rural Isidro Burgos is entirely made up of peasant children from the most impoverished areas of Guerrero. The school has a strong tradition of political struggle, being linked to the Federation of Socialist Peasant Students of Mexico, one of the most consistently radical student organizations in the country.

The Escuelas Rurales Normales came about in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-’20, following the model of the Soviet Union’s Collective Farm Schools. They promote values related to agriculture and peasant life, their mission being to create teachers willing to bring education to the most remote and poorest communities of the nation.

Many illustrious revolutionaries studied in Ayotzinapa, like Othón Salazar Ramírez, leader of the greatest teachers’ movement seen in the country’s history, and Lucio Cabañas Barrientos, who started the so-called “poor people’s guerrilla” and died in 1974 in a confrontation with the Federal Army.

The school resembles a Zapatista caracol, made up as it is of rectangular two-story buildings covered with colorful political murals. A basketball court is located at its core, constituting a lively space where political meetings, collective mills and religious celebrations take place on a daily basis. On one side, 43 orange chairs are set out in four rows, each representing one of the missing students, and decorated by friends and family members with photos, objects and quotes representing them.

Ayotzinapa is fully managed by the student committee and provides production units where the students can familiarize themselves with the concrete aspects of working collectively in agriculture and farming. What is produced in the units covers approximately 15 percent of the school’s budget.

Due to their egalitarian ethos, the Normal Rural Schools were excluded from the priorities of the federal government shortly after their foundation, and allocated funds dropped dramatically. Teachers and students have since needed to build stronger ties with nearby communities, which contributed to a growing sense of autonomy within the schools.

After the 1968 student movement, more than a half of the schools were closed, accused of being a breeding ground for subversives and guerrillas. Today, just 16 out of 35 have survived. “They lost their reason to exist,” Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong recently declared — to which the normalistas responded that “as long as there will be poverty in Mexico, the Normal Rural Schools will have their reason to exist.”

The Absence of Justice

On the night of the September 26, 2014, a group of roughly 80 first-year students were traveling to the city of Iguala (90 miles away) to realize a fund-raising activity for participating in a march commemorating the Tlatelolco massacre of October 2, 1968, in Mexico City.

They were traveling on two buses and picked up a third one along the way. After having occupied two more vehicles in Iguala, at around 9.30pm they were about to leave the central bus station and return to Ayotzinapa when the assault begun. From that moment, gangs of armed men — along with municipal, state and federal police corps — ambushed and repeatedly attacked the buses and their passengers with heavy firearms at nine different locations in and around Iguala.

The night resulted in six people murdered, 40 wounded, and 43 missing. The body of a fourth student, the sixth confirmed victim of the attack, was discovered the morning after: 22-year-old Julio Cesar Mondragon is found lying on the ground with his skin and eyes ripped off his face.

According to the official version of events, policemen of the neighboring town Cocula, whose under-chief Cesar Nava followed the orders of the Guerreros Unidos, one of the cartels operating in the state of Guerrero, took the students from the police station of Iguala to an unknown place and handed them to members of the cartel. Attorney General Murillo Karam declared that the missing students were almost certainly executed by cartel members and incinerated at a rubbish dump outside of Cocula. He notably presented this version as a “historical truth”.

However, this narrative was dismissed at least in part by a group of independent experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, whose latest report describes the alleged incineration of the victims at the Cocula trash dump as “scientifically impossible.”

According to the independent commission, the Federal Army participated in monitoring the students throughout the night, with military intelligence members stationed at two of the locations where some of the victims were killed and kidnapped, meaning that the attacks were jointly coordinated by various elements of the police force and the army.

The official investigation has been further discredited through the detection of errors, lies, inconsistencies and irregularities in statements made by the government and the police, whose actions have included the likely use of torture in order to obtain information.

The search for truth and justice by independent movements has revealed a bleak scenario of widespread corruption and a deepening humanitarian crisis, in which extrajudicial mass kidnappings, torture and executions constitute common practice. Since September 26, 2014 several clandestine burial sites filled with non-identified bodies have been unearthed in the region. An estimated 129 bodies have since been found in and around the city of Iguala.

The logic of these atrocities tends to transcend a centralized conception of the status quo, reflecting a new, contradictory, scattered, dynamic and hardly decipherable image of the Mexican state.

“Previously, you knew who your enemies were, who could attack you and who could not,” said a member of the PMG. Today, by contrast, “the army is dispersed and makes decisions autonomously.” The extreme violence shaping military and paramilitary actions in the country, as well as the certainty of impunity its members can count on, serves to feed the apparent sense of irrationality of a war machine — intimidating and discouraging any attempt to resist.

The state has banned an independent inquiry into the army, which further accentuates the sense of injustice that underlies this case. “We can’t see any progress. Information is kept secret,” said a father of a missing student. “An independent investigation into the army is necessary because they took part in the attacks.”

One mother said: “after one year we are not expecting anything from the state, just negativity. To what extent does the army make decisions in our country?” she asks. The legal path to justice has clearly not been functioning at all.

In the meantime, on October 18, a fiction movie titled The Night of Iguala premiered in the cinemas. The plot was written by pro-government journalist Jorge Fernandez Menendez and based on the supposed “historical truth.” Yet the movie was produced without consulting any of the victims. “It is part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the government,” declared a survivor. “It is a media war.”

However, after Ayotzinapa, something has snapped among the people of Mexico. Ayotzinapa has opened many people’s eyes to the situation and has paved the way for new windows of possibility and opportunities for action. “You took them alive, we want them alive!” and “It was the state!” were the slogans under which families, colleagues and broad sectors of civil society started a process of struggle, which is anything but exhausted today, over one year after the mass kidnapping.

