I’ve just come from a three-hour conversation with Pietro Ameglio Patella, prominent Mexican professor and nonviolent activist, and an old friend. He was in the country with his friend Carlos Moreno who has been searching for his son for three years without any cooperation from the official parties – indeed not only that, it has made him a target of death threats himself.
The situation in México is, without exaggeration, catastrophic. Anyone can be taken off at any time, and both drug lords and the government operate with complete impunity. Gangs come and measure your house or your business and charge you for “protection” by the yard, and recently a radio journalist was killed right in the middle of a broadcast by someone who entered the studio, fired four shots point blank and calmly walked out. As Patella told me, “our wives are in a constant panic; we don’t know from which direction the bullets could come.” No government agency offers help to the anguished parents seeking information about their lost children or other loved ones, not to mention doing anything to control the violence, because indeed they are part of it. Patella and Moreno reject the definition of “failed state” for Mexico today. Rather, they told me, it’s a criminal state.
But now, it seems, the criminal state may have gone too far. On September 26, police fired upon forty-three students, who had come to the town of Iguala in Guerrero for teacher training, as they sat in buses. The students were raising funds for a trip to Mexico City to participate in a memorial of the Tlatelolco student massacre of October 2, 1968. Six students were killed and one remains in a coma; the others were taken off by the police and handed over to the local drug gang. They have not been found. Ten mass graves have been discovered during the search with human remains, none of which to date turns out to match the missing students. Even this town in a particularly violence-torn region of the country, and the country itself, is in shock.
The Iguala massacre, as it’s now called, came at a time when the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto had just been in the U.S. portraying his country as “peaceful Mexico” thanks to the legislative reforms he instituted since taking office two years ago – with loud support from, for example, Hillary Clinton. The blatant complicity of the police has surfaced what every Mexican knows (if he or she cares to), that, in the words of Javier Oliva, coordinator of the defense and national security program at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, Iguala has “a municipal authority at the repressive service of organized crime against society.” In this respect, Iguala is no different from most parts of the country, except, of course, for Zapatista-controlled Chiapas where, if anywhere, the future of Mexico is being nurtured in radical social experiments.
Patella and Moreno had just come from Washington where they lobbied for a more appropriate response from the U.S. to the massacre, which is creating the worst political crisis in Mexico in forty years. A march on the Mexican Embassy in D.C. was planned for October 22nd; but we are all in agreement that there, as in the U.S. (I’ve just been discussing this point with author and environmentalist Bill McKibben), with a situation this dire marches are not enough. In terms of a model called the conflict escalation curve we developed at Metta some time ago, when you’ve marched and gone home without a substantial response you have passed phase one of the curve, and now it’s time for satyagraha: nonviolent resistance. In the U.S. I’ve proposed that we should a) lay out a timetable of concrete demands for the reversal of climate destruction, b) lay out an equally concrete set of alternatives that make such a drastic change thinkable (e.g. the conversion to clean energy sources in Germany), and c) a description of what the government or corporate entities we’re addressing will have to face in the form of massive civil disobedience if they do not comply.
What would a nonviolent response look like in Mexico? As it happens, Latin America is the cradle of one of the most successful forms of nonviolence that’s been developed since the days of Gandhi and King, called protective accompaniment. Trained nonviolent activists have been going into Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere to accompany threatened human rights workers around the clock, with no small success. No protected person or any third-party intervener has actually been killed on the job, and in one case at least, an incredibly small number of people in Guatemala in the 1980s made it possible for a key organization to function and play a key role in the initiation of a peace process. That same organization, Peace Brigades International, is now operating on a small scale in Mexico. Patella urgently expressed that a lot more of this support could make a critical difference. Protecting key persons could allow some measure of accountability that could break the cycle of crime and impunity (look at the genocide conviction that was recently obtained against former Guatemalan President Ríos Montt).
This, along with other ongoing measures, could open the space to address the deeper issues. There is a huge section of youth in Mexico called “ni-nis,” with ni trabajo, ni educación (neither work nor education) leaving them ripe for recruitment into the gangs. And of course, there is the northern neighbor who buys the drugs and furnishes the weapons to keep them flowing, over the bodies of the poorest Mexicans. There is the culture of corruption there (and not so far off here). These are deep, deep problems, but we might just have a chance now to get some traction on them if we can use the shock created by the Iguala massacre to support Pietro Ameglio Patella and his colleagues who are struggling heroically to raise the banner of nonviolence in a desperate world.