Where words are ‘rags to cover corpses’ by John Ralston Saul


John Ralston Saul, International President of PEN International, writing in the Globe and Mail

It was a surprising scene. Fifty-two writers lined up in alphabetical order in four rows, famous novelists and columnists mixed with provincial journalists, outdoors in the centre of Mexico City. Facing them: a bank of cameras, a large crowd of both press and the public.

The legendary Elena Poniatowska sat near the back in an elegant red suit. Novelist Russell Banks in the front. Laura Esquivel of Like Water for Chocolate sat in the middle near Rocio Gallegos, the courageous young woman from the Juarez newspaper El Diario, which has taken on the drug cartels. Its front-page statement in the form of a question – What do you want from us? – has become the Mexican equivalent of Zola’s J’Accuse.

With the Mexicans were a dozen leading writers from the Canadian and Quebec PEN centres, both American centres and those in Japan and England.

Two hours later, the crowd had, if anything grown, the cameras were still rolling. By then, each of us had risen to our feet to condemn the murder of Mexican journalists, the deaths, the violence, the bombs exploding in radio, television and newspaper buildings, the disappearance of freedom of expression in several Mexican states; the death of more than 80 writers since 2000, with the murder rate still rising.

It is a classic conundrum. Mexico is now one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a writer. Yet, you fly in with a sophisticated businessman – Mexican or foreign – on your left; on your right, an eager tourist. You arrive in one of the world’s great cities, which is looking better than it has for a long time thanks to its mayor, Marcelo Ebrard. The mayor was the first to receive us, expressing great frustration with what is happening elsewhere.

Which brings me back to that remarkable Sunday event. With national elections this year, no one in politics or government wants freedom of expression to be part of the daily conversation. There is nothing in it for any of them. Our delegation was invited to Mexico to help drag free expression into the centre of public consciousness. Not because the death of writers is more important than the death of tens of thousands of non-writers. But because freedom of expression belongs to all of them – writers and readers, broadcasters and listeners and viewers.

Where the power lies

Out there on the front line, it is always hard to know where power lies. When writers are being killed, it often seems as if violence is the real power. Governments and businessmen now like to say prosperity leads to democracy. How is it then that the worst violence in Mexico is in the most prosperous states?

This past week, we made a serious attempt to remind everyone that freedom of expression is the greatest power – the muscle of democracy. It began with a full page in the newspaper El Universal – a letter to Mexican writers signed by 170 writers around the world – many Nobel Prize winners and all the ex-presidents of PEN. The message was simple: This situation can’t be swept into the silent corners. The news is spreading around the world – something is seriously wrong in Mexico. Here is a great civilization that is in trouble.

Virtually all the grassroots organizations and non-governmental organizations working on human rights and free expression came together to advise us on the situation. It isn’t an exaggeration to say they see no signs of change or improvement. As Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico, put it on Sunday, words have been “reduced to rags to cover corpses.” That doesn’t mean the authorities are doing nothing. The Attorney-General’s Office received us with about 20 officials, including the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, Gustavo Salas. Here you see the intelligence and sophistication of the Mexican elite. This situation of a virtual civil war is humiliating for them. They are trying to reform a legal system that was designed for what Mario Vargas Llosa called the perfect dictatorship – sequential dictators, each with a six-year term. Since 2000, there has been a choice in presidential elections and the legal structures are being slowly dragged into the real world of transparency and responsibility. The special prosecutor gave a formal recounting of what they were doing. But when you ask simple questions – How many indictments? How many convictions? – the answer is none or almost none. Why?

Because the legal pieces aren’t in place. We established this with a study done for PEN by the University of Toronto’s Law Faculty Human Rights Program. The special prosecutor doesn’t have the powers to do his job. The federal system gets in the way. Much of the power lies in the states, many of which are incapacitated by corruption. The federal judges could take over many cases at the request of the federal government. They refuse. Why?

The primary responsibility of the state is the well-being of citizens. And, in this case, the state is not fulfilling its obligation.

These issues of violence against freedom of expression can be dealt with only through free expression. The public must understand and be engaged. Many of Mexico’s leaders and public servants are devoting their lives to changing this situation, but they are uncomfortable with the idea of rallying the public to the cause. They are embarrassed by their lack of success so far.

And that raises another key problem. The Mexican government is fixated on its war against organized crime. Good guys against bad guys. This does not represent reality. When a serious part of the state – elements of the police, the army, the state governments, the political parties and so on – is corrupt, there can be no clear war. The two sides are integrated in a way that can only block those who want reform.

All countries, all systems, include a level of corruption, including ours. But when that corruption rises beyond a certain point, the state cannot function. Battling corruption works only when it happens in full public light. This is integral to free expression. That is why journalists are being killed in the states where corruption is at its worst.

What you begin to see is just how complicated the situation is. But to hide behind this complexity makes the situation worse.

There’s no magic bullet

The president of the Senate, Jose Gonzalez, and key senators received us to discuss the importance of passing a particular law that would give the federal government key powers to deal with these crimes. The real point, we keep saying, is that this law is just one step; but a key step. Pass it and then apply pressure to ensure that it is enforced. There are no magic bullets. But there are things that can be done.

On our last day, there was a packed press conference and then a meeting with the Minister of the Interior, Alejandro Poiré, the most powerful man in the system. He hasn’t been in the job long: His immediate predecessor died in a helicopter accident, and his predecessor in a plane crash.

Mr. Poiré, young, very intelligent, had been well briefed. In place of a statistic/document-driven meeting, he sat down for an open discussion and thanked us for our criticism. He said this helped to push the issues.

He told us in detail how they are attempting to clean up the police, and the next day he put out a positive press statement, just as the Attorney-General’s Office had.

Mexico is a country in which the sophistication of the language, the complexity of the system and the harsh reality of violence make it difficult to know what progress looks like. They also have to deal with the effects of drug use, organized crime and arms trafficking elsewhere in North America.

What we know is this: The violence must stop, key laws must be passed quickly, the special prosecutor and other justice officials need real powers and real budgets and real support systems. After that, people can be judged on whether they are doing their jobs. When it comes to killing journalists, there is almost perfect impunity. People need to be investigated, arrested, tried and, if guilty, imprisoned.

If the system is seen to be working, people will believe in it.

In the meantime, freedom of expression has been dragged out of the silent corners. Writers around the world are now reporting on this situation. In recent days, there have been hundreds of reports in Mexico alone. Free expression and the scandal of impunity have a good chance of becoming election issues. And if people keep pushing, the Senate will pass that key law.

Mexico’s friends want this as much as our Mexican friends in Mexico. The message is simple: The government must bring an end to the violence. And the freedom of writers to write without being killed is central to this.

John Ralston Saul is the president of PEN International.

(This article was published in the Globe and Mail February 3rd)