Tens of thousands of Mexicans made history on May 8 in a march through the nation’s capital, protesting the war on drugs. Behind a black banner reading “We are fed up. Stop the War. Peace With Justice and Dignity,” they demanded an immediate halt to the drug war, reforms to Mexico’s political and justice systems and a change in US regional security policy.
Protesters filed through the streets of Mexico City in silence, holding hand-lettered signs that expressed their anger at the war that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives since it was declared by President Felipe Calderón in December 2006. Many wore T-shirts featuring the national slogan of the new movement: "No More Blood."
The strategy to deploy the army and police to attack drug lords and intercept illegal shipments has led to the militarization of the country and triggered bloody turf wars between cartels. Public opposition to the US-supported war has been growing since the assassination of fifteen teenagers in Ciudad Juárez on January 30, 2010. Since then, the bodies have been piling up in nameless statistics, reaching a record 15,273 in 2010, according to government figures.
But it took a high-profile tragedy to draw tens of thousands into the streets. On March 28 the son of well-known poet Javier Sicilia was brutally murdered along with six friends near the city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.
Sicilia lashed out at the Calderón administration and its standard practice of chalking up victims as either “collateral damage” or criminals: “The majority of the dead are dead who have their own history, who were innocent and were sacrificed stupidly and uselessly.”
His message struck a chord. Nearly 1,000 people set off from Cuernavaca on May 5 in silent memory of the fallen. Under a burning sun, they climbed the long hill that separates the resort city from Mexico City.
Olga Reyes walked with the relatives of victims. In January 2010 her sister Josefina, a prominent anti-militarization activist, was abducted and murdered. Since then her two brothers, sister and sister-in-law have been assassinated outside Ciudad Juárez. No one has been arrested for any of these crimes.
As the march entered Mexico City, Reyes recounted the anonymous calls she received from her dead brother’s cellphone after his murder last February. “They told me we had to get out of the state or they’d finish off the entire Reyes family.” Olga did leave, but continued to lead the growing antiwar movement.
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Many of the 50,000 troops deployed across the country are concentrated in the Juárez region. Reyes explained how her family members were kidnapped and their bodies dumped as security forces stood by. “When they took my brother, there were two military checkpoints right nearby on the same highway. If they aren’t accomplices, they should show it by arresting the murderers,” she said.
While increasing death tolls have galvanized the new peace movement, it’s the lack of justice that has caused victims and citizens to hold Calderón responsible for the bloodshed. The vast majority of crimes have not been investigated or prosecuted. Corruption within the judicial system, police, government and armed forces creates a backdrop of impunity that breeds violence and the growth of organized crime.
“This strategy leaves out the most important part, which is eliminating the political corruption that is the main support and getting rid of the financial corruption among the bankers and businesses that launder the money,” said Raul Vera, the Bishop of Saltillo.
In a packed central plaza, Reyes read the text of a new “citizens’ pact.”
The six-point pact demands justice in cases of assassinations and disappearances and the naming of victims; an end to the war strategy and adoption of a “citizen security” strategy; effective measures against corruption and impunity; measures to attack money laundering; reorienting the budget toward education, health, culture and employment programs; and mechanisms to increase participatory democracy.
The Calderón administration has responded with mounting frustration to the popular movement against its drug war. On the defensive, national security spokesperson Alejandro Poire stated on May 3, “It’s the homicidal competition between delinquents that has set off the violence, and to stop it we have to weaken these organizations.”
But doubts about the war model have grown even among the planners of the offensive—the US and Mexican governments. In WikiLeaks cables, government officials from the two countries recognized the “current sense of impotence felt by many Mexicans” and admitted that “not enough strategic thought went into Merida in the early phase.”
“Merida” refers to the US government’s Merida Initiative, announced in October 2007 by George W. Bush. The security aid package has funneled more than $1.5 billion into Mexico’s disastrous drug war, most of it in US military equipment and training. The Obama administration has extended the original three-year plan indefinitely, providing Calderón with unconditional political support for a strategy that is opposed by the majority of Mexicans.
The proposed citizens’ pact concludes with a call to Mexican-Americans and all US citizens to demand that the US government stop the flow of arms to Mexico and crack down on money laundering.
“Their multimillion-dollar market for drug consumption, their banks and businesses that launder money in complicity with ours, their arms industry—more lethal than drugs, for being so evident and expansionist—whose weapons come into our country, not only strengthen criminal groups, but also provide them with an immense capacity for carnage,” Sicilia told the crowd.
“The United States has designed a security policy whose logic responds fundamentally to its global interests, and Mexico has been trapped within it.”
Despite widespread public calls for a review and reforms to the Merida Initiative, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton redoubled support in an April 29 meeting with Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa.
As the war on drugs replaces the war on terror as the major vehicle to promote military expansion, Mexico’s stand sets a precedent for citizen resistance throughout the world.