YoSoy 132 Student Activists in Mexico Fear for Their Safety

PHOTO:A protester holds a button during election fraud march in Mexico City on July 7, 2012.Ismael Villafranco/Flickr
A protester holds a button during election fraud march in Mexico City on July 7, 2012.

The news started spreading among YoSoy132 members last Friday: Aleph Jiménez Rodríguez, the student movement's spokesperson in Ensenada, Baja California, was missing. Initially this information was spread through Twitter and over the weekend it was picked up by local media outlets. On Tuesday, Aleph's father, Julio Jiménez, was interviewed on Mexico's MVS radio station, stating that it was very likely, that his son had been disappeared by city officials.

However, on Tuesday, Jiménez Sr. said in a press conference that he received a call from his son while meeting with the governor of Baja California. Simultaneously, photos were published on Twitter showing the activist at Mexico City's airport. "Aleph is sound and safe," his father said. According to the elder Jimenez, Aleph deliberately fled to La Paz, a city 1,000 miles south of Ensenada, because of threats made on his life. He asked for protection from Mexico's National Human Rights Commission and was then transferred to Mexico City.

A pattern of intimidation

According to Amnesty International, Aleph Jiménez was one of 20 students who had been arrested by Ensenada police, following a scuffle on Mexican Independence day. The group had been protesting the results of Mexico's July 1st election when police tried to forcibly remove them from a public square.

Jiménez publicly criticized the police's behavior, and thereafter threats against him began to get worse, with an SUV with black windows following him around town, his colleagues report.

But Jiménez's case is not an isolated one. His story occurs in a grim context for YoSoy132, a student movement that was created in the months leading up to Mexico's presidential election, and made a name for itself by organizing massive marches against unfair electoral practices, conducted allegedly by Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

YoSoy132 activists argue that now that the media is no longer focusing on the group's activities, members of the movement are finding themselves victims of threats, arrests and random acts of aggression.

The student activists believe that the threats come from from rank and file members of the PRI, the party of elected president Enrique Peña Nieto, or from local officials like small town mayors or state governors, who simply cannot stand the expression of a critical political voice.

Valeria Hamel is the spokesperson for YoSoy132 at Mexico City's ITAM University. She is convinced that Aleph Jiménez took the right decision in taking threats seriously.

"We know that these kinds of pressure do exist. We are not in a country where freedom of speech is seen as a good thing, we are not in a country where an activist can express himself freely because the government sees us as trouble", Hamel told ABC/Univision.

Hamel says that she has received multiple insults on her Twitter account as a result of her political activities, which include protesting the results of the July 1st election. She also claims that she has received threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.

"[Political forces] know who our spokespersons are, who is active and who is not, who is working on the group's political strategies. And it has become very easy to disappear someone in Mexico because you can always blame organized crime," Hamel said.

YoSoy132's Legal and Human Rights Committee recently provided the media and human rights officials with a report on the threats and aggressions suffered by the movement's members. In less than six months of existence, the student group documented at least 25 events of police brutality or aggressions against members of the group.

The document lists the forms of intimidation that the students experience. These include threatening anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, insults by masked people outside of the students' apartments, white flowers or tissues left on students' cars or doorsteps, and messages with information on students' address, habits or relatives. In Aleph Jiménez case, he reported being followed by SUVs with dark windows in the days before he decided to go into hiding.

According to José Carlos Moreno, a member of YoSoy132's Legal and Human Rights Committee the frequency and intensity of the aggressions rose dramatically after the July 1st presidential election.

"This situation has been escalating accordingly to the decrease in media coverage we received. The same media that were sympathetic to our movement, as a new form of democratic expression, now are presenting us as troublemakers. This allows the authorities to somehow justify their repressive actions against us", he said.

Hamel argues that threats have risen because before the elections, it was counterproductive for the movement's enemies to repress the movement.

Criminalization of social protest

Agnieszka Racyzynska from the human rights group All the Rights for Everyone, argues that the situation that YoSoy132 is experiencing might just be an example of what legal experts here describe as the "criminalization of social protest."

Raczynska has been monitoring the criminalization of social protest and human rights activists since 2008. She argues that Mexican officials are jeopardizing the constitutional right to protest not only through direct action by the police but by prosecuting people who engage in public protests that disrupt traffic, or enter into conflict with law enforcement officials.

"The legalization of social conflicts emerges when officials abandon any political dialogue with civil society groups and seek to take those who stand up for human rights to the judiciary arena," Raczynska said. "For instance they assimilate the temporary detention of any civil servant or policeman [by protesters] to kidnapping, with jail time involved."

Raczynska also mentioned that when students from the rural school Raúl Isidro Burgos blocked a highway in the town of Chilpancingo to demand better studying conditions, officials claimed that there were armed civilians within the group of student and charged the crowd, instead of trying to engage in dialogue with the group. The incident resulted in the death of two students.

She said that another problem in Mexico is the impunity afforded to policemen and armed citizens who threaten, or physically abuse of protesters.

"Local and federal officials are in a way accessories to these aggression because they don't attend thoroughly and with due diligence the formal complaints made in these kinds of cases. If they do not investigate and do not even try to determine the direct responsibilities, they create a climate of impunity that allows this kind of pressure on activists to happen," Raczynska said.

As far as YoSoy132 is concerned, the harm is partly done. Although they recognize that most of the movement supporters were demoralized by Enrique Peña Nieto's victory in the July 1st election, and simply did not see the point in continuing to protest, both Valeria Hamel and José Carlos Moreno claim that the fear of repression also contributed to decreasing participation in the movement.

"Of course there has been a natural moral crisis after the elections and many people left at that time," Moreno said. "But I personally knew of people who preferred to let go of their commitment to YoSoy132 because they feared the personal consequences that their political involvement could entail."

Torn between modern ways of democratic expression and the traditional repression of critical voices, Mexico seems to be at a turning point. One of the tasks of the new government will certainly be to demonstrate that the return to power of the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico from the 1930s to the year 2000, does not necessarily mean going back to the old authoritarian habits of a regime that came to be known as the "perfect dictatorship."