Beaten but unbowed


If you read one book
about Latin America
this coming year, make sure it is John Gibler’s Mexico Unconquered



Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt
John Gibler
2009, City Lights Books
356 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

MEXICO has a habit of generating brilliant foreign writers who, incensed by its injustices and inequalities, turn out intoxicating social commentary.

The raw exercise of power, the social and political relations that would be intolerable just about anywhere else, the barefaced lies of its leaders, germinate palpable outrage.

One reason for this is the country’s stark proximity to the wealthy north and the absurd pretensions of its elites, so blinded by that wealth that their dazzled eyes confuse proximity with progress.

Another may be more fundamental, and derives from the revolutionary promise that Mexico’s people continue to offer complacent societies that have lost sight of their most basic values.

Sometimes, it takes a foreigner to recognize that promise and remind us of struggles in our own past – and that is precisely what John Gibler has done in this exceptional journey into the soul of a country so far from God, yet so near to the United States.

Mexico Unconquered paints both a deeply depressing portrait of a society distinguished by such extreme levels of social contrast that it is home both to the superstar of the capitalist universe, Carlos Slim, and children living on dirt-roads who die from a lack of basic medicines; and yet a profoundly hopeful picture of a people unbowed by continuing conquest who risk everything to claim justice for themselves.


Gibler is something of a revelation, having been living and writing from Mexico for a range of progressive publications only since 2006, but providing reflections, insights and a level of understanding worthy of a veteran correspondent.

His incisive analysis of the causes of injustice in Mexico and his argument that its people continue to suffer under the boot of an unending neocolonial project offers an essential introduction to the country’s brutal political and social realities. His book demonstrates how, as has been so often the case in Mexico, the abuses of those in power are justified by some ideology or other, sophisticated fantasies that are either homegrown or in common, transnational currency.

Any writer who begins a study of Mexico with the murderous betrayal of Rubén Jaramillo, one of the most noble yet under-recognised figures of 20th-century Mexican history, deserves to be listened to. Gibler proceeds to dissect with eloquent precision a rotting potpourri of crimes and abuses that have long distinguished the exercise of power and day-to-day life for most Mexicans.

His analysis of the 2006 elections – won by a whisker by the rightwing Felipe Calderón of the Partido Acción Nacional amid vociferous denunciations of fraud by his leftwing rival Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática – tests the illusion of democratic transition.

His portrayal of the cause and effect of drug-trafficking, its corrosive impact on the already corrupt security forces, and how the tentacles of the cartels reach to the highest levels of government, conjures up images of the barbarism of Latin America’s most ruthless despots – from Trujillo to Batista.

Gibler examines imperialism, poverty, inequality, the Oaxaca rebellion, the issue of indigenous autonomy. He profiles guerrillas – imprisoned and at large – and unpicks the North American Free Trade Agreement and privatization. All the while, he gives a voice to ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events and their millennial struggle for dignity and fair treatment.

Mexico, Gibler reminds us, is a nation divided, not conquered – and still able to throw up a thousand Jaramillos in the face of unending mistreatment. Gibler writes:

Mexico Unconquered chronicles the hidden crevices of Mexico’s class war. It makes two arguments. First, the conquest never finished, but evolved and transformed from Spanish imperialism into an internal colonialism combined with forms of economic domination imposed by the United States … Second, precisely due to the neocolonial character of internal processes of exploitation, exclusion, and repression in Mexico, compounded by a deep and continuing history of United States military, political, and economic interventions in Mexico, resistance movements take on an anticolonial dimension…” [pp. 17-18]

John Gibler’s book sits comfortably in a tradition of radical writing from and about Mexico alongside the work of such eminent observers as John Reed, a point made in the introduction by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez. If you read one book about Latin America this coming year, make sure it is Gibler’s.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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