In the Mexican city Tampico, it’s common to be “three hours late to work, because of a shooting between drug cartels and the police,” says Sofia Garcia*, 26, from Mexico. She came to the Netherlands to do a human rights master at the University of Groningen.
In contrast, life in the Netherlands seems “perfect: everyone goes on their bikes without worries and arrives on time everywhere,” says Sofia.
The notion of human rights for all citizens is practically taken for granted in the Netherlands. This is not the case in Mexico, where it took the disappearance of 43 students from the city of Iguala last September – for all accounts and purposes unrelated to the drug cartels, before any type of viral protest came about.
Before that, it would appear Mexico itself had grown accustomed to the human rights violations its people face daily. Sofia sheds some light on how growing up with a worldview informed by Mexican’s drug war and its consequences, including rampant violence and impunity for its perpetrators, shapes her reality.
Sofia was born into a wealthy family in Tampico, a small city in the north of Mexico. Now, many have abandoned the city, as it has been subject to turf wars between two rival drug cartels since 2007. People living there now face many dangers, including kidnappings, shootings, and extortion.
Sofia’s father sent her away at 18, to study law in Monterrey, Mexico’s second largest city. He still lives in Tampico to manage his company, and Sofia says she is anxious every time her phone rings, “my heart beats very fast, I am afraid something has happened.”
Nowadays, Sofia avoids going to Tampico as much as possible, though many members of her family still live there. When she is there, to celebrate Christmas with her family for instance, she is afraid for her life. She makes sure to check the windows of the house before going in or out, look out for cars following her, and stay indoors at nighttime.
The cartel members, after all, live in this city. They go out there at night, to bars, to nightclubs, and “everybody knows them, knows who they are” says Sofia. It has become a part of daily life. The citizens of Tampico have adapted to the constant threat of violence, for instance by using social media like Twitter to check whether the streets are safe.
Sofia says this is necessary as Mexican media is unreliable. In one case she “could see in the newspapers in Monterrey that the president of Tampico is saying that tourists should come, go to the beach, that everything is perfect.” She and her family were planning to go, but then, she says, “my father was calling us, saying, you cannot come here, we have the shootings every day.”
Unless you are using social media, following people you trust, there is a high chance of being misinformed.
This plays into Sofia’s explanation of what happened with the handling of the 43 missing students as well. She questions whether the remains that were found are actually from the students. She suggests that, maybe, the people who confessed were coerced into confessing since they read their confession as if they were reading from a script.
“The federal government is really receiving international pressure on this subject,” she says, adding that the United Nations and the European Parliament have sent letters to the Mexican president. “Now, this is the first time this thing is actually getting a lot of international coverage and for me this is amazing for this could be the way to change; if international communities put an eye on the situation.”
The result is that “the President does not know where to hide,” which may have forced him to find a scapegoat. Though international media seem to consider the case closed, some Mexican newspapers do dare to question the validity of the statements used, suggesting that this is not a solved case but merely another example of impunity.
Witnessing the situation in Mexico, the people with realities different from her own – who faced problems ranging from security to literally not having enough to eat – led Sofia to become interested in studying human rights.
Tampico was safe enough during the years Sofia was growing up. Even though she had a good childhood here, it was clear that many were poor and so “lived in a different reality; without the benefits Sofia’s wealthy family provided her with.
This was something she says she really noticed for the first time when she was five. After Christmas, when the school children could all take their presents to school, she arrived loaded with the latest dolls and toys. Some of her class mates came to school empty-handed. The next Christmas she wrote to Santa to ask him to bring presents to “the poor kids.” Her mother kept that letter to this day.
Now, as well, Sofia is trying to give back to the people of Mexico. With the full support of her family, Sofia came to the Netherlands, the country that to her was “a whole new world” in terms of its immense respect for rules and regulations, to study human rights. With the knowledge she will gain through this master, she hopes to get back to Mexico and set up an NGO to give back to the Mexican people she loves so much.
Sofia says her friends in Mexico laughed at her when she told them she would study human rights, since she was giving up a financially rewarding job as a lawyer at an IT-company in Monterrey. For her friends, human rights law, or any type of law that will actually be held up by the government forces of Mexico is “really like a utopia.”
Sofia disagrees with this notion: “I think that I can make a difference, I don’t know if for one or for five, ten or a thousand but you have to believe and start somewhere because if not, we are hopeless.”
* Name has been changed.
Written November 2014, Journalism Skills taught by Greta Riemersma MA Journalism