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Mexican writer Eduardo Lizalde, centre, speaks during an event where members of a PEN International delegation declare their support for a free press and freedom of expression in Mexico. (HENRY ROMERO/REUTERS)
Mexican writer Eduardo Lizalde, centre, speaks during an event where members of a PEN International delegation declare their support for a free press and freedom of expression in Mexico. (HENRY ROMERO/REUTERS)

John Ralston Saul

Where words are 'rags to cover corpses' Add to ...

It was a surprising scene. Fifty-two writers lined up in alphabetical order in four rows, famous novelists and columnists mixed with provincial journalists, outdoors in the centre of Mexico City. Facing them: a bank of cameras, a large crowd of both press and the public.

The legendary Elena Poniatowska sat near the back in an elegant red suit. Novelist Russell Banks in the front. Laura Esquivel of Like Water for Chocolate sat in the middle near Rocio Gallegos, the courageous young woman from the Juarez newspaper El Diario, which has taken on the drug cartels. Its front-page statement in the form of a question – What do you want from us? – has become the Mexican equivalent of Zola's J'Accuse.

With the Mexicans were a dozen leading writers from the Canadian and Quebec PEN centres, both American centres and those in Japan and England.

Two hours later, the crowd had, if anything grown, the cameras were still rolling. By then, each of us had risen to our feet to condemn the murder of Mexican journalists, the deaths, the violence, the bombs exploding in radio, television and newspaper buildings, the disappearance of freedom of expression in several Mexican states; the death of more than 80 writers since 2000, with the murder rate still rising.

It is a classic conundrum. Mexico is now one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a writer. Yet, you fly in with a sophisticated businessman – Mexican or foreign – on your left; on your right, an eager tourist. You arrive in one of the world's great cities, which is looking better than it has for a long time thanks to its mayor, Marcelo Ebrard. The mayor was the first to receive us, expressing great frustration with what is happening elsewhere.

Which brings me back to that remarkable Sunday event. With national elections this year, no one in politics or government wants freedom of expression to be part of the daily conversation. There is nothing in it for any of them. Our delegation was invited to Mexico to help drag free expression into the centre of public consciousness. Not because the death of writers is more important than the death of tens of thousands of non-writers. But because freedom of expression belongs to all of them – writers and readers, broadcasters and listeners and viewers.

Where the power lies

Out there on the front line, it is always hard to know where power lies. When writers are being killed, it often seems as if violence is the real power. Governments and businessmen now like to say prosperity leads to democracy. How is it then that the worst violence in Mexico is in the most prosperous states?

This past week, we made a serious attempt to remind everyone that freedom of expression is the greatest power – the muscle of democracy. It began with a full page in the newspaper El Universal – a letter to Mexican writers signed by 170 writers around the world – many Nobel Prize winners and all the ex-presidents of PEN. The message was simple: This situation can't be swept into the silent corners. The news is spreading around the world – something is seriously wrong in Mexico. Here is a great civilization that is in trouble.

Virtually all the grassroots organizations and non-governmental organizations working on human rights and free expression came together to advise us on the situation. It isn't an exaggeration to say they see no signs of change or improvement. As Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico, put it on Sunday, words have been “reduced to rags to cover corpses.” That doesn't mean the authorities are doing nothing. The Attorney-General's Office received us with about 20 officials, including the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, Gustavo Salas. Here you see the intelligence and sophistication of the Mexican elite. This situation of a virtual civil war is humiliating for them. They are trying to reform a legal system that was designed for what Mario Vargas Llosa called the perfect dictatorship – sequential dictators, each with a six-year term. Since 2000, there has been a choice in presidential elections and the legal structures are being slowly dragged into the real world of transparency and responsibility. The special prosecutor gave a formal recounting of what they were doing. But when you ask simple questions – How many indictments? How many convictions? – the answer is none or almost none. Why?

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