“I know it wasn’t the right thing to do,” said my grandmother in unexpected earnest during a lull in conversation. It had been an otherwise cheerful family dinner. We’d been talking about the obvious subject that year: the 2012 presidential election, which had taken place only a few days before. She went on: “I was aware that not voting for him”—she meant the leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—“was to give one more vote to the PRI”—the party that ruled Mexico for over seventy years under what Mario Vargas Llosa famously called “the perfect dictatorship” because the turnover of presidents camouflaged the perpetuity of the party. “I knew that. But when I found myself there, alone with the ballot, I couldn’t do it.”
There were puzzled stares all around the table, more than disapproving. She raised her eyes from the plate to add, apologetically: “What was I supposed to do? All our lives we’ve voted for the PAN,” the conservative party. Here the disapproving joined the puzzled, flinching at the plural. “Now, all of a sudden, we’re forced to vote for…? I don’t want people smoking weed on my street! I’m not sure I agree with gay marriage!”
“Mom—”, one of my aunts tried to intervene.
“But look, sure, I understood that’s what we had to do in order to keep the PRI from winning. And yet, when it came down to it, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Long pause. “So here we are.”
It is no news that voting behavior, like all human behavior, is often less driven by reason than by the gut. Back in 2012, for example, my grandmother knew that she should vote left even against her middle-class conservative inclinations, if only to tip the scale against the PRI, the embodiment of corruption she loathed. But she didn’t feel like doing it. And it is widely acknowledged that that’s precisely how we ended up with the dead-eyed president we’ve had for the last six years, Enrique Peña Nieto, a middle-aged widower put forward by the PRI, who suited him up, and married him off to a soap opera actress from its unofficial propaganda wing, the monstrous Televisa. The fairy tale worked. Telenovela-loving people took photos in face-in-the-hole boards to appear next to the couple. (Many of them dreamed of being in the couple rather than next to it: a website for hook-ups surveying its female users found that 86 percent said they would cheat on their husband or boyfriend with the PRI’s candidate. “He’s gonna govern you, not fuck you,” Facebook messages cried into the void.)
On July 1st Mexican citizens will vote for their next president, and AMLO is leading in the polls. It is AMLO’s third time running; he lost to people’s gut in 2012 by less than a one-percent margin and to suspected fraud in 2006. The first time around, he was a fresh former Mexico City mayor with high approval ratings running against both the PRI and the PAN, the party whose charismatic cowboy candidate, Vicente Fox, had taken power from the PRI for the first time only in the prior election. (We will never know which charmed more: Fox’s candidness or his worship of Mexico’s beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, both of which he exaggerated in public like stage actors do so the audience will make no mistake as to who their characters are.) But by 2006 Fox’s popularity had dropped and the PAN’s new candidate was a nonentity. Finding itself with little material to work with, the PAN’s TV spots showed instead a Venezuela- or Cuba-like Mexican dystopia and called AMLO, in a grave film trailer voice over a Schindler’s List score knockoff, a “danger to Mexico.” Just to be safe, though, they also committed fraud. As statisticians at the National Autonomous University have pointed out, the anomalies in the data are so improbable there is almost no way there was no intervention.
By the time a clean 2006 election had been proved out of question, the new PAN president Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs was well on course and AMLO’s insistence to call himself the “legitimate” president (and occupy Mexico City’s largest avenue in protest and wear his own homemade presidential sash) made him look, even to many of his supporters, like a capricious toddler. Against the odds, however, AMLO rebuilt his image and in 2012 his second campaign was chiefly directed, after two disappointing PAN terms, against the return of the PRI, anticipating the popularity of the telenovela couple. If anything, though, this time the battle was harder for AMLO, for it was not so much against people’s good opinion of an opponent for its past actions (not against the PAN’s merit of at least having broken the “perfect dictatorship”) but against people’s qualms about him (against those very people’s qualms about what the PAN had convinced them was the Mexican version of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez).
In 2012 some voters favored the PRI because they thought, against all indications, that Peña Nieto did love them (because he took his picture with them and sent them loving bags of groceries and prepaid supermarket cards, which, empty of funds as many were, still clearly attested to his goodwill). But there were many others who favored it indirectly because they insisted hopelessly in voting for the PAN. Of these voters there were two main types, those with a genuine interest in the PAN’s continuity (the business elite) and those simply averse to incendiary, as-of-yet-unknown ways for the country to lead its political life (my grandmother). If you had the luxury to actually choose, you probably also had the means to educate yourself about the consequences of bringing the PRI back. But that meant, alas, that you were also probably one of the conservative well-to-do. And that put you in an awkward situation: voting against most everything they’d taught you at Sunday school. The left’s legalization of gay marriage in the capital had already been an eccentricity. But a candidate who favored legal abortion? Who wasn’t a Harvard graduate, as both PAN presidents were, but studied at state-run UNAM? Who before ruling Mexico City had been the head of his native state’s Institute for Indigenous Affairs? (Does that even exist?) Who rather than bringing flowers to the Virgin of Guadalupe every year on her day, like devout Fox, wore them in crowns—outside music festivals!—and called his proposal “the Republic of Love”? Cue my grandmother’s uncomfortable smile when agreeing she might have to vote for all this.
