Battling Barbarism in Paradise: Zihuatanejo’s Popular Movement
At the entrance to city hall in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, banners drape the fence and the shuttered gate. One message reads: “43 students still missing and something of us disappeared with them. Justice for Ayotizinapa.”
The city hall in the Guerrero coastal city was occupied by protesters during the wave of mass outrage that swept Mexico and the world following the brutal killings and forced disappearances of students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college by police and gunmen linked to organized crime in Iguala, Guerrero, last September.
Former Iguala Mayor Luis Abarca and dozens of other suspects are under arrest in connection with the bloodbath.
Although the Zihuatanejo protesters, now organized as the Popular Azuetense Movement (MPA), do not have an ongoing presence at the government complex, which nevertheless has been virtually abandoned by the local authorities, they conduct weekly meetings there to discuss and strategize the future course of the local Ayotzinapa justice movement.
“The movement is reactivating, even though many thought it would fall apart,” educator and MPA activist Malaquias Perez told a recent gathering.
Linked to the larger National Popular Assembly, a grouping of social movements that emerged after the Ayotzinapa atrocity, the MPA includes teachers, students, environmentalists and others with a vision for a better world. Educators from the Guerrero State Coordinator of Education Workers (Ceteg) play an important role in the movement.
The name “Azuetense” comes from the title of the municipality for which Zihuatanejo serves as the seat of government, Zihutanejo de Azuetense.
In the MPA, decisions are made democratically by majority vote, said member Benjamin Armenta. “This is a democratic movement. No one is more important than the other,” Armenta said.
Reflecting the National Popular Assembly’s current priorities, the MPA works for the safe return of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students; punishment for the parties guilty of the massive human rights violation; the ouster of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto; no repression against activists; and the cancellation of the June 7 federal and state elections.
Additionally, the MPA supports the reversal of reforms instituted by the Pena Nieto administration and allied political parties during the last two years. “We are demanding that all the reforms-economic, legal, education and energy-be cancelled,” Armenta added.
Since its formation late last year, the MPA has participated in Ayotzinapa justice demonstrations in the state capital of Chilpancingo; protested outside the military base in nearby Petatlan; “symbolically” closed the Zihuatanejo office of the National Electoral Institute, the agency charged with organizing next June’s elections; and coordinated classroom visits by Ayotzinapa students and victims’ parents in Zihuatanejo and two adjacent municipalities.
On Feb. 8, the MPA scored something of a public relations victory. The occasion was the certification ceremony for Zihuatanejo as a world city of peace under the non-profit International Cities of Peace initiative.
The ceremony was organized by the Zihuatanejo Peace Committee, headed by Wendy Carbajal Sotelo. “This is a very important day for us,” Carbajal said in her remarks, adding that the certification would help cultivate a “culture of peace” in Zihuatanejo and Guerrero. Carbajal is the wife of former Zihuatanejo Mayor Eric Fernandez. A member of the President Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, Fernandez left office last month to run for a seat in the federal congress.
Developed in conjunction with the Detroit Peace Center and the World Peace Prayer Center, the peace certification requires the formation of a local peace committee with civil society and tourism industry participation, the construction of a peace monument, the celebration of an annual peace day and development of a curriculum for peace education in local schools.
Following speeches by Carbajal and others, interim Guerrero Governor Rogelio Ortega strode up to the stage. Ironically, heavily armed military and police patrols cruised by as the peace event progressed.
As Ortega prepared to speak, a small group of MPA activists in the crowd of hundreds held up a banner and began loudly counting from one to forty-three. Silence engulfed the gathering as the MPA contingent broke into chants of “Ayotzi Lives!” and “The Struggle Continues.” Hearty applause emanated from a crowd that included many school girls dressed in white.
In his speech, Ortega conceded points to the MPA. “Peace can’t be achieved without justice, and the MPA demands for the presentation of the 43 are correct,” the interim governor said.
But Ortega distsnced himself from the MPA’s demand to suspend state elections by urging a vote for deserving candidates and electoral punishment for non-deserving ones. Electoral participation was necessary, he said, “so we will never have another mayor like Abarca, a municipal police force like in Iguala and a tragedy like the 43.”
Prior to the event, MPA activists said they were approached by municipal officials and asked to meet with a representative from the United Nations who was in town for the peace certification.
Armenta later characterized the proposed meeting a “fraud,” with the supposed UN official turning out to be the head of a grouping of non-governmental organizations that consult with the world body.
“I think the intention was to promote Zihuatanejo as a (tourist) destination in peace for consumption purposes,” Armenta contended. “It was a deception on the part of the authorities.”
Situated on the Costa Grande, Zihuatanejo and the neighboring resort of Ixtapa are the second most important tourist getaway in Guerrero. Locals are anxious to portray their home town as a haven of peace and tranquility. But in recent years, Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa have suffered economically from the well-publicized violence in Mexico.
