Monday, January 26, 2009

Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt, by John Gibler

ZNet Interview with John Gibler about his new book (1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what Mexico Unconquered is about? What is it trying to communicate? Mexico Unconquered is about the ongoing social struggles that grip Mexico, the overwhelming violence of the state on the one hand and the vibrant and massive peoples' movements for land, autonomy, freedom, and dignity on the other. The book traces contemporary social conflicts in Mexico from the period of the Spanish Conquest, through the early years of Independence, and the political chaos following the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution, when the modern state in Mexico was reconfigured from the remains of centuries of colonialism into an autocratic one party state with only minimal and cosmetic dressings of electoral democracy. The bulk of the book is divided between the exploration and denunciation of state violence and contemporary forms of conquest and the chronicling and study of peoples' movements and contemporary forms of revolt (rebelión in Spanish). What does the book try to communicate? Moral outrage and social dignity. The book tries to disrobe the ideologies of the state used to rationalize horrid violence (seemingly innocent concepts like the rule of law, poverty, and migration) and to awaken moral outrage at the realities hidden under the glaze of normalcy. But instead of leaving the reader with the despair of finding such brutality under the surface of everyday reality in Mexico, the book tries to communicate the immense strength and dignity of the ordinary Mexicans taking stands against the brutality. Here the book tries to communicate the urgent importance of gripping this spirit of revolt when facing seemingly intractable enemies, of risking the impossible (to quote Slavoj Zizek quoting the Paris walls in 1968). (2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is? The book stems from over ten years of traveling to and inside of Mexico, particularly my experiences working in Guerrero state in 2000 and later my coverage of the Zapatistas' Other Campaign, the devastating police crack down in San Salvador Atenco, and the months-long unarmed popular uprising in Oaxaca, all in 2006. These experiences form the lived core of the book. From there I spent almost two more years researching, reading, interviewing, reporting, and thinking to flesh out the ideas and structure born of those on-the-ground experiences. The book is also my attempt to follow through with the commitment of the alternative media in the Other Campaign to take the words of Mexico's rebels and underdogs (l@s de abajo) and spread them to other parts of the world. Throughout the caravan of the Other Campaign, Subcomandante Marcos always pointed to the ragged band of alternative reporters on the edges of the meetings and said, more or less: "Ellos son los que van a llevar su palabra a otros estados del pais, y otros paises del mundo." ("They are the ones who will take your word to other states across the country, and other countries across the world.") I tried to fulfill that task at the time through my reporting, but felt the need to go deeper than the short articles written on deadline would allow. Thus this book is a part of that on-going commitment. The book is a mix of reporting, reading and research, and reflection. In the book I try to mix several styles of writing: straight journalism and narrative journalism, academic writing, personal narrative, lyrical descriptions and theoretical argumentation. I move between these different forms within chapters and between chapters, always seeking to cultivate the voice that best works to tell the stories and express the ideas and emotions at hand, and hoping that the asymmetrical dynamics actively engage the reader in the building of the argument throughout the book. I move between academic and theoretical citations and direct quotations from the people in the streets with absolutely no hierarchical ordering between them. (3) What are your hopes for Mexico Unconquered? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort? Realistically: I hope the book touches a few hearts and contributes a nudge in the direction of the revolt and dignity already alive and flourishing in those hearts it reaches. Quixotically: I hope it will light small flames of intense critical reflection in the United states (and, perhaps, elsewhere) where rebels think deeply about the dynamics of revolt in Mexico and step away having taken of their spirit of dignity and strength to heart. If the book truly touches one heart and awakens therein one spark of revolt, then it will have been worth all the time and effort. (4) Chapter seven of Mexico Unconquered is titled "The Guerrilla." In it you interview Gloria Arenas Agis and describe how she joined a clandestine guerrilla group in Mexico. Can you tell us a little about what went into writing that chapter and what the significance of guerrilla movements is in Mexico today? That chapter is based on extensive interviews with Gloria Arenas conducted inside the Mexico State Prison in Ecatepec over the course of several months. Getting inside the prison to visit her became a small part of the story itself as I was struck by the jarring irony of having to pay bribes to prison guards to interview a woman who has been imprisoned for her fight for justice. Gloria Arenas first participated