Outside, against and beyond AMLO: Struggles for autonomy in Mexico

The so-called ‘left’ of Mexican electoral politics recently commenced in the Presidency. Some rejoiced, some hedged their bets, others kept organising.

In his third presidential bid, on July 1st 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected on promises of anti-corruption reforms, free education and curbing privatization in the petrol industry. It is the first time that a Party has had an absolute majority in Mexican government since 1988.

That the National Regeneration Movement (or MORENA, its Spanish acronym) was brought to power by a massive popular mobilization cannot be questioned. They came in promising the largest social transformation since the Mexican Revolution in 1910. But the new government also has inexorable links to old money, corporate interests, and the church. In coalition with the Socialist Labour Party (PT) and right-wing Christian conservative Social Encounter Party, we can expect social spending that attempts to reinforce traditional ‘family values’, assimilationist politics towards Indigenous peoples, and a development agenda that deepens Mexico’s dependence on extractive industries. Lopez Obrador (herein called AMLO) has come in strong with talk about the legacy of neoliberal reforms in Mexico. But will his administration embolden and empower social movements, or seek to divide and contain them?

In Mexico, this year things are really going off. Since January a strike wave largely led by women has spread across 70 factories in Matamoros demanding a real pay rise. The strikes now involve an estimated 45,000 workers. They’ve spread across major CocaCola and Walmart plants, auto-parts factories and meatworks plants in the northern states. Five universities and dozens of high schools across the country have also joined, striking for better wages and conditions.

On February 20th, Samir Flores, an Indigenous activist and vocal opponent to the proposed thermoelectric projects and Huexca gaspipeline, was murdered at his home by paramilitaries likely under the control of the Morelos State Governor Cuauhtemoc Blanco. And Blanco, of course, is a political ally of AMLO. Flores was a member of the Popular Front in Defence of Water and National Indigenous Congress (CNI is its acronym in Spanish). His murder marks the sixth killing of a human or environmental rights activist already this year. Adding to the strike wave, the largest anti-AMLO protests to date have followed.

Yet just days after Flores’ murder, the Government’s regional referendum on the proposed resource extraction projects went ahead. Despite low participation and the refusal of many directly affected communities to vote, AMLO declared the 10,819-vote margin a decisive victory (for a total population of over 4 million). The State Prosecutor then attributed Flores’ murder to an alleged association with organised crime. Everyone knows that implicating social movements in organised crime and narco networks is an old strategy to delegitimise the struggle and to leave murders uninvestigated.

Mexico’s neoliberal turn and long drug war

Today’s multi-billion dollar drug trade in Mexico is an integral part of the global political economy, comprised of some of the most effective multinationals in the world. This history, in brief, has roots in the World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies of the 1980s, and multilateral free trade agreements of the 1990s, which overlooked the drug trade and its human trafficking, extortion and kidnapping enterprises. As peasants were pushed off the land in droves and agribusiness took over to fulfill export margins to the US, many found new incomes in jobs created by the drug trade: in transport, packing, growing, or many other minor infrastructural operations. By the 2000s, drug cartel operations in Mexico began to diversify into mining, logging, shipping and other non-criminal operations. Some even said that money supply from the drug trade buffered Mexico from the worst of the global financial crisis in 2008.

In a climate of dense corruption and impunity, what is the difference between drug cartel bosses, developers, military generals, and politicians?

With an abrupt announcement of a new ‘war on drugs’, in 2006 President Felipe Calderon commenced six years in the big seat. His presidency saw billions from the US invested in weapons, intelligence gathering equipment and military training under the banner of Plan Mérida México. This environment fragmented the traditional balance of a handful of major drug cartels across the country, essentially propelling a ‘neoliberalisation’ of cartels into leaner, competitive units. A phenomenal wave of violence was unleashed by the State and drug cartels on the population.

Last year alone, there were over 33,341 murders. It was the most violent year in Mexican history, and ranked Mexico the most violent country in the world that is not formally ‘at war’. The vast majority - over 90% - of murders, disappearances, kidnappings and other violent crimes won’t be investigated.

Looking now at the ascendance of a social democratic left in Mexico, we can see that support from some factions of capital became necessary because of the breakdown of older distributive arrangements between drug cartels and the State. This situation has become bad for business. But what has come to be known as the Mexican drug war might have become bad for some business, but it’s a matter of life and death for regular people. And many aren’t prepared to wait.

Places to live in Mexico City: The Panchos

The Mexican economic crisis in 1982 sparked almost a decade of soaring inflation. As crops couldn’t find buyers and high unemployment skyrocketed in rural areas, the population in informal service jobs grew rapidly in the cities. Hundreds of thousands of peasants fled to Mexico City and the United States. Without water, electricity, sanitation or drainage, huge neighbourhoods bubbled up over the once volcanic fringes of the Mexican capital.

