On December 1st, 2012, federal police fatally injured teacher and activist Juan Francisco Kuykendall Leal with a rubber bullet at a protest of Mexican president Enrique Peña-Nieto. However, Kuy’s injuries were kept quiet for 14 months, when his death finally called attention to the police brutality and impunity that marked Peña-Nieto’s inauguration and has continued under his leadership.
On December 1st, 2012 Mexican president Enrique Peña-Nieto took power and tens of thousands of people were in the streets protesting inauguration the historically corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) return to power. In the middle of the protests tweets started to circulate on the internet that someone had been killed in the streets by a rubber bullet.
Photo of tweets commenting on Kuy’s shooting
Later in the day it proved to be just a rumor and while many had been beaten and arrested, it appeared that no one had been killed. Fourteen months later the original rumor regained its veracity when Juan Francisco Kuykendall Leal, a teacher and activist who had been hit in the head by a police projectile at the inauguration protest passed away. Kuykendall Leal known as Kuy by his friends had spent more than a year in a fragile existence between life and death. Hospitals extended a revolving door to him but never gave him proper treatment and the government refused to acknowledge their role in his injury and illness, did not assist with his medical bills and refused to investigate the case.
Had Kuy been assassinated on inauguration day, his death most likely would have been on the cover of most Mexican newspapers and would have hit the international press. Instead he suffered a long drawn out death that made it easier for media outlets to ignore his assassination and allowed government impunity to prevail.
Return of the PRI: Ushering in Repression
To put Kuy’s death in context it’s important to examine why thousands of people took to the streets to protest his inauguration. President Enrique Peña-Nieto was formerly governor of Mexico State and is responsible for ordering a police operation against a protest of flower vendors who were defending their right to sell their goods, in conjunction with the People’s Front in Defense of the Land of Atenco. This brutal police operation involved 2,500 Federal Preventative Police, State and Municipal police, left a death toll of two unarmed students, more than 47 women sexually assaulted by police, and over 200 people detained, some of whom served four-year prison sentences.
During his election campaign the student-run movement Yo Soy 132 emerged, mobilizing thousands of people in the streets to protest Peña-Nieto. As a non-partisan movement the protests mostly focused on criticizing his history of repression and close connections with the media monopoly Televisa who continually published favorable stories about him. When the election results were declared on July 1, 2012 with Peña-Nieto as the winner, tens of thousands more people took to the streets claiming fraud, denouncing violence at the polls, and the alleged purchase of votes which they believed allowed the PRI to return to power.
Naturally, Kuykendall would be among the tens of thousands protesting on inauguration day, December 1st, 2012. At the age of 67 he had a long trajectory of participation in social movements both as a professor actor and theater director. He took to the streets that day with his friend and fellow activist Teodulfo “El Tio” Torres. Shortly after they had arrived at the police barricades surrounding the House of Representatives building in the center of Mexico City, police opened fire on the protestors. A projectile hit Kuykendall in the head at close range and blood poured from his head. El Tio along with other protesters carried his body in search of medical assistance. They used police barricades as a stretcher to try and stabilize him.
Later in the day university student Uriel Sandoval was hit in the face with a rubber bullet and lost his right eye. Dozens of protesters and bystanders were arrested, some spending close to a month in jail on bogus charges. Kuy entered an induced coma in the hospital.
Kuy Survived Police Bullets in ‘68 to be Killed by “Non-Lethal” Weapons in ‘12
Kuykendall was no stranger to government repression and December 1st, 2012 was not the first time that he had been on the receiving end of police projectiles. He was a survivor of the famous and tragic Tlatelolco massacre when police snipers opened fire on a non violent student protest in a public plaza, one week before Mexico was to host the 1968 olympics. He escaped the barrage of bullets, by taking refuge in the apartment of a Cuban doctor who lived in one of the apartment buildings surrounding the Tlatelolco Three Cultures plaza. To this day there’s still no official number of how many people died but the estimates depending on who you talk to are between 25 and 1500 people.
The student movement of ‘68 erupted just one year after he moved to Mexico City from the northern state of Tamaulipas. According to his partner, Eva Palma, it was just the start of his life dedicated to social struggle. Speaking to Upside Down World she commented that Kuykendall “was an artist of the people” and that as an actor and director of the theatre company Mitote he “focused his activism on producing theater pieces on social issues and bringing these plays to marginalized communities, workers on strike, women, and children among others.” Eva and Kuy met working together on a theater piece shortly after the ‘94 Zapatista Uprising. When the Zapatistas launched the Other Campaign in 2006, they signed on as adherents of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, denouncing all institutional parties and focusing on a politics from below. They formed La Otra Cultura, or The Other Culture dedicated to creating and performing theater pieces related to the Zapatista struggle. In an article in the weekly Mexican Magazine El Proceso, writer Juan Carlos Cruz Vargas commented that Kuykendall brought theatre to “places where the streets were made of dust, the buildings gray and poverty is the daily bread” and that Mitote “offered a window into other realities using popular art, far away from the misery.”
Just ten days before his assassination, Kuy performed the play Es hora de hacernos agua for the 29th anniversary of the birth of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
Speaking in front of the Monument of the Revolution in Mexico City, Kuy introduced the play stating “we have to keep struggling everyday for a better world” and discussed the significance of a refrain about cauliflower written by Subcomandante Marcos about how each rebellious compañero inspires the next to stop being apathetic and continue on in the struggle.
