Turbulent Times Shake Chihuahua

June 24, 2016

Gasoline shortages. Blockades of international bridges. Citizens protesting in the streets about everything under the moon and the stars. Such developments are not necessarily directly connected, but they do add up to an increasingly explosive socio-politico ambiance in the northern Mexican border state of Chihuahua during a delicate political transition.

Protests, sit-ins and even a small riot visited Mexico’s geographically largest state in recent days as popular frustration with government policies and officials reached new boiling points.

In the border city of Ciudad Juárez, hundreds of used car sellers known as “loteros” conducted a temporary blockade June 20 of the Mexican side of the Cordoba Bridge, or Bridge of the Americas, after storming through security gates. The auto dealers were protesting curbs on the number of cars they could import from the U.S. With their demands still unanswered, the auto sellers next chose the Zaragoza Bridge also connecting with El Paso, as the object of protests, repeating blockades of the international crossing on June 21 and 22. The protest backed up trucks arriving from the United States and laden with assembly parts for the export-oriented factories in Juárez called maquiladoras.

In response to protesters’ vows to keep up the pressure, the administrator of the federal government’s Juárez customs office called in a contingent of Mexican marines backed up by an armed customs security force.

South of Juárez in the state capital of Chihuahua City, violence disrupted a June 22 protest outside Gov. Cesar Duarte’s offices. Convened by the grassroots Citizen Union, protesters demanded Duarte’s  resignation ahead of his scheduled departure from office next October. The demonstration took an unexpected turn after state officials locked the entrance to state government headquarters, and scores of young people responded by attempting to break down the doors.

In the mayhem that followed, a Molotov cocktail was thrown, property damaged, and pepper spray was utilized by police. Four guns were reported stolen from police vehicles (two were later recovered), and injuries to both police and civilians were registered; 27 people will be charged with damages, injuries, sedition and rioting, according to Chihuahua State Prosecutor Jorge González.

The demonstration was called as popular anger welled over mounting gasoline and water shortages, deteriorating bus service, Duarte’s proposal to increase the already hefty state debt prior to the end of his term, and a legal challenge by Duarte’s PRI party to the results of the June 5 state election in which opposition gubernatorial candidate Senator Javier Corral scored an upset win against the incumbent PRI.

The June 5 election campaign was riddled by widespread allegations of narco-corruption among various contenders, and reports of armed men threatening opposition forces—especially in rural areas.
Duarte held Corral and his supporters responsible for the June 22 violence in Chihuahua City, but some reports suggested masked young people who showed up at the demonstration were actually provocateurs linked to the local PRI.

In a communique, Duarte’s administration pinned the blame for the violence on prominent opposition leaders, specifically naming legislators Rogelio Loya and Ana Gómez Limón as well as Victor Quintana, Jaime García Chávez, Oscar Castejón, Gabino Gómez and Benjamin Noguiera.

“We reiterate that violence is not the road and the rule of law should be above the anarchy and chaos that the above mentioned leaders sponsor, of which the communications media has graphic evidence,” the statement read in part.

Rejecting demands for his resignation, Duarte added that the state government recognizes the “social anger of some sectors” but attempts to blame gasoline shortages on his administration are “grotesque.”

Several of the individuals singled out by the state government publicly disassociated themselves from the June 22 violence, as did governor-elect Javier Corral. The Chihuahua City episode posed serious questions for the next four months of political transition, not the least being whether the riotous climax to the June 22 demonstration is merely the beginning of statewide chaos that would ultimately benefit shadowy forces.

In Chihuahua, the stakes are high. Duarte still confronts state and federal legal charges of alleged embezzlement and illegal enrichment filed two years ago by longtime left activist Jaime García Chávez. In his campaign, Corral pledged to see that Duarte is brought to justice.

During the governor’s race Corral made pledges that could be interpreted as unfavorable to the status quo, including raising wages for low-paid maquiladora workers, overhauling the political economy, cleaning up corrupt police forces, and reasserting security in areas dominated by organized crime groups.  Although he is a member of the conservative PAN, Corral appeals to wide swathes of the population.

Not always on the same wave-length with other PAN leaders, Corral in fact enjoys good relations with social movements like the farmers’ group El Barzon and important figures of the Chihuahua left such as former legislator Victor Quintana, who actively promoted the politician’s campaign.

