Distinguished anthropologists taking a stand in Chiapas

The Council of the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas,  the UNICACH, has recently approved the award of an honorary doctorate to General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, current Secretary of National Defence, by a majority of 20 votes in favour to 8 against.

This act has led two exceptionally distinguished anthropologists to renounce the honorary doctorates that they themselves were awarded by this institution. One was Dr Mercedes Olivera Bustamante, a pioneer of feminist anthropology in Mexico, renowned for her activism and promotion of the human rights of indigenous women. The second was Dr Andrés Fábregas Puig, one of Mexico’s most distinguished senior anthropologists and an immensely important figure in the promotion of inter-cultural higher education. Andrés was the founding rector of the UNICACH itself. As he wrote in his letter renouncing the honour, honorary doctorates are conceived as a way of recognising distinguished academic achievements and a commitment to enhancing humanistic values in society. The humanistic criteria clearly include fostering the academic and social inclusion of young people from disadvantaged sectors of society, a mission with which the UNICACH has been strongly associated in the past.

The granting of an honorary doctorate to General Cienfuegos as head of Mexico’s military apparatus hardly seems consistent with the founding principles of the UNICACH as Dr Fábregas has defined them.  The continuing militarisation of Mexico’s internal security is more controversial today than ever because of fears that the country’s new internal security law will extend the impunity long enjoyed by soldiers when they commit human rights violations. Dr Olivera Bustamante explicitly refused to continue sharing an honorary title that would be shared by the head of a military institution with a tradition of violating the human rights that she has dedicated her own career to defending and enhancing.

This is not an unfounded accusation. Major episodes of ex-judicial killing and forced disappearance in the recent past have brought condemnations from UN agencies and international human rights organisations that have produced very little in the way of effective official investigation and state action. On the rare occasions when soldiers have been brought to account, there has been a conspicuous reluctance to examine the role of officers higher in the chain of command than the immediate perpetrators of the murderous acts. There are no grounds whatsoever for thinking that things have been improving on General Cienfuegos’s watch. On the contrary, in parts of Mexico that I know particularly well and visit regularly, such as Michoacán and Jalisco, the number of local protests about incidents of torture, forced disappearance and even extortion by military units, including supposedly better trained and disciplined marines, seem to be growing rather than diminishing at the present time. All this has a history, including direct military violations of university autonomy and murder of student activists. In particular, the historical legacies of the dirty war conducted by the military against the peasantry of the state of Guerrero in the 60s and 70s are still visible in the catastrophic and horrific scenarios of violence and impunity that afflict the residents of that region today.

The role of military security forces in Chiapas is obviously especially sensitive in the light of the counter-insurgency operations that followed the EZLN rebellion in Chiapas in 1994. From time to time, I have even talked to members of the military security forces themselves who are willing to express private concern about some of the tactics they have been ordered to employ in order to keep indigenous communities divided, and, in consequence, prone to the kinds of violent conflicts and paramilitarism that remain all too common in that state.

Researchers in the Centre for Higher Studies of Mexico and Central America of the UNICACH, Cesmeca, have made public their rejection of the award of the honorary degree in the strongest possible terms. The full text (in Spanish) of their letter to the University’s current rector is accessible as a Pdf file through this link. I know many of these colleagues personally and greatly admire the academic research that they have conducted. In taking this stance, they are supported by the postgraduate students of the university, and they deserve the support of academic anthropologists everywhere.

Academic research by anthropologists and other social scientists has shown that the militarisation of security that General Cienfuegos has presided over since 2012 has produced negative results in terms of the reduction of insecurity and violence in Mexico. It has also made significant contributions to understanding why this is the case. With high-profile (but far from unique) cases like Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya still exemplifying the impunity that the military have enjoyed under this Secretary of Defence, and human rights problems apparently continuing to multiply, what on earth does it say to the families of the dead and disappeared to reward the figure who is ultimately responsible for this dismal track record with an honorary academic title?