Mexican authorities this past week suppressed two demonstrations in the border states of Chihuahua and Baja California. The actions drew sharp protests, and cast new doubt on Mexico’s oft-stated commitment to uphold national and international human rights standards.
In the first instance, Ciudad Juarez police commanded by Julian Leyzaola broke up a November 1 march called by the Citizens Plural Front and other groups to demand justice for the 9,000-plus victims of the so-called drug war in the border city since January 2008. Taking to the streets on the first day of Mexico’s Days of the Dead commemoration, the marchers were reportedly painting black crosses in memory of the murdered on buildings when municipal police intervened.
Public security head Leyzaola and his spokesman Adrian Sanchez accused the marchers of damaging private property, resisting arrest, assaulting officers and even attempting to pull a gun from one of the officers. They also alleged protesters threw paint or an adhesive glue at officers but did not immediately produce physical evidence to support the claim.
“The demonstrators committed a crime and, therefore, they were detained,” Sanchez was quoted in the border press.
The marchers, however, had a far different story, which was partially backed up videos broadcast on Mexican television. Plural Front activist Gero Fong charged that detained marchers were beaten, kicked and forced to remain on their knees for an hour once brought to the Aldama police station. Twenty-nine people were detained, including two photo-journalists from El Diario de Juarez newspaper and Radionet who were briefly held and then released.
Despite the seriousness of the charges lodged against them by police, most of the detainees were released after posting $40 bonds. In an interview with the Mexican press published three days after the November 1 incident, Chief Leyzaola continued defending the police response, maintaining he is paid to enforce the law and the marchers were not only violating it but infringing on the rights of ¨third parties.”
In Tijuana, Baja California, 22 people (16 men and 6 women) were evicted from a protest encampment near city hall early on the morning of November 2. State and city officials said the group, which was protesting the possible cutting of trees in order to clear ground for a new city plaza and cathedral, was violating city ordinances prohibiting sleeping in public and occupying common green spaces.
Journalists were prevented from covering the nighttime raid that reportedly was carried out by 120 state and municipal police, firemen and other city employees. Baja California Governor Jose Osuna Millan cited public safety as the justification for the eviction, while Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante said the media wasn’t permitted to monitor the action because it would have disturbed neighbors.
The eviction was the second one conducted against protesters in Tijuana within the last month. In October, police raided and dismantled the Occupy Tijuana encampment in another section of the city. Following both raids, the Baja California State Attorney General for Human Rights said it was investigating protesters complaints related to the denial of constitutional guarantees.
By Thursday, November 3, the pro-environment group that was the target of the latest raid had returned to city hall, demanding a meeting with Mayor Bustamante.
In Ciudad Juarez, the November 1 incident has triggered a new crisis in governance and public confidence in the ability of authorities to respect human rights in a city already immersed in violence.
Even the staid, mainstream Mexican television anchor and commentator Joaquin Doriga expressed outrage at the police action. The spectacle of officers wielding long arms while detaining and roughing up demonstrators was something not seen “anywhere in the world,” Televisa’s Doriga told millions of Mexican and international viewers.
Amnesty International and other international groups quickly condemned the police crackdown. The London-based human rights organization demanded that Mexican authorities guarantee the physical integrity of protesters and respect the rights of free association and freedom of expression.
“The maintenance of public order should not be a pretext to curb these rights..,” Amnesty said in a statement.
In neighboring El Paso, Texas, a November 3 press conference was organized by more than a dozen human rights, labor, pro-migrant and religious groups. Speakers demanded that the United States government cut-off anti-drug Merida Initiative funding to cities like Ciudad Juarez which violate human rights, and called on Washington to ease red-tape in asylum requests for persecuted Mexican activists and journalists.
Annunication House, the Border Network for Human Rights, Occupy El Paso and Mexicans in Exile were among other organizations endorsing or attending the press conference.
November’s crisis comes at a juncture when Ciudad Juarez authorities and the local business class are attempting to “cleanse” their city’s negative image and attract new foreign investment. Ciudad Juarez’s streets are showing some signs of rebound, as some restaurants do a brisk or healthy business and large crowds venture out shopping during the day.
The police/activist showdown came hot on the heels of the Competitive Juarez, a two-week long gala affair of celebrity appearances, conferences, parties, star-studded performances and even an airshow at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso. The keynote speakers of the October event included Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudolph Giuliani.
In an aesthetic sideshow to Competitive Juarez, local photographers including expat Monica Lozano have been plastering 1,000 “happy faces” of locals on the concrete embankments of the Rio Grande as a way of giving a different feel to their embattled city. Sponsored by the Inside Out project, the happy faces on the dry Rio represent a cry from people who are “tired of pure negativity,” Lozano said.
Coinciding with the official campaign to give the city a boost and impose order, Chief Leyzaola and his officers have been very busy in recent days detaining street vendors and bus drivers over permit issues. Last month, local cops were criticized for detaining a group of young people from the Independent Popular Organization that was in the streets collecting money for youth projects.
Only two days before their November 1 confrontation with the police, members of the Plural Front participated in a press conference along with a national trade association representing commercial tourism operators. Gathered in a well-known restaurant, the participants accused the Federal Police of extorting bus tourism operators and commercial truckers on highways in Chihuahua and several other Mexican states.
Ismael Hernandez Orozco, Ciudad Juarez representative for the FOAT trade group, contended that federal police force bus operators to undergo lengthy revisions and then shake them down for money. The extortion practice has been going on for years, Hernandez alleged. “The only thing that changes are the commanders and the policemen,” he said.
Long distance cargo haulers are another favorite target of the money-hunting cops, Hernandez said, with some officers even reportedly getting upset if they don’t find any contraband and interrogating drivers why they don’t have any with them. In an October 31 letter to Federal Police head Luis Cardenas Palomino, the FOAT detailed more than two dozen extortion incidents on Mexican highways in the last seven months.
Only minutes after the Plural Front/FOAT press conference ended, a Mexican military vehicle with a large, mounted machine gun pulled up in the restaurant’s parking lot in an area readily visible from the inside. The soldiers hung around for a few minutes before departing; it is not known why they made the stop since routine street patrols by the army supposedly ended months ago and were replaced by the Federal Police.
In earlier comments to Frontera NorteSur, Plural Front activist Julian Contreras said the then-upcoming November 1 march and cross placing was part of a new popular mobilization against violence, militarism and impunity. Contreras took the occasion to condemn the murder of Carlos Sinhue Cuevas, a young Mexico City student activist who was killed late last month.
Contreras was critical of the Mexican government´s Ciudad Juarez anti-crime strategy, contending that it focused on the “lower stratum” of lawbreakers from the working-class while letting white collar ones off the hook. The murder of so many presumed, low-income “criminals” by death-squad-like groups in his city has the characteristics of a “social cleansing,” Contreras charged. Young people rank high among the thousands of victims.
While local newspaper columnist Don Mirone praised Competitive Juarez as a “breath of fresh air” that will help spring the border city’s industrial might back on two square feet, Contreras said what the city needed was more social cooperation as opposed to individualistic competition. And local activists, he said, take heart in the worldwide protests of occupiers and indignados.
“The movement represents the fed-up youth of the world’s nations, which are excluding young people,” Contreras added. “This movement is very hopeful.”