This article is from the April 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Perspective on US-Mexico Policy

by Saul Landau

Saul Landau is a professor of Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California. He recently published Red Hot Radio: Sex, Violence and Politics at the End of the American Century.

In 1999, Congress should review our partnership with Mexico. It’s long overdue.

I just returned from Chiapas, Mexico’s southeastern state, where I saw an occupying army of 60,000 troops at work. A daily convoy of 40 vehicles roars along the dirt road that connects tiny villages of barefoot, sick and hungry people. Laser-guided cannons, heavy-caliber machine guns and soldiers on armored personnel carriers represent the government’s response to its poorest people.

Five years ago, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation announced its presence and demanded justice for Mayan peasants – the poorest inhabitants of Mexico. Subcommandante Marcos, the spokesman for the Zapatistas, said they chose January 1 to launch the uprising because it marked the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico. “For Indian people, NAFTA is a death sentence,” Marcos said. 

The Zapatistas claimed the Chiapas uprising was a necessary response to the violence felt every day by indigenous and other poor people in Mexico. But above and beyond the daily injustice that poor Mexicans experience, NAFTA marked Mexico’s official entry into the globalization process.

To prepare Mexico for the massive entrance of foreign capital, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari revised an article in Mexico’s constitution that protected communal lands from sale, rent or lease. This prevented Mayan and other Indian nations from reproducing their families and cultures on their sacred land.

The Zapatistas revolted to alert people around the world to the threat that globalization posed to all indigenous and peasant societies. The Zapatista rebellion burst the “happy Mexico” bubble spun by NAFTA’s promoters. But it did not redress the income gap between the handful of very rich and the 60 million very poor; nor did it lessen injustice in Chiapas.

The Mexican government has not met the basic demands of its people. Instead of responding to issues of land, education, access to medical care, justice and democracy, it has stationed its occupation army in the pro-Zapatista areas.

And the Mexican army has helped equip and train paramilitary gangs. On December 22, 1997, such a group entered the village of Acteal in the Chiapas highlands and systemically slaughtered 45 people, mostly women and children.. The Catholic diocese and other reputable organizations linked the killings to the highest levels of the Chiapas state government. In turn, those ruling party officials had links to Mexico’s ruling PRI party. Many of those implicated have gone unpunished.

 By waging this counterinsurgency war and occupying part of its own territory, the Mexican government is forcing Indians to flee their ancient lands, pushing them out of peasant life and into the vast world labor force. This is NAFTA in action, just as Marcos warned.

It’s time to face facts. Neither U.S. policy nor the much-heralded Mexican economic model have improved the lives of Mexico’s poorest citizens. Congress must examine our so-called free trade policy with Mexico and our support for the Mexican government. The costs to human life are too great.