Now, six years later, it would appear that things haven’t changed much. His political persona is still often conflated in both foreign and Mexican media with Chávez or, worse this time, with Trump. The purported common thread is populism. Sure enough, there are traits in AMLO that might look like it: his pledge to forgo living in the opulent presidential palace and turn it into a public park instead, or his talk of subsidies left and right—money for single mothers, for the elderly, for the unemployed, for the agricultural sector. And sure enough, like Chávez, AMLO is unfriendly toward foreign investment in national industries, most notably the energy sector; and like Trump (now), he is keen on reaching a new NAFTA deal rather than trashing it. But on all these issues AMLO’s positions are more nuanced than often portrayed in the press. Funds for subsidies will come from salary cuts and cracking down on civil servants’ penchant for stealing taxpayer money, AMLO has said. The private investment in the oil industry started by the current government needn’t be backtracked, AMLO’s would-be treasury minister has said. And NAFTA chapters already agreed on by Peña Nieto officials with U.S. and Canada negotiators would be respected, his would-be economy minister promised.
But one probably shouldn’t blame voters for not keeping track of these subtleties. That takes work, especially in one of the worst-educated countries in the Western hemisphere. However, this work is increasingly being done, thankfully, by millennials. Young Mexicans’ interest in their country’s political life—especially college-educated young Mexicans’—became manifest in the 2012 campaigns, most notably during Peña Nieto’s embarrassing visit to Universidad Iberoamericana. While visiting the campus he famously locked himself in a restroom in order to avoid the angered students who were trying to hold him accountable for the 2006 Atenco episode, in which several protesting peasants were murdered and sexually abused by the police under his rule as governor of the Estado de México. The Ibero incident was symbolic to the point of parody. In the shadows of the restroom, the establishment’s attitude was symbolized by Peña Nieto’s cowardice, by his stammering; outside, in the hallways and the street, the new generation’s attitude was symbolized by a rampage made up of people who had just recently turned old enough to legally have their say.1 This led the way for those of us who were politically coming of age at that point to realize the significance of standing up to the people responsible for our fellow Mexicans’ lives, especially if you had them (the responsible ones) right there. Though the cause was still abstract (few of us, in the capital at least, actually knew any victims of state violence), the thirst for basic moral principles’ being met was contagious, and student protests against the PRI arose nationwide. The experience of chanting in unison with people in the couple of marches I joined was ecstatic, not unlike that of a powerful concert. A friend made his way to AMLO’s headquarters and convinced them to let him accompany them to some rallies in his Aztec eagle warrior costume. All in all, the 2012 elections saw a 14 percent increase in young votes relative to 2006.
Over these six years, young people’s anger hasn’t stopped brewing. They’ve taken to the streets again and again. Late last year they demonstrated against Peña Nieto’s Ley de Seguridad Interior, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated “does not meet international human rights standards” because it allows armed forces to intervene in civil movements they might consider non-peaceful, thereby furthering the militarization that began with Calderón’s war on drugs. This is just the newest reason young people are not very happy with either the PAN or the PRI. Though AMLO has been the favorite of those between eighteen and 36 for the last two elections, the difference this time around, as Mexico’s leading pollster explains, is that traditionally PAN or PRI-supporting groups are unexpectedly turning towards him. But why?
AMLO’s promising prospects can’t be explained just by a sudden shift left among traditionally centrist or conservative voters—businessmen, hardcore Catholics and seniors like my grandmother—who would normally oppose such a radical candidate. It’s not that they’ve been given yet again reasons to vote for the left, and finally been persuaded. What it’s taken for these Mexicans to change their vote is not a reassessment of political parties’ policies or new arguments on their part but these people finally experiencing the consequences of the last twelve years of PRI and PAN governments. What it has taken, in other words, is their finally experiencing the shock of the horror perpetuated under these two administrations.
