Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mexico’s Drug War Victims Find Their Voice in Massive Silent March

by Kristin Bricker, Upside Down World

Drug war victims finally made themselves heard in Mexico in the most unlikely way: a nation-wide silent March for Peace with Justice and Dignity. Photo courtesy of Notisystema.com.Drug war victims finally made themselves heard in Mexico in the most unlikely way: a nation-wide silent March for Peace with Justice and Dignity.

Over 100,000 Mexicans took to the streets over the weekend to protest the war on drugs, impunity, corruption, and violence. The largest march lasted four days and covered nearly 100 kilometers from Cuernavaca, Morelos, to Mexico City. On Thursday, May 5, about 500 protesters began marching in Cuernavaca. Along the way, more contingents joined the march, while other marches set out from different states to join the protest in Mexico City. By the time the marches met in Mexico City’s main square on May 8, an estimated 100,000 people were gathered to protest the war.

Those who couldn’t make the trip to Mexico City held protests in their own states. In Chiapas, 25,000 masked Zapatistas marched in complete silence to the main plaza in San Cristobal de las Casas, where Comandante David read a communiqué from Subcomandante Marcos. “Tens of thousands of people have died in this absurd war,” said Comandante David. “Their only sin was to have been born or lived in a country that is badly governed by legal and illegal groups who are thirsty for war, death, and destruction.”

About seventy Central American migrants passing through Mexico to reach the United States also joined the March for Peace with Justice and Dignity. They marched along railroad tracks through Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Puebla, the route that migrants generally travel as they cling precariously to boxcars. Near the border between Veracruz and Puebla, armed men attempted to kidnap at least one woman during the march. The protesters don’t know if the attack was politically motivated, or just another example of the extreme violence migrants suffer daily as they travel through Mexico. Drug trafficking organizations frequently kidnap migrants for ransom or human trafficking. According to Eduardo Almeida of the Puebla-based Nodo human rights organization, the presence of reporters covering the march likely dissuaded the kidnappers in this case.

In Ciudad Juarez, about one thousand protesters marched in silence until they ran into the city’s mayor at the Benito Juarez monument. He fled the area on foot to avoid the protesters as they began chanting at him.

Protests occurred in all 31 states in Mexico. Protests were also reported in the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America. Mexican immigrants organized many of the protests that occurred in foreign cities.

