Voices of Victims Tour

Last year, Global Exchange joined with our allies from Mexico and the U.S. for an unprecedented 27-city Caravan for Peace that crossed the United States, calling for an end to the drug war and related violence.

This fall, we’re launching an 11-city Voices of Victims tour of North America, once again featuring Javier Sicilia, along with drug war victims, Mexican opinion leaders, and members of Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD).

The Voices of Victims tour will echo the voices of the Caravan that called for ending drug war policies that have served to empower vicious criminals. Once again, those who have suffered atrocities in Mexico will make the case for better laws to impede the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of guns (most of them legally purchased) from the United States to Mexico every year. They will join their voices with others seeking to reverse the accelerating militarization of our borders that that both criminalizes and dehumanizes immigrants.

In 2013, we continue to face the same set of problems, but the context has changed. Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was initially successful in discouraging media coverage of Mexico’s out-of-control violence, sending the comforting message that Mexico’s dreadful violence is waning. The grim reality is that murder and tragedy continue at the same emergency levels of recent years.

VoicesTourMany were encouraged that Peña Nieto revived an important victim’s compensation law* that had been promoted by the MPJD and then scuttled by outgoing President Calderón. Nevertheless, there has there has been no perceptible change in overall drug war strategy by Peña Nieto’s team, nor any broad progress toward staunching Mexico’s terrible wounds. [*The pros and cons of the federal victims law and several pieces of state legislation that mirrors it will be a major topic of discussion on this tour.]

Meanwhile, in the United States there have been undeniable shifts in attitude on drug policy, gun safety, and even immigration policy. Nevertheless, with the stunning exception of successful popular initiatives to regulate marijuana like wine in Colorado and Washington, law and policy have not shifted much – yet.

On all these three issues there is gathering momentum for sensible change. We face formidable obstacles and much work ahead, but prospects for substantial change in both our countries is very real.

For example, on the question of drug policy, the momentum is coming not just from rapidly shifting public opinion and voters like those in Colorado and Washington. In South America, Uruguay will legally regulate marijuana at a national level. And at the urging of Colombian President, Jorge Santos the Organization of American States (OAS) organized a broad international study group earlier this year to issue a scenario report on drug policy reform options in the Western Hemisphere.

A broad consensus on both the need to rethink drug war dogmas and to regulate marijuana as a simple and logical first step is forming among health professionals, police, local politicians, business leaders and the public.

This consensus will be much in evidence as the Voices of Victims tour begins on October 23 at the 2013 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver, Colorado where several “caravaneros” will speak to and participate in this important gathering by thousands of deeply engaged drug policy reform advocates from around the world.

The tour will continue to Seattle, WA  Oct. 26; Vancouver, BC  Oct. 27; SF Bay Area  Oct. 30; Tucson, AZ  Nov. 1-2; Toronto, ON  Nov. 4; Ottawa, ON  Nov. 5; Chicago, IL  Nov. 6-7; Los Angeles, CA  Nov. 8 -10; Washington, DC  Nov. 12,13; and ends in Jackson, MS  Nov. 15.

The challenge facing us now is how to turn changing public perceptions into organized political will to do something different. That is the reason for this tour. Hearing real people tell their terrifying stories of the drug war’s deadly consequences has already changed many hearts and minds. We still need to change a lot more.

The same political challenges apply to the question of weapons smuggling and immigration reform — two other U.S. issues with critical importance for Mexico.

javier_gunsIn a Los Angeles Times op-ed published last May, Javier Sicilia talked about his frustration over the defeat of legislation proposed after last December’s slaughter of 20 small school children and six in Newtown, CT:

“[President] Obama’s initiatives would have made this massive and continuous arming of Mexico’s criminal organizations significantly more difficult. In Mexico, we were deeply disappointed when the U.S. Senate rejected popular, modest and eminently sensible measures to make it slightly harder for criminals, smugglers, the mentally ill and the cartels to get their hands on powerful weapons.”

In Mexico, where the drug war driven murder rate has in risen by 36 fold since the year 2000 limiting the flow of guns into the country is vitally important, but so too is ending the money flow to violent criminals practically guaranteed by the chronic failure of drug prohibition strategies.

Breaking the political stalemates and information blockades that keep us locked into irrational and dangerous policies is a big and never ending task. The stalemate over immigration is yet another example of this political dysfunction that must be overcome. Right now, the radical Republican leadership in the House won’t even allow consideration of the highly restrictive immigration reform bill passed recently by the Senate.

