In Mexico City, it’s Sunday morning on the 101st day of Donald Trump’s election to the United States presidency. I’ve been here for the past six months, researching and reporting on Mexican culture and politics.
The weekend papers flap from the newsstands that dot my neighbourhood in the centre of the city. Only one makes any mention of Trump - the front page of La Jornada shows images of the thousands of North Americans who marched on the White House yesterday to protest the president’s climate policy, among others. The rest are crowded with headlines about incidents of violence, forced disappearances, and the recent capture of corrupt Veracruz state governor Javier Duarte. When I go to buy a paper I remark on this to the newsstand proprietor, Teresa, a middle-aged woman who runs the business with her family. I see the Americans are making a fuss about Trump, I say. Teresa just laughs and hands me my change.
I first noticed this relative disinterest in threats that might be posed to Mexico by Trump’s presidency when, on January 20, I walked past a protest at the Monument to Independence in the centre of Mexico City’s financial district, which had been organised in response to the President’s inauguration. In view of the many threats Trump has made about Mexico and Mexicans, I anticipated seeing maybe thousands of locals at the demonstration in the country’s capital while millions around the world also protested.
Instead, as I walked up the shiny boulevard of Avenida Reforma that afternoon, I noticed only a handful of people out on the streets, many of them US citizens who live in the city. The protest was small but strong in tone, including around 20 people holding a star-spangled banner marked up with swastikas and a Trump piñata. But it was far from the swollen crowd that might have been expected.
“Trump is a problem for Mexicans in the United States, not Mexico. In Mexico there are already enough problems with the corrupt political class, with impunity, the narcos [drug cartels], and poverty”, explains Mexican-American journalist Gustavo Martinez Contreras, who, with his Mexican family has lived on both sides of the border throughout his life and now reports on border justice and migration issues.
Donald Trump became President of the United States thanks to a platform that promised, among other things, to deport thousands of Mexican people living in the United States without documentation. Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric was a key plank of his campaign, with the presidential candidate repeatedly highlighting Mexico and Mexicans as a source of problems for the United States - problems that only he could vanquish, perhaps most notably by building “a big, beautiful wall” on the border between the two countries.
“Trump is a problem for Mexicans in the United States, not Mexico."
Still, as many Mexicans have suggested to me, Trump may be the least of the country’s problems at the moment; or at least, his ascension doesn’t signal that things could get all that much worse.
Indeed, the problems named by Contreras have wide reach in this country, where a large percentage of the population subsist on the minimum wage of 80.04 pesos (about $5AUD), while daily minimum expenses are estimated at 218.06 pesos (about $15AUD). The recently announced ‘gasolinazo’, a 20 per cent increase in the price of fuel, is only expected to exacerbate poverty and inequality, with projections that it will raise the price of food and other living expenses.
The persistence of high levels of poverty is intertwined with ongoing high levels of violence that can be partly attributed to the consequences of the Mexican government’s war on the country’s powerful drug cartels, the ‘narcos’. January of this year was the most violent January on record in decades, with 1,938 homicide cases recorded. Further, violence and killings are often linked to police and military personnel, with Amnesty International’s Mexico report for 2016 noting that “impunity for torture and other ill-treatment remained almost absolute”. Amnesty also documented extensive issues with enforced disappearances, the targeting of human rights defenders and journalists and instances where they have been ‘“threatened, harassed, intimidated, attacked, or killed”, and restrictions on freedom of assembly. There also remains, as the human rights organisation also observed, an “endemic” problem of violence against women and girls and a ongoing struggle to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples across the country.
Mario Adrian Valle, an activist organiser in Cancun, in the coastal state of Quintana Roo, believes the extent of government-backed violence and impunity in his country is occurring on a greater scale than many countries who are currently officially at war:
“Between 2006 and 2014, more than 150,000 people were killed, 280000 displaced and more than 30,000 people missing,” he tells SBS. Further, “more than 64,000 citizens have been arbitrarily detained, subjected to unconstitutional interrogations, and subjugated under subhuman torture, and there have been 390 cases of forced disappearance. In each of these the Mexican army, the navy, the federal police, the ministerial police, and all Mexican State forces have been involved. These figures indicate the collateral damage of the drug war.”
“Politicians lie and steal. We know that here in Mexico. We protest and nothing changes. Now, the North Americans are seeing how it feels.”
Whether the extent of this trouble affects locals unevenly, one point is clear: with issues like this brewing, it’s little wonder that there were, relatively speaking, so few protesting Trump’s inauguration on January 20. Indeed, there were hundreds more at the march in the following week on January 26 to demand justice for the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, as the movement led by the students’ parents has been doing since 2014; and hundreds more again at the march last month to demand an end to the assassination of journalists after the Chihuahua state correspondent Miroslava Breach was shot dead outside her home, one of a growing number of murders of journalists who report on corruption and impunity. In such a way, an anti-Mexican president in the White House is simply taking its place in the long line of legitimate grievances that ordinary citizens of this country might lay claim to.
Before I leave the newsstand I ask Teresa why she laughed when I pointed out yesterday’s anti-Trump protest in the US. “I just think it’s funny”, she replies. “Politicians lie and steal. We know that here in Mexico. We protest and nothing changes. Now, the North Americans are seeing how it feels.”