“We Are Not Collateral Damage”
This weekend’s march, convoked by renowned Mexican writer Javier Sicilia after his son Juan Francisco was murdered in Morelos, allowed the drug war’s innocent victims to bring their stories to the national and international media, in many cases for the very first time. Prior to Sicilia’s public outrage over his son’s murder, the government stigmatized drug war murder victims, arguing that 90% of them are “cartel hit men."Government agents have repeatedly doctored crime scenes and planted weapons on bodies to make innocent victims appear to be dangerous criminals. When the government does admit that innocent people have died in the drug war, it justifies the deaths as “collateral damage.”
However, from May 5-8, the drug war’s innocent victims stepped out of the shadows and into the international spotlight.
Many were meeting each other for the first time. When the marchers took breaks along Mexico’s 95D freeway, they sat down together to talk about their shared pain. Variations of the following exchange were frequently overheard during the march:
"Who is the young man in the photo you're carrying?"
"He was my son. He was murdered. And who is the young man on your t-shirt?"
"He is my son. He's disappeared."
Some marchers lost family members within the past few months and had not yet politicized their search for answers; they were still in the initial stages of shock and desperation.
Carlos Castro marched with a 15-foot by 7-foot banner that pleaded “RETURN MY FAMILY TO ME” printed above photos of his missing wife, two daughters, and the family’s housekeeper. “I’m marching today to see if I can find my daughters,” Castro said as he choked back tears. The four women disappeared on January 6, 2011, from their home in Xalapa, Veracruz. Castro says he has no clue who took his family and housekeeper. “They entered [the house] and took the whole family. I’m doing this so that they [the kidnappers] receive this message and return them to me. I don’t know why they took them, they had no reason to take my daughters.” Castro’s wife Josefina Campillo Cerreto had just ended a stint as the Actopan (Veracruz) City Council’s trustee when the family was kidnapped. On December 13, 2010—just three weeks before the kidnapping—she updated her Facebook profile to list her job at the City Council and posted what would be her last status update: “I’d rather die fighting than give up without a fight.”
25,000 Zapatistas marched in Chiapas to demand "No more blood on Mexican Soil!" Photo by Moysés Zúñiga Santiago / La Jornada. Most marchers had at least a general idea of who disappeared or killed their family members. Surprisingly, protesters at the march against President Felipe Calderon’s drug war weren’t just limited to victims of military and police abuse. Victims of both organized and unorganized crime also marched against the war in large numbers.
Teresa, a middle-aged woman who lives in Morelos, marched with a photo of her son, Joaquin. “They killed him ten months ago in Mexico City,” she recounts. “I’m carrying his photo so that everyone knows who he was, sees that he had a face and a mother, just like the over 30,000 dead in this country. The dead aren’t just numbers. They were loved ones.” Joaquin was apparently murdered during a mugging. Teresa filed a report with the government, but the investigation, if there ever was one, went nowhere. As long as the investigation remains open, the government won’t let her cremate her son and spread his ashes in Cancun, where he was born. Joaquin is buried in a temporary grave in Morelos. The protests convoked by Javier Sicilia were the first time Teresa took to the streets to demand justice for her son. “I identify with Javier,” she says. “He was a young, productive, happy boy. Joaquin was beginning his third year of college, studying architecture. Joaquin was the type of young man this country needs, just like Juanelo [Javier’s son] was.”
Isaac Gomez Lopez, an art student who lives in Cuernavaca, argues, “A lot of people use the drug war as a pretext to attack other people. Now, it’s almost like anyone can kill someone and justify it by saying ‘it’s the drug war’ and it won’t be investigated. It just goes into a file.” Cuernavaca’s murder rate jumped after soldiers killed drug kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva there in late 2009. Beltran Leyva’s death destabilized the territory his organization controlled, providing an opening for other organizations to move in an attempt a takeover, which inevitably led to more violence. “You start to see curfews, the streets empty because they’re not as safe,” says Gomez Lopez. “It’s really affecting tourism.”
Victims of organized crime marched against the war as well. “I’m a victim of human trafficking and organized crime,” declares Ivan Monroy Medina of the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking of Women and Girls. “Seven months ago they took my daughter. She was eleven months old and they violently took her from my wife in Mexico State.” Ramos says that human trafficking is a growing problem in his state. “There were meetings in the neighborhood where we were living. They warned us to be careful because a lot of children had been stolen from the neighborhood. Fifteen or twenty days later, it happened to us.” Monroy Medina and his wife reported the kidnapping to the authorities, “but since we don’t live in Predregal [an upscale neighborhood] and since we don’t know how to play golf and don’t know governors, they don’t pay any attention to us.”
