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Inside the Encampments of Mexico City

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The online weather forecast for Mexico City had been the same for days. An image of the bright sun we think of as stereotypically Mexican appeared daily, but a dark cloud with menacing lightning and rain obscured its radiance. At an elevation of over 7,000 feet, Mexico City, the world's largest city, is cooler than you might expect and the daily rains have made life on the street difficult for the thousands of people that are still actively protesting what they assert was voting fraud in July's national elections. On Sept. 7, the day of my visit, the protesters had been on the streets for forty days and forty nights and had just learned that the Mexican court system certified the election results giving the presidency to the opposition candidate, Felipe Calderon.

Given Calderon's win it is tempting to speak of these protests in the past tense. However a simple visit to the "Campamentos" (encampments) makes it clear that despite the declared loss of their candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the protest continues in force. The protesters feel that what is at stake for Mexico is important enough to press their case. So does their candidate who has pledged to lead a parallel government, displeasing the more moderate of his supporters in the process. My guides to the encampments were two of the thousands who continue the vigil.

Maria Juana Gutierrez, an elegant woman of middle age-is a wife, mother, retired teacher, choral singer and resident of Mexico City. She is perhaps typical of the many middle-class Mexicans who are part of a large network of individuals helping those who have traveled to stay in the encampments. For over five weeks now she has been making at least one pilgrimage a week to bring clothing, shoes, coats, blankets and other supplies. She also attends marches and demonstrations to show her support.

My other guide, Guadalupe Guerra has been part of every demonstration that has happened since the election in the beginning of July. As a volunteer she provides water, clothing and food and raises money. She attends the daily meetings held at 7:00 pm in the Zocalo where the protesters organize the next day's activities. Even details such as which part of the encampment will be preparing food the next day are decided and announced at the nightly meetings in the Zocalo where short-term planning is favored to minimize pre-emptive responses.

Señora Guerra also participates in the camp activities planned by her own neighborhood community of Coyoacan where over 500 citizens share in manning a booth, sleeping, eating and working together. Like many, her life is on hold as she responds to the call of what she considers to be a higher purpose: protesting what is widely believed to have been a highly questionable election result, a view shared in an August 2006 study by the Washington, DC based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Simply put, the protesters feel that their candidate lost as a result of a combination of vote manipulation through software and post-election ballot stuffing and other forms of corruption. (One example they cite is that of Diego Heriberto Zavala Gomez del campo, brother-in-law of Calderon, who is director of the software company Hidebrando, that has among its clients the IFE (Federeal Electoral Institute), an organization which, through its partner Oracle of Mexico, is the supplier of the database software that is used by the Preliminary Electoral Results Program [PREP] to count the votes in the election.)

The level of cooperation and coordination of hundreds of thousands of people-supporting the tens of thousands living in tents on the streets-is remarkable. It becomes clear within a few blocks that this is "protesting" on a scale similar to the massive gatherings of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

The encampments are in the middle of the pavement along several miles of Reforma, one of the major thoroughfares of the Mexico City. Encampments also cover the huge Zocalo or City Square, a traditional place for public gatherings and protests. While the closing of Reforma to traffic has added to Mexico City's horrific congestion and is unpopular with the many merchants that line the street, the cross streets are open to traffic and the intersections are policed.

Residents of the encampment have arrived from all over the republic of Mexico, sometimes as whole families. Every state is represented. (Most encampment groups are formed around neighborhood, city or state organizations.) But actual numbers are hard to pin down given that people come and go in three formal shifts over a 24-hour period slipping in and out via Mexico City's extensive public transportation system. This not only allows local protesters to go home to shower and sleep, but assures that any action taken against them would directly involve, at most, only a fraction of their population.

Those from outside of Mexico City are also "recycled" (the term the protesters use), by spending several days in the encampments, then returning home to be replaced by others from their local community and perhaps to return again after attending to their farms and families.

Democracy is a guiding value for the residents of the encampment. They make major decisions collectively using democratic processes on the fly and in daily planning sessions. For example, the decision to take over the Zocalo and Reforma was made by voting during a march by show of hands and many other day-to-day decisions are also made this way. However, taking over the streets was more a strategic battle plan than a spontaneous uprising. The protests had been planned for months in anticipation of voting fraud.

In the opinion of many Obrador supporters, an attempt on the part of the ruling party to remove Obrador's traditional immunity from prosecution offered to all candidates in April revealed the lengths to which they were willing to go to assure Calderon's success. This galvanized a large segment of the Mexican electorate. Fed up with what many felt had been decades of corruption, they were unwilling to tolerate what they viewed as another abuse of power.

While there may be some class-related aspects of this protest movement-in that the Calderon is clearly favored by Mexico's more wealthy citizens-the protesters are a collaboration of all classes including many from Mexico's significant middle class. It is obvious that this is not a rag-tag farm labor movement or adhoc student protest. It is a collaborative effort across many social and economic groups.

The infrastructure the protesters have been able to muster in the form of extensive electrical services and huge overhead awnings that cover the Reforma and Zocalo suggest a movement that is capable of rallying financial resources. And while the streets are bursting with hand-drawn political signs and cartoons, there are many sophisticated media presentations as well. Every hundred yards or so there are seating areas with either large-screen televisions showing ongoing video presentations or stages offering political speakers, candidate speeches and live entertainment. These presentations are popular with patrons pulled from sidewalk traffic and there are few empty seats.

Tent living arrangements are primitive. While some tents are like those you might expect to find in any campground in the USA, many are constructed of nothing more than sheets of plastic with no flooring to protect against the nightly flooding of the streets by downpours. Residents of the encampment frequently spend their days in rain-soaked clothing. Large dormitory-like tents in the regional areas of the Zocalo offer cots, raising campers off the sometimes-flooded pavement, but the tents are frequently so leaky that water streams in from overhead. Communal kitchens where donated food is prepared and people can sit and eat a hot meal are scattered throughout the encampments and beverages are distributed from various booths.

Despite the rain and discomfort, there are many colorful, even carnival-like aspects to the encampments. Street vendors, taking advantage of the crowds, sell their wares on plastic sheets lain atop the wet pavement. A section of Reforma has been set aside for small-scale amusement-park rides. Events and activities are planned to entertain children and adults alike with craft and art projects. People everywhere are working with their hands making small colorful items to sell to earn money. The works of cartoonists line the streets. A large section of the Zocalo serves as a cultural center featuring bands and other major acts daily. Chessboards and other games are a common sight.

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Monica Rix Paxson is an award winning author of several books including Dead Mars, Dying Earth, about global warming from a plantary science perspective.
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Inside the Encampments of Mexico City

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