"We have an opening up in history": John M. Ackerman discusses Ayotzinapa and what's next
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"We have an opening up in history": John M. Ackerman discusses Ayotzinapa and what's next

English-speaking readers who are keen to keep up with the news about what has happened in Mexico since the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in late September would do well to make note of the name John M. Ackerman.

Ackerman, a law professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), editor-in-chief of Mexican Law Review, columnist for Mexican publications La Jornada and Proceso, frequent contributor or interviewee to a number of international media outlets including Foreign Policy and Huffington Post, and prolific tweeter, Ackerman has been a valuable source of information and reporting.

We spoke via Google Hangout about the significance of Ayotzinapa, the subsequent months of protests and what to expect in the coming months.

Latin Correspondent:
What makes the situation with Ayotzinapa so different from any other set of disappearances and killings in Mexico, and what makes the reaction to Ayotzinapa so different?

John Ackerman:
What makes this particularly relevant is the fact that this event interrupted the narratives of power and control that Mexican society has been used to hearing for at least the past 10 years, if not 30 years. That narrative was initiated in terms of the drug war specifically but it goes far beyond the drug war.

The narrative that [former Mexican president] Felipe Calderón always pulled out was that 90 percent of the dead were narco-traffickers; this is what he would say after every massacre. Governors and other authorities would always roll out this explanation that somehow the people who were killed deserved it. This has been a way of covering up a problem that goes much deeper. In the first place, Mexico has no death penalty. Even if there was a death penalty, everyone deserves a fair trial. Even if 90 percent of the dead were involved in the drug trade, this would not justify their deaths. It’s not that this narrative worked, but it sufficiently deflected attention away from the real issue.

What makes Ayotzinapa so different are the particulars of the case itself, which resisted and broke with that narrative of power and control and distraction that the Mexican government, in complicity with the U.S. government, has been holding all along and especially over the past 10 years with the incredible explosion of narco-violence. All of a sudden, this incident broke with that narrative because it so obviously doesn’t fit with any of those explanations. These [the 43 students who were “disappeared”] are students, they are activists who are completely unarmed, they are politically active, and they are obviously innocent. They can’t be seen just as “collateral damage” of a generalized crisis of violence. It’s an attack on the Mexican people by the government and the Mexican government is supported by the U.S. government.

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

This is what many of us have been saying all along. In 2011, a group of us brought Felipe Calderón and the narco-traffickers to the International Criminal Court. Thousands of Mexicans signed a petition. A brave young human rights lawyer from Mexico, Netzaí Sandoval, who was 27 at the time, personally went to The Hague and presented a case against the Mexican government and the cartels for crimes against humanity, demonstrating, with evidence, that this was not a question of the “bad guys” just killing each other, but of the state committing crimes against the Mexican people. Now all of a sudden the nature of the Ayotzinapa incident makes clear to everyone what many of us have been saying for a long time.

That’s what first breaks the narrative. And once the narrative is broken what we have is an incredible upsurge of a lot of causes and a lot of discontent that had been bubbling under the surface for many years. Every year for the last three or four years we’ve had a major uprising in Mexico. In 2011 we had the movement for peace led by Javier Sicilia, which originated with the assassination of his son. Then in 2012 we had the student uprising against Peña Nieto, against the return of the PRI, the #YoSoy132 movement. In 2013 we had widespread protests against both the energy reform and the education reform [part of the government’s “Pact for México” neoliberal reforms package spearheaded by the administration of President Peña Nieto].

Read more: Energy reforms see Mexico relinquish total control of oil reserves

People ask me what’s going to make this movement different from the past ones, as if the past ones somehow failed. My response is that we have to change the question. The reason why this present movement has been so successful is because of the important achievements of the past movements in raising consciousness and installing networks of social organization, trust and collective action which today are being mobilized in an unprecedented and cumulative fashion. It is of course true that the students of #YoSoy132 didn’t stop Peña Nieto from getting to the presidency and Javier Sicilia didn’t stop the drug war, and the protests against the reforms didn’t stop the reforms. But what they did do was establish an historic opening of consciousness and criticism of the political project of neoliberal authoritarianism.

What we’re getting today, then, is an explosion of all those causes together, and I think that is great. One of the problems with the previous movements is that they were too focused. Javier Sicilia was always very aggressive about defending boundaries and only talking about the drug war and not wanting to go after other issues. He’s now changed his tune. The student movement had a lot of pressure to focus only on telecom and media reform. The teachers’ movement originally focused on the questions of teaching and evaluation. And the anti-oil privatization movement was about oil and neoliberalism. But all of a sudden today we see a very plural movement where all of these causes are coming together and there’s a generalized uprising against neoliberal authoritarianism. The present movement legitimately calls into question whether Mexico is a democracy.

What have been the achievements of the current movement so far?

This is important. Independently of what happens in the future — if tomorrow, all of a sudden, there were no protests, which is very unlikely — the majority of Mexicans are now empowered and feel a personal responsibility to change things in the country. This is an invaluable achievement since it implies an historic break with the learned pessimism and passivity encouraged daily on the principal television and radio networks in Mexico. Let’s look at the specific achievements.

After the September 26th massacre and disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, the mayor of Iguala, José Luís Abarca, did not immediately skip town; he stuck around for a couple days. He felt so protected — and he was so protected — that he stuck around, confident that he would be protected by his friends in high places. The fact that he was even captured, along with his wife, is a major achievement of the movement. In Mexico, only 6.2 percent of all crimes are even investigated, so the fact that he was arrested and is now being investigated is key.

Read more: Mexico’s ‘guilty until proven innocent’ justice system is failing the nation

The fact that the governor of Guerrero had to step down is another major achievement. The success of the Polytechnical students, the IPN protests and the achievement of having a new university congress, to completely rewrite the statutes and to gain more autonomy, and that they kicked out their rector — all of that is a result of this uprising.

The release of the 11 students who were brought to maximum security prisons [accused, among other things, of attempted murder during the November 20 protest in Mexico City] is an enormous achievement. This isn’t over — we haven’t won — but it’s important.

The [declining] public approval ratings for Enrique Peña Nieto are also an achievement. Reforma [one of the country’s major daily newspapers] is estimating a fall to 37 percent from 50 percent; this is probably still a gross overestimation. According to another pollster, Peña Nieto had already hit 37 percent six months ago, far before the Iguala case, as a result of popular rejection of the “Pact for México” reforms. The real numbers today are probably 20-25 percent around the country and most definitely lower in Mexico City, maybe even single digits.

These numbers are very low and this means danger for government. This is the death of Mexican hyper-presidentialism. Mexico has been renowned throughout the world and always stood out in Latin America as being one of the most presidential-obsessed places in the region. Even when presidents completely fail.

Even former presidents Felipe Calderón, Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox very rarely went below 50 percent approval ratings because the figure of the president has been so powerful. The loss of that presidential leadership is, first of all, probably irreversible, at least in the short-term. Peña Nieto might come back a few more percentage points but he’s got four more years — if he gets that far, which I am not going to bet on — and this is a “lame duck” presidency from here on out. He’s not going to be able to get any more major neoliberal reforms through.

But even more importantly, this is an incredible opening — we’ll see how society takes advantage of this and actually uses this power — for social empowerment in Mexico. And that in itself is an incredible achievement since it opens up the game entirely for developing new forms of social activism and civic empowerment.

This power vacuum could of course lead to a worse situation. The military could step in; they’ve been making terrible statements the past few weeks which are unprecedented because the military has always been very separate from the political sphere in Mexico; that’s one of the inheritances of the Mexican Revolution. That’s the danger of moving more directly toward a fascist coup scenario and, in some ways, we’re already there. This assassination of the 43 kids is the contemporary equivalent of the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco square. We don’t have to wait for that to happen; it’s already happened. So a positive outcome is by no means inevitable. But this social empowerment from below is amazing. This moment is an enormous opportunity for civil society.

And this is where the importance of international solidarity comes in. In many ways it will depend on continued international attention and support whether the present emptiness in power will be filled with the forces of military repression, or the hope of social empowerment. The Mexican people have spoken up and are reclaiming their role in history, but the forces of repression have powerful international allies and will try to crush the uprising if they are not confronted simultaneously in the international sphere. Up until now, the amount of international attention and solidarity has been unprecedented. Even the Zapatista movement did not have this kind of international solidarity, at least at the beginning.

The strength of solidarity now obviously has something to do with social networks, but this is not a social network uprising. One of the powerful things about this movement is that the people who are leading it are from Guerrero. These are indigenous peasants with a long tradition of political activism, organization and political consciousness. They are much more powerful, stronger leaders than urban students and urban intellectuals. This uprising has a deep, grassroots origin, which is not going to go away quickly.

The game that some people — that the government itself — are starting to play is trying to separate the middle class urban and international solidarity from the leaders in Guerrero, but they have been ineffective. The cross-class, cross-ethnic, international, and cross-regional — within Mexico itself — solidarity has been something many of us have been trying to encourage for a long time and we haven’t been successful because there are so many different Mexicos. Only now are people finding the common ground and that — just that — is an incredible achievement… that we are recognizing one another as part of the same movement. This is very powerful and disrupts the narratives and exercise of neoliberal authoritarian power that has been in control of Mexico so long.

I insist that it is very important for people in the U.S. to realize the importance of their solidarity and attention to this issue. The Mexican military is very much linked to the United States’ military and one of the best ways to stop the Mexican military from taking the kinds of actions it says it might take is by putting pressure on them from the United States.

One of the demands of Mexicans who are participating in the protests is for the resignation of Enrique Peña Nieto and for the resignation of Jesús Murillo Karam, the attorney general. But the question is, who fills those seats? Are those people any better than the ones in them right now? Would it make a difference if they resigned? And related: Do you think that one possible outcome from here is a new Mexican revolution? Or that it already is?

