The Mexico-Israel connection: repression and resistance


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While the Mexican government has looked toward Israel for help in repressing dissent, Indigenous communities and activists see a common cause with Palestine as “todos somos Palestina” has reverberated across the country since October.

The genocide in Palestine resonates in Mexico. Despite their distinct geopolitical surroundings and the seven-thousand miles between them, the violent consequences of settler colonialism in Palestine conjure up postcolonial trauma in Mexico itself. Indigenous communities have long been oppressed, even before Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors invaded in 1521, but the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century generated extensive social and economic changes that shaped the fundamental character of Mexican nationalism. Since then, state-sponsored violence from the northern deserts to the southern jungles, has been brutal, multi-faceted, and persistent. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), has been decidedly slow to criticize Israel’s war on Indigenous Palestinians. From affirming “Israel’s right to legitimate self-defense” in October; to requesting a probe by the International Criminal Court into possible Israeli war crimes in January; and criticizing Israel’s assault on Rafah in May. 

Most recently, Mexico filed a “declaration of intervention” in the case of South Africa v. Israel, concerning the punishment and prevention of genocide in Gaza at the International Court of Justice. However, this commitment to “the construction” of the case does not clarify Mexico’s position on the reality of genocide, or the responsibility of the Israeli State. 

While their government hesitantly weighs up the benefits of morality, pro-Palestinian activists have been scattered but persistent; from the small city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southernmost state of Chiapas, to metropoles like Mexico City. In the latter, a pro-Palestine protest recently erupted, with police firing teargas at the crowd after protesters set fire to the Israel embassy. 

On May 2, students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) formed a protest encampment calling for divestment from Israel. They demanded that UNAM sever academic bonds with Israeli institutions and that the Mexican government cut diplomatic ties with the Zionist regime, according to Isabella and Claudio, two members of the encampment. The collective action was born in solidarity with other encampments across the United States and Europe, all with a shared expectation: Disclose, Divest, Defend, Declare.  

“We are not only fighting against the genocide in Palestine,” Claudio explained, “also we are fighting against imperialism [everywhere].”

‘Los Ojos Puestos son Rafah’ Students at UNAM in Mexico City hold a protest encampment for Palestine. (Photo: Elizabeth Sauno)

Investment and divestment 

Compared to its northern neighbor, Mexico has played a significantly smaller role in Israel’s settler colonial project in Palestine. Nevertheless, ties run deep.  

According to a 2020 report by Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico, “between 2006 and 2018, Israel Weapons Industries (I.W.I) sold 23,772 small arms, valued at approximately 34 million Euros, to Mexico for use by state and municipal police forces.” Such sales are not unusual in the region, in fact, in 1986, Latin America accounted for half of all Israeli arms sales. I.W.I did not respond to my request for comment. 

Beyond this, according to Shahaf Weisbein, an activist and employee at El Centro de Derecho Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (FRAYBA) in Chiapas, “private Israeli companies collaborate with state and local authorities in all 32 states, offering security projects.” 

Three drummers at a protest for Palestine in Mexico City. (Photo: Ana Maria Monjardino)

One of the best-known contemporary cases of Israel’s presence in Mexico is Pegasus; the Israeli spyware developed by cyber-arms company NSO Group. Tried and tested in occupied Palestine, it was designed to be covertly and remotely installed in mobile phones running iOS and Android. As journalist Anthony Loewenstein writes, “once deployed and ‘proven’ in the field, Israeli companies promote them as ‘battle-tested’ in occupied Palestine.”

In Mexico, Pegasus “began infiltrating the phones of some of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers, journalists, and anti-corruption activists,” according to a New York Times investigation from 2023 which dubbed Mexico its “most prolific user.”  Originally embraced under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), “it is regrettable that, more than six years after the complaints were filed, impunity for illegal espionage against dozens of victims continues,” according to Article19, a UK-based human rights organization, despite the current administration’s pledge to address it. 

In response to my request for comment on its current dealings with the Mexican government, NSO Group replied, “we cannot confirm or deny any alleged clients due to regulatory constraints.”  