Seven members of the LeBaron family drove down from the Mormon community of Colonia LeBaron, Chihuahua, to participate in the march. The LeBarons made international headlines in 2009 when they publicly refused to pay a million-dollar ransom for 16-year-old Erick LeBaron after he was kidnapped. “The kidnappers told Erick, ‘But there’s so many of you, can’t you all chip in and pay the ransom?’” recounts Adrian LeBaron, Erick’s uncle. The LeBarons feared that if they paid one exorbitant ransom, kidnappers would descend upon their community like vultures. Instead, Colonia LeBaron organized protests in Chihuahua City to demand that the government take action to bring Erick home. Their gamble worked; the kidnappers released Erick after seven days.
The LeBaron’s victory was short-lived. Only a few months later, a criminal organization punished Erick’s older brother Benjamin for organizing about fourteen local communities into an anti-kidnapping organization called SOS Chihuahua. “Twenty armed men went to his house and broke all his windows, and so his brother-in-law [Luis Widmar] came over to help him,” recounts Benjamin’s brother Julian. “They kidnapped them both and executed them about a mile down the road.”
Despite the fact that the LeBaron’s battle is with organized crime, Julian argues that his community’s problems started when President Calderon declared war on drugs. “The war on drugs has been a disaster for this country,” he insists.
Chihuahua, particularly Ciudad Juarez, is Mexico’s drug war “laboratory.” There, argues Proceso reporter Marcela Turati, “Not only drug traffickers, drug dealers, and even drug addicts, but also common citizens, above all youngsters, are involuntarily subjected to an experiment: how it would be, in Mexico, to live under military control.” A large contingent from Chihuahua participated in the March for Peace and Justice with Dignity to tell the president that the experiment has failed.
Maria Alvarado traveled all the way from Ciudad Juarez to participate in the march because the military disappeared her sister Nitza Paola Alvarado and cousins Rocío Irene Alvarado and José Ángel Alvarado on December 29, 2009, from Ejido Benito Juarez, where they were spending the holidays with family. “We tried to follow the them,” she recalls. “But it was very dark and they were taking them on back roads. We returned to the house because we were scared.” The military later left Nitza’s truck at a Chihuahua State Investigations Agency office without giving the local authorities any explanation as to why they were leaving it there.
The Alvarado family filed all of the necessary complaints with relevant government agencies, but they hit a brick wall. “The military has always said that there’s no indication that it was them, that they’ve never carried out operations in the town, which is a big lie,” insists Alvaro. “They stayed three weeks on the ejido in a hotel called Los Arcos, and they made rounds in the entire ejido.”
Regardless of who perpetrated the attacks on their families, all of the drug war victims in the march had the same demand: “We’re demanding that the authorities do their jobs,” says Alvarado. “All they do is create fat case files, and they don’t investigate.”
“They told us we had to take the legal route. ‘You have to go give your testimony and file your complaint and we’ll see if we get motivated to go chase the kidnappers,’” complains Adrian LeBaron. “We told them, ‘We don’t want to be another little paper in your mountains of files. We want our son.’ So we protested.”
A common slogan on signs and banners in the March for Peace with Justice and Dignity was directed at the authorities: “If you can’t do your job, then quit!”
National Pact for Peace
The movement to compel Mexican authorities to “do their jobs” and reduce the country’s staggering impunity rate doesn’t show any signs of letting up.
Javier Sicilia says that Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos sent him a letter to tell him that the Zapatistas would join his march. The letter was hand-delivered and came with an oral message, too: “This march, this struggle, transcends the Left. This is a war against all of us, and all of us need to join together.”
“This is a struggle between those who want life and those who want death,” declared Comandante David during the Zapatistas’ march in Chiapas. “And we, the Zapatistas, we chose to struggle for life—that is, for justice, liberty, and peace.”
On May 8 in front of about 100,000 people, Olga Reyes, who has lost six family members in the drug war, and Patricia Duarte, whose son Andrés died in a fire at the ABC Daycare due to government negligence, read the proposal for a National Pact for Peace, a citizens initiative to reduce violence, corruption, and impunity in Mexico. The pact has six central demands:
  1. truth and justice
  2. an end to the war in favor of a focus on citizen security
  3. combat corruption
  4. combat crime’s economic roots and profits
  5. emergency attention for youths and effective actions to rebuild the social fabric
  6. participative democracy, better representative democracy, and democratization of the media
The proposal will be finalized and signed during a public event on June 10 in Ciudad Juarez, the deadliest city in the world. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reflections on Mexico's National Anti-War March

