Mexican Government Has Been "Hijacked" by Drug Cartels, Says Author Francisco Goldman

Protesters set fire to the front door of the presidential palace earlier this month.
Protesters set fire to the front door of the presidential palace earlier this month.
ProtoplasmaKid via Wikimedia Commons

Last night, President Barack Obama announced he will take executive action to shield 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The prime-time speech was big news in the U.S., kicking up a political skirmish ahead of the 2016 elections. But it was far from the continent's top story. Instead, that title goes to the disappearance and presumed assassination of 43 students in Mexico.

The American media has largely ignored the unrest down south. Bizarrely, the Miami Book Fair has brought the news to town anyway. Earlier this week, prize-winning Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska compared the massacre to the horrors of the "concentration camps." And in an interview to promote his own appearance this weekend, fellow writer Francisco Goldman tells New Times that this is a "terrifying and exhilarating" moment for Mexico.

"This is going on all over the country -- this complete highjacking of all of Mexico's institutions by organized crime," he says. "Politicians are organized crime, basically."

See also: Tony Dokoupil on Miami's Golden Era of Marijuana Smuggling: "Pot Today Is So Boring"

Goldman will speak this Sunday about his new memoir, The Interior Circuit. The book begins with Goldman still struggling to overcome the loss of his young wife, Aura, five years earlier.

In an effort to emerge from his grief, Goldman, a writer for the New Yorker, sets out on a quixotic mission to drive to random, far-flung parts of sprawling Mexico City (first, he must relearn how to drive).

But as the book progresses and Goldman re-engages with the city he so loves, he also begins to notice its transformation. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years, was poised to take control of the country once again after barely a decade out of power.

Interior Circuit is, therefore, a departure from Goldman's previous book, a novel about Aura's death called Say Her Name.

"Say Her Name is a very intimate book," he says. "Say Her Name is about the experience of a very traumatic grief, when that grief is still very fresh and the trauma is very fresh and the madness is very fresh but the love is really fresh also.

"With Interior Circuit, for me it was very important in that book to be strictly nonfictional. I wanted to record in a strictly factual sort of way, a certain progress of mine. It's really about the stage of grief six years later, with a focus on what Mexico City has meant to me in that process. And it also narrates this very crazy summer in which I finally, in my own way -- I don't think any psychiatrist would tell his patient to do what I did -- but it was the way I finally emerged from it. And my kind of reawakening to the feeling of Mexico City as a home, which was rooted in large part because this is where she died. That connects me to Mexico City in a way that I've never really been connected to any place before."

Goldman says he initially planned to write Interior Circuit as a straightforward memoir about getting over Aura, but then he realized Mexico itself was tearing apart at the seams.

"It was really the end of something, and something new was beginning, something very dangerous was beginning, and I could see it very clearly," he says. "I suddenly felt incredibly and urgently for the first time in years, really engaged by exterior reality again. The old kind of journalist in me came alive again, and I felt a real eagerness to understand what was happening.

"And, of course, that city that we saw, those things that we saw happening -- the return of the PRI, the return of Peña Nieto, the betrayal of the [leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD] ideals in Mexico City by this kind of Trojan horse PRI that the PRD became -- that's all we are seeing play out now in the kidnapping of the students," he says.

Despite little coverage in the U.S., the kidnappings have shaken Mexican society and shocked the world. On September 26, students from a teacher's college were protesting in the city of Iguala when they were stopped by police. Cops -- allegedly acting on orders of the mayor and his wife -- shot six students and kidnapped 43 others, handing them over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug cartel.

The 43 students have yet to be found. However, it is believed the cartel killed the students, burned their bodies, and dumped the remains into a river.

The Mexican government was slow to get involved. Four days after the students' disappearance, Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca fled the city. It wasn't until more than a month later, however, that he and his wife were arrested for their alleged involvement in the massacre. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto didn't meet with grieving family members until more than a month after the students disappeared.

Fierce protests have rocked the country for the past month. Peña Nieto, who previously embodied the PRI's reinvention and return to power, has now appeared out of touch. When protesters set fire to the front door of the presidential palace, he accused them of trying to "destabilize" the government.

But Goldman says he thinks the protests have exposed the PRI as the same power-hungry party it has always been.

"I think the PRI is collapsing," he says. "We are at a fascinating moment now because the three parties couldn't be at a more advanced stage of disintegration before our very eyes and more loathed. What's going to come? Who knows?"

 

A protest march in Mexico City earlier this month.
A protest march in Mexico City earlier this month.
ProtoplasmaKid via Wikimedia Commons

"It's a terrifying and exhilarating and mysterious, sometimes hopeful, sometimes discouraging moment that Mexico is in right now," he says. "I think that process is probably going to be a long one, but it's starting now."

Goldman, an American, says his country's media has failed for years to report on the PRI and its connections to drug cartels.

"Americans are clueless because people didn't want to see what was happening here," he says. "Everybody understood that Peña Nieto was just a mask. There was just this horrible show. And it was horrible to sit here and watch the international media swallow it hook, line, and sinker: 'Peña Nieto the savior of Mexico.' But almost all the newspapers were showing him some type of deference.

"And I used to say, 'If the Soviet Union, the Communists, came back to power, people would be alarmed. They wouldn't think it was such a great thing.' So why was the American media celebrating the return of the PRI? It was such a totalitarian, corrupt, institutional party that it destroyed Mexico over 71 years. Why were they celebrating its return? Why were they buying this ridiculous myth about the 'return of a new PRI'? It was awful! It was awful to watch and realize that the horrible truth was that this entire government was masquerading as reformist."

Goldman says Mexico has reached a tipping point, where people are no longer afraid to hold the government accountable for its abject failures. The prevailing sentiment is fury.

"You didn't even lift your finger to do anything about the missing students for 11 days!" he says of the government. "In the last two years since Peña Nieto came to power, we have seen such an incredible abdication of the responsibilities of an elected government. They thought that if they just stopped talking publicly about the violence, then it wouldn't exist. It's like a moose hiding its head behind a tree and thinking that no one can see it."

Goldman points out that many Mexican newspapers are tied to the PRI and are therefore afraid to criticize the party. At the same time, there is a reluctance to report on the drug war for fear of being targeted by cartels.

But a handful of media organizations -- some of them upstart, online publications -- have hammered away at the government over the past month, he says.

"What is great is that everybody is kind of waking up to [the truth]," Goldman says. "Not just in Mexico. I woke up today, and the headlines all over the world were denouncing Peña Nieto's government for the complete abdication of all responsible governance."

Goldman says the government has tried to withhold the truth about the killings until the holidays, when students disperse to the countryside and there is less chance of revolt.

"But it's not going to work," he says. "I've never seen a government so stripped naked as this one is now. They've really lost their ability to intimidate anybody."

Goldman will speak this Sunday at 2 p.m. alongside Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel) and Nuruddin Farah (Hiding in Plain Sight: A Novel) in room 1261.

Send your tips to the author, or follow him on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

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