On a day when the world protested state violence against the Mexican students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college, Ciudad Juarez was no exception.
In the big border city across from El Paso, Texas, the November 20 protest- timed to coincide with the official holiday anniversary of the 1910 Mexican Revolution- included street demonstrations, the seizure of a highway toll booth, poetry brigades and a brief blockade of the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Juarez with El Paso. Students and staff organized a large multimedia event at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ), where normal activities were suspended for November 20 to take a public stand on the human rights crisis gripping their nation.
Hundreds of students, teachers, union activists and community members got involved in local events organized for what became known as N20. In an unprecedented move, some Mexican cities canceled the official November 20 annual parades due to government fears of the mounting protests, but the one in Ciudad Juarez proceeded as scheduled- albeit with the addition of protesters who managed to squeeze their way into the end of the parade, according to Diana Solis, UACJ student and member of the activist University Assembly.
“The people are participating. Many people came out to support,” Solis said. “This is unstoppable. The government is worried.”
In Juarez, November 20 was also the beginning of a 43-hour prayer vigil sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. The length of the vigil corresponded to the number of Ayotzinapa students forcibly disappeared by police in the state of Guerrero last September 26. Elizabeth Flores, director of the Catholic Church’s labor justice ministry in Ciudad Juarez, told FNS that 43 different parishes each agreed to maintain the vigil at a central church for one hour at a time until Saturday, November 22.
At the UACJ’s University Cultural Center, the spacious building and patio was transformed into a workshop of popular culture. A young crowd painted protest murals on large canvasses, watched thematically-relevant videos, listened to music and educational programs and passed out booklets of poetry and prose.
In numerous presentations, speakers delved into the historical background of Ayotzinapa and other rural teacher colleges, the so-called drug war, violations of human rights, femicide, and more.
Likely the most impactful session featured the emotion-charged stories of 12 relatives of victims of forced disappearance and murder in Ciudad Juarez-women and men alike. Two hours of gut-wrenching testimonies rendered a largely youthful audience stunned, silent and outraged.
Manuel Favela detailed the case of a son who went missing in 2012, a time when the city was supposedly secured, according to the bereaved father. Favela recounted how the family was living in El Paso, but his son still visited Juarez to see a girlfriend whom he planned to marry. Though evidence linked police to the disappearance, the legal authorities discounted the lead, Favela charged.
“We aren’t the only ones. There are thousands. Unfortunately, you can be the next ones,” Favela warned his youthful listeners. “Don’t think it can’t happen, because it can with the authorities we have.”
As Favela and the other relatives spoke, two large banners draped on the stage front beamed the photos of scores of women and girls missing in Juarez since the 1990s. In some cases, a name substituted for the lack of a picture. Among the missing shown were Heidi Slaquet, 1995; “Baby” Covarrubias Ibarra, 1995; Guadalupe Luna de la Rosa, 2000.
Yolanda Betancourt told the audience how her 19-year-old daughter, Janeth Paola Soto Betancourt, suddenly vanished in 2011. Like numerous other missing and murdered young women In Juarez, Paola studied computers and English in the city’s downtown, an area identified long before the teen’s disappearance as a zone of danger for women by activists, academic researchers and even some government officials.
“(Janeth Paola) had a good future and it was taken away from her,” Betancourt said. “We don’t know what happened to her. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but they took it from her.”
Almost collapsing on the stage, Ernestina Alvarado Castillo graphically described the pain and anguish she said consumed her life after the 2008 disappearance of a 13-year-old granddaughter, Cinthia Jocabeth Castaneda Alvarado, who also vanished in downtown Juarez.
“Sometimes I don’t want to know about my husband, my children or myself,” Alvarado exhaled, as she broke down. “I can’t continue with the struggle, because I feel impotent. I feel alone. Where is my (grand) daughter?”
In an earlier presentation, longtime local activist and analyst Gero Fong placed violence in Juarez in the context of capitalist crisis, state repression, the U.S. war against terrorism and the series of “obscure wars” between purported criminal groups that ripped apart his city in recent years, even once earning Juarez the moniker “Murder Capital of the World.”
Juarez, Fong maintained, has long served as an “experimental field” for policies and practices that later spread to the rest of Mexico, pioneering such developments as free trade zones, the maquiladora industry, the alternating of political power between the PRI and PAN parties, femicide, and the narco war.
In comments to FNS, he differentiated between violence in the Juarez of a few years ago- many less public shootouts and the withdrawal of soldiers and federal police from the streets-and today’s bloodletting, which consists of a far lower but still high body count from gangland-style slayings that, with some recent exceptions, tend to take place away from the main thoroughfares.
“The war has changed into something permanent. That doesn’t mean the soldiers don’t have permission to act,” Fong said. “(Violence) has moments of crisis and no crisis, but it never goes away.”
In an ironic appearance, an emblematic figure of Mexican politics spoke in the same auditorium right after the family members of violence victims finished their presentation. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’ talk, however, was not directly related to the N20 protest, but rather had been scheduled as part of a UACJ course on energy policy.
Still, the former Mexico City mayor’s lecture provided a backdrop or subtext to many of the issues raised by Fong and other N20 activists. Looking a sprightly 80 years of age, Cardenas delivered a condensed but insightful history on a topic with which he has a deep personal connection: Mexican oil. The politician’s father, President Lazaro Cardenas, oversaw the expropriation of Mexico’s petroleum resources from foreign companies in 1938.
In more recent times, the oil industry has been punctuated by state corruption, gangland infiltration and looting, incidents of violence, and environmental destruction.
A leading critic of the energy reform crafted by the Pena Nieto administration and approved by the Mexican Congress, the co-founder of the PRD party outlined the different historical stages of the Mexican oil industry-from union and government conflicts with foreign companies to creeping privatization- and brought it up to contemporary times when revenue from petroleum sales has accounted for up to 40 percent of the federal government’s income-essential money for public schools, hospitals, roads and more.
But after offering a mathematical analysis of national consumption patterns versus projected production numbers from the energy reform, Cardenas contended that most of the new resources expected to be tapped will go abroad and not benefit Mexico. “We have an enormous risk of a premature depletion of the resources,” he said.
The three-time presidential candidate and “moral leader of the PRD” also took a swipe at a state institution where a key test of democracy was just conducted and failed, according to Cardenas and other critics. The onetime governor of Michoacan state asserted that the Mexican Supreme Court had brought “discredit” to itself by ruling against proposals to force a popular referendum on the Pena Nieto administration’s energy reform.
In the coming months, the oil controversy could resurface as another volatile ingredient in a political scene heated up by the Ayotzinapa events, especially with less oil revenues gushing into a government coffers as a result of declining international prices while stagnant wages, inflation tipping above four percent and laggard growth well below previous predictions for 2014 add extra pressures to the Mexican powder keg.
In Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico, the new citizen movement rising out of the repression against the Ayotizinapa students intends to move ahead in its bid for sweeping national changes.
According to the latest information posted on the University Assembly of Ciudad Juarez’s web page, events for the coming week include a meeting analyzing N20, a lecture by historian Massimo Modonesi on “Regime Crisis in Mexico” and a protest by high school students.
In her remarks at the UACJ, the mother of Idali Juache Laguna, a young woman who disappeared on the streets of Juarez in 2010 and was later identified as one of multiple female murder victims recovered from a burial ground in the Juarez Valley, said the families of the 43 missing students and local families suffer all the same. Norma Laguna made a public appeal for broad unity.
“The union is what makes us strong,” Laguna said. “With a united people, we can end the impunity that exists in the three levels of government.”
Photo: Xilonen Pérez Bautista