Striking a Match

Mexico's gasolinazo protests are responding to the bankruptcy of the country's ruling political class.

A gasolinazo protest in Mexico City, Mexico on January 9, 2017. ProtoplasmaKid / Flickr

When the international press covers the ongoing gasoline protests in Mexico, it focuses on predictable elements: looting, vandalism, mass arrests. In January, CNN wrote: “Authorities arrested more than 250 people for robbery and acts of vandalism around the country this week, officials said. Some protests have been peaceful.”

A reader of the French press would get the same picture. On January 7, Le Monde wrote that “protests against rising fuel prices erupted in scenes of chaos all across Mexico.”

The media presents looting and robbery as the primary means of protest, the recent 20 percent hike in fuel prices as its direct cause, and the country’s economic slowdown and monetary devaluation as the general background. Indeed, the recent weeks of intense protests have led to over 2,300 arrests and at least seven civilian deaths. But the news reports that emphasize these facts both criminalize and misrepresent this mass action that opposes not only neoliberal austerity, but also the ruling party’s violent drug war and assaults on democracy.

The current social movement in Mexico mostly deploys nonviolent direct action by blocking federal roads and occupying highway tolls. Several local nongovernmental organizations claim that hired provocateurs, not protesters, are the ones looting. Perhaps the blockades that spread across the country on January 1 took the authorities by surprise, so they chose to infiltrate the social movement rather than attack it directly.

Meanwhile, Congress is discussing a new security bill that would allow the military to intervene in marches and other gatherings. Mexican journalist Manuel Hernandez Borbolla says the law would complete Mexico’s transformation into a military dictatorship.

Both the protests and the government’s response to them emerge from long-standing tensions within the country. The gasoline price hike is part of massive structural reforms that, since 2012, have decimated public education, slashed worker protections, and increased the cost of living.

Leading this assault is President Enrique Peña Nieto. His approval rating has been in free fall since 2014, and protesters unanimously demand his resignation. But his party’s violent eighty-year history reminds us we cannot underestimate what they will do to keep power.

The Crisis of Democracy

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former presidential candidate and leader of the left-wing party Morena, declared that “the Pact for Mexico has become the pact against Mexico.” He sees the current uprising as an opportunity to attack the country’s ruling elite for having submitted to it and to reinstate popular rule.

Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN), the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), and the Green Party of Mexico signed the Pact for Mexico in December 2012. The agreement gave the president the mandate he could not win in the election. With historically low turnout, he carried only 38 percent of the popular vote. Nevertheless, the pact signaled that both houses of Congress supported his radical economic reforms.

Adrian Ramirez Lopez, president of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights (LIMEDDH), calls the agreement “treachery [against] Mexican representative democracy” saying that since it was signed, “more than half of the population has ceased to vote.” He adds that the mainstream parties’ consensus harmed their legitimacy because the disagreements between them appear more than ever as an exchange of formalities.

Of course, corruption, high-ranking officials’ privileges — including $20,000 bonuses congressmembers received at the end of last year — and impunity for state crimes also contribute to the crisis of Mexican democracy, but the comprehensive policy of structural reform carried out by the Peña Nieto government has also been decisive.

Between 2012 to 2014, the administration, with support from Congress and the Senate, passed eleven reforms via constitutional amendment and subsequent legislation. The labor market, the education system, and the energy, finance, and telecommunication sectors all came under new, broadly neoliberal, regulations.

The public has always opposed these reforms, and the recent protests build on years of struggle against the country’s austerity agenda.

Against Shock Therapy and State Terror

In December 2013, Peña Nieto passed new education reform measures, but mass protests prevented them from being fully implemented. Tens of thousands of teachers refused the new, obligatory assessments, went on strike, and blocked highways. The energy reform, which opens the oil, gas, and electricity sectors to private investment, has been just as unpopular, despite explicit support from US officials and media.

The marches demonstrate that rank-and-file citizens understand the structural reforms as a coherent strategy. In a picture taken at a gas station occupied in Mexico City, a placard reads:

Energy reform: when gas prices and electricity fares increase so much we cannot pay.

