This week sees the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s war of separation from Spain; in addition, 20 November marks the centennial of Mexico’s landmark revolution, the first mass uprising of the underclass in the Americas. The coincidence of centennials has given breath to the hypothesis that Mexico explodes every 100 years in social upheaval, and some leftists are eagerly expecting renewed fireworks in 2010. Indeed, conditions are ripe for revolution here: 70% of Mexico’s 103 million population teeter on and around the poverty line.
According to the World Bank’s chief economic economist for Latin America, Augusto de la Torre, half the 10 million Latin Americans who tumbled into poverty during the economic downturn are Mexicans; and 28,000 citizens have been slaughtered since President Felipe Calderón declared a war on the drug cartels in 2006. The only ray of economic recovery is the drug economy, which now employs up to a million mostly young people, notes the Wall Street Journal.
Revolutions don’t happen unless the working class is angry. Electricity workers recently mounted a mass hunger strike (they lasted 90 days) in the main plaza of Mexico City to protest at the loss of their jobs to privatisation. Last March Calderón sent troops and police into the huge copper pit at Cananea Sonora to wrest the mine back from striking workers.
Back in 1906, the dictator Porfirio Díaz called in the Arizona Rangers to break a strike at the same mine; 26 miners were martyred, and Cananea became the birthplace of Mexico’s labour movement. Four years later Díaz – who had ruled with an iron fist for 34 years and had just stolen the presidential election from the liberal Francisco Madero – threw a gala fiesta to mark the nation’s hundredth anniversary of independence. Marble monuments rose on the boulevards of the capital and the night sky was illuminated by fireworks displaysWhen the party was over, Díaz had spent the country’s entire social budget.
Revolution followed quickly. Madero called on the people to gather in their cities and towns on 20 November and rise up. By the time the killing was done, nine years later, a million Mexicans – a fifth of the population – were dead.
Felipe Calderón is not an assiduous student of his country’s history. This year his government will spend more than $230m to replicate Diaz’s extravaganza in a land where hunger is palpable. Resentment resounds.
This year, armchair revolutionists have been waiting for armed insurrection in the style of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation‘s celebrated rebellion in Chiapas in 1994. But they may be barking up the wrong tree. If revolution can be defined as an armed uprising that seeks to overthrow an unpopular government, then the new Mexican revolution has already begun.
Calderón’s failing crusade against the drug cartels has been labelled a “narco-insurrection” by the drug war expert Edgardo Buscalgia. Last week this view was even endorsed by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
The first battles in 1910 were fought around Ciudad Juárez, a strategic railhead on the US border, and Pancho Villa’s peasant army sent the Federales (the Mexican regular army) packing. Today full-scale urban warfare rages on the streets of Juárez – over 1,800 citizens have been slain in the first eight months of the year in firefights between drug gangs and the Mexican military. Car bombs detonate on downtown streets and the mansions of the wealthy are looted and torched. Narco-commandos attack police stations and army barracks, carrying off artillery, and prisoners are broken out of jails much as they were by revolutionaries a century ago.
Monterrey, Mexico’s industrial powerhouse, is repeatedly shut down by the narco-insurgents, who block key thoroughfares with stolen trucks and construction equipment, reportedly so that their weapons will have free access to major transit routes. Top politicians like the frontrunner for governor of Tamaulipas state are assassinated. Others such as the presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos are kidnapped.
The Mexican military and the US North Command – for which Mexico is the southern security perimeter – have long expected the narco-gangs and leftist revolutionary bands to coalesce. But revolutionaries in their armchairs complain that revolutions must have ideologies and display class allegiances: this narco-insurrection seems to be all about barbaric killing and taking power, not the liberation of the working class.
Yet, given a globalised world in which the market seems to be all, a narco-insurgency may be the best revolution this lacerated nation is going to get.
John Ross, reporting the last 25 years on social movements in Mexico and other Latin American countries. He is the author of El Monstruo – Dread and Redemption in Mexico City.