The world media gave Mexico its sudden and typically short attention with the colourful site of the balaclava clad Zapatista guerrilla commanders leading there showcased convoy from their hidden bases in the Lacondon jungle to the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City.
The huge number in the cheering crowds, estimated as high as a hundred thousand, that listened to the commandantes give there passionate speeches in the central "Zocalo", showed the vast public sympathy for them and added to the powerful bargaining position the EZLN have created for themselves. However as in other cases of negotiations between popular paramilitaries and democratic, capitalist governments, the business of talks has been slow to start and fraught with difficulties.
While many in the Mexican right and media accuse the Zapatistas of being unclear in their demands it seems that the basics of what they are asking for is quite straight forward: the de-escalation of the military presence in Chiapas, the release of key prisoners, and the legalisation and enactment of the San Andres accords which provide a bill of rights for the indigenous people and give limited autonomy to some of the Chiapas communities. The problem is that, although the populist Vicente Fox would love to have the achievement of having resolved this conflict under his belt, he and his party follow a neo-liberal ideology and the intentions of the Zapatistas with their ideas of communal ownership and direct democracy are simply way too radical for them and go against all their economic and political principles. Furthermore, while Chiapas is an impoverished region, it is rich in resources and is of great potential interest to the government and its corporate friends.
A large share of the media attention has focussed on the photogenic image of the balaclava wearing, pipe smoking Subcomandante Marcos, supposed by the authorities to be Rafael GuillÈn, a former professor of philosophy. Marcos is indeed an interesting character with a unique style of philosophical writing and entrancing, lyrical speeches that have made some credit him as being one of the best contemporary authors and poets in Latin America. The marketing of his image as a revolutionary hero has been deliberately fostered by the Zapatista movement, and the widespread selling of T-shirts and posters with his face has helped build support for the movement, particularly among the youth of Mexico’s majority working class. Thus far Marcos has proved to be an exceptional leader in his military strategy, use of the media, and political negotiation. However, only time will tell if he will use the powerful, personality cult built around him for purely positive purposes.
The huge amount of support the Zapatistas have inspired outside of Chiapas, mainly among individuals, not states or political parties, has immeasurably strengthened their movement. They have had a huge impact on the European left providing an incredible example of revolutionary possibilities in the post cold war age and the consequential arrival of foreign volunteers and political observers has been an important factor in defending Zapatista communities from the army and paramilitaries. What is more worrying for members of the Mexican middle and upper classes is the mass sympathy for the EZLN across the republic, particularly among the poor in the capital, many of whom are in desperate situations. However, unlike the traditional revolutionary left, the Zapatistas have always maintained that they have no aspirations to take state power and when the EPR, Popular Liberation Army, began a guerrilla campaign in 1996 with this intention, the EZLN distanced themselves.
Many Mexicans put their faith in Vicente Fox as someone who could provide a fresh start after seventy two years of rule by the thoroughly corrupt PRI. However, four months into his office there are complaints that people are still facing the same problems of poverty, insecurity, and corruption.
Figures as to the scale of poverty vary, and depend much on the analyst’s definition and agenda, but same say it is experienced by as many as fifty million or fifty percent of Mexicans. It is a solid fact that the minimum wage is three dollars a day in a country where food is cheap, but virtually all packaged consumer goods are imported and sold at prices often higher than the country of their brand (i.e. the United States). There is a substantial middle class of small business owners and professionals, particularly in the capital, but low wages or profits put much of them in a difficult economic position, similar to that of the unskilled working class in the first world.
Supporters of Fox invariably maintain that his policies need time to take effect and this a reasonable argument as four months is a short time after seven decades of one party rule. However, it is not certain whether his neo-liberal policies, based on a faith in the power of the deregulated free market, will ever really improve life for the majority of Mexicans. For example, the government is currently attempting to privatise parts of the electricity network, threatening the access of poorer Mexicans to one of the basic services.
There is a widely held belief that if the so called developing countries work hard enough at trying to emulate the economic systems of the first world they will arrive at their standard of living. This myth fails to take into account that all third world states are developing their economies under completely different conditions from the northern countries. When was the U.S. or Germany for example completely dominated by foreign companies? The NAFTA agreement incorporated Mexico further into the economic system of North America allowing the free movement of goods and capital without the free movement of labour. Thus general motors produce cars in Mexico, paying workers a third of what they pay them in Detroit and then sell them back to the Mexicans at a higher price than people are paying north of the border.
Of course the reality is that Mexican labour is crossing the vast frontier in mass and this is one of the key issues in the Mexican- American relationship. To his credit, Fox is trying to address this issue and in his recent visit to the states he voiced support for the migrant workers. While U.S. factories and farms are demanding the labour it can only make sense to regulate it and not force hundreds of thousands to risk their lives crossing the perilous northern desert. However, adding to the estimated twenty million of Mexican origin now in the States is difficult for America’s reactionary forces to stomach and in his visit Fox was heckled by demonstrators heralding banners with statements such as "Stop the illegal invasion or lose your country".
Just as it is impossible to stop the flow of migrants there is something else heading north that cannot be controlled: cocaine. The statistics surrounding the Mexican drug trade are startling. As high as seventy percent of the cocaine consumed in the USA is thought to come through Mexico as well as a substantial amount of the marijuana, heroin and amphetamine. 22, 680 kilos of cocaine were seized by the U.S. authorities in the year 2000, a loss sustained by the Mexican Cartels that still make combined profits estimated higher than fifteen billion dollars annually. Furthermore, the number of people living off earnings related to the drug trade is considered to number as high as three hundred thousand. All this obviously has an extremely detrimental and destabilising effect on the Mexican Republic.
First there is the problem of violence directly related to the cartels which is particularly high in key drug trafficking cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Sinoloa where last year there was an average of 1.2 murders a day. Secondly there has been a massive rise in crime generally during the 1990s, particularly in the capital where the population now lives in a climate of fear of violent robbery, carjacking, and kidnapping. Though it is not possible to prove a definite link between the drug cartels and the other violent urban crime it is apparent that they have both risen at the same time. Furthermore, on the streets of Mexico there is a wide availability of cocaine and a form of it similar to crack that sells for $3.5 U.S. a rock, and a large percentage of arrested delinquents have traces of narcotics in their blood. Finally, one of the key crimes, car theft, is something that needs extensive crime organisations behind it with many of the stolen vehicles ending up in other countries in the Americas o even in Europe.
The corrupting effect of the billions of dollars of drug money on the civil society is devastating. On a grass root level police officers who generally earn little more than $300 a month are bought off in mass. And the rot continues to the highest level with the drug fighting army general Jes�s GutiÈrez Rebollo being arrested in 1997 for being on the pay of the Juarez mob while Ra�l Salinas, brother of the ex president, was imprisoned for plotting a murder and investigated for tens of millions of dollars of unaccounted for assets, supposed to be connected to narcotics.
The USA’s reaction to the strength of the cartels is one, as in Colombia, of confrontation. Thus the DEA is appealing for more funds, looking for more involvement in Mexican law enforcement and seeking to extradite more drug traffickers. Sadly it seems that, with the colossal size of the market created by North American consumers, the presumption that they can destroy the trade by brute force is mistaken.
Although there are many sad cases of people being addicted or dying of crack and cocaine the vast majority of it is consumed by a huge number of people in America and Europe on a casual basis. Thus the principal victims of the drug trade are really the societies of Colombia, Central America, and Mexico. One solution to this problem would be the legalisation of cocaine, something impossible for the powerful in North America to accept in their present mindset.
Ioan Grillo in Mexico City