by Kristin Bricker

I'm in Morelos covering the "We've Had It Up to Here, Stop the War, For A Just And Peaceful Mexico" march.

I will publish an article about the march when it's over at Upside Down World. But I'm so awestruck by the people I've met in the march that I have to share my initial observations with you.

The march is growing by the hour. It left Cuernavaca with just over 500 people, and by the time it arrived in Coajomulco, Morelos, over a thousand people were marching. When I woke up this morning in Coajomulco, I saw that more marchers had arrived during the night, including a bus from Oaxaca that carried members of CACTUS, the community organization that Bety Cariño founded and led before she was assassinated near San Juan Copala just over a year ago.

Joaquin was murdered in an armed
robbery in Mexico City.
Bety's just one of Mexico's nearly 40,000 dead who are here in spirit and rage today.

I don't think I will interview Javier Sicilia, the poet and journalist whose son's murder sparked this national movement against murder and impunity. He's been interviewed enough, and I am enraged that the media following the march turns off their cameras when other drug war victims speak, and they only turn them on when Sicilia speaks. It's not his fault; it's the corporate media's fault. They've made it their job to ignore the drug war's innocent victims and the families it has torn apart. When one of their own lost his son (Sicilia writes for Proceso and La Jornada), they couldn't ignore it anymore. Actually, a lot of journalists in the corporate media know Sicilia and they knew his son. They feel genuinely terrible for the man, and they've been reporting constantly from the march, step by step. Most of them even camped with us in Coajomulco.

Even if I don't interview Sicilia, I do have to thank him. He's successfully removed--or at least reduced--the stigma that families feel when a loved one is murdered.* As I reported in an earlier article about the Reyes Salazar family, the drug war's victims are nameless. The government wants it that way, because it's easy to paint the drug war's dead as narcos if no one even knows their names, much less their stories. Now, however, that's changing. They're marching alongside and behind Sicilia, and the press is actually interviewing them, some of them for the first time. And they're interviewing them as human beings, not as narco-families.

The march that Sicilia made possible has also allowed survivors to connect with each other for the first time. I saw the following conversation occur multiple times yesterday:

"Who is the young man in the photo you're carrying?"
"He was my son. He was murdered. And who is the young man on your t-shirt?"
"He is my son. He's disappeared."

This march, more than anything, is a march against impunity. In some cases, police kidnapped and disappeared the victims. In another case, organized crime snatches little girls from a community and traffics them. In other cases, victims were killed in armed robberies. The perpetrators vary: organized crime, unorganized crime, or the government. But everyone has one complaint in common: the government has done nothing to stop the violence, and when citizens are victims of violence, the government does nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In a few days, you'll be able to read all about the amazing interviews I've done with some of the strongest people I've ever met. In the meantime, I want to share just one person's story with you: the Galactic Cowboy.

The Galactic Cowboy's dad marches.
The Galactic Cowboy's family is from Mexico State, but up until a year ago he lived and worked in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. He is a street performer, a human silver statue of a cowboy. He stands perfectly still until you insert a coin in his box, and then he makes robotic movements. "Ever since he was little, he wanted to be a cowboy," says his father.

The Galactic Cowboy works in the informal market. Police had detained him several times in Monterrey for working without a permit. One time he managed to get a permit to work on the street, but it was only for one month. "What good is a one-month permit?" asks his dad. Street theater is is a life-long career for the Galactic Cowboy.

One day, Monterrey municipal police detained the Galactic Cowboy and two companions in Monterrey. Witnesses saw police arrest them. They wrote down the patrol car numbers.

The police deny that they detained the Galactic Cowboy and his companions. The witnesses who saw them detain him refuse to testify for fear of reprisal. The government refuses to investigate the disappearance.

The Galactic Cowboy has been missing for a year.


* This sentence originally read: "He's single-handedly removed (or at least greatly diminished) the stigma that families feel when a loved one is murdered." Thanks to a reader comment, I changed the sentence, which I admittedly wrote in a hurry, in the heat of the moment, as I followed the march. I want to explain why I wrote this: he's been more successful than anyone else in removing the stigma victims' families feel. Other families have "thrown down" as the smart reader pointed out. And he's right. Actually, families like the LeBarons and the Reyes Salazar took MUCH greater risks than Sicilia, because they were up against much worse odds: their state and towns are more dangerous, they don't have media support, they don't have thousands of people marching with them. In short, what they are doing was a much bigger risk. Interviewing them...I'm amazed at their strength. I love Mexico.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Anti-Drug War Movement Emerges in Mexico

by Kristin Bricker, Upside Down World

After four years of war that has left nearly 40,000 people dead, countless more disappeared, and soldiers on the streets of every state in the country, many Mexicans are finally "fed up" with President Felipe Calderón's drug policy. This weekend, Mexicans in at least 25 of the country’s 31 states will protest to “stop the war, for a just and peaceful Mexico." Protests are also planned in solidarity in at least twelve cities in Europe, Canada, the United States, and Brazil. 

The largest protest will begin on May 5 in Cuernavaca, Morelos, where protesters will march 100 km to Mexico City for a rally on Sunday, May 8. Marchers will follow the Mexico City-Cuernavaca freeway, which could bring traffic on one of the country’s largest freeways to a standstill over the Cinco de Mayo holiday weekend.