Patterns of resistance 

Nevertheless, “todos somos Palestina” has reverberated through the streets in solidarity since October, a reference to one of Mexico’s own revolutions and one of its most infamous revolutionaries. Subcomandante Marcos, as he was known, is a member of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a left-wing guerilla group from a montane rainforest in Chiapas who, on January 1, 1994, stormed the city halls of the state’s main municipalities; San Cristóbal de las Casas, Altamirano, Las Margaritas, Ocosingo, Oxchuc, Huixtán, and Chana. The insurgency, led by men and women in traditional garb, black balaclavas, and red bandanas, was a critical juncture in the history of Indigenous self-determination worldwide. “We are a product of 500 years of struggle,” they announced “but today, we say enough is enough (¡ya basta!).”

Nicholas Coghlan, a former Canadian diplomat who was a Junior Officer at the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City at the time, recalls: 

I was surprised by the sudden appearance of those armed, balaclava-wearing figures in San Cristóbal and mystified as to who Marcos might actually be, but I was not surprised by the anger and frustration that was manifest — this was a benighted corner of Mexico where the Indigenous people were treated as a sub-class […] and their discontent with the Mexican State was to me fully comprehensible.

Acclaimed for his public speeches on local and national issues, some of Marco’s lesser-known words were on the subject of Israel and Palestine. They read: 

The subterranean rivers that run through the world may change geography, but they sing the same song. 

And the one we hear now is one of war and grief.

Not far from here, in a place called Gaza, in Palestine, in the Middle East, next door, a heavily armed and trained army, that of the government of Israel, continues its advance of death and destruction.

The empathy is evident, and unsurprising, as he said, “they sing the same song.” In fact, only a few months before the Zapatistas’ insurgency, another much longer and quantifiably more brutal uprising had concluded in Palestine as well. The First Intifada, in protest against Israeli violence, lasted for five years, nine months, and five days. The response was brutal, and the conclusive signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 re-cemented the legitimacy of the Israeli state by conserving its control of airspace, borders, and the territorial Gaza waters. But in Palestine, as in Chiapas, an emboldened oppressor reinforces the necessity of resistance. 

While the Zapatistas are not formally stateless like the Palestinians, they recognize the Mexican state as a hostile body that is unable and unwilling to address the needs of its Indigenous population. The dispossession of land, culture, and people, a dominant feature of settler colonialism in Palestine, is especially familiar. It is therefore grimly comical that, according to its “declaration of intervention” into South Africa v. Israel at the ICJ: 

It is Mexico’s position that the massive destruction of cultural property and the eradication of any cultural symbol related to a group can be construed as acts aimed to accomplish the severe harming of a group, diminishing or even destroying the connection between culture and the self-determination and identity of a population. 

The Maya Train megaproject, set to traverse the southeastern region, is a prevalent example of such an act. It has been met with definitive disaccord, including condemnation from activists who point to its disruptive impact on the local landscape and Indigenous communities. According to a confidential file belonging to the Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA), entitled Position of the EZLN for the construction of the Maya Train, the Zapatistas represent “a possible unfavorable factor to the internal security of the Mexican State” due to their position on the project. What’s more, according to the file exposed by hacktivist group Guacamaya Leaks, there has been “permanent monitoring by the military of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and organizations with affinity to the Zapatista movement.” While not in specific reference to the guerilla group, the leaked documents also include references to the continued use of Pegasus in various cases of espionage. 

BILLBOARD: No to mega projects. Resistance and rebellion: Billboard outside CIDECI, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas (Photo: Ana Maria Monjardino)

The rhetoric of repression and resistance that courses through Chiapas thus makes it the least surprising place for a small but coherent Palestine movement to thrive; from solidarity fasts and marches, led by Acción Palestina Chiapas, to keffiyeh sightings at the Zapatistas’ thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the ‘94 uprising. As Juan Pi, a human rights activist from Chiapas told me: 

The importance of solidarity from Chiapas towards the Palestinian people is profound and necessary. They are mirrors of distant but similar realities. The colonialism that indigenous people here and there have experienced is the same; the contempt, violence and terror is the same despite the fact that the face of who carries it out is different. Hence our deep empathy towards the Palestinian people. 

