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Mexican firebrands mount call for self-rule: 'It’s time for the people to take power'






http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/16/mexican-guerrero-self-rule-protests?CMP=ema_565











Away from the spotlight of protests over the disappearance of 43 student teachers, Guerrero may prove a much more serious challenge to state authority





 

 A community police officer looks on at the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College before leaving for Iguala with the relatives of the 43 missing trainee teachers, in Tixtla, Guerrero. Photograph: Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters












Jo Tuckman in Tecoanapa

Friday 16 January 2015 08.24 EST












Milling around the front steps of the town hall, about 20 men with shotguns began the night watch sipping coffee from styrofoam cups and munching cakes.




The atmosphere was relaxed, but the message was one of revolution.




“It’s time for the people to take power,” said Jésus, one of the guards.



“The government has not been able to fulfill its role – and the people are waking up.”







Over the past three months, dozens of town halls across Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero have been taken over by members of an amorphous movement calling for “popular government”. 




The protesters – some of whom are armed – have also called for the army to close its bases and leave the region.





Guerrero is a state steeped in a history of rebellion: it was the setting for some of the first uprisings of the Mexican revolution, and home to the country’s most famous rural guerrilla army of the 1970s.




But the current wave of unrest was triggered by the disappearance last September of 43 student teachers in the city of Iguala, after they were attacked by municipal police in league with a local drug cartel.




 

A demonstrator smashes the window of a traffic patrol vehicle during a protest in Guerrero State, Mexico. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images











Anger over the case has prompted months of street protests against President Enrique Peña Nieto. But away from the spotlight, the growing calls for self-rule in Guerrero may prove a much more serious challenge to state authority.







“We took over the town hall as way of pressuring the government to do more to find the missing students, but this goes further now,”
said Jésus, outside Tecoanapa’s town hall. 





“We are dismantling the old institutions.”





That kind of talk resonates particularly loudly in the region around Tecoanapa: 17 of the missing students grew up in towns and villages of the Costa Chica, a remote and poverty-stricken region which stretches from the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur down to the Pacific Ocean.








The victims include the two eldest sons of Doña Oli Parral who, like many parents of the disappeared, have grown tired of peaceful protest and polite calls for justice.






“We shout our slogans and it makes no difference. The government doesn’t listen to us,” she said, sitting in her spartan home in the village of Xalpatlahuac, just outside Teconapa. 



“If they want peace then give back the kids.”






In the Costa Chica, the occupations are led by a group of radical teachers’ unions and the Union of Organized Peoples of Guerrero (UPOEG), a network of vigilantes formed two years ago to combat the killings, kidnapping and extortion by drug gangs in the area.




“The narcos did with us what they wanted. People were intimidated, frightened, and desperate,” says Huricel Cruz, a teacher and former student at the radical Ayotzinapa training college where the 43 missing students were enrolled. 



“Then the people took control and things calmed down.”





The Guerrero militias emerged alongside other vigilante movement in the neighbouring state of Michoacán, although there are important differences.




The Michoacán groups are less ideological, revolve more clearly around local strong men, and are more regularly accused of ties to criminal gangs. Michoacán is also the stage for a high-profile government security operation which broke up one of the country’s most notorious crime syndicates – known as the Family – but has failed to consolidate peace.









Last month 11 people died during a shootout between two of the most prominent Michoacán vigilante strongmen. A further nine died earlier this month in clashes involving a third group and the army.






The Guerrero militias also face divisions and accusations of abuse, and violence remains a problem in the areas where they operate. Even so, traveling in the UPOEG’s heartland of the Costa Chica feels notably safer than it does in other parts of Guerrero, Michoacán and much of the country.





Stationed behind sand bags, or hanging around under the shade of huge amate trees, armed men with buzzing radios check out identities, inspect vehicles, and control comes in and who goes out.





Inside the communities, patrols trudge around on foot and in pickup trucks night and day.





The shotguns they carry, alongside the odd machete, are no match for drug gang arsenals. But, they insist, their sheer numbers and community support deter the criminals far more effectively than the heavily armed state forces they accuse of complicity with the gangs.





“The whole idea of organised crime is a lie,” said Ernesto Gallardo, the head of UPOEG operations in the Costa Chica, who alleged that local police worked hand-in-glove with the criminal gangs. 



“What there is is crime that is negotiated with and tolerated by the government.”





The protestors have nor presented a clear political agenda – but they have made it clear they are determined to prevent elections scheduled for July. 





The authorities insist that the vote must go ahead, but so far, there has been no attempt to remove the protesters by force.





Meanwhile, local officials have been left powerless. In the town of Ayutla de los Libres, ousted mayor Severo Castro has set up a makeshift office in his front patio.





“This can’t happen in Mexico which a country of laws,” he said. “I was elected.”




With the political authorities out of the way – even if only temporarily – the self-government movement is now turning its attention to the biggest symbol of state power of all: the army.





Widespread distrust of the military in Guerrero draws on a history of indiscriminate repression in response to guerrilla activity, as well as the army’s failure to contain the narcos.





The army’s reputation was further damaged by the government’s failure to investigate why troops stationed in the area failed to prevent the Iguala massacre. Some relatives of the missing argue that troops must have been involved in the atrocity.






On Monday violent clashes broke out when protesters demanded to search the army base in Iguala for possible evidence that the disappeared students may have been taken there.




Meanwhile, rumours abound that local guerrilla groups are once taking up arms, and for some in the region, the mounting tension is becoming close to unbearable.








“We are not afraid of the narcos any more,” said farmer Marcelino Pastrano, as he looked out over the undulating tropical landscape disappearing into the horizon below his hilltop town of Tonala. 





“The thing I am afraid of is that the army is going to go against us. And if that happens, there will be a real war.”








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