Accordingly, the Mexican navy and other security forces have drawn a ring around the coastal community. Every winter, thousands of Canadian and U.S. tourists make their way to the tropical warmth of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo to escape the deep freezes of an ecologically collapsing planet. Many loudly proclaim their arrival in “Paradise.”
Recently, the MPA’s has focused its work on revitalizing the teachers’ movement and gearing up to oppose the June elections.
In February, thousands of teachers protested in the streets of Zihuatanejo and Guerrero on multiple occasions. While the demand for the return of the 43 still resounded everywhere, current and former teachers protested delays in receiving paychecks, Christmas bonuses and pensions.
At another recent gathering, the MPA’s Malaquias Perez said the larger social movement had provided “an opening” for revisiting questions of “labor stability” at a time when outsourcing, temporary contracts and attacks on unions are intensifying in the education sector, thanks in part to the 2013 federal education reform that Ceteg and the MPA want tossed out. Talk of a long strike has been in the air.
Addressing a group of teachers, Perez urged his colleagues to be careful to cover their bases in any strike by following all the legal procedures and enlisting the support of parents. “Who are our best allies?” he asked fellow teachers. “The children and the parents.”
The activist appealed for unity in a state where different educator unions operate. “If you all go out on your own, we won’t achieve our objectives,” he intoned. “We are easy prey if we go out alone.”
Rekindled by the Ayotzinapa justice movement, the renewed teacher mobilizations, face repression. The television troika of Televisa, TV Azteca and Milenio is cranking up its long-running teacher bashing “news” machine, and the federal government is putting pressure on the states to not pay absent teachers. In tense Chilpancingo, where the Ceteg has maintained a protest encampment for months, state and federal riot squads stand at the ready.
Perhaps the most controversial position of the MPA-and the National Popular Assembly is the call for no elections on June 7.
The demand raises fundamental questions about the future of Mexico. Is the call a backsliding on democracy? If many voters do not participate and the elections proceed as scheduled, will the most retrograde forces win? If there are no elections, how will governance take place?
Armenta argued that the prerequisites for fair elections simply do not exist in Guerrero, a state where crime and political corruption are virtually inseparable, as evidenced by the Iguala/Ayotzinapa saga or the recent arrests of members of the former governor’s family and associates on charges of embezzling and laundering tens of millions of dollars in public works and security contracts, even as violence spun out of control.
“Whoever is elected will be the same as the old one. This is a state that is dominated by the narco,” Armenta insists. “We don’t have a genuine democracy. We have a party system in which the results are the same and things don’t change. We have to reposition democracy.”
Armenta advocated a national “pause” so Mexicans can devise a new constitutional order that recognizes forms of decision-making like popular plebiscites. Zero elections in Guerrero, he adds, will deliver “a message to the entire country.” According to Armenta, the MPA plans to urge the public not to vote on June 7 by spreading the message via sound trucks and other means.
Guerrero’s political parties, meanwhile, plow ahead as if no crisis exists, plastering the streets and airwaves with election propaganda and fielding a host of questionable candidates.
The MPA confronts not only the same challenges as the broader Ayotzinapa justice movement, but also issues related to Zihuatanejo’s tourist-driven economy and local pressures to avoid any hint of conflict in a place where large numbers of foreigners visit.
In this complex context, the MPA is carving out its own local identity and base while working with larger forces for common goals. The grassroots movements in the state of Guerrero grapple with different conditions in different places. The movement in the La Montana region is necessarily different than the one in Zihuatanejo. In Mexico, the dialectics of protest and resistance are woven by regional economies, historic and contemporary political conditions, culture, and ethnicity.
Grassroots movements have had to fend off attacks from various quarters. Ceteg organizer and MPA member Josefina Saucedo recalled efforts to pit the residents of Iguala against Ayotzinapa activists.
The attempt failed, Saucedo said, in large part because a reign of terror in Iguala preceded the attack on the Ayotzinapa students. Consequently, many residents of the violence-torn city identified with the pain of the students and parents, Saucedo said.
According to the Guerrero daily El Sur, hundreds of people are listed as disappeared in Iguala and neighboring municipalities. Regularly, relatives of the disappeared search and dig out bodies from clandestine graves, with the number of remains recovered in less than three months now nudging 50.
“Their children and friends are disappeared,” Saucedo added. Organized crime is in collusion with the military and state and municipal police. The whole system is a pig-sty.”
Zihuatanejo, too, has experienced episodes of killing and kidnapping, while enduring decades of political corruption.
“We have to struggle for the 43, but in reality we are struggling for ourselves,” Armenta reflected. “There is a national sentiment of ‘Enough is Enough.’ The neurological center is Ayotzinapa, but it extends all across the country.”