Dying for the Truth

On the occasion of the Mexican President’s state visit to the UK, Dylan Moore reports from a country locked in a cycle of violence, corruption and impunity

Yes, these are sad and crazy times for Mexico. It is a country that is a victim of corruption, US drug consumption and amoral gun selling, poverty, human trafficking, and where the constant killing of journalists means that the storyteller has become the story. But we cannot think that this, that seems so specific, is Mexico. No. This is the world we are all living in.

–      Jennifer Clements, former President of PEN Mexico

The titles alone tell a story. Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy. Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. Mexico: Democracy Interrupted. On top of the alarming reports issued by PEN International in advance of the freedom-of-speech organisation’s third delegation to Mexico in under four years, a scan of recent nonfiction titles about Central America’s dominant republic are enough to make this humble delegate from newly-formed Wales PEN Cymru more than a little trepidatious.

On arrival in Mexico City, the most unnerving thing is the sense of normality. As Ioan Grillo notes in El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels, ‘Mexico is an advanced country with a trillion dollar economy, several world-class companies, and eleven billionaires. It has an educated middle class with a quarter of young people going to university. It has some of the best beaches, resorts and museums on the planet.’ All of which is eminently evidenced as this megalopolis of more than 20 million people goes about its business amid luxury hotels, the offices of multi-national corporations and – perhaps the ultimate symbol of twenty-first century Western capitalism – a Starbucks on every corner.

But even here, in the relative safety of downtown, signs are here that something is rotten. Police presence is ubiquitous. My parkland stroll up to the history museum is suddenly accompanied by two truckloads of uniformed troops. Outside a government building near my hotel, an Occupy-style encampment has been set up in protest at the inadequacies of the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero state, last September. Its ski-masked campaigners are under observation from a police helicopter circling incessantly above. And the first Mexican I speak to – a taxi driver – takes less than two minutes of small talk to before he gets around to la violencia, el corrupcion and a hand gesture that implies el gobierno are taking for themselves mucho dinero while letting the real problems go untackled.

Jacobo is taking me to Trotsky’s house, where the exiled revolutionary met his famed ice-pick-assisted end. Amid the photos and personal effects of the museum is a story of fear, intrigue and brutal execution that would not be out of place in the Mexico of today. However, it is a quiet, sunlit part of town; Trotsky’s garden is a suntrap, a haven from the gridlock and noise of one of the world’s biggest cities. The driver agrees to wait for me, and parks up around the corner for an afternoon nap, a newspaper folded over his face. When I emerge and we set off, he leans out of the window to pay off a policeman who has had the grace to allow him to remain at the roadside. It is the pettiest act, barely worthy of being called corruption. And yet the small-scale nature of Jacobo’s indiscretion is indicative of endemic, systemic nature of Mexico’s problem. How, I wonder aloud to journalists the following day, can a citizen be so open about denouncing corruption to a foreigner, only minutes later to undermine his own complaint by openly participating in what is clearly ingrained in the country’s culture?

My audience includes Federico Mastrogiovanni, an Italian writer who has lived in Mexico City for six years. His book Ni Vivos, Ni Muertos is the inaugural winner of PEN Mexico’s prize for investigative journalism. The presentation of awards to such writers as Mastrogiovanni is an important part of a strategy to raise awareness of the situation faced by writers and journalists in Mexico. The Italian collects his prize alongside the director of human rights group Article 19 Dario Ramirez, the journalist Pablo Ferri and the grande dame of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, who receives the prize ‘for everything’.

PEN International’s mission is to promote literature and freedom of expression around the world. The organisation therefore has vast experience of sending delegations of prominent writers to bring international attention and pressure to bear upon questionable regimes around the world. But in recent years Mexico has, for numerous reasons, become a particular focus for PEN: subjected to an unprecedented series of major visits. Partly, this is due to the gravity of the situation: 103 journalists killed since 2000, 25 more forcibly disappeared, and with a 90% rate of impunity. It also has something to do with the partial success of previous missions: Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexican president since 2012, has created a constitutional amendment that allows a federal prosecutor to punish crimes against freedom of expression.

However, as became evident throughout my time in Mexico – participating in PEN International’s Summit of the Americas and a large public event, PEN Pregunta – the mechanism for implementing this law is not working. One after another, representatives from a range of Mexican NGOs take the floor to outline the problems faced: the lack of professionalism and low wages of local and regional journalists; financial pressures and the lack of protection afforded by media organisations for their own staff; the impossibility of reporting accurately on public demonstrations. Ultimately, however, they all say the same thing: there is a lack of political will to prosecute the murderers of journalists.

The fact that the British state is currently rolling out the red carpet for the state visit of President Peña Nieto has potential to be deeply worrying. The President and his wife will stay with the Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, following Prince Charles’ visit to Mexico last November. 2015 is the Dual Year of UK and Mexico 2015, ‘a year-long celebration of cultural, educational and business exchange between our two nations’. Among other arts activity, Mexico will be the featured country at the London Book Fair; the Hay Festival will be a partner in the publication of Mexico 20, an anthology of writing from a new generation of Mexican authors.

If you check the website, it all looks like a very positive cultural exchange programme. There will be exhibitions, symposia and trade summits. And yet this exchange is happening against a backdrop of what PEN International President John Ralston Saul has called the ‘unholy trinity’ of corruption, violence and impunity. PEN Pregunta – PEN Asks – was about standing up and asking pertinent questions. One wonders whether the next three days will bring uncomfortable questions for Mr Peña Nieto to answer, or whether the Queen and David Cameron will simply treat the Mexican President as head of another rising economy where there is ample cheap labour and a huge new potential market for British investment.

Dylan Moore is a writer and Culture Editor of The Welsh Agenda

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