Was it the State?
Two months ago today in Mexico, on September 26, María de los Ángeles Pineda, wife of the former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, prepared to give a speech in which she was to report on her work as president of the local public institution dedicated to social assistance (DIF). At the same time, a group of students from the Normal School Ayotzinapa—an institution well known for its tradition in political resistance—were on their way to Iguala (apparently, in buses they had hijacked) to protest government education reforms. The mayor, afraid that the students might interfere with his wife’s speech and jeopardize her aspirations to become the next mayoress, gave orders to the police to stop them. In a series of vicious clashes with the police, six people including three students were killed (one had his eyes torn out and his face flayed to a skull), and 43 students disappeared.
According to the reconstruction of the facts provided by the Attorney General of Mexico, the 43 students were loaded on a pickup truck and driven to the nearby Cocula, where they were handed over to a drug gang known as Guerreros Unidos (Warriors United). As reported by three arrested members of this group, the students were then killed and burned (some of them still alive) on a pyre. It appears that both José Luis Abarca and his wife were members of Guerreros Unidos, that the mayor used public funds to transfer between 2 and 3 million pesos a month to the criminal group (roughly between £90,000 and £140,000), and that he had previously assassinated one of his political enemies.
In one of the mass protests that have taken place since the students went missing, a sign was painted in Mexico City’s main square that read: “It was the State.” A photo of the sign circulated widely on the Internet, and the phrase became a viral hashtag in social networks. In response, Mexico’s Attorney General said that “Iguala is not the Mexican State.”
Was it the State?
Some, like María Amparo Casar, think saying “it was the State” is equivalent to saying that what happened in Iguala is a state crime, and that such an accusation is a mistake. Casar warns that we should be careful with words. She notes that the federal government does have some responsibility in the matter: for its slow reaction, for the weakness of its institutions, for a failed strategy when it comes to insecurity, and more; it is not, however, responsible of a state crime, because state crimes, she argues, involve a “massive and indiscriminate destruction,” they are usually accompanied by a justifying discourse on the part of the government, and all branches of government are involved, either by action or omission. In a similar vein, Eduardo Alamillo argues that, under a very “strict and simplistic reading,” the lack of security in Mexico is the responsibility of the government, because it is breaching its constitutional obligations. This perspective, however, argues Alamillo, “is not useful” for the practical purposes of resolving the case and pacifying the country.
Two ideas seem to be prominent in this perspective: (1) That one should not accuse a government of a crime committed by one or more individual members of that government, and (2) that it is unhelpful to speak of a state crime (presumably because it does not help to identify and convict the individual perpetrators).
On the other side of the debate, the Spanish statement published online by Amnesty International argues that Mexico’s Attorney General has failed to recognise that the Ayotzinapa case is a state crime. The forced disappearance of the students, argues Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International, is not an isolated case, but rather the last tragedy “in a long line of horrors that have been happening in Guerrero and elsewhere in the country.” Crime in Mexico seems to have become systemic. Juan Pablo Becerra-Acosta believes that it was the state, not only because those who perpetrated the crimes were representatives of the Mexican government, but also because intelligence groups—he claims, of the Army, the Navy, the Federal Police, and the Centre for Research and National Security—knew, months ago, about Abarca’s illicit activities. Becerra-Acosta concludes that it was the State, through both direct involvement and negligence.
Even if the Federal government could not be accused of omissions, Santiago Corcuera, a member of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, points out that Article 41 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (which Mexico ratified in 2008) specifies that “The provisions of this Convention shall apply to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.” Likewise, in the Chapter on Attribution of Conduct to a State in the UN Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Article 4 reads:
1. The conduct of any State organ shall be considered an act of that State under international law (…) whatever position it holds in the organization of the State, and whatever its character as an organ of the central Government or of a territorial unit of the State.
2. An organ includes any person or entity which has that status in accordance with the internal law of the State.
If one believes that there is evidence to think that crime in Mexico has become institutionalised, that there was negligence on the part of the Federal government, and/or that Mexico has good reason to abide by the international agreements it has ratified, then it seems that the first point against the idea of describing the Ayotzinapa atrocities as a state crime is refuted.
Regarding the second point, the alleged practical unhelpfulness of saying that it was the State is questionable. Pointing to the State as a possible perpetrator does not seem incompatible in any way with finding and trying individual wrongdoers (consider the Nuremberg trials). Acknowledging Mexicans’ distrust of their own government has a further practical advantage: if the Mexican State is suspected of systemic corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing, it is evident that the State itself is not the appropriate agent to investigate and judge its own case. International actors like the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the UN, and Amnesty International are needed. The Mexican State is being questioned by its citizens—the burning of a model of President Peña Nieto in one of the numerous protests that have been organised, the online petitions for the President’s resignation, the refusal to accept the government’s version of the story on the part of the disappeared students’ parents, and the demand via radio that the President resign by November 29 of a group of students from Ayotzinapa are some of the signs of the general discontent and distrust in the government experienced in Mexico.
But perhaps the most crucial consideration upon which the debate as to whether it was the State or not hinges is whether there is a state to pinpoint in the first place. If we take Max Weber’s definition of the state—“a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”—then it is not clear that there is such a thing as the Mexican State. Almost on any account of the most plausible sources of legitimacy (consent, beneficial consequences, public reason and democratic approval), the Mexican government is bound to score low at this point. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, with dozens of drug cartels fighting each other, terrorising citizens, and even taxing them in the form of a regular “floor rent” (derecho de piso), it is beyond question that the government has lost its monopoly on the use of physical force or violence. Arguably, the most important obligation of a government, one of its most essential raisons d’être, is to provide security to its citizens, and the Mexican government is undoubtedly failing in this regard. Perhaps the most accurate appraisal of Mexico has been expressed by Uruguayan President José Mujica (even though he later retracted): “It gives one the sense, seen from a distance, that this is a kind of failed state, in which public authorities have completely lost control. They have been devoured from the inside,” Mujica told the Latin American language edition of Foreign Affairs.
This might seem like a grim note to end on, but the voids of power left by the government are at the same time opportunities to be filled in by citizens. Protests might be necessary, but they are not enough to bring about positive change. The government’s shortcomings must be met with effective coordination on the part of citizens. If crime can organise, so can civil society.
(Thanks to Theron Pummer for discussion. Don’t miss his excellent post on the value of security tomorrow.)