Keeping control in a situation of war

Sentiments of rage and revenge are strong among the students. “Sometimes it gives you the will to drop the banners and pick up arms, as our comrade Lucio Cabañas did,” admits a survivor. “But we are aware of the dangers of doing so at this stage.” Indeed, an upsurge of violent conflict would play into the unconventional warfare game of the armed gangs, and it would disrupt and crush the emerging forms of resistance.

Provocations aimed at escalating the conflict have been increasing exponentially. Over the last year, for example, the Zapatistas have had to deal with the murder of teacher Galeano in La Realidad, in May 2014, committed by paramilitaries of the CIOAC-H, a peasant organization controlled by the ruling parties.

When Galeano was killed, a large contingent of the EZLN was sent to La Realidad not just to guarantee a decent level of security to the Zapatistas living there, but also, arguably, to make sure that nobody would undertake acts of punishment against the perpetrators. The slogan launched by the EZLN straight after the murder and written everywhere on signboards and walls at the entrance of each Zapatista community and caracol of Chiapas — “Galeano: justice not revenge!” — served to define the line of action for the movement.

Recently, two of the conspirators to the murder returned home “fat and happy.” They were supposedly being held prisoner for the assassination, but they had been secretly brought back to La Realidad where they revealed that “they weren’t held prisoner at all. They were given a place to stay and were receiving plenty of attention and congratulations from governor Manuel Velasco and the leaders of the CIOAC-H. They were told to wait a while before “resuming the work left pending.” This is an overt declaration of war against the military authority of the EZLN.

In Ayotzinapa, it has been the families of the missing who have kept the students’ thirst for revenge in check. “In the meetings between parents, we decided that this courage, this rage be put to work in political activities,” said a mother. “There was an alteration of our nervous system. We often had frantic reactions. Fortunately, many comrades helped us keeping the rage in check and keeping our communities united. This has been decisive. “Although the state and the political parties have tried everything to divide us, it didn’t happen. If it wasn’t like this, the government would be laughing at us today.”

Constructing Autonomy

Perhaps the most promising political outcome of the events of Ayotzinapa is the Consejo Popular Municipal (the Municipal Popular Council, or CP) of Tixtla, emerging from the call of the victims’ parents to not allow local elections to take place on June 7.

The Committee includes peasants, teachers, students of the Isidro Burgos School, community police, family members of the disappeared and others. Most of them participated in the struggle since the beginning. The electoral boycott was proposed by the parents during a general assembly as a way to put pressure on the government.

In the months before the elections, activists campaigned and organized public meetings in the neighborhoods of Tixtla, providing people with information and encouraging them to join the struggle. Peaceful campaigning took place along side direct actions to prevent the erection of polling stations around the city by burning ballot papers and repeatedly occupying the chambers of the municipal council. These efforts resulted in the termination of the local elections.

The proposal for an autonomous municipal council is based on three main concepts: solidarity with the parents in their pursuit of truth and justice; opposition to the party system “with the aim to re-appropriate public power and free ourselves of this parasite that is the electoral system which is based on the rule of money”; and finally a critical analysis of the “structural reforms” and the formation of a resistance strategy.

The organization follows a structure of local councils that converge into one central board. The methodology revolves around the “production of a ‘diagnosis’ of the living conditions in each neighborhood of Tixtla … We want to know what the people think, what they want, and how they interpret the political situation at local and national levels”. What is being applied here is a form of militant research.

“We think that this is not a utopia but something real,” said one participant. “We are using examples from other communities and regions which have organized themselves in municipal popular councils.” The main reference here is Cherán, a Purepecha community celebrating four years since their successful uprising against organized crime and corruption, and the Juntas de Buen Gobierno of the EZLN.

“These examples”, highlights a CP activist, “are being adapted to the peculiarities of our territory. We hope that after this lesson of crisis, suffering and humiliation, another ethic can emerge, allowing us to realize what we really want.”

The biggest threat to the formation of a popular council remains organized crime. The danger of violent repression always lurks just below the surface. Local powers have already set up a parallel organization under the name of a Municipal Popular Assembly” in order to confuse people by generating internal conflict and undermining the efforts of the independent citizen-led committee.

The CP project is still in progress but it puts forward a solid basis for a continuation of the Ayotzinapa movement — at a distance from the state and independently from the justice system.

In a country ruled by a government that is completely cynical and hostile towards its people and that is doing its utmost to gloss over a situation that somehow “got out of hand”, like Ayotzinapa, a country where the lives of those from below count for less than nothing and impunity has become one of the few recognizable principles of state cohesion, autonomy has turned into the only viable path for many communities.

The idea of autonomy here has to do on the one hand with the production of subjectivities that are radically heterogeneous to the atomized and passive one imposed by the rule of profit and the predatory policies promoted by the government — subjectivities capable of constructing a vital connection to the territories and the social realities they inhabit.

A new life in common is what numerous groups are attempting to create from the north to the south of Mexico, refusing to engage in any institutional or economic agreement with the state, hence making the existence of a government that is separated from their daily life unnecessary.

On the other hand, in the context of unconventional warfare shaping Mexico (and reflecting a diffuse tendency today), autonomy corresponds to the construction of a network of situated hubs of popular power capable of confronting the unrestrained violence of armed gangs serving particular interests.

The mushrooming over the last three years of community policing groups in the most dispersed areas of the country reflects both a popular demand to rely on independent and trustworthy security agencies — the state having lost any legitimacy in this field — and the need to protect emerging forms of resistance such as the CP.

Hopefully the current tendencies towards disarticulation shown by the Mexican state (of which this singular form of internal warfare constitutes a symptom) will favor the production of an increasing number of grey areas where autonomy can flourish. Concrete examples of what a victory would be are already visible in Mexico. The challenge now is for them to keep proliferating, to articulate themselves, and to gain the necessary strength to pass through the current state of civil war.