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A Review of John Gibler's Mexico Unconquered

Conquering Inevitability: A Review of John Gibler's Mexico Unconquered

Posted by Kristin Bricker - January 31, 2009 at 7:35 pm

A little over a year ago in Mexico City, John Gibler and I were having drinks and talking about work with a handful of other journalists. John told us that he'd recently watched a documentary about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle with Mexican activists. He said that during the scenes where police beat protesters who offered no resistance, he and the Mexicans exclaimed, "Why don't they fight back?!"

In the United States, where grabbing the billy club that a police office is using to beat you is almost universally considered to be "assaulting an officer" (a felony crime) rather than "self-defense," it probably did not occur to most people who watched that documentary that fighting back was even a possibility.

In Mexico, fighting back is a daily reality.

Many US ex-pats living in Mexico have spent long hours pondering the same question both amongst ourselves and with Mexican friends and colleagues: Why aren't Mexican activists afraid to defend themselves?

Gibler has finally figured out the answer in his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt. Gibler weaves Mexican history, current events, theory, and analysis to support his thesis that Mexico was never fully conquered, and that Mexican people have been in a more or less constant state of rebellion against this conquest since the first foreigners washed up on their shores hundreds of years ago. The perpetual rebellion against the state (be it the Spanish colonial state, the Mexican state in the era of Independence, or the contemporary post-revolution state) has kept the Mexican government from achieving a measure of legitimacy amongst its citizens that the US government has enjoyed even in its most unpopular moments.

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Gibler begins the book with a crash-course in the history of conquest and revolt in Mexico, starting with indigenous empires' conquest of each other and how their wars affected their ability to defend themselves against the Spanish conquistadores. He discusses the Catholic Church’s role in the conquest, which can be a somewhat touchy subject in a majority Catholic country where most of the respected local human rights organizations that fight against government abuses are named after priests and saints. Gibler traces the Mexican government's notorious impunity to relations with the Spanish government during the colonial era--that is, about 370 years before the current-day Mexican government and its political structure were even born, and 270 years before Mexico first declared its independence from Spain.

In his analysis of how the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) built its seventy-year stranglehold on the Mexican government, Gibler identifies the Mexican center-left's sacred cow, former president Lazaro Cardenas, as key in the consolidation of the PRI's power in its early years. Gibler explains how Cardenas, celebrated for his labor and land reforms, actually used these "progressive" policies to divide workers and peasants and bring them under government control.

GIbler also tackles the "rule of law" in Mexico, which, thanks to its never-ending drug war and its notorious human rights record, is often the subject of op-eds, human rights reports, and foreign aid packages. The "rule of law" in Mexico, he notes, is not legal guarantees and equality before the law; "rule of law" is authority. It's why drug traffickers seem to run certain parts of the government, while the government rapes and kills people in San Salvador Atenco for protesting the government's failure to honor an on-record agreement it made with local flower vendors: they have the authority to do so.

The rest of Mexico Unconquered is a testament to Gibler's intrepid reporting over the past two years. As Mexican author and journalist Gloria Muñoz Ramirez writes in the book's foreword, "John Gibler is omnipresent." From the poorest indigenous community in the country, to the most horrific police operation in recent history, to the uprising in Oaxaca, to armed guerrillas in Guerrero, Gibler's been there. He's interviewed activists in barricades, migrants on the border, political prisoners in prison, paramilitaries in activist custody, children in elementary schools, and government officials in the seat of power. Those who have followed his dispatches from all over Mexico will not be disappointed in Mexico Unconquered.

The book gives Gibler the space he needs to analyze and elaborate upon the context of the news we've followed in his reports from Mexico. Rather than just reporting that a Chiapas indigenous community is desperately poor, Gibler places it within the context of the "biological class war" that is waged upon indigenous communities all over the country, making them severely over-represented amongst the nation's poorest citizens.

Mexico Unconquered’s chapter on the 2006 conflict in Oaxaca thoroughly explains the violent campaign of government repression that left over twenty people dead. While the murder of US Indymedia journalist Brad Will captured international headlines, Gibler devotes just as much attention to other murders that occurred at that time. While the murderers in those cases are often as easily identifiable as in the Will case, the government is not investigating them (death squads led by uniformed police in marked cars killed at least one person, which might explain the lack of investigation), and there is no international outcry.

Gibler employs Slavoj Zizek’s concept of the “Included” and the “Excluded” to provide a refreshing and inspiring take on the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, a subject that has up until now lacked a rigorous analysis in English-speaking media.

Activist Reference Book

Mexico Unconquered
is painstakingly footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and an index--all crucial factors for an amazing book to be a constant reference in any activist's library. Gibler doesn't try to pass off others' ideas as his own. On the contrary, when relying on other theorists, historians, or analysts to make a point or pain a picture, Gibler is careful to cite them in the text, footnotes, and bibliography. This makes his book a jumping-off point for further exploration and more in-depth investigation and analysis.

Gibler’s intentional choice of vocabulary is present throughout the book and lends his analysis depth and credibility. He carefully defines terms such as "imperialism," "oppression," "colonialism," and "exploitation" and explains why he chose one word over another similar word that's often carelessly thrown around on the left. Gibler also calls into question the commonly held beliefs surrounding words like “poverty” and “corruption.” These words are frequently used to discuss the political situation in Mexico, but more often than not they serve to hide the reality of domination and other systemic ills.

Call to Action

While Gibler doesn’t present a plan for action (“I don't think it's anyone’s place to say from an abstract level to a concrete and practical level what should be done,” Gibler says), his book is a call to action. Mexican social movements amazed and inspired us through Gibler’s articles; now we can better understand their context and history and the spirit of rebellion that drives them. Gibler leads off Mexico Unconquered with the following quote from Barrington Moore Jr:

“People are evidently inclined to grant legitimacy to anything that is or seems inevitable no matter how painful it may be. Otherwise the pain might be intolerable. The conquest in this sense of inevitability is essential to the development of politically effective moral outrage. For this to happen, people must perceive and define their situation as the consequence of human injustice: a situation they need not, cannot, and ought not endure.”

Mexican activists have conquered this sense of inevitability; many of them, particularly indigenous communities in resistance, never accepted it in the first place. Hopefully Gibler’s stories of Mexico’s underdogs, los de abajo, will inspire activists in other parts of the world to conquer our feelings of inevitability about our own situations and finally stand up and defend what’s ours.

Narco News recently talked to John Gibler about his new book, Mexico Unconquered. Read the interview here. Gibler is currently on a West Coast book tour. Catch him at the following events:

Sunday, February 1st, 3:00 pm

Seaside, CA: Peace Center

The Seaside Peace Center presents speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.

1364 Fremont Blvd.

Seaside, CA

For more info contact Global Exchange at 415.255.7296


About Kristin Bricker

Personal Website

Kristin Bricker is a Mexico-based Narco News correspondent. She is also part of the Rebel Imports collective, which sells fair trade textiles, coffee, and honey from Zapatista cooperatives. You can reach Kristin at

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