Even though Kuy had health insurance, his partner Eva Palma commented that he never received proper medical care. She said the hospitals treated him as a “hot potato” that no one wanted to attend to and were continually trying to release him to her care; a care that she say she was unable to provide. “It’s as if they just wanted him to die faster, and ensure that it didn’t happen within their hospital,” commented Palma. She says from the beginning he developed infections from his catheter within the hospital and they released him before these infections were resolved. They claimed that they he was more likely to be reinfected in the hospitals, but Palma asked “if they were so insistent that I care for him at home, why didn’t they send me a nurse to help me care for him?” In the end Eva commented that his bed sores had become so deep and infected that they eventually led to his death in the hospital on January 25th, 2013.
Amnesty International demanded “a full and impartial investigation” as well as of “other abuses on December 1, 2012, which ensure that people responsible accountable to justice. Fernanda Kuykendall, daughter of Juan Francisco, revealed that the Public Prosecutor has initiated an investigation into the murder of her father.
“Finally, the MP (Public Ministry) determined that it was a homicide, and the authorities will have to clarify the facts (…) It’s on the death certificate,” Fernanda stated in a radio interview. However, the government declared that it was homicidio culposo which translates to manslaughter, implying that his murder was not intentional. Activists have questioned how it could have been unintentional where there are numerous videos that have been released which show that police officers fired a projectile at him at close range.
The campaign “Va Por Kuy” released a statement after his death declaring President Peña-Nieto, The Head of National Security, and Mexico City’s mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera. Va Por Kuy also wrote that “from above they are preparing to deal us such a hard blow that we won’t rise up for a long time. But they will not achieve this because we know how to re-articulate and respond in an organized way.”
Peña-Nieto’s presidential term ushered in a wave of repression that was unforeseeable to even those most of critical of the PRI. It is hard to go to a protest these days and not find numerous people wearing bicycle helmets, not because they came on two wheels but because they fear that they will meet the same fate as Kuy. Since the inauguration, there have been numerous arbitrary detentions, assaults on the press and protesters at nearly every large mobilization including marches commemorating student massacres, protesting transit hikes, education reform or privatization of natural resources. Police have upped their weapons arsenal and increasingly used water canons, black hawk helicopters, tear gas and rubber bullets.
The government has also passed a protest law regulating the hours in which you are allowed to protest and obliging protesters to comply with good customs. Additionally they have approved an anti-terrorist bill which would increase prison sentences and label any activists who are accused of attacking private or public institutions even as a means of social protest as terrorists.
El Tio, the friend of Kuy who was beside him when he was shot, disappeared in March 2013, days before he was set to go and testify about what happened on December 1st. It is unknown whether it was a forced disappearance motivated by political means but many of his friends and family believe that is the case. They say that repeatedly mysterious people have appeared in front of his house to take pictures. While it is unknown what happened to El Tio, it is known that the government has been completely inept in their investigation of the case. Mexico City has one of the highest quantities of security cameras in the world, yet their footage has not been used to discover the whereabouts of Teodulfo nor the occurrences of December 1st.
Claudia is part of the collective Mujeres en la Sexta and has helped organize events in public plazas and protests in front of government buildings demanding justice for Kuy and Teodulfo.
“We have to keep making links of what happened to Kuy, which is a public assassination and the disappearance of Teodulfo which is part of the same case. The struggle is to bring these cases to the general public so that they know that the repression has risen to such levels,” commented Claudia.
“Non-lethal” Weapons- A Global Instrument of Repression
Mexico’s repression of social movements and increased usage of chemical weapons is hardly an isolated incident. Governments across the world, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America, are approving measures which grant them more authority to crack down on protests. Companies that produce “non-lethal weapons” are the ones to profit as governments increase their arsenals.
On March 11, 2014, Berkin Elvin passed away at the age of 15 after spending 269 days in a Coma. He had left his house to buy bread and was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police cracking down on Occupy Gezi protests. Thousands of people took to the streets across Turkey and across the world to protest his death.
In NY the War Resisters League is coordinating the Facing Tear Gas campaign, aimed at uniting movements across the world who have borne the brunt of increasing chemical warfare. Ali Issa, one of the coordinators of the campaign commented on the governments usage of rubber bullets and tear gas, “‘Nonlethal weapons’ are in fact quite lethal, to people like Juan Francisco Kuykendall as well as to their movements. In this moment of global uprisings, their increasing presence in the hands of the police means that we must roll back militarization if we are ever to see the world that Kuy was trying to build for all of us.”
Investigating Kuy’s Death
Kuy’s lawyer Barbara Zamora commented that the government refused to properly investigate his death. She commented that family members of Kuykendall filed a complaint with the government following his injury, demanding an investigation into the excessive use of police force. The government responded by saying that the weapon that injured Kuy was not in the arsenal of the police forces and therefore had to come from fellow protesters. However, they refused to state what kind of weapon it was. Zamora says that “its absurd that the government would blame protesters when they were the only ones using weapons that could have caused this type of injury.” Along with Kuy’s family members, Zamora is filing a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to denounce the Mexican government’s assassination of Kuy. “We have to believe in these international human rights bodies because we are not left with any other option here to demand justice,” remarked Zamora.
Recognizing that often this process takes years family members and friends of Kuy say they will continue to Mobilize for justice in the streets. In the coming months members of the Va Por Kuy campaign are organizing various events to commemorate Kuys life and his tragic death. Claudia commented that “we cannot accept this as a normal state of being and we have to keep living Kuy’s legacy and continue the struggles that he was involved in.”
Andalusia Knoll is a freelance multimedia journalist residing in Mexico City. You can follow her on twitter @andalalucha