in social movements in her home state of Veracruz. She was abducted and interrogated by state police for her activism and soon thereafter took her young daughter and fled to Acapulco. Over the course of several years she established contact with one of the armed movements that had survived the brutal Dirty War of the 1970s and she, with her daughter, established a clandestine life. In the chapter she tells her story. But once she was deeply involved in the movement that would become the Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR), she and her partner, Jacobo Silva Nogales, had an experience very similar to that of Subcomandante Marcos in the jungles of Chiapas. That is, they realized that the theory of the guerrilla vanguard arriving in isolated villages to politicize the peasants would not get them very far. Instead of showing up and giving orders, they needed to listen. She then tells the story of the creation of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo Insurgente (ERPI), a story that is very similar to the experience of the Zapatistas. And this lesser known story, together with the Zapatistas' fifteen years of struggle and construction of autonomy, gives us an indication of the significance of guerrilla movements for Mexico today: the peoples' will to try all forms of protest, but also to take up arms to defend their land and dignity when all else fails. (5) Mexico Unconquered also discusses the violence and propaganda now being experienced in Mexico as a result of the narco war there. Everyday there seems to be news about corruption and violence reaching up to the highest levels of Mexican government. What's your take? How, if at all, does the drug war impact independent journalism and Mexican social struggles? The drug war is, first of all, not a war between the government and the drug cartels. It is simply a war between the cartels—all of which have so deeply infiltrated the government that the term "corruption" has lost all its descriptive power. Thus, to report on the drug war, is really to report on the nature of the contemporary state in Mexico and, for that matter, in the United States. And in that sense the incredible violence and complete impunity in Mexico makes covering the story the second most deadly beat on the planet after the Iraq war. The drug war has many impacts on social struggles. First, the state manipulates its anti-terror discourse to include protests and resistance movements in the targets of police and military violence. Bowing their heads to the legitimate outcry over the drug-related violence, lawmakers in Mexico have passed laws criminalizing protest while the United States aids this effort to the tune of $1.4 billion in police and military aid which will go to the very institutions that have been so thoroughly penetrated by the drug cartels. Also, the flood of horrendous images of beheadings and the bodies of the executed lumped in piles, threatens to desensitize people to images of violence and thus normalize, if not make seem even light, the images of police ad military repression of protests and social movements. (6) Okay, but how can you reconcile that with the fact that the escalation of violence seems to have been instigated by President Felipe Calderon; i.e., are you suggesting that the Calderon administration is narco and just putting on a show? If not, please clarify. The escalation of violence was not instigated by Calderon; he responded to it. The escalation began in early 2006, almost a full year before Calderon assumed office amidst cries of electoral fraud. Calderon responded to the spike in drug killings by sending some 20,000 soldiers into the streets in late December 2006. Sure enough, the military "surge" has led to an even greater number of killings. In 2007, 2,794 people were executed. In 2008, the number was 5,661. I am not suggesting that the Calderon administration is narco. I am saying that every branch of government has been infiltrated by the drug cartels and thus that the fight between the cartels for control of the trafficking routes across the Mexico-U.S. border is a fight that also occurs inside the structure of the state. Thus key people in the current administration are undoubtedly taking sides. Just one recent example: on November 22, 2008 the former head of Mexico's top federal anti-narcotics agency, Noé Ramírez Mandujano, was arrested for taking $450,000 in bribes from the Pacific Cartel. One of many. (7) How has U.S. policy against the narco war impacted social movements in Mexico? In 2008, the U.S. awarded the Mexican government $1.4 billion in police and military aid to combat the drug cartels. Known as the Merida Initiative and also called Plan Mexico (for its parallels to the pseudo-antidrug counterinsurgency U.S. aid to Colombia called Plan Colombia) the money will go to the very institutions that have been infiltrated by the cartels. It is no wonder that the most feared elite troupe of cartel assassins, Los Zetas (The Z's) was created by ex-special forces soldiers from the Mexican Army who had received elite training from the United States. The U.S. "support" in the drug war feeds directly into the machinery of drug-related violence, but also contributes to the overall militarization of Mexico and the Mexican government's policy of criminalizing protest and dissent. # # # Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt By John Gibler City Lights Books

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