Financial reform: when the bank seizes your house because you are one month late making your credit card payments.

Education reform: when they begin charging you for everything in public schools.

Labor reform: when the employer can fire you without even saying “thanks.”

Fiscal reform: when for all of this, you must pay more taxes.

In 2013 and 2014, tens of thousands of people joined marches against the energy reforms. Unions and political parties, mainly the PRD and Morena, which competed by calling for exclusive marches, mostly organized this movement.

Today’s activists are fighting the same set of laws, but have made it clear that the mainstream parties aren’t welcome. Protesters reminded PRD supporters that their party signed the Pact for Mexico, and it has subsequently been expelled from marches.

Human rights defender Elsa Arista Gonzalez says that, in the past year, the struggles against these structural reforms and against the repressive system that promotes them united and began to feed each other.

After forty-three students disappeared in September 2014, thousands of families called on the government to take responsibility for lost loved ones. These protests made the teachers’ long-standing struggle against the education reform more popular and the attempts to repress it more visible.

In May 2016 — not long before the deadly police crackdown in Nochixtlan — joint marches that included teachers and parents rallied more than fifty thousand people in the state of Oaxaca alone. Parents and families supported teachers as they went on strike, occupied public places, and organized nonviolent road blockades, tactics protesters are using today to oppose the price hike.

“Mad Mex”

In 2015, as Mad Max: Fury Road aired in theaters, a joke about “Mad Mex” spread across Mexican social media. The movie — set in a desert wasteland where gasoline and water are scarce commodities and livid war boys, dressed as today’s urban lumpen, hope to die honorably fighting for their leader — seemed to perfectly capture the violent future Peña Nieto was creating.

“Mad Mex” also refers to pre-revolutionary dictator Porfirio Diaz’s phrase — one repeated by José Reyes Heroles, secretary of the interior in the 1970s, who amnestied hundreds of Marxist guerilla fighters following the country’s “Dirty War” — “We all lose if the México bronco wakes up.”

Indeed, the issue of political violence is particularly sensitive in the Mexican context, where, unlike other Latin American countries, leftist guerrilla movements emerged only in the 1990s and remain active today. The Popular Revolution Army (EPR) — the most prominent of these groups — recently called for protests that lead to “popular expropriation”:

Where enemies of the people see acts of vandalism, looting, and chaotic behavior, among other epithets that criminalize the peoples’ will, what is happening in reality is the political critique of the masses . . . that legitimately appropriate the product of their own labor concentrated in the shape of merchandise.

The violence extends beyond the guerrilla movements. If we consider both state and criminal violence, Mexico has become the most violent country in Latin America. Criminal organizations have pushed to country up to the third most violent in the world.

The number of forced disappearances and torture cases, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), has only risen in the past decade, and the government seems either unwilling or unable to stop them. Several Mexican NGOs say that the South American military regimes of the 1970s or the civil wars of the 1980s had fewer disappearances and torture cases than Mexico has after a decade of the drug war.

Among so many other reasons to revolt, this remains Mexicans’ primary concern. Since the Iguala kidnappings, state violence has become a topic of major national and international indignation. Some point to the fact that citizens now organize their own protection from drug cartels in many areas as evidence that Mexico is quickly becoming a failed state.

Mexican journalist Hugo Paez, however, believes that this is part of the PRI’s strategy. Quoting British sociologist Stanley Cohen, he argues that the ruling party is following the chaos theory, consciously pushing the situation out of control and expecting a vote for stability in 2018.

Telecommunications workers, teachers, pilots, peasants, indigenous councils, university unions, and many other workers’ organizations have called for a general strike on January 31. A national resistance assembly called on citizens to stop paying taxes until the decree on gasoline prices is repealed. Now that the fire is lit, protesters could organize in local popular assemblies and adopt a unified plan of action.

Over the past eighty years, the PRI has shown the lengths to which it will go to neutralize popular upsurges. A coordinated national campaign is needed to neutralize the state terror against the gasolinazo struggle.