Geopolitics

In Mexico, The Horrors We Have Seen

New revelations point to collusion between authorities and a drug cartel that may have led to the killing of 40 Mexican teenagers. Like Colombia a generation ago, a nation faces its deepest evils.

At a protest in Mexico City following news of the missing teens.
At a protest in Mexico City following news of the missing teens.

-Editorial-

BOGOTA Chilling is the word that comes to mind when considering the possible complicity between a mayor, his police chief and 30 municipal policemen in the massacre suspected to have occurred in Iguala, Mexico.

Events in Iguala, located on the Pacific coast in the state of Guerrero, were serious enough for President Enrique Peña Nieto not only to express public indignation and vow to punish the culprits, but to then send in federal police forces to take over the town.

The first result was that 22 municipal agents were jailed, even as the mayor and his police chief fled and remain missing since news of the disappearance or kidnapping of a group of secondary school students emerged in early October.

The state of Guerrero seems not to have been a priority in the ambitious security plan Mexico's president launched after his 2012 election, and which has otherwise achieved positive results in places where the big drug cartels were active.

In a poor state with deep social problems, it's not difficult to understand why one of the drug cartels and local authorities would wind up forging a secret marriage of convenience. The public officials could pocket money even while claiming they'd put a lid on pervasive corruption, and the drug lords could proceed with impunity to rake in new business. Despite whistleblowing by a few journalists who risked their lives to denounce the situation, generalized complicity helped turn Guerrero into the feudal territory of gangs.

But then comes this horrific incident, which began when some 40 high school students from nearby Ayotzinapa, where educational resources are scarce, made the mistake of going to Iguala one night. They were traveling on buses they had "borrowed" to gather funds for their school. Considered troublemakers in their own district, "someone" told the police to do something. They could not be simply allowed to drive into a territory where they were not welcome.

The first student who got off one of the buses to ask police what was happening was summarily shot dead. Police then began firing on the buses. Their passengers were hauled out and apparently handed over to gangsters, who took them to a mountainside two hours away.

A week later, two gunmen were caught and confessed they had executed 18 of the kidnapped teenagers and burned their bodies. They indicated a spot where a ditch was found containing 10 more bodies than the number they had given. And nobody knows where the remaining students are, though people suspect the worst.

A cemetery in Iguala. Photo: Sol Aranda

There are so many questions here, and very few answers, as often happens with crimes reported with fanfare in Mexico. Federal authorities are now investigating the majority of Guerrero's 80 mayors as well as its police forces, to find out just how far the drug mob's tentacles have spread here. Indeed, the Guerreros Unidos, the gang associated with the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and blamed for the massacre, has already threatened to reveal the names of politicians that have protected it so far.

The victims' parents, indeed the entire country, are demanding that the government hasten investigations and punish the culprits. It is already probing another incident from weeks earlier, when soldiers shot dead 21 youngsters. The dead were said to have been unarmed when killed, though the army says the soldiers fired in self-defense in response to gunfire.

As the great Latin American poet Mario Benedetti wrote, we may well be "cured of fear" in Mexico and Colombia for all the horrors we have seen. And yet, a new day, a new massacre reminds us that if we think we've seen the worst, we had better think again.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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