Mexico: Bloody Independence Eve Celebrations

 (IPS) – If there ever was a tacit agreement between organised crime and the authorities in Mexico to respect certain boundaries, as some analysts argue, there is now no doubt that it has been breached. Several grenades exploded in Morelia during the country’s Independence Day celebrations, killing at least eight people and injuring 100.

The traditional re-enactment of the "Cry of Freedom" commemorating the beginning of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain in 1810 brings masses of people pouring into the main squares of every city in the country on the evening of Sept. 15 every year.

But for the first time in modern history, the celebration was marred Monday night by what observers are calling an act of terrorism.

Grenades were pitched into the crowds that, according to custom, had gathered in the main square of the city of Morelia, the capital of the western state of Michoacán. Several bloody corpses were left lying on the paving stones as people ran away screaming in all directions.

In Mexico City, conservative President Felipe Calderón, who is from Michoacán, was simultaneously leading a similar ceremony in front of thousands of people in Zócalo square, and afterwards, as is also the custom, watched a fireworks display together with the crowds.

The grenades in Michoacán exploded less than 200 metres from the balcony where state Governor Leonel Godoy rang a bell, commemorating the bells that were rung and the cry originally uttered by Mexican independence heroes, calling people to arms against the Spanish crown.

"This was without a doubt an act of terrorism," and the main hypothesis is that it was the work of organised crime, said Governor Godoy of the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party.

"These cowardly and reprehensible acts (in Michoacán) deserve the condemnation of society as a whole and an immediate response by state security forces to punish those responsible according to the law," the Calderón administration said in a communiqué released in the early hours of Tuesday.

"Criminal gangs have crossed every line there is, including the unwritten code that puts national holidays and religion out-of-bounds," Alejandro Córdova, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS.

The head of the National Human Rights Commission, José Luis Soberanes, also described the incident as a terrorist act. "When the public at large is the target of aggression, we are talking about terrorism," he said.

"Personally, I am extremely concerned because we have no idea where all of this (criminal violence) may lead," Soberanes said.

A wave of increasing violence, attributed to drug trafficking gangs, has plagued Mexico since former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) took office. When the Calderón administration took over in December 2006 it worsened, to the point that indignant citizens have registered their disapproval, for instance in mass protest marches on Aug. 30 in several cities.

During the Fox administration, 9,000 people were murdered in drug-related executions, and under the present government another 4,000 have suffered the same fate.

In recent weeks, despite promises by the authorities to do their utmost to stop the violence and crime, the bloodshed has continued unabated.

On Sept. 12, the bodies of 24 young men were found in a wooded area near Mexico City. They had all been shot, execution style, in the head.

The murders were blamed on revenge killings between drug trafficking gangs. However, preliminary investigations found that most of the victims had no connection with the drug trade, but were campesinos (poor farmers) who had migrated from rural areas, lived in rented rooms near the capital, and worked in the construction industry.

Murders and personal attacks are becoming almost commonplace. In the last few days, decapitated bodies have been discovered, police officers have been arrested and charged with kidnappings, and an assistant to a government minister for the state of Mexico was killed inside his car.

But the grenades that exploded on Monday were an unprecedented act of violence. There is no previous history in Mexico of such an attack on a crowd gathered for a public ceremony, let alone on a national holiday.

Reports from Michoacán indicate that many of those injured by the explosions are women and children.

In response to the violence, Calderón has deployed thousands of troops and federal police to different states since he took office. Nevertheless, the wave of violence continues.

While the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled the country from 1929 to 2000, common criminals and drug traffickers carried out acts of violence, but at a level far lower than at present.

According to a number of analysts, including Córdova, during the PRI period there was a kind of unwritten agreement between different criminal gangs, and between organised crime and the authorities, not to take violence to extremes.

This theory implies that such agreements were based on the political hegemony of the PRI, and alleged links between party members and criminals.

Ever since Fox and Calderón, the first presidents to belong to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), came to power, violence has escalated rapidly.

The authorities say that the violence is a reaction to the crackdown on crime and stepped-up law enforcement efforts, but they also recognise that the virulence of the criminal epidemic is facilitated by corruption and poor training in the police forces.

In contrast to the situation during the PRI governments, at present no single political party has a majority in Congress, or total control of the country’s states and municipalities.