Under the Volcano: Human Rights, Official Torture, and the Future of Mexican Democracy

Article excerpt

This article is adapted from the address delivered by Acosta at the State University College of Buffalo, New York, this past summer.

When describing the human-rights situation in Mexico, one must compete with an enormous disinformation campaign from a Mexican government bent on publicizing its "achievements" in the human-rights field. Although the previous administration-that of Carlos Salinas-was the first in Mexico's history to publicly acknowledge that human-rights abuses were a serious problem, this acknowledgment was no meritorious accomplishment. Instead of being the consequence of an enlightened social policy, it was, rather, the result of internal pressure on the one hand and negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the other. And even as the government worked to give the impression that human-rights abuses were, at long last, effectively being dealt with, the actual situation grew considerably worse. That it was all purely a cosmetic policy became transparent on january 1 of this year when the Zapatista Liberation Army of Chiapas emerged on the scene.

The problem of human-rights abuse is deeply rooted in Mexico's political history. It is a systemic and structural problem dating back many decades. In 1910, in one of the first social revolutions of the twentieth century, the central issue for Mexico was democracy--the holding of free and fair elections. To this issue, other important demands were added as successive layers of the population mobilized and joined the revolutionary effort. Emiliano Zapata, for example, leader of the Indian peasants, made his famous call for "land and liberty." Then there was the workers' movement demanding basic labor rights. Over the years, efforts toward democracy expanded into a broader cry for a series of rudimentary social, economic, and political liberties--many of which were the same as those of the independence movement a hundred years back.

Today, the various enlightened political groups of Mexico persist in the same effort. And though the much-sought-for rights actually appear in the Mexican constitution and have superficially been part of governmental policy from time to time, the large majority of the Mexican people continue to live in a condition of extreme injustice. Over half the population subsists below the poverty line, and, after 65 years of domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico still hasn't had one truly free, independent election. The demands of the Mexican revolution therefore continue to go unmet.

At the end of the 1920s, after two decades of civil war, the present political system dominated by the PRI was put into place. It was the result of a very broad coalition of various political groupings, social organizations, and revolutionary armies which had sprouted up throughout the country. Their leaders finally realized they were not going to get anywhere by military means alone, so they set up a political system that enabled the ruling elite to settle its affairs without bloodshed. This system provided Mexico with a stability unknown in the rest of Latin America. It also provided a certain betterment of the people's situation: a massive land-reform effort was launched; Mexico's natural resources were nationalized; free education became universal; and a middle class emerged.

With subsequent urbanization, Mexico grew into an increasingly complex society. With large numbers of people securing higher education, demands for a more democratic way of life became stronger (and have remained strong for a good 25 years). Opposition parties began to spring up. The press became more independent. And other marks of a pluralist and democratic society began to evidence themselves. Unfortunately, the political system did not respond favor, ably to these new forces; it became increasingly rigid, oppressive, and authoritarian. In 1968, there was a vast student movement in Mexico, not dissimilar to other such movements in various parts of the world at that time--but in Mexico the students were demanding very basic civil and political rights. …