The rising repression of social protest in Latin America

The rising repression of social protest in Latin America

Mounted police keeping guard on University students protesting against corruption in the education sector, in front of the National Congress in Asuncion (Paraguay).

(Santi Carneri)

On 17 October, the day on which a commemoration is held every year in honour of Juan Domingo Perón, the corpse of Santiago Maldonado appeared in the Chubut River. The young activist had been missing for 80 days. He was last seen in the middle of a confrontation between members of the Mapuche community and state security forces, in the context of a long-standing battle over land rights with the multinational Benetton.

The suspense surrounding Maldonado’s whereabouts aroused a great sense of unease in a country where the word “disappeared” brings to mind the 30,000 victims of the civic-military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, and hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the very same square, the Plaza de Mayo, whether Mothers of Plaza de Mayo first held their weekly gathering, over 40 years ago, to ask about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

“I have no idea...whether it’s 9,000 or 30,000,” President Mauricio Macri had said in November 2016 regarding the number of disappeared. His statements, together with those made by senior members of his government, marked a break with the Kirchnerista governments, which had championed human rights – although less so in the case of indigenous peoples’ rights.

What is the significance behind the figures? Sociologist Alexandre Roig explains: “Questioning the 30,000 is like questioning the figure of six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. They are round figures because it is an enumeration of something that is incommensurable. They are sacred symbols, in the sense that certain acts are not permissible: if we desecrate the symbol, the prohibition is torn to pieces and the use of force is legitimatised. Because the contempt for indigenous people, like the contempt for women or black people, is still there. It hasn’t been resolved, but there are sacred symbols that arrest the death wish.”

Comparing the present with the dictatorship “is dangerous and reductionist”, says Roig, “but repression does seem to have gained increased legitimacy”.

“There has been an escalation in the violence used by the state during and after demonstrations: it is a systematic practice used by the state to undermine the social groups that are mobilising, to sow terror, to reprimand and to discipline,” says the feminist economist Natalia Quiroga. Feminist sociologist Verónica Gago adds that this repression “empowers and promotes a fascism that is now focused on women and areas where the fight is about land,” as seen with the Mapuche community.

Macri’s electoral victory two years ago brought an end to the 12 years of Kirchnerista hegemony and heralded the decline of the “progressive” governments in Latin America. Brazil was soon to follow, although it was not through the ballot box that Michel Temer came to power but following the questionable impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. There too, social movements are witnessing an escalation in the repression of social protest.

The Minister of Justice, Alexandre de Moraes, has been criticised for the excessive force used to suppress the school occupations held by students calling for improvements in public education, as well as for his role in the operations of the Military Police in São Paulo, repeatedly condemned for their summary executions in the favelas and the urban peripheries, described as a “slow genocide of the poor and black population” by Débora Silva, of the Mães de Maio (Mothers of May) movement founded by the mothers of the youngsters killed by the São Paulo police.

Meanwhile, federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro has played a prominent role in the escalation of hate speech, with his outspoken homophobia (“I’d rather have a son die in an accident than be gay”), misogyny (“I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worth it,” he snapped at a fellow congresswoman) and his legitimisation of the military dictatorship (“The mistake of dictatorship was to torture rather than to kill”).

The political class has thus fuelled ultra-conservative bigotry, as seen recently with the petition against the visit to Brazil of feminist philosopher Judith Butler, who was reviled and persecuted from the moment she landed in São Paulo.

“Such incidents are linked to a much broader process,” says Roig. “The rise of the far right in Argentina and Brazil can be connected, as the [Italian philosopher Maurizio] Lazzarato suggests, with the return of finance capitalism, which does not have the capacity to feel, and a violent future is therefore inevitable. Because what ends up shaping the collective feeling is the Other, that is, the outsiders – be they internal, such as the indigenous people, or foreigners: immigrants – and women.”

In other words, in an individualistic society where there are no institutions guiding the way we organise ourselves collectively, the seeds of hatred are sown towards those who have always been considered as “the other”, as inferior beings, by a racist and patriarchal society.

War against the people

In countries such as Mexico and Colombia there has been no change in the political cycle, but continuity of the neoliberal hegemony, which has led to extreme violence. “Protest has always been repressed and criminalised in Mexico, but what we have now is a narco-state,” summarises Liliana Chávez of the Assembly of Mexicans in Buenos Aires.

“The year 2006 was crucial in shaping the repression in Mexico. That was the year when the president of the time, Felipe Calderón, declared the war on drugs. Except that, as the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) points out, it was never a state war against drug trafficking but a state war against civil society, against the population as a whole,” says Chávez.

According to official figures, 32,000 people were killed during that undeclared war. The Datacívica association lists their names on a webpage aimed at “turning the numbers into people”; the establishment of an official register of the victims is one of the unheeded demands of human rights organisations in Mexico.

“State forces are implicated in human rights violations,” maintains Chávez.

This, she adds, was validated following the disappearance in 2014 of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, when “thanks to their families’ tenacity and self-management, the case gained international exposure, and the organic link between the disappearances and the criminalisation of the social movement was demonstrated”.

In October 2017, the Mexican Congress passed a law on forced disappearances, as demanded by human rights organisations. “The law refers to forced disappearances and therefore recognises the existence of state terrorism in Mexico. What does not seem to make sense, however, is that the state itself, rather than an independent body, is in charge of dealing with it: by doing this, President Peña Nieto is washing his hands of the matter,” argues Chávez. For her, the root of the problem is the extractive development model that is gaining ground across the country: “A deep sense of fear is taking root within our society, driven by the advance of mining, agribusiness and other extractive activities.”

Land disputes

In Colombia the lethal combination of the drug trade and armed groups operating in collusion with the elites is not new. The peace agreements signed following the long process of negotiations between the Santos government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), raised hopes of a more peaceful future, but “the repression has been stepped up and the paramilitaries, which never ceased their activities, have regrouped. They are perpetrating massacres again and wielding systematic threats in a context of impunity and direct links between armed gangs, paramilitary forces and the political class,” explains Leonardo Luna of the Congreso de los Pueblos movement.

According to the latest report of the Somos Defensores programme, during the first three months of 2017 alone, 193 land and human rights defenders suffered attacks; 67 per cent of them were committed by paramilitaries, 7 per cent by state security forces, 0.1 per cent by guerrillas and 22 per cent by unknown assailants. The 2016 Annual Report of the United Nations recorded 389 attacks during that year (including 59 murders) on human rights defenders (from political movements, social organisations, etc.). And according to Global Witness, 37 land and environmental defenders were murdered in 2016. The NGO points out that the number of murders reached an all time high in Colombia, in spite (or perhaps because) of the recent peace deal signed between the government and the FARC guerrilla group.

The situation in Colombia is becoming ever more complex due to the relationship between paramilitarism, the drug trade and the state.

“It all began with the paramilitarisation of the institutions, and in the end paramilitarism was institutionalised; the same happened with the drug trade. The international community needs to be resolute, to protect a population that is under attack, treated as a military target,” says Javier Castellanos from the Congreso de los Pueblos.

As in Mexico, armed groups are fighting for control of the lands where extractive projects are moving in, such as oil palm plantations, mega mining projects, hydrocarbon extraction or hydropower plants. The Environmental Justice Atlas(EJAtlas), co-directed by the economist Joan Martínez Alier from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has mapped 126 socio-environmental conflicts in Colombia, with land defenders killed in 27 of them. In Latin America, today as in the past, the conflict is over land. And it is deadly.

This article has been translated from Spanish.