A reminder of the strength in solidarity – a handful of black & white #keffiyeh were spotted in the sea of red paliacates at the 30th anniversary celebration of the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

Deep in the heart of Chiapas, Mexicos southernmost state, Palestine is part of the cause pic.twitter.com/Sd8Vv7spsY

— Ana Maria Monjardino (@ammonjardino) January 3, 2024

Palestinianization

While the occupation of Palestine is rarely framed as an indigenous rights issue, the parallels between indigenous struggles in Chiapas and Palestine are difficult to ignore. In Guatemala, to which the state of Chiapas belonged until its annexation in 1824; where the Maya also constitute the majority of the indigenous population; and where the Israeli presence was well-documented during the genocidal regimes of the late 20th century, “rightists spoke openly of the ‘Palestiniani-zation’ of the nation’s rebellious Mayan Indians,” according to journalist George Black. 

So, when the Mexican government responded to the ‘94 uprising with a counterattack that turned Chiapas into a war zone, it should come as no surprise that they did not act alone.

Declassified Defense Intelligence Agency documents from 1994, obtained by the U.S. National Security Archive (NSA) via a freedom of information request, detailed police training in Chiapas from the British and a variety of other countries, including Israel and Spain. According to the documents, “the training is designed to address a Mexican military shortcoming in mine warfare. This has become increasingly more important over the last several months due to the use of mines and traps in the state of Chiapas by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).” This accusation against the EZLN is not publicly verifiable. 

FRAYBA’s Shahaf Weisbein expanded: 

“In the ‘90s, Israeli forces were recognized for their collaboration with the Mexican forces’ counterinsurgency policy known as Plan Chiapas 94. Their involvement in training armed forces and possibly paramilitary groups is another shameful stain, as the counterinsurgency plans ruined the lives of rural indigenous communities in Chiapas, who are still struggling to heal the social fabric and collective trauma.” 

The 1997 Acteal massacre of 45 Indigenous people, members of the pro-Zapatista pacifist group Las Abejas, is one of the most atrocious acts of paramilitary violence in the region’s history. The Mexican government at the time denied its involvement. However, according to another DIA document obtained by the NSA, there was a clandestine network of “human intelligence teams” positioned to oversee armed groups in Los Altos, the highland region of Chiapas where Acteal is situated. These “teams” have existed “as early as the summer of 1994,” the same year that Israeli assistance in the region was indicated in the previous document. 

According to Excelsior, much more recently, in May 2013, Jorge Luis Llaven Abarca, Mexico’s secretary of public security at the time, engaged in discussions with Israel’s Minister of Defense in which the two countries addressed “security coordination at the level of police, prisons, and effective use of technology.” This is the latest record of a potential Israeli military presence in the region, but there is no public record of developments since. The Israeli Embassy did not respond to my request for comment. 

Protests against militarization in Chiapas and counterinsurgent aggression in EZLN territory, like the 2023 attack of a Zapatista support base by paramilitary members of ORCAO, persist to this day. While the extent to which para-militant organizations are receiving international training is unknown, Israel’s potential role in the ongoing militarization of the police force warrants a watchful eye.  

Various organizations march against the attacks of ORCAO paramilitary groups, the war against the Zapatistas, and militarization, on June 8, 2023, (Photo: LA JORNADA/Marco Peláez)

Friends and foes 

The ongoing sale of weapons, spyware, and security projects to countries such as Mexico are part of what Anthony Loewenstein calls an exported occupation. “Palestine is Israel’s workshop,” he writes in The Palestine Laboratory. “Where an occupied nation on its doorstep provides millions of subjugated people as a laboratory for the most precise and successful methods of domination.” Juan Pi similarly describes Chiapas as “a laboratory where strategies against insurgents were experimented.”

The similarities between their words epitomize the urgency with which we must draw connections between global regimes. While Israel’s military presence in Chiapas seems to have evolved into a concern for “security,” the transgression from political project to militarization in both Israel and Mexico is easily made. As Frantz Fanon once said, “to wage war and to engage in politics are one and the same thing.”

So, what is to be made of Mexico’s evolving response to the genocide in Gaza? An empty threat to cement its position as an ally of democracy, or another Latin American country with a dependency on Israeli resources that is finally willing, regardless of the consequences, to break ties with the Zionist regime? Only time will tell. Yet for activists in Mexico, and elsewhere globally, the liberation of Palestine is the only way. Opportunities to deconstruct settler colonial states do not come about every day, but as the Palestinian resistance movement is demonstrating, the time is now.  


Ana Maria Monjardino

Ana Maria Monjardino is a freelance journalist from London, in Mexico City.


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Ana Maria Monjardino