“It was a campaign that went beyond my candidacy and party, a testimony that a society which organizes to combat injustice is capable of overcoming all obstacles,” Corral was recently quoted in Proceso magazine. “We generated an alliance based on society, without distinction to religious or political condition, and with different ideologies.”

But chaos gripped the transportation world beginning June 5, state election day, when the Mexican national energy company Pemex suddenly began reducing deliveries of gasoline to Chihuahua City alone by 750,000 million liters a day. Though speculation reigns over the real reasons behind the reduction, Pemex attributed to the shortage in part to thefts of gasoline by organized criminal bands; the closure of about two dozen gas stations belonging to the Rendichicas chain, a firm immersed in legal problems, was also cited by the local press.

Shortages and panic buying were subsequently reported in several regions of Chihuahua, including the border town of Ojinaga, the southern Sierra Tarahumara, Delicias, Chihuahua City, the Juárez Valley, and finally Juárez itself.  Notably, the dwindling gas supply was mainly confined to the cheaper Magna gasoline as opposed to the more expensive Premium. While some Juarenses reportedly responded to the shortage by simply driving over to neighboring El Paso in order to fill their tanks, motorists in the interior of the state did not have such an option.

In Chihuahua City, hundreds of residents hijacked three Pemex tankers this week in an effort to force gasoline distribution. Angered over long waits and bus shortages, frustration over the controversial mass transit system Vivebus was similarly played out in Chihuahua City when a group took over a terminal June 20 and, seized three buses and blockaded two avenues with the vehicles.

“The heat grows and the gasoline gets scarce in Chihuahua,” wrote Victor Quintana. “Will the (electorally) defeated ones cede to the temptation of leaving the state in flames? Does this presage 2018 (Mexican national elections)?”

Last but far from least, public outrage over the June 12 Nochixtlán Massacre in the state of Oaxaca, when at least nine people were killed after state and federal police opened fire on a protest by teachers and townspeople, reverberated on the streets of both Juárez and Chihuahua City. Protests against the killings, and the 2013 education reform law that prompted the Oaxaca confrontation in the first place, have been daily occurrences all week long, including a June 22 march of 2,000 teachers and their supporters in Chihuahua City and a June 23 evening protest of hundreds outside the U.S. Consulate in Juárez.

“Blood can’t be the ink that writes the education reform,” read a placard at the Consulate. As the National Coordinator of Education Workers opened talks with the Pena Nieto administration over Nochixtlán, the teacher movement took a leap forward in Chihuahua and elsewhere in Mexico when it joined forces this week with public sector doctors and nurses protesting against insecurity, inadequate infrastructure, shortages of medicine and medical supplies, and privatization.

Besides Chihuahua, thousands of people in Baja California, Veracruz, Guerrero, Chiapas and other states participated in protests against the education and health care reforms and for justice in the Nochixtlán affair.  Dr. Leticia Chavira, representative of Ciudad Juarez’s Citizen Medical Committee, said the teachers and health care workers have their particular concerns, but the professionals are the social actors with the greatest knowledge of the population and together intend to make it known to the government that the people are fed up.

Additional sources:  Nortedigital.mx, June 23 and 24, 2016. Articles by Samuel García, Adriana Esquivel and editorial staff. Proceso/Apro, June 12 and 23, 2016. Articles by Patricia Mayorga and editorial staff. Laopcion.com.mx, June 22, 2016. El Diario de Juárez and El Diario de Chihuahua,  June 22 and 23, 2016. Articles by Fernando Aguilar, A. Rubio, C. Avila, Heriberto Barrientos, and Gabriela Minjares.
Lapolaka.com, June 22 and 23, 2016. Arrobajuarez.com, June 22, 2016. El Sur, June 22 and 24, 2016. Articles by Brenda Escobar and Proceso. Juarezdialoga.org, June 20, 2016. Article by Victor Quintana. La Jornada, June 17, 20, 22, 24, 2016. Articles by Miroslava Breach, Ruben Villalpando, Eirinet Gomez, Sergio Ocampo, Antonio Heras, Elio Henríquez and Victor Quintana.  

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