What would happen if Mexican survivors of the “War on Drugs” reached out to work with Americans who have weathered its violence, too? Poet Javier Sicilia and his U.S.-bound Peace Caravan are about to find out.
Few, if any, of the recent post-election protests in Mexico have matched the size of the 200,000-strong March for Peace that flooded the Mexican capital on May 8, 2011. Led by the poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year old son was an innocent victim of the country’s gang-related violence in March last year , it was the day that the Movement for Peace with Justice & Dignity truly took a foothold in the national consciousness. Presenting a manifesto entitled “The National Pact for Peace,” the movement denounced not only the violent gangs battling over the drug trade but its own government’s “war on drugs,” sponsored by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
On August 12, the Movement for Peace will begin a four-week tour of the United States, beginning in San Diego, Calif., and taking in 27 cities on its way to Washington, D.C. According to Javier Sicilia, the goal of “The Peace Caravan” is to “promote dialogue with American civil society and its government regarding the following themes: the need to stop gun-trafficking; the need to debate alternatives to drug prohibition; the need for better tools to combat money-laundering; and the need to promote bilateral cooperation in human rights and human security...”
On July 23, after Mexican President Felipe Calderón had effectively vetoed the Ley General de Víctimas (General Victims’ Law) proposed by the movement to compensate victims of the “Drug War,” Sicilia wrote an open letter to the executive, which began as follows:
“Dear Mr. President,
I say ‘dear’ because, despite your treachery and lack of respect for the victims and the nation that you govern, I continue to believe that a human being is more than his mistakes and wrongdoings and deserves love and respect. I also say it because with this letter I want to reach Felipe Calderón the man, not the mask of power whose falsity distorts him, and speak to his heart from the truth...”
The passage of the General Victims’ Law was one of the principal goals of the National Pact for Peace. It would oblige the government to provide psychological and financial support for the tens of thousands of survivors of Mexico’s violence, who have lost their homes, spouses, parents and children to the “war.” Yet on July 1, Calderón sent the bill back to lawmakers, claiming it placed too much strain on the federal government and delaying its passage for up to nine months. Critics claim that the government—which has spent over US$15 billion on equipment and training for its security forces—is simply reluctant to accept responsibility for its role in the violence.
Mexico’s “Drug War”
What’s called the Mexican “Drug War” is a six-year period of brutal violence and astonishing impunity that began in December 2006 when Calderón, newly-sworn in as president, launched a militarized crackdown on the country’s drug-trafficking cartels. Many of these groups had existed in one form or another for decades.
Today, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 97 percent of the cocaine on American streets flows along the Central American-Mexican corridor along with Mexican exports of marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine. As such, there are, in fact, two “drug wars” in Mexico: the crackdown by the government against (some of) the “cartels,” and a conflict raging between various criminal factions for control of the trade.
The overwhelming majority of the 60,000-100,000 victims of the conflict have come from the ranks of the country’s marginalized poor. Calderón has always claimed that the drug gangs “kill amongst themselves” and that 94 percent of the victims are criminals involved in the illicit trade. Yet in 2010, a leaked report from the Procuraduría General de la República (PGR), or Attorney General’s Office, revealed that up until that point, only 2 percent of the so-called “Drug War” murders had even been investigated.
The Bush and Obama administrations have between them contributed some $2 billion to Mexico’s “war on drugs ” (which has since been repackaged by both Calderón and Washington as “the war on organized crime” to disguise its obvious limitations). Yet, there has been no discernible drop in the amount of narcotics smuggled across the border, or a significant fall in the violence. Calderón boasted of a halt in the rise of gang-related homicides in 2011—not a decrease—but the government’s murder statistics have always been fiercely contested by independent researchers.
What’s more, since 2006, nearly 5,000 complaints have been filed against the Mexican military for human rights abuses. Some of the most high-profile victims of the “Drug War,” who have struggled for years to make their voices heard, claim their loved ones were killed or tortured by the very security forces deployed to protect them. The military and law enforcement agencies are routinely accused of targeting specific drug-trafficking organizations while collaborating with and facilitating others. High-ranking cabinet members close to Calderón, along with elected representatives—many still in office—have also been accused of protecting traffickers.
While Calderón’s controversial six-year term ends on December 1, the “Drug War” strategy is likely to continue relatively unchanged under incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Prior to the Mexican election on July 1, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Mexico to meet with the three principal presidential candidates, imploring each one to continue the bilateral strategy.
Under the Same Skies
During its tour of the U.S., the Peace Caravan will meet with civil society groups throughout the country to build solidarity for a re-think of both U.S. drug policy and gun laws. Two buses filled with a total of 110 people—half of them victims of the violence in Mexico—will make up the caravan. Vigils, rallies and public forums will be held along the way.
The Movement for Peace backs the proposal for the decriminalization of drugs that has been advocated by several regional leaders, but criticially, not by Barack Obama at the 6th Summit of the Americas in April. It also calls for greater regulation of firearms in the U.S., some 68,000 of which have been seized at Mexican crime scenes in the past few years.
Javier Sicilia acknowledges that few U.S. citizens may be engaged in what is happening across the border, or aware of the enormous suffering in Mexico on account of a Washington-funded conflict. Yet he points to the “silent victims” of the war on drugs on American soil as well. “It’s not just Mexicans—or Colombians, or Central Americans—affected,” he told me in an interview in April. “Look at the families destroyed in the U.S. by this war. Most people in prison on drug-related offenses  [in the U.S.] are either black or Hispanic. They are poor people.”
The movement admits that it may be up against the odds in its timing for the caravan with the U.S. presidential election taking place in November. Neither candidate is likely to express support for either the decriminalization of drugs or a halt to the funding of Mexico’s security forces at such a crucial juncture. Yet while policy change is the overwhelming goal, the movement hopes to build coalitions and alliances that may be invaluable in the long-term struggle.
The Peace Caravan begins in San Diego on August 12 and will arrive in Washington, D.C on September 11, visiting 27 U.S. cities along the way. A full itinerary can be found in Spanish at http://movimientoporlapaz.mx  and in English at http://www.globalexchange.org/mexico/caravan