Mexico’s beloved journalist and poet Javier Sicilia convoked the protests after his son, Juan Francisco, was found murdered along with six other people in his home state of Morelos on March 28. Sicilia declared that he was “hasta la madre” (“fed up” or had “had it up to here”) with politicians and criminals. He vowed to abandon poetry (“The world is no longer worthy of words,” he wrote in his last poem) and to dedicate himself to stopping the drug war. “I’m going to march,” he said in a video message, “because I don't want any other family to suffer the loss of a son as we are suffering due to a poorly planned, poorly executed, and poorly led war."

Common Cause

After nearly 40,000 drug war murders, it was Juan Francisco’s execution that brought Mexico to the tipping point. This weekend’s mobilizations are expected to be Mexico’s largest anti-drug war protests to-date. Moreover, nearly every sector of Mexican society has confirmed its participation in the protests: labor, indigenous peoples, students, journalists, intellectuals, opposition politicians, feminists, artists, drug war victims and their family members, former political prisoners, Mormons, sex workers, autonomists, peasants, communists, marijuana legalization advocates, 
migrants in Mexico, Mexican immigrants living abroad, Catholic church leaders…even the commanders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) have ordered Zapatistas to take to the streets to “end Calderón’s war.”

Sicilia coined the protests, “We’ve had it up to here. Stop the war. For a just and peaceful Mexico.” However, he insists, “I’m just one more voice.” He believes that the movement’s proposals must come from the grassroots. The 
Network for Peace and Justice, which is helping Sicilia coordinate the protests, is encouraging citizens to hold assemblies and develop proposals for a “re-founding of Mexico.” Those proposals will be taken into account in a document that Sicilia will read at the end of the march on May 8.

Some organizations and individuals have already published their demands and proposals.

Students and young people gathered at the National Forum of Young People in National Emergency in Cuernavaca on April 28-29 to coordinate for the May 8 protests and develop a set of demands. Young people suffer the highest murder rates in the drug war, leading Forum participant Raúl Romero to 
lament, “Young people are no longer this country’s future; we’re this country’s dead.” The Forum published six demands: immediate demilitarization, an end to violence and impunity, decriminalization of drug consumption, a dignified life (which would include job opportunities), art and culture for everyone (including a proposal to nationalize the corporate media), and a guaranteed college education for everyone.

The Collective for an Integral Drug Policy (Cupihd), an organization of drug policy experts, will hold a march for marijuana legalization on May 7, and on May 8 it will join the national protests in downtown Mexico City.

Sociologist and nationally syndicated columnist John Ackerman borrowed a phrase from Argentina’s recuperated factory movement to sum up 
his proposal for the movement: “Que se vayan todos” (“they all must go”), referring to Mexican politicians. “We have to demand the immediate ouster of all high-ranking officials who are involved in this criminal war at the federal and state levels,” argues Ackerman. “Beginning with, of course, [Secretary of Public Security] Genaro García Luna, [Defense Secretary] Guillermo Galván, and Calderón. These politicians have spent enough time in office, and they’ve demonstrated that they are incapable of assuring social peace.”

Sicilia has called for the 
resignation of the governor of Morelos and several state legislators because they are “negligent and corrupt.”
“We’ve Had It Up To Here!”
Juan Francisco’s senseless and brutal murder was the catalyst that united drug war critics from diverse social sectors and across the political spectrum. However, discontent over increasing violence and human rights violations has been brewing in Mexico for quite some time. Pockets of resistance to the drug war have formed across the country, although it is only now that they are all coming together at the national level.

When Calderón declared war on organized crime, some towns racked by violent cartel rivalries initially welcomed the military's presence. However, it quickly became apparent that the military brought more chaos and abuses, not law and order. "The military doesn't solve anything because it commits a lot of abuses," a farmer from Galeana, Chihuahua, told Proceso reporter Marcela Turati. "They beat people, steal vehicles, rob from houses. Their trucks look like moving companies, they drive around loaded with so much furniture."

