Mexico approves constitutional change banning street protests
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Mexico approves constitutional change banning street protests

For observers of the ongoing protests in Mexico, which were sparked by the September 26 disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, the question that loomed as the sun went down on December 1 — the last day in a series of planned strikes and protests that began on November 20 — was “What next?”

Thousands — as many as 30,000, according to some local media outlets — had taken to the streets during the two weeks of protests, united in their call for justice, not only for the missing students, but for all Mexicans. How would the government eventually respond?

The answer came on December 2, as lawmakers voted to change the country’s constitution, effectively creating what is being referred to as “la ley antimarchas,” or the “anti-protest law.”

In an attempted sleight-of-hand, Marco Aguilar Vega was the first member of the House of Representatives to take to the microphone to propose amendments to articles 11 and 73 of Mexico’s Constitution. Emphasizing that it is legislators’ responsibility to ensure “universal mobility” of Mexicans, Aguilar spoke of the transit, health and economic threats posed by obstacles to free movement, which he referred to explicitly as a human right. In his long, rambling discourse, Aguilar managed to reference all sorts of statistics (people should walk 2.5 kilometers a day for optimal health) and observations (Only “developed countries like Canada, Germany and Holland prioritize bicycles as a viable form of transportation”) to distract fellow legislators from his true intention, which was to impose significant restrictions on public protests.

The irony about “mobility” and “human rights” wasn’t lost on progressive legislators, who caught on to Aguilar’s disingenuous approach quickly. Representative Aleida Alavez Ruiz acknowledged that, while the existing articles of the Constitution under discussion might indeed need to be clarified, now is not the moment to do so.

“Mexico is confronting a state crisis,” Alavez declared, “and we must defend ourselves against the temptation to repress peaceful social protests, such as the kind we’ve seen in the streets recently.” She continued, “[I am concerned about] the possibility that this legislation is actually intended to fence in free protests under the pretext of defending free movement, giving rise to a comfortable interpretation of the norm in such a way that it will permit public force and official repression.”

Referencing the detention of 11 students after the November 20 protest, Alavez went on to say that she doubted the good faith of certain authorities with respect to their interpretation of the law and insisted that free protest is also a fundamental right.

Read more: Protests in Mexico reflect public disdain for country’s ruling parties

Other representatives joined Alavez in her dissent, including Zuleyma Huidobro González, who expressed her doubts about Aguilar’s intentions.

“What’s the hurry [to approve these amendments]?” she asked. She also pressed Aguilar to be transparent, noting that the motion to address “free movement” was presented in April of this year and had been put on the back burner by Aguilar and his own supporters. In an impassioned speech, Huidobro continued:

“If you want to legalize repression of protests, do it, but don’t count on the support of Movimiento Ciudadano [Citizens’ Movement]…. If peaceful marches by thousands of citizens in protest of their inefficient government’s acts of corruption, impunity and injustice bother you, then pardon the bother caused by us, those of us defending our country.”

Despite the direct challenges posed by the dissenting legislators, the motion was passed by the majority of House members. Reporting for Proceso, Jesusa Rodríguez explained that the law must now be approved by at least 17 state congresses. Then, the federal congress will have 180 days to draft the relevant amendments.

Legislators and police may be able to control what’s happening on Mexico’s streets. But they haven’t been able to impose their will on any protester who has access to social media. Already taking the law as a given, Mexicans have taken to Facebook and Twitter, which are ablaze with commentary and clever, acerbic new memes. Among them is a series of photos upon which text is superimposed, asking “What? Taking to the streets to [celebrate sports wins/make the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe/run a marathon] will also be a crime? Or is it only when we say what we think?”

Ultimately, the increasingly repressive state may come to regret its bad cop crackdown approach as protesters turn from the streets to social media and, in doing so, bring their grievances to a global audience.