Don’t get me wrong—the entire twentieth century in the country has been a bloodbath. After the Revolution ended around 1920 and one of its winning leaders founded the PRI, the party that would hold office until 2000, Mexico joined the rest of Latin America in decades of state terror, which in its Mexican variety took the form of a PRI-led guerra sucia: enforced disappearances, secret prisons, ample torture and the like. Precisely because of Mexico’s stark class segregation, however, the fortunate ones barely noticed. Unlike other dictatorships in Latin America, the PRI’s war was targeted rather than generalized, so middle class Mexicans went through those years blissfully ignoring the extrajudicial repression of leftist, often agrarian, organizations all around them.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better in 2000, when the PRI lost the presidential election for the first time. But then the second president of the new party in office, the PAN, declared the infamous war on drugs in 2006 and deployed the army to the streets of the states where the cartels are based, mostly in the north. What used to be the turf of inter-cartel conflict then became the stage of human rights violations by the military against vulnerable populations such as drug users, sex workers and farmers who worked for the cartels because growing their own crops was significantly less profitable. Shootings also began occurring on the streets. (A friend of mine from Culiacán who’d grown up surrounded by cartel culture was scared by tanks in action down the road from his house around that time.) Violence, in short, became the focus of the national agenda. For the first time, it became impossible to unsee it. Whereas targets of state violence had been the subversive or otherwise problematic before, and those of the cartels had been their rivals, it was civilians in urban areas now who were dying at the hands of both cartels and the military. Still, during the 2006-12 term most of these deaths stayed within the confines of those particular states, and a few corners of the country, including Mexico City, were spared.
But in 2012 the PRI retook power, and it did not disappoint. As a result of keeping “essentially the same operational strategy” the PAN government had used, as public-policy expert Vanda Felbab-Brown puts it, Peña Nieto could not expect to see different results from his continuation of the war on drugs than the steady surge of deaths the previous administration had already inaugurated. But failing to act differently not only allowed the scale of the phenomenon to change—it also allowed its spread. Nobody in Mexico has forgotten the 2014 case and cover up of the massacre of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, who international forensic teams found were the victims not just of organized crime but also the police. Their bodies, it was reported, had been burned. The government denied these accounts and falsified evidence to obscure the involvement of state authorities. Journalists fleeing long-lost states, such as Veracruz, started getting murdered in what used to be safe neighborhoods of Mexico City. And fashionable coloniasRoma and Condesa experienced some of their first fatal mass assaults last year. Overall, the return of the PRI resulted in 2017 being the deadliest year in the history of the country (meaning in the history of murder records, which go back to 1997, but it may well mean the deadliest for civilians since the Aztec sacrifices). This has put Mexico on the course to overtake Syria as the most violent country in the world.
The last episode of shock happened in March. Three film students set out from their homes in the country’s second largest city, Guadalajara, in search for a fit location to use in the horror film they were in plans to shoot. Authorities say that the sufficiently chilling house they chose belonged to a drug cartel, the Nueva Plaza, of which the rival cartel mistook them for members when they were found changing a flat tire after they had been inspecting the house. The site where it appears that they were murdered, and where traces of their blood were found, offered no clues as to the location of the bodies. Eventually, the investigation led the authorities to a third spot where all they found was barrels of sulphuric acid. The young men had been dissolved.
I myself was a film student years ago, and I took day trips to the countryside with friends in search for shooting locations too. By no stretch of the imagination would I have thought myself in danger back then. It is one thing, from a bubble of luck or privilege, to be aware of the violence ravaging the north—from the news, from all-too-successful narco films and TV—or to hear of peasant massacres in the south. It is another to feel the bullet break that bubble and almost graze your skin.
The story broke on April 24th. My grandmother called me unexpectedly the next day, just to see how I was: When are you coming to visit? How’s school going? I just thought of you yesterday, etc. But I suspected the tragedy had something to do with it. It had also been on my mind: seeing online the protests back home to demand justice, seeing the dead students’ faces on placards—seeing that I even look a bit like one—I felt nothing of the concert-like thrill from the protests I attended six years ago demanding some abstract change.
As has often been noted, it isn’t clear what exactly AMLO’s plans are to deal with this bleak wave of—well, bleak and unspeakable and not-in-your-wildest-sulphuric-acid-dreams all fall short of describing it—violence. But if I am right, it doesn’t even matter. The horrors in Mexico are so real and undeniable and so undeniably linked to the state, that all he needs to do this time is appeal to shocked and appalled Mexicans—and now we really are all shocked and appalled—desperately seeking whatever remedy there is on offer.
It should be no surprise, then, to find a Messiah phenomenon surrounding AMLO: women carrying their sick children to rallies and asking him to “cure them”; supporters contenting themselves, when they’re too far to touch him, with kissing his van. Scandalized pundits are right, of course, that this is madness. But when a country’s children get dissolved in acid, who can blame the parents for acting out of something other than reason?
Mexico has hit rock bottom. If AMLO is leading in the polls not just with the young but, unlike previous times, generally, it is not just because Mexicans are actually thinking better of him now but because they’re finally feeling those ugly butterflies that come with the recognition of disaster. This is not a warning. Ya nos está cargando la chingada. So we needn’t deliberate much this time. When my grandmother finds herself alone with the ballot on July 1st, she won’t be voting left for any policy prescriptions but against what killed those kids a few weeks ago—what, in different circumstances, could’ve killed her grandson. If the left wins for the first time in Mexican history on Monday, led by AMLO, maybe these last few years of horror won’t be the first of many more.