Initially reported in the press as isolated incidents (if they were reported at all), the military's abuses quickly turned into an epidemic. In mid-2009, human rights organizations noted that the drug war led to 
a significant increase in human rights abuses. The Mexican military now receives more human rights abuse complaints than any other government agency.

A handful of horrifying incidents shocked the nation and captured headlines for a few days, such as when soldiers killed two unarmed students in March 2010 on the campus of the elite private university Tecnológico de Monterrey (“Tec”). The soldiers planted weapons on the dead students to make them appear to be cartel gunmen. The cover-up managed to temper the public’s response to the shooting; the military’s wrongdoing only became clear months later.

Seven months later, on October 29, 2010, Federal Police 
shot and gravely wounded student Dario Alvarez Orrantia on the campus of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez as he participated in the 11th Walk Against Death during the International Forum Against Militarization and Violence. The shooting enraged students across the country and provoked protests. Students from the Mexico City metropolitan area who participated in the Forum and witnessed the shooting decided to form the Metropolitan Coordinating Committee Against Militarization and Violence (COMECOM). "We decided to begin to join together to denounce the crimes that are repeatedly committed against students," says COMECOM member Raúl Romero. "We want to network with organizations, regardless of political affiliation, in order to unify our voice and demand an end to Felipe Calderón's war." COMECOM is currently comprised of twenty-five metropolitan-area organizations.

Up until recently, the only killings, shootings, or kidnappings that provoked public outcry were those that were obviously perpetrated by government security forces. Cases in which the perpetrator was unknown or believed to be linked to organized crime were ignored. The Calderón administration labeled these murders “collateral damage” and Calderón himself argued (without substantiating his claim) that 
90% of drug war murder victims were linked “in one way or another” to organized crime. The stigma meant that drug war murders weren’t mourned, let alone investigated.

The drug war’s true impact on Mexico’s civilians became apparent earlier this year when three members of the beleaguered 
Reyes Salazar family were found tortured and murdered in Chihuahua, bringing the family death toll to six. The Reyes Salazars are prominent activists and upstanding citizens who appear to have been targeted by a criminal organization. The government’s response was typical: it attempted to deflect public outrage over the murders by spreading rumors that the bodies were found with “narco-messages” that accused the victims of working for organized crime. The family fought back against attempts to smear their loved ones’ names and organized protests that brought organized crime’s innocent victims into the international spotlight for the first time.

The government also attempted to downplay Juan Francisco’s murder through “unconfirmed reports” leaked to the media that a message from the Gulf cartel was found with the bodies that said, “This is what happens for making anonymous calls to soldiers.”
A National Movement Is Born
Like the Reyes Salazars, Javier Sicilia refused to let the government write off his son’s murder as yet another tick on the country’s so-called execution-meter. “Many of the dead, maybe the majority of the dead, they have a story. They were innocent and they were killed stupidly for no reason,” Sicilia argues. “They're human beings, and behind them there are families who are suffering very much."

Sicilia’s outrage over his son’s murder—amplified by his excellent public speaking skills and his contacts in Mexican media—has caused disparate struggles to coalesce into a national movement against the drug war. The protests began with over 500 people in Cuernavaca on 
March 29, the day after Juan Francisco’s body was found. On March 30, protesters held a candlelight vigil in Cuernavaca.

By April 6, 
the protests had spread to at least 21 Mexican states and twelve cities in eight foreign countries.

On April 27, the protesters diversified their tactics. That day, young protesters 
dyed Cuernavaca’s “Peace Dove” fountain blood red. Then, twenty young members of the Network for Peace and Justice temporarily shut down the State Attorney General’s Office. Later, they burst onto the floor of the Morelos State Congress and read a declaration. The protesters called upon politicians to combat impunity and corruption, and to promote human rights and a "dignified life."

That same day, Sicilia 
hung a plaque bearing his son’s name on City Hall in downtown Cuernavaca and called on others to do the same. “It's important that when we arrive in any plaza in any city in the country, that we see the names of our dead,“ declared Sicilia. “The plaques are being put up to remember them and to tell the authorities who criminalized them that these people are not mysterious statistics; they're human beings.”

I'll be tweeting live from the anti-war march on May 5-8.  Follow me at http://www.twitter.com/kristinbricker, or follow my tweets below.