To the resignation question: This itself is unprecedented — the call to resign. The fact that there is such a broad outcry for Peña Nieto to step down in a country that has traditionally exhibited such hyper-presidentialism is itself an indicator of profound transformations in social consciousness in Mexico. That is indeed, in itself, quite “revolutionary.”

Think about the United States. If the effigy of Barack Obama was burned in downtown Washington in the middle of a protest of 200,000 people chanting “Obama out now!” that would be big news, even if Barack Obama didn’t actually end up stepping down.^

All Mexican presidents since 1934 have finished their terms. There have always been elections every six years. The idea that somehow the president is the center of the entire political solar system is very much engrained in the Mexican political consciousness, much as it is in the United States. The very fact, then, that we have hundreds of thousands people shouting “Get out, Peña” while his effigy burns in the Zócalo is revolutionary. This is a major transformation of the political system in Mexico.

If he leaves, whether that will help or not…. I think yes, if he stepped down, that would be a major achievement of the movement and would mark a historical break that something is happening in Mexico. Could things get worse? Of course. The military could step in. The U.S. government could step in. Right wing crazies or the church could step into power. [His resignation] wouldn’t guarantee a positive outcome. But it would be an indication that democracy is actually alive in Mexico.

Any democratic system has mechanisms for regenerating political leadership in situations of social crisis and a lack of social legitimacy. In Latin America, over the past two decades, we’ve seen this time and time again. This is a healthy, natural way for a democracy to regenerate itself. If the people in power no longer have the confidence of the people, the natural thing to do is to regenerate itself by changing the politicians in power. The fact that this is not happening in Mexico — or at least not yet — is an indication that we are not in a democracy, that there is not sufficient separation between the state as such and the people in temporary control of state power yet.

For Peña to step down would be seen by some as an indication of an incredible historic “crisis” and lead to “anarchy.” But in fact it would create an important opportunity for political renewal. Mexico needs political renewal. Only Cuba has had less transformation of its political class over the past few decades than Mexico. We have had the same people in power [in Mexico] for 85 years. Peña is young but he’s from the state of Mexico, and from the same old mafia of politicians from the past. Even on the left, the PRD — all these guys are exactly the same people as 20 or 30 years ago, while all throughout Latin American there has been a renewal of the political class and political change. In Mexico, we’ve never had a way to channel this social discontent and now it’s finally coming out.

I’m very hopeful. I can’t predict whether this movement will still be alive in six months, but even if the protests stopped tomorrow, this movement has marked a significant accumulation of social power and strength relative to the previous three years’ movements and if this one is somehow artificially burnt out quickly, next year we’ll have another one. The social empowerment, consciousness and discontent with the political class as it is today in Mexico are not going to go away automatically or overnight.

If Peña doesn’t step down, we’ll likely have a tense four years, but that might actually be good too. It will give time for society to accumulate more power and strength and organization to finally bring about a change in politics in Mexico. I’m optimistic that profound changes in the way that politics are done in Mexico are underway. What we’re seeing here, particularly among the youth, has enormous potential for change. But it will depend on international solidarity for that power for change to not be repressed.

That’s what’s happening politically. What kinds of changes need to take place legally? There are a lot of things that are happening that are not getting international media attention, such as la ley anti-marcha.

The typical strategy of the governing political class in Mexico has always been to try to use law to try to pretend that they’re taking action or to pass laws that legalize repression. Both the dangerous new proposal to “regulate marches” and Peña Nieto’s new “10 point plan” try to skirt the underlying issue of political legitimacy. Yet again, that’s why this uprising is so different. That tired old strategy is sounding much more hollow to the Mexican people. They are neither hopeful in bureaucratic fixes nor fearful of legalistic fist pounding. They’ve been hearing the same thing for the past 20 or 30 years.

What really needs to happen is a transformation of the political class. Mexicans need to reengage themselves with the state. Only 21 percent of Mexicans are satisfied with the functioning of their democracy; this is the lowest percentage in all of Latin America. Only Honduras has a lower number. Again, only 6.2 percent of crimes are investigated. Only 10 percent of crimes are even reported to the authorities. Ninety percent of people [affected by crime] don’t trust the authorities enough to even report crimes. Is that going to be solved through technical training or new courthouses? No. It speaks to a lack of confidence in the entire political system.

The question is whether Mexico will turn out in the next five or ten years like Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, El Salvador, Colombia or Honduras? What we’re seeing today in these protests is that the situation as it is in Mexico today is no longer sustainable. We will have to have change, political change over the next five-10 years and the question is: Which direction is it going to go? And that’s what all of us interested in Mexico need to be thinking about.

The good news is that we have time. This is not going to be decided tomorrow or the next day. The next three years are going to be crucial and historic, defining the future of Mexico. That’s what gives me confidence. What is happening right now is cause for optimism. We have an opening up in history. It doesn’t happen all the time. History is opening and we have a great opportunity to fill it.

^Ackerman is making reference to the burning of the effigy of Peña Nieto in Mexico City’s Zócalo during the November 20 protest.