After the brutal repression of the powerful student and workers movements in 1968, many radicals tried to find new ways to organize themselves. By the 1980s, as displaced rural communities arrived in the big cities, their experiences merged with workers and student militants. New forms of social organization came to life. These organizations were focused on meeting people’s immediate needs, while also advancing a critique of the system inflected with Marxist-Leninist perspectives. Here, the Popular Independent Left Organization Francisco Villa (OPFVII in Spanish, previously FPFVII) or the Panchos, was born.

Chayo remembers the beginning:

“I was a single mother, I couldn’t find a place to live. Initially, that’s what brought me here. But over time I learned that without struggle we could achieve nothing. Other organizations promised housing, but they would sell out their members every time an election came around. I gradually learned about socialism and I was convinced that there could be better ways.”

Today the Panchos are thousands. They live across eight housing cooperatives in the State of Mexico and Mexico City. Members work in all sorts of jobs, including street vending, domestic work, construction, taxi or bus driving. They organize through a structure of assemblies and brigades, and regularly mobilise around neighbourhoods, citywide or as part of broader coalitions. The work of the brigades covers the daily life issues of security, education, communication, sanitation, horticulture, health, and justice. Major decisions are made by vote in monthly community assemblies.

The Panchos’ head office stands in humble contrast to the houses around it. Photo by Rachel Rowe

The Panchos’ head office stands in humble contrast to the houses around it. Photo by Rachel Rowe

The organization grows as it identifies disused or unclaimed lots. The Panchos either squat them directly and/or pressure local officials with the threat of their size and coordination. As new spaces are constructed, the Panchos organize temporary housing at existing housing cooperatives.

Acapatzingo, the oldest of the Panchos’ housing cooperatives, began as an occupation of an abandoned mine site between two small extinct volcanoes in Mexico City’s southwest. In 1984, after a long battle with local governments to take ownership of the land, 596 households began to plant roots on this dusty, dry land. Year upon year, their efforts grow into more beautiful creations. Grey concrete single-storey homes have gradually been transformed into double their original size and are a colourful mix of purple, green and orange. Now there is a football field, a community FM radio, a school, spaces for workshops, a greenhouse, and monthly news murals pasted up on the walls.

In a city on the brink of water shortage, in an area of the city famous for its dust storms, the Acapatzingo community collects and purifies its own water for drinking, and recycles grey water for other consumption.

Nestor, one of the first generation raised in Acapatzingo, explains:

“This part of the city will be the first to run out of water. How is it possible that a city literally built over a large lake, can be one of the first in the world to probably run out of water? Our community will be the first to have its own self sufficient, recycled, purified, drinkable water supply.”

Apartments at Acapatzingo Cooperative. Photo by Rachel Rowe

Apartments at Acapatzingo Cooperative. Photo by Rachel Rowe

Last year, the Panchos commenced a new phase of self-organization. They now also independently manage the construction of their own housing – for which members of the organization are the construction workers, architects, planners, security and treasury.

Chayo describes:

“It hasn’t been easy, we have had to fight hard. The political parties had tried to buy us with their campaigns, but we can see the example of other organizations that have sold out. Once they sold out, after a while the political parties just drop them. Our power is in each other, our love for other humans and in our environments. Our power is in our solidarity with others. We see the current global crisis, and we know the system of power we have in Mexico is in service of capital. Not only does it not seek to change things for us - the poor, but it is unable to change things.”

Indigenous resistance in Chiapas: the Zapatistas

On the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect, January 1st 1994, an Indigenous army calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) crashed down from the mountains. Women and men from Tzeltal, Tzozil, Chol, Tjolobal, Zoque, Kanjobal and Mame communities had been organizing quietly for a decade in the lead up to this breathtaking offensive. They declared war on the Mexican State.

Their faces partially covered by iconic red paliacates or by balaclavas, the Zapatistas announced that they would show their faces when Mexico was finally ready to see them. This was a war, they said, against forgetting and for living. The rebels had studied Mao and Lenin. They had studied the Mexican student and workers movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They had become something unique.

During that first week of January 1994, the EZLN occupied three small cities in the region, a military base, and took back farmlands colonized by the Spanish centuries earlier. After a week of fighting, the EZLN agreed to a ceasefire and pursued alliances with ‘left’ political parties towards a resolution. The largest of these parties was the PRD, the then party of the current President of Mexico, AMLO.

EZLN combatants in Guadalupe Tepayac, Chiapas, June 1994. Photo by Juan Popoca.

EZLN combatants in Guadalupe Tepayac, Chiapas, June 1994. Photo by Juan Popoca.

In 2001, over a million Zapatista supporters and people from 56 of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples welcomed an EZLN delegation in Mexico City. Their aim was to finally push the Government to guarantee Indigenous peoples’ rights under the Mexican Constitution. All political parties acted together to block the reforms, including the current President’s then Party, the PRD.

After a period of silence, in 2005 the EZLN announced that five Zapatista Good Government Councils would be formed to govern democratically and autonomously in the occupied territories. Their revolutionary women’s law continues to hold perpetrators of violence accountable in their communities and ensure that women are actively part of all government.

Lieutenant Colonel Insurgent Moises has been emphatic that:

“We’re not an example. We just try to show you what we are doing despite many difficulties, but with much enthusiasm to build another world, one where who gives the orders, gives them while obeying.”

With autonomous schools, clinics and lands taken back, and no longer working for any boss, as the Zapatistas put it, they have dignity.

The Zapatistas stand out because of their relentless efforts to reach out and create spaces of dialogue and encounter. With almost annual convergences in their territory, seminar series on Sciences, Arts and Culture, the Zapatista ‘Little School’ (a kind of free school for international and Mexican comrades), the EZLN has consistently offered their perspective alongside sharing space to hold the perspectives of others. In 1999 they proposed the formation of a National Indigenous Congress (CNI), in which around 200 Indigenous Nations in Mexico still participate. In 2005, in their Sixth Declaration, they called for the formation of a National Plan for the Struggle,. Thousands of collectives and organizations met for over two years to share perspectives and proposals to this end.

The primary school in the Zapatista Caracol Oventik. Oventik is one of 5 ‘Caracoles’, which are Good Government Council bases for the Zapatista communities. Photo by Rachel Rowe.

The primary school in the Zapatista Caracol Oventik. Oventik is one of 5 ‘Caracoles’, which are Good Government Council bases for the Zapatista communities. Photo by Rachel Rowe.

In 2016, the EZLN backed the formation of an Indigenous Governing Council (CIG) under the CNI, which involved meetings across Mexico and the appointment of around 50 (mostly younger) representatives from over 50 communities. The Council also decided to launch an independent candidate, María de Jésus Patricio (Marichuy), a Nahua woman, in the Mexican Presidential Elections. No strangers to controversy or to stirring things up, this recent engagement with the Mexican electoral spectacle served to speak widely and sharply about what a farce it is. Knowing that it would be impossible for an Indigenous woman to make it onto the Presidential ballot, this strategy invited a public debate and called for mestizo people (people of mixed Indigenous and Spanish descent, the majority of the population) to recognise their connection to country and their common interests with others who are more oppressed.

The Zapatistas have offered everyone new ways of seeing our world, with concepts through which to express exploitation, resistance and organization. For years they have spoken of a fourth world war: a war between capitalism and all of life. Having seen the tide, fought countless paramilitary attacks and other provocations since 1994, and knowing the bitterness of the betrayals seen to be ‘necessary’ along the path of left-wing parties trying to command State power, the Zapatistas recently declared their renewed readiness to stop capitalist development projects from taking their territories.

Spaces to communicate: Regeneración Radio

After the brutal repression of the 1968 movement, culminating in the massacre of students at Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City, three decades would pass before universities once again emerged as major sites of social unrest.

In 1999, the proposed introduction of tuition fees at the Mexican National Autonomous University (and its satellite senior high school campuses) provoked a 10-month strike. When military and federal forces eventually succeeded in breaking the strike, hundreds of students were brutally beaten and jailed. In the climate of panic and confusion that ensued, a radio project became necessary to inform students, education workers, and their families of the conditions and their loved ones’ whereabouts, to coordinate support efforts, and to fight for the prisoners’ release. (The strike won. No fees were introduced in public universities.)

Students hung out at, in and around the radio. From a PA and a microphone in the CCH Vallejo high school quadrangle, then a concrete bunker built by the students from which to broadcast, to a webspace and a citywide FM signal - the radio became a place to voice and debate various anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal politics, including musical, educational and other cultural programs. From local to international issues, when there were problems students could use the radio as a space to coordinate. The radio organised through an assembly of programs, and a political coordination of more committed student and community organizers.

Gabi explains:

“The radio isn’t only a media outlet- we have roles to play in other things…just because you are making media doesn’t mean you stay behind the camera, or the recorder…because you are also part of… we feel part of, what is happening.”

Regeneración Radio’s studio, built DIY directly in front of the Principal’s office on the Senior High School campus CCH Vallejo, in the north of Mexico City. Photo attributed to Regeneración Radio.

Regeneración Radio’s studio, built DIY directly in front of the Principal’s office on the Senior High School campus CCH Vallejo, in the north of Mexico City. Photo attributed to Regeneración Radio.

Born in the era of counter-globalisation movements and Indymedia, Regeneración Radio was an example of a broader strategy of ‘free’ (as in unlicensed) community media networks across the country and the world. The collective travels all over the country to interview people fighting land dispossession, environmental destruction, capitalist development projects, exploitation, and labour reforms. To fund the collective, they’ve sold candy and snacks on stalls, and worked all kinds of part time jobs.

But conditions have changed. Recalling the collective’s beginnings, Jorge says:

“Since we started, media making has also changed. People rely on social media, not FM radio. We have shorter attention spans, so we also need to use visual images to get people’s attention. But the biggest challenge is encouraging people not just to ‘like’ or share a story, but to start organizing wherever they are.”

Repression from both state and local gangs has been an enduring experience of the collective. Since the State’s funding and training of paramilitaries to brutally repress the student and workers’ movements of the 1960s, radicals on Mexican universities and school campuses have often been targeted by reactionary gangs, who are backed by local police and municipal governments. These groups of porros can get away with things that even the cops in uniform can’t. Together with other student groups, for many years Regeneración has been instrumental in protests, including a two-week student strike in 2003 that expelled porros permanently from the high school.

Outside of official war zones, Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world to do journalistic work. In 2017, Regeneración was again brutally attacked. After their equipment was destroyed by unmarked agents, one participant hospitalised and others threatened with death, they made the decision to leave the campus for good. In that year, 11 other journalists were murdered in retaliation for their profession. Imagine how many lesser-known activist journalists were threatened, disappeared or killed.

After a massive expression of support, the collective moved to a new space, only to be attacked again a few weeks later. Losing a public space for the radio is no small deal. In the past Regeneración Radio had the backing of physical presence of the student community. Things have had to change, but with change comes a new angle. With more documentary and video work, interstate and international collaboration and a continued strong online presence, Regeneración has struck a new stride. And they are preparing for the collective’s 20th anniversary this April. Find them here, and for English translations here.

AMLO so far: Battlelines are drawn

Behind the news about the ascendance of the electoral ‘left’ to power in Mexico, there are many collectives and organizations like these. Broadly, they are part of the perspective of autonomy. By autonomy they mean the movement against and beyond the social relations of capital, for the possibility to determine our own lives, how we organize ourselves, what we produce and what we determine to be valuable.

With the expression' ‘from below and to the left’ (desde abajo y a la izquierda), the Zapatistas named a political perspective common to many struggles in Mexico and across the world: social movements should orient themselves first and foremost to the struggles emerging from the most marginalized, most repressed places in society, and orient towards the left of politics. How will Mexico’s new so-called left government deal with these active desires and the real threat that they pose to capitalist development projects across the country?

For every Samir Flores, there are hundreds more.

Just this week, constitutional changes to enable the formation of a new National Guard passed in the Mexican Senate. This heralds a massive expansion and formalisation of endemically corrupt military policing across the country, from 55,000 soldiers presently operating as police, to up to 150,000 soldiers, naval and police officers acting as cops by 2021. In his first month, AMLO appeased Trump with reduced income and corporate tax contributions from 30% to 20% across municipalities bordering the USA, a compromise for also doubling the minimum wage in the region to disincentivize migrants to cross the border.

But in reality over the past 40 years, purchasing power of Mexicans has fallen by over 80 percent. Sparking a wave of wildcat strikes involving some hundreds of plants and factories and schools nation-wide, workers in Matamoros struck out that the formal increase to the appallingly low minimum wage made little material difference.

In the south, the 1,500km Mayan Train project promises strengthen the southern border, build new commercial centres, jobs and tourism but is certain to steal Indigenous territories across the southern states while delivering little to no benefit to those communities, facilitating resource extraction including gas and petrol exploration, and destroying forests and wildlife habitat.

There may be more women in AMLO’s government than the previous governments and promises of more public childcare services, but there has been a complete absence of sexual and reproductive rights issues in government’s commitments so far. The new administration though it upholds its ban on fracking, remains heavily committed to oil extraction. And for the apparent gesture of democratic consultation on seven social reforms, three ‘mega’ development projects (including the Mayan Train and new oil refinery), the airport development near Mexico City, and the aforementioned gas pipeline and two thermoelectric plants in the state of Morelos, the referendums have only involved about 1% of the general population and haven’t elevated the perspectives of those directly affected.

Perhaps the worst consequence of Lopez Obrador’s Presidential victory could be the disillusionment of the millions who voted him in. However, there is also the possibility that his failures could mobilize millions. As we see in these examples of self-organization, there is plenty to be hopeful about.


*Some names have been changed to protect peoples’ identities.

Thanks to Monse, Sandy, Nick, Luis, Mark, Dave, Brujo and Patrick for being consistent, motivating and thoughtful interlocutors on struggles near and far.


Rachel Rowe has spent the past 15 years between Mexico City, Sydney and Guangzhou. Living now on the lands of the Dharawal people, she currently researches the shifting capitalist organisation of welfare and healthcare in the datafied age, follows class composition and struggle in China, and is keen on translating struggles from across this crisis stricken planet in the hope that we can together change its course.