For the second time in less than one week, the streets of the Mexican border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, hosted protestors Feb. 4. The actions spanned a range of grievances—high food and fuel prices, maquiladora lay-offs and the presence of the Mexican army in the city located across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Tex.
The demonstrations by taxi drivers and restaurant workers against the Mexican army closely followed mass protests over the same issue last weekend. On Jan. 31, as many as 4,000 demonstrators succeeded in blocking highway access into and out of Reynosa as well as to two international bridges that connect Reynosa with its sister city of McAllen.
Led in part by neighborhood leader Alicia Nieto, the participants in the Jan. 31 mobilization included residents of working-class districts, street vendors, sex industry workers, bar operators, and transportation industry workers. A banner accused a special unit of the federal police of torturing innocent citizens to extract information about the Gulf Cartel for rival Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“The army and its soldiers used to inspire our admiration and respect,” said Jorge Alberto Garza Rodriguez, secretary-general of a local night club owners’ association. “Now they make us terrified and afraid.”
Manuel Benavidez, transportation secretary of the local branch of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Campesinos, a group affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), accused soldiers of detaining, beating and robbing commercial drivers. Complaints of such abuses, Benavidez charged, have not been answered.
In Reynosa, sectors of the population demand the Mexican army and federal police leave their city.
There was no immediate, official comment from the Mexican army about the latest round of public protests, but Francisco Rivera, a PRI legislator who presides over the public safety commission of the lower house of the Mexican Congress, previously said many complaints come from criminals and their families out to discredit the Mexican military.
Military ranks first in human rights complaints
Nonetheless, complaints about the military’s conduct are growing in Reynosa and elsewhere in Mexico. Citing Mexican media, the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute recently reported the Mexican armed forces was ranked Numero Uno in complaints received by the official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in 2008.
According to a January newsletter published by the Trans-Border Institute, the armed forces accounted for 631 of 5,921 complaints received by the CNDH from Jan. 1 to Dec. 15 of last year. The figure was nearly double the number of complaints filed with the CNDH against the military for a comparable period in 2007. Mostly, the 2008 complaints involved accusations of illegal home searches, arbitrary detentions and cruel and degrading treatment.
The bulwark of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war against drug trafficking and organized crime, the Mexican military is a major recipient of US security assistance under the so-called Mérida Initiative.
The army and navy pressed ahead with their anti-drug operations in Reynosa and other parts of Mexico throughout January, a month which witnessed at least 463 narco-related homicides nationwide. The murder toll was nearly double the national figure for the same month in 2008.
Laid-off maquiladora workers march
Back in Reynosa, meanwhile, a combination of high prices, public safety crises, police and military operations, and mass lay-offs from the export assembly industry are blending and simmering in a hot political stew.
On Feb. 4, former employees of the Finland-based Nokia company staged a demonstration outside offices of the federal labor board. The protestors accused the company of not paying severance packages in accordance with Mexican law. Among a group of 1,000 workers who were dismissed by Nokia last November, the jobless maquiladora workers were supported in their protest by Rebecca Rodríguez of the Center for Border Studies and the Promotion of Human Rights, an internationally-known human rights advocacy organization based in Reynosa.
From Frontera NorteSur, Feb. 5