As the Mexican government continues its crackdown on organized crime, the country’s civil society is finding itself exposed to acts of extreme violence. No sector has been spared: environmentalists, human rights activists, indigenous leaders, journalists, students, and university professors have all been targeted.

The Mexican situation coming into 2012 is unique in the history of Latin America. It involves highly-fragmented corruption, in which the democratization of weak institutions has made them easy prey for competing outside interests. As a result, politicians, government administrators, and security forces are highly vulnerable, particularly when confronted by a well-financed and violent criminal elements.

Take, for example, the death of four students and a parent in Guadalajara in December. The five individuals went to a meeting at the University of Guadalajara Students Federation (FEG), apparently to negotiate down the derecho de piso, or “dues”, paid to the federation for running food stands. None of them left the property alive.

In old Mexico, this sort of extortion would be almost genial, run through the cacique or “boss” structure headed by the local party representative from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran the country for most of the 20th century. In today’s Mexico, it seems the FEG – which, ironically enough, lost its affiliation with the University some years ago due to its history of violent leftist radicalism – may be run by a brutal gang, possibly affiliated with Jalisco’s Nueva Generacion crime organization.

Then, again in December, two student teachers from a rural college in Guerrero State were shot and killed during a demonstration in which the Mexico City to Acapulco highway had been shut down. The students may have been infiltrated by agent provocateurs, given that a gas station was set on fire, which then caused the police to open fire.

The governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre Rivero, from the left of centre Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), suggested that “outside elements” may have been behind the shootings. His former Attorney General Alberto Lopez Rosas, who lost his job over the incident, said that it was the federales, and not his state police, who opened fire on the students.

When examining events like these the challenge is to drill down to the local level, and to determine who the players are on the ground, as well as the interplay of diverging interests. Some situations, however, are so complex, and some institutions so corrupt, that a complete purge is deemed the only option.

On December 7th, for example, the environmental activists Eva Alarcón and Marcial Bautista were kidnapped by gunmen as they rode a bus on the coastal highway between Zihuatanejo and Acapulco, also in the State of Guerrero. Alarcón and Bautista, who remain missing, belong to a group fighting against the deforestation of the Petatlán highlands, an area where logging companies, landowners, criminal organizations, and corrupt police and government officials all want to share in the spoils.

The solution has become a familiar one: Federal security forces, suspecting the complicity of local law enforcement, arrested 28 local and state police officers. That may solve one problem, but it potentially creates two more. Now the former officers are free agents; and the military – poorly trained in criminal investigation, interrogation, and evidence collection – might be shunted into an unfamiliar policing role, thus increasing the possibility of human rights abuses.

The two kidnapped environmentalists are members of the high profile Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity (MPJD), headed by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was mistakenly killed by a criminal gang on March 28, 2011. But the increased visibility of the MPJD offers little solace. In fact, for a brief period seventeen friends and relatives of Alarcón and Bautista dropped out of sight from sheer terror, leaving authorities to worry that they too had been kidnapped.

In Mexico, now even the best-known activists are at risk. On Nov. 28 Nepomuceno Moreno, an advocate for the MPJD, was shot and killed in Hermosillo, the capital of the northwestern state of Sonora. The attack occurred in daylight only six blocks from the governor’s office. Moreno had become a major symbol of Mexico’s victim’s movement, denouncing the detention and disappearance of his son. He even met with President Calderón at Chapultepec Castle, and asked for the President’s protection. His family has since fled Sonora for Mexico City.

Only four days after Moreno’s murder, Norma Andrade, the founder of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, an organisation devoted to solving the mystery of the hundreds of missing women in Ciudad Juárez, was shot several times and seriously wounded.

Indigenous activists are faring no better. In the state of Michoacan two other MPJD members, Trinidad de la Cruz Crisóstomo and Pedro Leyva Domínguez, have been killed. Leyva was murdered on October 6th, shortly after a September meeting with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. De la Cruz was killed on December 7th – on November 28th he had met with state and local authorities to discuss how to protect his indigenous Xayakalan community, which was involved in a land dispute with local landowners and drug dealers.

Journalists are also getting hit hard. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently reported that Mexico was the fourth most dangerous country for journalists, with at least three having been killed in the past year.

“Media outlets are victims of bomb attacks, journalists are receiving multiple threats, and some are forced into exile,” Carlos Lauria, an official with the CPJ in New York City, told InSight Crime. “The worst consequence is a climate of fear and intimidation that is fostering widespread censorship.”

Lauria says issues that affect thousands of Mexicans are now going unreported, which has allowed organized crime to take control of the information vacuum. The increased militarization of the country has also exposed civil society to abuses from the state. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have spoken out with regard to abuses committed by the Mexican military against civilians.

So far, according to La Jornada, during Calderón’s six years in office 63 human rights defenders have been killed, among them trade unionists and defenders of gay and lesbian rights. Three professors at the Autonomous University of Mexico have been killed in the past year, though it is uncertain if the motivations were criminal or political.

Even Greenpeace is under threat. The organization, which has investigated alleged secret agreements between a developer and the Mexican ministry of the environment, has received a bomb threat and had its volunteers detained in the capital.  As with other organizations and activists, Greenpeace has pled for protection from the government.

“Security is a state responsibility, and freedom of expression is guaranteed under articles six and seven of the Mexican Constitution,” says Lauria. “We want a federal law for crimes against freedom of expression – that way the authorities would have more jurisdiction.”

For his part, President Calderón has announced a seven-point plan to address human rights violations by the military, the most significant of which is to hear military abuse cases in civilian court. And though civil society organizations would like to see a constitutional amendment to article 73 of the constitution extending federal powers when investigating crimes against freedom of expression, others, particularly at the state level, are suspicious of greater federal power to investigate drug and arms-related infractions.

The Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) recently came out with recommendations for significant constitutional reform to protect citizens from the abuse of state power. This is of particular relevance given the  ongoing promotion of a national security law, which has cautious support via the participation of groups like MPJD, but which has also raised serious concerns that Mexico may be embarking on a federal power grab.  For these people, the greater worry is the federal police and the army, despite the horrors inflicted by the drug cartels.

One thing is certain: the collusion between organized crime and law enforcement is rampant at the local level, but has less influence over federal authorities. The sticking point is the degree to which centralized power is desirable in a country that, like the United States, has a political system that respects individual State authority. As can be seen with the shooting of the students on the highway on Guerrero, the depth of trust can be pretty thin, and the federales themselves are not always above suspicion.

Tim Wilson is a Canadian journalist with a special interest in Mexico and Central America. His blog can be found at La politica es la politica, and he can be followed on Twitter @TimothyEWilson.

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