For those interested in social movements, the 21st century began in Mexico with the uprising of the indigenous Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. Their fight has been a source of inspiration for many other revolutionary movements around the world.
During the following years, Mexican civil society acquired a certain prominence in the so-called “transition to democracy”. After more than seventy years of electoral domination by one party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), a contender won the seat of Mexico City in 1997 and the presidency of the republic in 2000.
Faced with the Zapatista threat and an opposition triumph in the presidential elections, it appeared as though the country was going through a profound process of renovation. There were huge expectations for change.
Two decades later, this hope had entirely faded. The PRI recovered the presidency in 2012, the country continues to draw blood due to high levels of violence and organized crime, and the actions of the military continue violating human rights.
Poverty has reached terrifying levels, corruption is increasingly unashamed, and access to healthcare is difficult for huge sectors of the population.
The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. Meanwhile, budget cuts to public spending are announced, particularly in education, science and technology, and health and social services, the National Electoral Institute (INE) declared a historic budget of more than 1,050 millions of euros for funding of political parties and the organization of the ballots in June.
In view of this situation, questions regarding the results of the so-called ‘democratic transition’ and the expectations it awakened have emerged.
Faced with the Zapatista threat and an opposition triumph in the presidential elections, it appeared as though the country was going through a profound process of renovation.
What happened to that social energy that the Zapatistas provoked almost a quarter of a century ago? Where are the reactions of the citizens that usually mobilize themselves against injustice and impunity?
At a quick glance, it appears that a type of drastic conformity reigns over the country when things fall apart. The media show is focused on the political campaigns through the lens of the republic, violence, or worries regarding the NAFTA negotiations.
Such a gaze is distorted by the means with which the rejection of the current situation is perceived.
John Holloway , author of the preface of the book Teoría volcánica, describes it in the form of a metaphor: the country is a volcano and the beauty and frailty of the snow that graces its peaks hides a scalding reality of rejection, fury, and a search for alternatives, an instability that in any given moment could explode.
Different panorama, different resistance
It would be an error to search for movements and mobilizations in the forms in which they appeared 20 years ago in the age of the so called ‘democratic transition’.
The context in which movements and social resistance are coming to life today is very different from 25 years ago, and therefore so are the actors driving them. These differences impose the necessity to explore in new spaces the shifts that are occurring.
1. The explosion of the internet and social networks provoked changes in the culture of and the organization of many social movements. Social networks allowed for the development of interpersonal and collective organizations that are more flexible in nature. At the same time, new channels of information and communication are opening up among citizens. However, it is important to recognize the limitations of these open possibilities. Internet access is still somewhat limited throughout the country, thus problems regarding misinformation have yet to cease.
The “battle of information” has become an all-out war, with a death toll of 35 Mexican journalists murdered from January of 2016.
The main television channels still retain a wide influence over public opinion. What’s more, Mexico is among the countries in the world with the highest spend on government and political propaganda. The relevance of this field is clear when warnings that the “battle of information” has become an all-out war, with a death toll of 35 Mexican journalists murdered from January of 2016.
2. In the last decade, violence has flared up in Mexico and has become a structural problem, with deep roots in every sector of the economy and public life, including the state and its own institutions. Journalism, defense of human rights and activism have become extremely dangerous activities in the country. The disappearance of 43 students from the Rural School of Ayotzinapa, in the south-east of the state of Guerrero, indicates the peak of a process of criminalizing social movements in general, and youths and students. One way or another, all social actors that organize themselves in Mexico must face this violence, through threats from the drug cartels, destruction of their communities, repression by the state or disappearance of activists. With the exceptions of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity or the protests after the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, the majority of resistance to violence arises at a local level, in the framework of a great distrust towards the state. Additionally, vigilante groups and communities that organise themselves autonomously against the cartels and the state have formed over the past years.
