In Mexico, telling the truth can cost you your life.
More than 50 journalists have been murdered across the nation since 2000, and many Mexicans have concluded that keeping their mouths shut about inequality, corruption and violence is necessary for keeping safe. However, some courageous people refuse to be silenced, refuse to be terrorized. Defying those who threaten them, they continue to speak out.
One such person is Father Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest who works and advocates on behalf of migrants who journey from Central and South America through Mexico to the United States to find work. An estimated 300,000 migrants make the dangerous trek through Mexico every year, and many are exploited, robbed, abducted or raped. For years, Solalinde has devoted himself to protecting them. He runs the Hermanos en el Camino (or “Brothers on the Road”) shelter in Oaxaca, which offers thousands of travelers protection from Mexico’s violent drug gangs and also from the smugglers known as “coyotes.” Solalinde has spoken out against corrupt politicians who shield smugglers and authorities who abuse their power.
Now there’s a price on Solalinde’s head, just because he has inconvenienced the people who profit from migrants’ travels through Mexico. After receiving several death threats, he recently left the country.
I met with Solalinde in Miami earlier this month and noticed that he had a small notebook with him. He said he writes everything down: dates of appointments, details of the threats he receives, the names of people who criticize him. Everything. He has collected about 50 notebooks. If something were to happen to him, he said, the name of his aggressor could be in one of them.
I asked him who wants him dead. “It might be easier to say who doesn’t want me dead,” he told me. “We’re interrupting very powerful interests — economic interests, narco-trafficking interests, and we’re interrupting some uncomfortable politicians who’ve become accustomed to corruption.”
But who would directly be affected by Solalinde’s sheltering poor migrants? “Anyone who sees immigrants not as people, but as goods,” he said.
Criminals in Mexico are offering 5 million pesos (about $350,000) for Solalinde’s life.
But, unlike many Mexicans who have fallen silent when they have drawn the attention of powerful and criminal elements, Solalinde refuses to change. “I have never kept my mouth shut,” he said. Despite the threats made against him, Solalinde plans to return to Mexico after a two-month tour of the United States and Canada.
The members of YoSoy132, a student-led movement in Mexico, have also been effective in opposing powerful people, though they prefer to use smartphones and computers. Like Solalinde, they are now being threatened.
The organizers of YoSoy132 accuse the leading presidential candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, the governor of the state of Mexico, of manipulating the elections by using public resources to buy millions of dollars’ worth of ad space and time on television. At a campaign stop at Mexico City’s Iberoamericana University in May, Pena Nieto was shouted down by a group of student protesters. His political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the TV network Televisa, along with other media organizations in Mexico, then reported that the demonstrators were not students but agitators sent by a rival party.
But in a video posted on YouTube, 131 protesters showed their student IDs, and YoSoy132, or “I am number 132,” was born. While Pena Nieto’s campaign once seemed to be immune to fallout from his many errors, in the last month the movement has brought about a drop in his popularity in the national polls.
Mexico has not seen such a strong student-led assault on the status quo since 1968. These students are criticizing the worst features of Mexico’s political process: the concentration of power, information and wealth among a privileged few.
But there have been consequences. Officials from Iberoamericana University recently announced that some of the 131 students who made the video and criticized Pena Nieto had received threats for speaking out.
“Many of the threats have come through social media, via Facebook and Twitter,” Jose Miguel Barberena, a communications major who was among the 131 protesters, told me in a recent interview. “I have friends who are very scared, who have shut down their profiles.”
I asked what they fear. He replied: “That there will be a reprisal, or that something will happen to their families.”
That’s understandable in a nation where such violence is common, but this student movement is stronger than fear — and they vow that they will not be silenced. “The national crisis we are seeing in this country demands a permanent movement,” explained Carlos Cario, a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a member of YoSoy132. Cario said YoSoy132 expects to continue leading protests after the July 1 presidential election.
YoSoy132 started at my alma mater, which makes me very proud. The university’s motto, “The truth shall set us free,” is one that people like the Rev. Solalinde and the students of YoSoy132 have taken to heart.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
(June 04, 2012)