Sunday, November 6, 2011

Violence Over an Underpass Underscores Reality of Gloves-off Politics in Mexico

By Edward V. Byrne for The Yucatan Times
July 8, 2011

Mérida, Yucatán – If anyone doubted the extent to which politics invades all in Mexico, this week’s events in Merida – Yucatán’s capital and a recently proclaimed “World City of Peace” – surely will resolve the matter. City authorities had a mini revolt on their hands, all over the construction of an underpass on one of Mérida’s most historic and famous thoroughfares, the Paseo de Montejo, named for the City’s sixteenth century Spanish founder. Dozens of black uniformed State Police officers in full riot gear and protected by plexiglas shields faced off for hours against several hundred protestors, bringing the first day of construction to a rapid halt. To a local, perhaps, this was a legitimate response to a controversial road project. To others, it may seem little more than politics-as-usual in this intensely partisan nation.

Some months back, Merida’s PRI-dominated city government announced the plans, pointing out that the underpass (at a busy intersection, to be sure) would relieve traffic congestion and promote vehicle flow, all while increasing pedestrian safety for those daring enough to cross the Paseo on foot. The project was heavily promoted by the City, including an elaborate website which displays an attractive and stylish finished project. Mayor Angelica Arajuo Lara and her PRI city council members argue that the underpass will give Merida a much-needed and modern facelift. The construction bid was awarded late last week, at a reported cost of $61 million pesos (about five million U.S. dollars). Work was slated to begin within 72 hours.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s other major political party – PAN – became increasingly strident in its opposition to the underpass, especially as the construction date neared. The ostensible reasons are somewhat obscure, but appear to focus on issues such as the destruction of green space, removal of trees and related environmental concerns. As is so often the case in Mexican politics, most PRI representatives fully supported the project, and most PAN representatives expressed dead-set opposition. There were few neutral voices to be heard.

Early Monday morning bulldozers and workers showed up at the scene, and so did the opposition.  Amidst the charges and countercharges by both camps the facts are hard to sort out, but it appears that PAN operatives and their well-organized social networks may have marshaled at least some of the protestors and dispatched them to the construction site.  All hell broke loose.  Verbal confrontations escalated into fistfights, some protestors jumped onto and seized control of machinery, and City vehicles driven by municipal security forces allegedly tried to run over a few demonstrators who were simply sitting in the street.  In minutes, one of Merida’s most prestigious avenues became a battleground for brooding political differences which far transcend a mere underpass.

The next day charges and denials by PRI and PAN were fast and predictable, some of them bordering on the comical. Mayor Angelica first denied that anything at all had happened at the construction site. When news videos of the events quickly identified one of her political allies as a PRI head-basher who had personally attacked demonstrators, the Mayor’s press secretary claimed that the man actually worked for PAN, and had been sent to the scene by them to stir up trouble. The Yucatan Times pointed out to the press official that the same man had been photographed with the Mayor just a few days earlier at a promotional event for the upcoming Shakira concert, to which the secretary replied, “he sneaked into that photo, he wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Mérida’s major daily, El Diario de la Yucatán, published dozens of articles in the aftermath of Monday’s violence, preempting coverage of other local and national news. El Diario is usually regarded as the mouthpiece of PAN in the Yucatán, and its partisan writers disappointed no one, laying full blame on PRI forces. Mérida’s local bar association called for public calm, as did the Mexican federal government in a strongly-worded dispatch to the Yucatán government, reminding it of the people’s right to peacefully assemble and protest. And a PAN deputy in the Yucatán Congress demanded the immediate impeachment and removal of Mayor Angelica, for “grave violations of human rights.”

The End of an Era, King of the Bare-Knuckle Boxers, 1973

Work proceeds today at the underpass site, with an uneasy truce prevailing. But the threat of more trouble lingers in the air, as thick as the dark clouds that loom over Mérida on a steamy July afternoon. Mexico’s national elections are less than a year away, and PAN and PRI stalwarts are ready to take off the gloves over almost any issue, more than willing to teach each other a lesson in bare-knuckled street civics. Such are Mexican politics in the City of Peace.

© Edward V. Byrne 2011.  This article may be briefly quoted but not reproduced in full without express permission of the author.

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