‘Mexico is a country that is both dysfunctional and a disgrace’. For once, this is not the US presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking, but Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most prominent writers.

She began detailling and denouncing the failures of the political system in 1968, following the massacre by the security forces of up to 300 students in the capital’s Tlatelolco Square. Her preface to The Sorrows of Mexico shows the ‘pain and rage’ she still feels when confronted by the horrors that Mexicans face daily.

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In The Sorrows of Mexico seven other Mexican journalists show how pervasive are that pain and the feeling of impotent rage it produces.

Mexicans feel abandoned and lied to by the authorities at every level of government. In his chapter Mexico: Return to the Abyss, Sergio González Rodríguez sets out the statistics in a stark manner: ‘In Mexico, only one per cent of each and every crime committed per year is punished by law. Every day, 51 people are murdered, every four hours a woman is raped, and every day 13 people are forcibly disappeared’.

Blame the victims

This impunity governs almost every aspect of life in Mexico. Emiliano Ruiz Parra examines how twelve men died in an accident on an offshore rig run by the state oil company Pemex. The workers had to abandon an oil rig when it was hit by a hurricane-force wind and was threatening to explode. Their lifeboats were useless, and rescue attempts poorly co-ordinated and inadequate. Both Pemex and a US firm of consultants said that it was the workers themselves who were to blame for the tragedy, and no one from management was held responsible.

Similarly, Diego Osorno recounts the horrific story of a fire in a children’s nursery in the city of Hermosillo that claimed the lives of 49 children. The nursery was meant to be run by the local government, but they had handed over the ownership and management to several individuals, linked to political parties. These people had put in place no safety measures or emergency exits, and so when a truck crashed into the building and caught fire, the flames spread at once, killing all the children. Yet again, not only was nobody held responsible, but the state and federal authorities seemed to blame the victims’ families for the incident.

For his part, Juan Villoro writes about the lives of some of the thousands of children abandoned on the streets of the capital. Again, the authorities offer no solutions. It is only voluntary groups, often relying on charity supplied by the least well-off citizens, work to try to improve their situation. Even so, as one of these workers tells Villoro, ‘Mexico City is the least bad place to wind up, elsewhere all manner of things might befall them, trafficking networks, people who’ll kill them for their organs.’

Confronting the present

This ‘elsewhere’ is the desert that much of the countryside in the 31 states of Mexico has become. In another contribution, Villoro describes taking his daughter out to visit a cousin near the city of San Luis Potosí, a place he used to visit for holidays in his own childhood. But one night, the town is taken over by members of the Zeta drugs gang, out to have fun, which means they beat some people up, kidnap others, and rob the local gas station. Villoro ‘had wanted my ten-year-old daughter to travel back into her past; dreadfully, we confronted her present’.

Villoro also writes of the recent incident that has most shaken ordinary Mexicans’ faith in all levels of authority, from the police to the regional governments to President Peña Nieto and his ministers. This was the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students from a rural teachers’ training college in the town of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero – not far from the famous resort of Acapulco.

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Demonstration in Mexico City

Ayotzinapa

The 43 students had hijacked buses in the  town of Iguala to take to the capital to join in the annual protests in commemoration of those students who died in Tlatelolco in 1968. During the night of 26 September 2014, the students disappeared, and almost nothing has been heard of them since. The state and federal government’s story was that they were intercepted by members of a drugs gang, who killed them and then burnt their bodies on a nearby rubbish dump.

Yet again, the authorities at every level have denied all responsibility, and seem to consider the matter closed.

But in her chapter The Hours of Extermination journalist Anabel Hernández gives an hour by hour account of events that night, based on eyewitness’ accounts and tells a very different and horrific story. Her conclusion though offers a faint chink of light in the dark night of Mexico’s reality.

As she notes, ‘there were eight families who that night opened their doors of their houses and managed to save the lives of at least sixty students’.

This response from ordinary Mexicans, as well as the increasing political consciousness of some of the victims of the other tragedies described in the book, offers some hope that things might change.

Three of the authors of The Sorrows of Mexico
Three of the authors of The Sorrows of Mexico

And Mexico is fortunate in having many committed journalists, and above all fearless women reporters like Anabel Hernández, Lydia Cacho or Marcela Turati who refuse to accept the official versions they hear, and go to investigate for themselves what actually happened.

This courage comes at a high price: The Sorrows of Mexico ends with a register of the 94 journalists, broadcasters and photographers murdered in Mexico since the year 2000. The sorrows of Mexico seem destined only to deepen.

The Sorrows of Mexico, published by Maclehose Press, August 2016

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