3. Attacks on the territory of indigenous communities can be added to the long list of general aggressions experienced by the population due to the development of mining megaprojects, the installation of Aeolic energy companies, the construction of roads, pipelines, and dams. On the other hand, attempts to privatize resources such as water have recently unfolded. Villages and communities resist this extraction complex that is becoming a central focus of neoliberal economics. The manner with which communities communicate are being renovated and reconfigured, through the experience of different modes of organization that are not only orientated towards the defense of their community but also the construction of alternatives to the domination of capital.
The possible arrival to the presidency of a candidate that embodies honesty and strives to combat corruption could improve the situation, but it will not resolve the structural problems of the country.
4. In comparison with the actors of the previous decades, one of the most profound transformations that affected social movements in Mexico is the loss of the prospect for democratization and the questioning of prospects for emancipation. Almost 20 years ago, the so-called ‘democratic transition’ generated hopes that political alternation would open up new political, economic, and social horizons, that it would put an end to corruption and impose a respect for human rights. 18 years later, and few expectations remain. The possible arrival to the presidency of a candidate that embodies honesty and strives to combat corruption could improve the situation, but it will not resolve the structural problems of the country.
5. A growing number of Mexicans consider the state to be part of their problem rather than the solution to it. What the experiences from this book show us is that resistance movements are not detached from alternatives. Citizens decide themselves who undertakes the construction of their lives, in limited, experimental and contradictory ways. As well as demanding that decisions be made among the most powerful, as a means of defense against attacks, the experiences transcend protest and assume new methods of communication. Many social and resistance movements were created to search for solutions at a local level beyond national reform. In many cases, they have proved successful in offering their members a safer and more dignified life. However, and without denying their achievements, this emancipatory model focused on local autonomy is being questioned.
6. The movements that arise currently do not do so with an institutional-political agenda in mind, but in lieu of the daily problems they experience: violence and aggressions towards women, the search for disappeared family members without the support of the state, the destruction of the Cherán forest, the environmental devastation caused by mining companies, the rise in petrol prices, the lack of resources going towards education. It would be a mistake to oppose these mobilisations in defence of local or personal issues to the preservation of a much higher general interest.
When the parents of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa demand the truth and justice for their children, they are fighting against a system which favours violence and guarantees impunity in the context of every death and disappearance in Mexico.
When a forest is protected or a common farm defended, a whole economic model is being resisted, showing that alternatives are possible, that another Mexico is still standing in spite of everything.
Top Photo | People protesting against human trafficking and slavery raise their fists during a demonstration in Mexico City, Oct. 14, 2017. (AP/Marco Ugarte)
Geoffrey Pleyers is FNRS researcher and professor at the Université de Louvain, Belgium and associate researcher at the Collège d’Etudes Mondiales. He is the president of the Research Committee 47 “Social classes and social movements” of the International Sociological Association. He is the author of “Alter-Globalization. Becoming Actors in the Global Age” (Polity, 2011). Visit his website.
Manuel Garza Zepeda holds a PhD in Sociology from the Autonomous University of Puebla, México. He is a full-time research and professor at the Autonomous University of Oaxaca. His main areas of research are social movements, anticapitalist struggles, open Marxism and critical theory. His latest book is Insurreción, fiesta y construcción de otro mundo en las luchas de la APPO. Oaxaca 2006-2010 (Insurection, party and the building of another world in the struggles of the APPO).
 Holloway, John (2010). “Teoría volcánica”. En J. Holloway, F. Matamoros y S. Tischler (eds), Pensar a contrapelo. Movimientos sociales y reflexión crítica. Buenos Aires: Herramienta.
 The book “México en movimientos” brings together analysis of resistence movements and the construction of alternatives throughout the 14 states of the Republic of Mexico. From various standpoints and experiences, the chapters describe the diverse ways in which the individual capacity to become a subject is reclaimed, departing from a notion that opposes the dominant form of relations: dignity. Pleyers G. Garza M. eds. (2018) México en movimientos. Resistencias y alternativas, México: Porrúa. Prefacios de John Holloway & Eduardo Bautista. Posfacio de Breno Bringel.
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