Mexico’s Doctors, Health Workers Send Out an SOS

Dr. Adela Rivas Obe had a stellar reputation. In addition to being a respected member of her profession, Rivas was by many accounts socially committed. A supervisor of Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) in the Costa Grande of Guerrero state, Rivas walked out of an IMSS clinic September 22 in the small port city of Zihuatanejo and vanished. On October 11, the 52-year-old doctor’s decomposed remains were recovered from a rocky area off Zihuatanejo’s La Majahua beach, a place where previous victims of organized crime and feminicides have been dumped.

>From the beginning, friends and family members strongly suspected that Rivas’ disappearance had something to do with her investigation of the theft of expensive psychotropic and pain medicine from IMSS clinics. In Rivas’s hometown of Atoyac de Alvarez on the Costa Grande, where the physician had once served as a city councilor for the PRD party, citizens mobilized to demand her return. An early remark by Guerrero State Prosecutor Xavier Olea Pelaez that a “crime of passion” constituted one of the two lines of investigation in Rivas’ disappearance sparked the ire of relatives and associates.

Subsequent developments later forced Olea to issue an apology. Lending credence to relatives’ original assertions, the Michoacan Office of the State Attorney General (PGJE) announced October 23 the arrest of a suspect in the Michoacan coastal city of Lazaro Cardenas, precisely on the grounds that the man, initially identified only as a co-worker of Rivas’ named Edgar Arturo N, had stolen medicine and murdered Dr. Rivas in an attempt to cover up the theft.

The PGJE alleged that the suspect took advantage of his professional association to lure Dr. Rivas to La Majahua and kill her before fleeing to Lazaro Cardenas, which is located about an hour’s drive from Zihuatanejo.  According to Olea, the suspect’s detention was carried out by state law enforcement officials from Zihuatanejo and La Union, Guerrero. The detainee, whose arrest was made possible by means of cell-phone tracking, admitted to selling stolen medicine for profit, Olea said.

The life and death of Adela Rivas became the backdrop as hundreds of public sector doctors and other healthcare workers staged October 23 demonstrations in the Guerrero cities of Atoyac, Chilpancingo and Acapulco in commemoration of the Day of the Doctor and to protest what they say are mounting attacks, both physical and political, on the health care sector and its workers. “This situation must change. This situation cannot continue like it is,” Bolivar Rojas Rivas,” son of the murdered doctor, told protesters in Atoyac.

“For the dignity of the profession, we say that we are doctors, not gods, not criminals,” read messages displayed in the streets.

In an Acapulco demonstration, Dr. Jose Maria Morelos Martinez, president of the Guerrero State Doctors Association, charged that 75 percent of doctors in Guerrero had been a victim of some type of crime, “whether it’s kidnapping, extortion, for not treating a (gangland) patient or for treating a patient from the rival criminal group.” The risks to civilian health care personnel are so great, Morelos said, that anyone who is injured in an incident involving organized crime should be treated in a military hospital for security reasons.

Besides Dr. Rivas, members of the healing profession remembered Adriana Ramos Garcia during this year’s demonstrations. A 22-year-old nursing student who attended the Autonomous University of Guerrero (UAG), Ramos and a co-worker were shot to death October 22 at Acapulco’s Charlotte cake shop where they worked. Condemning the young student’s violent death, the UAG said Ramos’ life was cut short when she was working to pay for her studies.

“This is an indignant act for the university community,” the UAG said in a statement. “We demand that the state prosecutor’s office arrest and punish the responsible parties for the murder, as stipulated by law.”

State Prosecutor Olea later said his office was looking at extortion as a motive in the weekend double slayings, but still needed to interview Charlotte’s owners.

Violence against health care professionals was also sharply condemned at an October 23 march and rally in Mexico City attended by an estimated 1,500 people. Antonio Vital, representative of the Public Employees and Health Workers Alliance, denounced that more than 20 doctors and nurses had been killed or disappeared, mainly in the states of Guerrero, Sinaloa, Chiapas and Veracruz.

“It’s as if we aren’t human beings just because we are public servants,” added rally organizer Veronica Sosapavon. “Interns that haven’t even finished their careers have been abducted by narcos, obviously to treat their associates. There is no security in this, no protection from the National Human Rights Commission, from the institutions.”

In a separate but related development, El Diario de Juarez reported October 24 that emergency medical responders from the Red Cross and municipal government are under renewed threats warning them not to treat victims of gangland shootings in urban Juarez as well as the neighboring Juarez Valley, both of which have witnessed an upsurge in violence during the past few months. The threats recall the so-called narco war of 2008-12, when first responders risked their lives to treat shooting victims. Efren Matamoros Barraza, municipal director of civil protection, confirmed that first responders do not arrive to the scene of a shooting without the protection of police.

Although insecurity ranks high on the list of health care professionals’ grievances, the Day of the Doctor 2016 was also the occasion to oppose the privatization of health care services, reject the universal health care system promoted by the Pena Nieto administration, call for better health care for the Mexican population, and demand an end to doctor-bashing, or the “criminalization” of medical personnel for health care outcomes beyond their reasonable control.

The National Council of Military Veterans’ Hernando Martinez Aguilar and other speakers at the Mexico City event likewise criticized labor policies, lay-offs, speed-ups, budget cuts, medicine shortages, obsolete equipment, and the lack of medical specialists.  Apart from Mexico City and Guerrero, protests were staged in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Veracruz, Nuevo Leon, and Jalisco. The issues raised harkened back to many of the same ones vented during the mass #YoSoy17 health care professional movement of 2014.

Many health care professionals remain more than skittish about the Pena Nieto administration’s planned universal health care expansion, as was evidenced at a symposium held last week in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo attended by 200 government hospital employees and UAG students. A scheduled presentation by Guerrero State Health Secretary Carlos de la Pena Pinto was canceled but other government representatives assured the assembled crowd that the universal health care plan would deliver comprehensive, quality services without subjecting patients to “economic ruin or impoverishment, now or in the future,” in the words of El Sur daily.

The official line got push-back from doctors who warned of an even greater saturation of an already-oversaturated system that lacks basic supplies and adequate personnel.  Dr. Jose Eduardo Navarro, rheumatologist for the public hospital in Chilpancingo, told the symposium that if his workload increased any more he would simply resign, causing the state of Guerrero to lose its only specialist in the field.

“Why should one believe you all?” questioned Dr. Javier Merino, an employee of the public ISSSTE system. “I remember (President) Salinas saying we were already in the First World, (President) Zedillo knowing how to do it, and (President) Pena giving us a bunch of reforms which have deceived everyone and only managed to hurt society while benefiting the few. Why should one believe in the health care policy?”

For background:

Sources:  La Jornada, October 24, 2016. Article by Patricia Munoz Rios. El Universal, October 24, 2016. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), October 23, 2016. Article by Rodolfo Valadez Luviano. El Diario de Juarez, October 23, 2016., October 22, 2016. El Sur, October 22, 24 and 25, 2016. Articles by Beatriz Garcia, Carlos Navarrete Romero, Abel Salgado, Francisco Magana, Jacob Morales Antonio, and Agencia Reforma.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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