Last year’s Caravan mobilized with nearly 200 diverse organizations at the forefront of many interconnected struggles for justice. We are again reaching out to our friends and allies even as we look to expand the network.

Together, we can transform the growing grassroots momentum into lasting policy reforms that will improve the lives of millions of people impacted by the war on drugs.

Support the 2013 Voices of Victims Tour. Demand reform. Make a donation today.

Javier Sicilia looks down gunsight at Albuquerque gun show during Caravan for Peace. Summer 2013 Photo Credit: Global Exchange

Javier Sicilia looks down gunsight at Albuquerque gun show during Caravan for Peace, Summer 2013. Photo Credit: Global Exchange

The following is a joint statement issued by the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and other participating  organizations (listed below.)

Victims of violence in Mexico, Javier Sicilia, and organizations from Mexico and the United States, gathered in the Second Conference of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity in Mexico City on January 27, 2013, express our support for President Obama’s proposals that to stop the epidemic of violence with firearms, including assault weapons, that afflicts communities in both the United States and Mexico. We urge people of both countries to support these changes that are so urgent for preventing more atrocities with firearms.

Mexico is suffering the consequences of the unrestricted sale of military-style weapons in the United States. More than 100,000 Mexicans, among them 1,800 children less than 15 years old, have been killed in the failed war on drugs in Mexico since 2006. The great majority were victims of firearms, and 68% of firearms recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and traced between 2007 and 2011 were sold in the United States.

Assault weapons have had an especially devastating impact in Mexico, where organized crime desires these weapons to commit atrocities and control markets and territory. Besides homicides, guns are also used to disappear thousands of people, intimidate the population, and commit other crimes.

“We embrace the pain of the mothers and fathers in the United States who have lost children to gun violence, because my own son was disappeared in Michoacán with a firearm,” said Araceli Rodríguez, mother of Luis Ángel León Rodríguez.

A recent study from the University of Notre Dame shows that the expiration in 2004 of the assault weapons ban in the United States caused at least 2,684 additional homicides in Mexico in the following four years.

The massive homicides with guns also have had an intense psychological impact on children, thousands of them made into orphans by the murders of their parents with firearms. Other children have been witnesses to the murders of their parents, like the seven-year-old daughter of journalist Armando Rodríguez, killed with ten shots in front of her in 2008.

There is only one legal gun vendor in Mexico, so that the black market created by the weapons trafficking from the United States is the principle source of assault weapons, pistols, rifles and revolvers for criminal organizations in Mexico.

On January 14, Javier Sicilia and researcher Sergio Aguayo presented a petition from more than 54,000 people from Mexico and the United States to the United States Embassy in Mexico City, demanding an end to gun trafficking from the United States to Mexico. In the coming weeks, Sicilia, the Movement for Peace, and representatives of Mexican civil society will follow up on the petition to talk with U.S. representatives about the shared responsibility for violence in Mexico.

Proposed legislation in the United States includes universal background checks for every person that attempts to buy a firearm. Universal background checks are important to stop the illegal re-sale of weapons acquired by legally qualified individuals. Such gun purchases, known as “straw purchases,” are the way the large majority of guns end up in the hands of criminals.

On Wednesday, January 30, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to consider how to address proposals to control gun sales. We want the Senate to consider the impact that failed gun policies have had in Mexico as well as the United States.

We hope that the United States does not forget the suffering caused in the families, children and people of Mexico by the open gun market in the United States.

  • Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity
  • Grassroots Assembly of Migrant Families (APOFAM)
  • Global Exchange
  • Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
  • Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)
  • Witness for Peace
  • National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities
  • Propuesta Cívica
  • Center for International Policy, Americas Program
  • Comité Espacio Ciudadano
  • Iniciativa Ciudadana para la Promoción de la Cultura del Diálogo A.C.
  • National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS)
  • Churches for Peace (Iglesias por la Paz)
  • Service for Peace and Justice (SERPAJ)-México
Mexican poet Javier Sicilan destroyed a gun during the Caravan for Pace this summer, 2012.

Mexican poet Javier Sicilia destroyed a gun during the Caravan for Peace this summer, 2012.

Millions of anguished conversations about the murder of so many small children at a Connecticut elementary school have produced new resolve to do something. As the holiday season starts, there is a palpable wave of revulsion against the gun industry, the gun fanatics, and the powerful lobbyists who have intimidated our political representatives into allowing all manner of guns – even military style weapons – to be widely and easily available.

Now, with a sense of sea change in public attitude, politicians are waking up. Several unlikely Democrats have spoken in favor of the initiative by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D. CA) to reintroduce the now expired ban on assault weapons she successfully championed in the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, for the first time, the Obama Administration is tentatively articulating leadership on gun regulation. If President Obama commits to strong and sensible gun regulation, we should have his back.

This new commitment to at least talk about gun restriction is heartening. Nevertheless, those, such as myself, who have watched previous waves of horror sweep in, and then recede in the wake of other gun-murder outrages, know we need a broad and resilient coalition against gun violence. We have to be able to win battles now as well as in future confrontations with gun industry interests.

A coalition that can effectively parry the U.S. gun lobby needs to work at a local, state, national, and international level. Locally, we need to involve the representatives of communities and neighborhoods most affected by the more than 30,000 annual gun homicides in the United States in the evolving conversation about how to make our communities safe. At the state level we need to work with legislators like California Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) who is working (with our partners at the Brady Campaign and other Senators like Kevin de Leon, (D-Los Angeles) to make California a laboratory for sensible and exemplary gun policies.

At the national level we need vision and leadership from an Administration that has not previously engaged the difficult politics of gun control. For more than a year, we have worked with allies from Mexico, Washington and important networks like Presente.org to petition Obama to use executive power to ban the import of assault to the U.S. This request to President Obama was a central element of the Mexican Caravan for Peace that crossed the country last summer, led by victims of the wave of violence 60,000 and counting – fueled by drug profits and guns smuggled from the U.S.

Candlelight vigil at East Los Angeles Church for Caravan for Peace

Candlelight vigil at East Los Angeles Church for Caravan for Peace

Restoring the ban on assault weapons, as Senator Dianne Feinstein seeks to do, would be a vital first step that would go much further than any available executive action to limit access to military style assault weapons. But passage, even such a common sense bill, is by no means guaranteed. Those who profit from the gun trade and their lobbyist enablers like the NRA have a strong grip on the leash of legislators, especially the Republican who control the House of Representatives.

For sensible gun control measures to succeed, the local political math must change. That is why sea change moments – when Washington’s policy silos disappear momentarily and the grief of a few moves the hearts of millions – are so important.

Such a moment came in Mexico when the Mexican President Calderón suggested that 14 teenage victims of an October 2010 massacre at a birthday party in the border town of Ciudad Juarez were linked to organized crime. In fact, the teens were all football players mistakenly targeted by cartel hit men. Later, when the boy’s mothers confronted the President about this during a televised meeting the video of the encounter went viral and caused an opinion watershed and eventually a powerful movement led by victims of Mexico’s drug war. This is the same movement that crossed the border to dramatically make the case for steps to regulate assault weapons in 29 US cities last summer.

As the New Year dawns and members of Congress will likely face decisions about how to weigh in on restoring the assault weapons ban and other possible gun control legislation. We must keep alive the urgency of these initiatives even as attention to the families and victims of Newtown recedes.

Constituent pressure on specific members of Congress will be key to any legislative success. Additionally, the voices of people from both sides of the border with loved ones lost to this long plague of gun violence bring a powerful and morally urgent voice to this conversation. There is no question that banning assault weapons would benefit the security and safety of Mexican border communities. Ending the large scale smuggling of assault weapons used by criminals throughout Mexico is human and national security priority.

As the year closes people gather. I hope we can all look each other in the eyes and muster the courage to ask what kind of world we want to live in and how we can love and work together to get there.


Please join the call on President Obama to stop the flow of assault weapons into our communities.

Most of the 60,000 people killed in Mexico as a result of the “Drug War” were killed with guns sold in the U.S. Tell President Obama that you don’t want greedy gun merchants selling assault weapons, built for war, into our communities where they are then used to massacre tens of thousands of innocent people on both sides of the border.

The Mexican Peace Caravan that crossed the United States last summer was bracketed between elections. It began in Tijuana, just six weeks after Mexico’s July presidential election, and concluded in Washington just six weeks before Obama’s re-election. Now, as 2013 is dawning, Mexicans can begin to see the outlines and true colors of their return to PRI rule.

On Dec. 1, in the final act of his blood-drenched presidency, Felipe Calderón passed his tri-color sash to incoming PRI strong-man, and now President, Enrique Peña Nieto. The handover was backlit by protest and chilled by concerns about what it means to hand Mexico’s executive branch back to a party that, until 2000, had absolutely controlled — and corrupted — the nation during 71 years of unbroken one-party rule.

Of course, millions of Mexicans voted for Peña Nieto last July. Some undoubtedly yearn for the peace and security they associate with the earlier era of PRI domination. To suppose that restoring the PRI’s power might facilitate clandestine contact with major drug trafficking organizations is not unreasonable. In decades past, such ties have reportedly allowed PRI operators to communicate with, take bribes from, and exert significant influence on major drug trafficking organizations. The current vision is of a restored pax mafiosa that could reset or even free the country entirely from the disastrously aggressive drug war policies of outgoing President Calderón.

Few say so publically, but whispers that Peña Nieto should somehow reach out to the drug bosses are widespread. Peña Nieto decried this notion in a New York Times op-ed the day after the election, but speculation continues about the possibility of a pact that could effectively legalize the wealth of the big traffickers in exchange for peace and their eventual conversion to legal enterprise. Such an amnesty brought the Kennedys and countless other American families back into the fold after U.S. alcohol prohibition was lifted in 1933. More recently, large drug syndicates in South East Asia’s golden triangle have paid steep one-time taxes to repatriate capital into the legal economy as part of a broader deal aimed at ending their participation in the drug trade.

Yet, in fact, even if Peña Nieto did want to return Mexico to an imagined earlier era of tolerance or otherwise evolve drug and security policies, it won’t be easy. This is especially true due to continuing U.S. rejection of real discussion about international drug policy reform. Yet ongoing prohibition guarantees continued drug mega-profits that are a siren song for the most ruthless criminal elements. This grim reality, in combination with strong U.S. pressures to stay the drug war course, severely limits the options and flexibility of Mexico’s new president.

Peña Nieto also faces a suspicious civil society and energized opposition. More than 60% of the electorate rejected the PRI and voted for opposition candidates. A significant social movement arose to oppose his election under the broad banner of Yo Soy 132. This group continues to organize on both sides of the border and was an essential part of gathering grass roots support for the Peace Caravan in several key cities.

Millions of Mexicans fear the PRI will resort to its authoritarian playbook while it pushes the same brutal mix of neo-liberal policies the party forced into place at great cost to Mexico’s economic sovereignty and well being during the crisis ridden 1980’s and 90’s.

But the realities of deepening poverty, inequality, and humanitarian crisis don’t stop Mexico’s plutocrats and their enablers from smearing lipstick on the pig of an economy that has left a majority of Mexicans in poverty. I recommend this article “Mexico’s New President Is Off to a Troubling Start” that UNAM professor John Ackerman just published in The Atlantic Magazine. In it, Ackerman repudiates highbrow happy talk about Peña Nieto and the Mexican economy currently emanating from Washington establishment sources such as the Woodrow Wilson Institute, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Many agree that Mexico urgently needs to undertake thorough and difficult internal reforms. To be effective, such reforms must challenge impunity all the way to the upper echelons of the military and Federal Police as well as top political and corporate circles. Washington officials and the Obama administration have shown little stomach for pushing such actions on Calderón. Similarly, Obama gave no visible signs of pushing Peña Nieto on such reforms during their first encounter in late November. Pressure for change must come from somewhere else. That is why we must continue to build the movement against the drug war into an unstoppable force.

The violence unleashed in Mexico during Calderon’s six long years has resulted in 60,000 murders but resolved nothing. In fact, drug trafficking organizations have thrived, diversified, and some think that they have deepened their penetration and corruption of Mexico’s institutions during this period. Any genuine change starts with an end to the drug war.

Last summer, victims and activists from Mexico rolled with people from across the United States for a 5,700 mile-journey through 29 cities. They had the support of Global Exchange and more than 200 other U.S. organizations who shared the ambitious goal of revealing how Mexico’s murder epidemic is rooted in more than forty years of deadly and fruitless drug war fostered, funded, and implemented by the United States.

The caravan relentlessly made the case for concerted action north of the border to regulate drugs more sensibly in order to remove the hyper-profits of illicit drug trafficking. Such a move could dramatically reduce the large scale brutality in Mexico, slow southbound gun smuggling, reverse mass incarceration trends in the U.S., challenge corruption on both sides of the border, and address the distortion of our national security priorities.

Mexican peace movement organizers are calling for a meeting in early 2013 to evaluate, strategize, and strengthen ongoing work between the organizations and peoples movements that built the Caravan on both sides of the border. They know the momentum around drug policy is on the side of reformers.

Recent elections in Washington state and Colorado are potential harbingers of a mature, new approach to drug policy that embraces regulation and public health metrics instead of the “just say no” militarization we have lived with for decades. Domestic and international opinion is moving faster than the politicians. And on a range of related questions — like the absurd legality of assault weapons for civilians or ill-advised U.S. support of Mexico’s military security apparatus — our job is to keep the debate moving and force them to catch up.