Other Discussions on Mexico

Mexican Crime

WAIS tries to follow certain worldwide themes; one is respect for the constitution, amendments if necessary, and even the establishment of a constitution in the very unusual case of Great Britain. Mexico offers an excellent example of this theme. Official letters end not with "yours truly" but with "sufragio efectivo, no reeleccion"--effective suffrage, no reelection. "Effective suffrage" was widely regarded as hypocrisy--the homage which vice renders to virtue. The official PRI was discredited by monopolizing power and virtually discarding much of the constitution. However now, very skilfully, President Ernesto Zedillo is responding to public demands for an end to his party's monopoly and abuses of power.

The United States has had one firmly established constitution, Bolivia has had over 150. Mexico wishes to emulate the former, and there is a cult of the 1917 constitution, which was modelled after that of the United States. There is an ingenious building called El Caracol (spiral staircase) against the side of Chapultepec Hill in Mexico City. One enters at the top and walks down the sloping circular staircase to the exit at the bottom, examinating on the way exhibits depicting the origins and the development of the constitution, which is enshrined at the lowest level. Schoolchildren are taken through the exhibit regularly. Once I went through it with a group of small children, each of us carrying a tiny chair. The teacher gave an excellent account. Chatting with her at the end, I commended her but said she had made one mistake. She disappeared, and on reappearing she said she had checked; she thanked me for the correction, a very professional attitude!

The constitution has had consequences for Mexico and for the United States, which supported Venustiano Carranza, the sponsor of the constitution. One enemy was Pancho Villa, who responded by invading U.S. border towns. Another was Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the anti-American zapatistas; he was treacherously assassinated.

Now that the official PRI party has lost its monopoly, there is intense interest in the constitution and its provisoes. Certain articles are of special interest, and educated Mexicans refer to them simply by their number. Here they are:

6, 7. Article 7 guarantees the right of the public to information with certain limitations; 6 guarantees free speech, also with certain limitations, and forbids prior censorship. Like many others, these articles were virtually a dead letter, as I know from my own experience. Once I was invited to appear on Mexican TV. Just before the program began, an ugly government official appeared and demanded to know what I was going to say. When I bristled, the host said in a panic that he would be thrown off the air unless I answered. So I assured the censor that I was going to say only nice pleasantries about the beauty of Mexico. This indicates the extreme sensitiveness about foreigners intervening in Mexican politics.

22. Forbids excessive or cruel punishment. The death penalty is permitted, but has not been applied in years. Because of the present high rate of violent crime, there is talk of applying it.

27. Restricted the ownership of land by foreigners and proclaimed national ownership of natural resources, including subsoil resources. This provided a basis for the expropriation of U.S. oil and other interests and now for the campaign against the proposed privatization of the oil industry. Church lands were also expropriated. Church ownership was disguised; the nominal owners were straw men. Now that Mexico and the Vatican have diplomatic relations, this modus vivendi may be scrapped.

33. Permits the expulsion of foreigners with minimal judicial process. It provided a legal basis for the expulsion of "tourists" visiting Chiapas.

41. Established universal, obligatory suffrage for all over 18. In fact, that part meant nothing, although the proviso of non-reelection of the president has been respected. Now the article is being used by opposition parties to assert their rights.The conservative PAN governs six states, and the left-wing PRD governs huge Mexico City and Zacatecas. Recent elections have been generally clean.

115. It supposedly protected local rights, as 124 did states' rights, but in fact the description of states as free and sovereign meant nothing. Now the article has allowed opposition parties to gain control of some states (see above), or at least representation in their governments. As in other countries, states are asserting their rights.

123. Hailed as the world's most advanced labor code, it was ignored by the official PRI, which created puppet government unions, first the CROM, then the CNT. Now the government is losing control of labor.

As in many countries, there are in Mexico two contrary tendencies. People want democracy and respect for constitutional guarantees, but in the back of their minds there are memories of the horrors of the revolution, just as in Spain there are those of the Civil War. Fundamentally everywhere people want order with democracy, but in any case order.

[In drafting this survey, I was advised by Ed Simmen of the University of the Americas in Puebla and Jose Raul Felix-Saul of its law school.]

Ronald Hilton, 08/26/98