Issues of violence and human rights in the state of Guerrero can bring the most ardent optimist to throw up her hands. Last week, I was reminded of that frustration while reading the latest report from the International Crisis Group, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, (May 4, 2020). Instead of getting better, the situation of violence and crime in the state is becoming more complex.
My first visit to Guerrero was in 1990. I accompanied Mexican colleagues to document violence and human rights issues. The PRI and the PRD were contesting local elections. These were the early days of the challenge to one party rule. Parallel governments were set up in towns where the PRD believed they had won but were not allowed to take office. Some set up parallel police forces. State repression against protesters was serious. People were beaten and killed. It was one of the most overtly tense environments I have ever experienced.
The complexity of violence in Guerrero did not start in 1990. That political conflict was set upon historic poverty, an absence of state presence in rural communities and a lack of needed political reform. The 1960s and 70 saw the formation of small guerilla groups met by intense state repression during Mexico’s Dirty War.
Layer the problem of drugs on top of that. Drug production has been a staple of the Guerrero economy for as long as anyone living can remember. Drugs from the Andes started being trafficked through Guerrero to the United States in the 1980s as trafficking routes shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico. And then there is the role of the Mexican military, which has been eradicating drug production in the same rural parts of Guerrero for decades – literally.
Lack of democracy, poverty, corruption, and illicit commerce are a toxic brew for violence. Instead of challenging the underlying problems, every political party that has governed the country and the state has found it easier to ignore rural areas, accommodate or turn-a-blind eye toward illicit actors and maintain the status quo.
The Crisis Group report highlights a newer ingredient to this toxic mix that has added another level of complexity – self-defense forces. Communities without adequate state presence, had to figure out how to fend for themselves in this complex and too often violent environment. They formed their own local defense forces. According the Crisis Group, “Clashes between the self-defence forces and criminal groups now account for much of the violence afflicting Guerrero. But in seizing territory and resorting to extreme violence, some of these autodefensas have started to resemble criminals themselves.”
Guerrero is a place where state administered justice is in short supply. In 2014, 43 students were disappeared here in one attack. Local, state and federal investigations have all failed to tell these kid’s parents what happened to them, much less hold the perpetrators responsible.
Bringing fundamental reforms to Guerrero would be no small feat. It would be dangerous, costly and most importantly require sustained political will. The citizens of Guerrero deserve functioning government. It is time for the state and federal governments to give these communities the sustained attention that all citizens deserve. That attention, in and of itself, could be the beginning of a solution.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson