Columna Horizontal #1: Autonomous Self-Organization Against the Electoral Spectacle in Mexico

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of what we hope to be a bi-monthly column addressing social struggles and political repression in the territory of so-called Mexico).

After the preliminary results were announced showing a clear and dominant victory, and both major challengers Ricardo Anaya Cortés and José Antonio Meade accepted defeat, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president-elect of Mexico, gave a press conference Sunday night to address the people of the nation. From the Hilton Hotel in the center of Mexico City, López Obrador echoed his campaign slogan, declaring that with this win Mexico was indeed making history. Continuing with his populist rhetoric appealing to the widespread distrust of the government by the Mexican people, he reinforced his commitment to stamp out corruption and end the impunity that is rampant in the Mexican Republic.

He explained: “The transformation that we will carry out will consist, basically, in banishing corruption from the country. We will not have any issue reaching this goal because the people of Mexico are inheritors of grand civilizations and, thus, intelligent, honorable and hard-working. The corruption is not a cultural phenomenon but the result of a political regime in decadence. We are absolutely sure that this problem is the principal cause of social and economic inequality and the violence that we suffer. In consequence, to eradicate corruption and impunity will be the principal mission of the new government.” He also made clear, “The changes will be profound, but they will take place in accordance with the established legal order.”(1)

Beyond his commitment to address corruption, impunity and extreme levels of violence in the Mexican Republic, López Obrador has appealed to national and international progressives through various campaign promises. He has vowed to review the series of neoliberal structural reforms implemented by the current Peña Nieto administration, including wrestling back the oil industry from private international corporations as the result of the energy reform and cancelling the education reform which has brought waves of protest from the national teacher’s union, the CNTE. Furthermore, he has committed to doubling the minimum wage, and to critically reviewing the New International Airport of Mexico City—a project that has faced continued resistance from the campesino communities whose lands and livelihoods are being affected by its construction.

While giddy progressives have bought into the electoral spectacle, celebrating López Obrador’s victory as a key triumph for the political left in Mexico, a subtler yet ongoing constellation of movements continues organizing from below, out of sight of those looking upwards in search for political and social change. In the days leading up to the election on July 1st, in various parts of Jalisco, Michoacán, Morelos, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Indigenous communities refused to submit to the logic of the colonial state, physically preventing the installation of voting booths in their towns, communities and territories. These actions were not temporary spectacles, but part and parcel of enduring movements for community autonomy, self-determination, territorial defense and self-organization.

Demanding respect for their uses and customs—the concept used to recognize traditional forms of decision-making and communal co-existence—Indigenous communities have collectively organized themselves outside of the political party framework, making decisions in community assemblies as their maximum organ of authority. While various organizational forms and processes animate the workings of community and neighborhood assemblies, an important sentiment is common throughout—the people are better off organizing themselves, making decisions collectively and self-electing their own authorities according to the necessities of their communities. Fundamental to the logic of these communal struggles is the understanding that power is a service to the community, to the collectivity, and not a means to pursue capitalist and self-interests.

In the days and months leading up the election, tension between the logic of the state as embodied in the electoral process, and the self-determined organizational processes of the pueblos came to various boiling points.

In the Ejido Tila, an Indigenous Ch’ol community in Chiapas, various acts of intimidation have taken place at the hands of political parties seeking to implement the electoral process. On May 7th, various political party representatives presented their demand to the local chapter of the National Electoral Institute soliciting the installation of voting booths, guarded by police, military and gendarmerie to maintain the “rule of law”. Around this time, the Ejido Tila announced that these same groups were forming paramilitary forces, as a tactic of intimidation against the processes of communal self-organization and their rejection of the state electoral process.(2)

In late June, the Ejido Tila again released a communique explaining that the threats were ongoing, with political parties actively organizing paramilitary groups, threatening to attack the community.(3) These various acts of aggression and intimidation seek to threaten the ongoing movement of the Ejido Tila. In December of 2015, after over 50 years of legal battles to defend their ejidal territory, the Ejido Tila took up the struggle for autonomy as the only way forward in the protection of their land and their self-determination. For over two and half years now, the Ejido Tila has organized the community outside of the political party model, using the general assembly of ejido members as their maximum decision-making authority.(4)

Also, in Chiapas, leading up to the election, the National Indigenous Congress denounced military helicopter flyovers of the Zapatista community bases of support in the Lacondona Jungle. Furthermore, the National Indigenous Congress was forced to respond to deceitful political party propaganda released on June 26th, portraying “representatives of the 23 Autonomous Rebel Zapatista Municipalities (MAREZ) backing the candidacy of the cacique Roberto Albores, PRI candidate for the governor of Chiapas”. As they made clear, their struggle is for life and the political parties represent forces that destroy life.(5)

In the P’urhépecha Plateau of Michoacán, various conflicts arose with the state attempting to forcefully implement the physical infrastructure of its electoral process. In the community of Nahuatzén, on June 29th, politicians and armed groups used gunfire, rocks and armed intimidation in order to rupture barricades set up to physically prevent the installation of the electoral process and to bring their ballots and ballot boxes into the community. Resisting the violent and forceful implementation, the community quickly organized to burn the voting booths, ballots and political party propaganda in bonfires in the community.(6)

Since 2015, responding to the lack of security and basic infrastructure in the community, the people of Nahuatzén have organized themselves into an Indigenous Citizen’s Council (CCI) as the maximum authority in their community. Pushing aside the municipal president as the governing force in Nahuatzén, the community has organized the assembly in pursuance of communal autonomy according to their uses and customs. Following in the footsteps of their neighbors of Cherán, they’re seeking self-government independent of political parties and the organizational forms of the Mexican nation state.

Nahuatzén, is just one of various P’urhépecha towns who form part of the Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacán, and who have refused the allow the installation of voting booths in their territory. These towns include Santa Fe de Laguna, Aranza, Zopoco, San Felipe de los Herreros, Cocucho, and San Benito. The Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacán is an organizing body of Indigenous communities, “…autonomous and independent of governments, political parties and religious orders.”(7) In a communique, the Council denounced the forceful installation of voting infrastructure in another community, Sevina, who had previously decided collectively to not participate in the electoral process.

These various forces of repression and intimidation during the election cycle represent just part of an ongoing war of the state against the self-organization of the people. In a country riddled by organized crime, femicides, forced disappearances, assassinations of journalists, militarization, resource extraction, land grabs and a more general assault of capitalism on the people and the earth, communal forms of collective organization and decision-making have become tools of self-defense against the intentions of the political parties that represent the capitalist state.

The examples of the Ejido Tila and the various P’urhépecha communities of Michoacán, are part of a widespread constellation of communal, ejidal and municipal struggles in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Morelos, Michoacán, Jalisco and elsewhere, seeking to defend and self-organize themselves and their territories. While these struggles often mobilize various national and international legal codes to defend their autonomy and self-government, their movements often come into direct conflict with the state in its refusal to recognize such legal codes. Furthermore, the limitations of the neoliberal politics of recognition regarding Indigenous communities as embodied in these codes are evident, forcing these communities to combine both legal and direct action in their pursuit of autonomy and self-government.

López Obrador’s first press conference following his election made clear what was already obvious to these communities and movements struggling for autonomy—radical change cannot be implemented from above, but only through the self-organization of the people from below. From the Hilton Hotel the night of the election, López Obrador vowed to protect business freedom, the autonomy of the Bank of Mexico, agreements previously reached with national and international businesses and banks, and of course the rule of law.

While there is a legitimate fear that much of the resistance in Mexico might fall under the spell of López Obrador’s leftist populism, becoming more docile with the promises of meager reforms, it will be the case nonetheless that Indigenous communities will continue carrying the torch of radical social change through their forms of organization, resistance and self-defense. It is the Indigenous communities after all who know first-hand the horrors of the nation-state and capitalism. It is them too who are actively engaging alternative forms of social organization that undermine these institutions and carry the potential for radical social change.