Like the caravan that traveled through Mexico’s brutalized north to Ciudad Juarez last June, the caravan south was joined by hundreds of Mexicans determined to shine national attention on hidden sorrows and horrors caused both by long standing political repression in the south as well as the new national dynamics of criminal and state violence. Local organizations staged public marches and meetings, large and small, in the dozens of cities and towns the caravan visited. During these events, a specialized team set up tables to take testimony and give assistance to local citizens ignored by, ill-attended by, or too afraid to speak-up to local and other authorities.

For Micaela Cabañas Ayala, the link between past repression and today’s is painfully clear. She is the daughter of Lucio Cabañas the peasant school teacher turned guerrilla leader who was killed by the Mexican Army in the 1970s. But she joined the caravan as a victim of recent violence. Her mother Isabel Ayala and her aunt Reyna Ayala were killed on July 3 in Xaltianguis, outside of Acapulco. She and other family members are now seeking asylum in the U.S.

The caravan is an expression of a new movement, born of urgent necessity and led by victims. It is powered by resonant truths, spoken from the hearts of mothers, fathers, sister, daughters, sons, brothers, and others whose sorrow is compounded by the absence of justice and the infuriating corruption in Mexico’s judicial, police, and military institutions. The moral compass of these leaders is strong and accurate, but the complex and difficult task of connecting with and convincing their fellow citizens is incomplete.

Most Mexicans, undoubtedly, share the movement’s goals of peace and justice with dignity, but not necessarily its non-violent vision. Fear predominates and polls continue to show majority support for President Calderon’s aggressive use of the Army and military tactics. Connecting with the Mexican public was the goal of the caravan, but that road is still long and, even as the caravan was underway, events elsewhere cast ominous shadows across the path.

In Washington, Rep. Connie Mack, the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee previewed dangerous new Republican election-year talking points. “Mexican drug cartels have evolved into…the greatest national security threat faced by the United States with the ability to severely damage the U.S. economy”, says the Florida Republican. Criticizing the Obama Administration’s implementation of the Bush era military package called the Merida initiative, Mack calls for a multi-agency “counter insurgency strategy” to “combat insurgent activities, such as violence, corruption and propaganda near our border.” Rejection of this barely disguised call for military intervention was fast and furious across Mexico’s political spectrum, but the specter of deeper U.S. intervention has clearly been set loose.

Another deeply disturbing event was the public hanging of two mangled bodies from a pedestrian bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo on the eve of Mexico’s independence celebration. The victims, a young man and woman were alleged have denounced drug cartel activities on social networking sites, according to hand written signs left at the scene. These murders were especially chilling given that traditional print and electronic media have long ceased reporting on widespread criminal activity. Despite its limitations, social media was the last authentic information channel. Traffickers drove their point home. The hangings were followed just days later by the beheading of the editor-in-chief of Nuevo Laredo’s Primera Hora newspaper. Her killers placed her decapitated head with her computer, mouse, cables, and headphones.

A macabre detail (visible in the accompanying photo) that passed unmentioned in most coverage of these so-called “twitter murders” was the exit sign for a branch office of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the organization responsible for conducting the July 2012 presidential elections. The killers made no mention of the IFE, but intentional or not, the appearance of the familiar IFE logo in the crime photo was a reminder that just ten months prior to the 2012 presidential elections, basic conditions for free and fair elections — physical security, freedom of movement, and the freedom to speak without fear of retaliation — simply do not exist in significant regions of Mexico.

Yet another shocking leap in violence took place just days after the peace caravan left Veracruz, a major port city on the Gulf of Mexico, now engulfed in conflict. Thirty-five cadavers, some with signs of torture, were dumped — in full public view during evening rush hour in the center of the city. The bodies were left abandoned in two trucks, just a kilometer from where Mexico’s top state and federal prosecutors and judiciary officials would meet in a closed-door, national strategy meeting the following day.

Without a doubt, Mexico’s peace advocates have a long and taxing road ahead. They need many things, including reliable and strategic allies north of the border who can organize to reform U.S. drug policies, stop southbound gun smuggling, and challenge the flawed military/security priorities the U.S. pushes on Mexico.

It won’t be easy to shift U.S. drug policies away from the costly prohibition-enforcement-incarceration model that has made the drug trafficking obscenely profitable for the last forty years. But there is little doubt that a well -resourced public health strategy would be less expensive and more effective.

The NRA and their allies will fight any effort to limit and more closely track the sales of assault weapons that are the weapons of choice for the cartels. We need all hands on deck to expose the extremists and build a coalition to turn off the open spigot of assault weapons and other criminal firepower gushing into Mexico.

The biggest challenge of all may be how to transform the current military priorities of the drug war so as to instead channel resources to support community policing, build effective investigative capacity, restore community confidence in police and strategically fund educational and economic alternatives to the drug economy.

Help us connect the dots to build a powerful movement for peace in Mexico north of the border. Click the links above to see some of what we are doing and who we are working with to get it done.

For more news on the caravan, see Calderón breaks word to Javier Sicilia: Movement responds.

This month:
Stop the Drug War Speaking Tour: John Gibler and Diego Osorno – Oct 10-Nov 4 in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; El Paso, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; Mexico City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles.

This weekend, Global Exchange’s Human Rights Director, Ted Lewis participated in the fast for peace and bi-national rally that took place in Juárez. He shares his experience.

As we pay fifty cents to walk across the bridge from El Paso Texas to Ciudad Juárez on Friday night the sunset is beautiful, but I am nervous and a little scared.  We’ve driven 20 hours overnight from San Francisco to participate in a fast for peace and public commemoration of the massacre of 18 high school students planned for the weekend.

We’ve arranged to be met on the other side by Silvia, a former nun who is helping organize the event. Everything is well planned, but as evening falls, I can’t help thinking that we are about to arrive at dusk in what has become the most dangerous city in the world and where the lines between criminal gangs, federal police, army, and local police have become blurred.

I’ve always been struck by the contrasts along the border: the wealth of the United States literally side by side with the unrelenting poverty in Mexico.  Tonight I reflect on another contrast – in Juárez three thousand people died in 2010 in violence attributed to a war over drug profits, yet neighboring El Paso where the drugs arrive for shipment to markets around our country, ranks as one of the safest cities in the United Sates.

As we reach the other side a pleasant young soldier gives a cursory look at my backpack, while we scan the crowd for Silvia. There she is, a tiny woman who guides us a few paces to her battered old car and drives us through darkening streets filled with shuttered businesses to a small convent where we spend the night. The only sounds I hear throughout the night are the horns of the trains that ply the tracks along the border, just a few blocks away.

Early the next morning, we gather in the center of the city with a group of Juarenses who have decided to step forth, defy their fear, and overcome the divisions that have kept them silent.  The crowd gathers in the center of the city at the base of an elegant marble pillar topped by a statue of Mexican hero, Benito Juárez, the city’s namesake. The crowd slowly grows as a list of the fifty some organizations that have joined together are read by a priest from the Human Rights Center Paso del Norte, the prime organizers.

We settle in, knowing that this is going to be a 28-hour overnight vigil in the cold with no food. Then, the somber crowd is shaken up by a clown who brilliantly mimics our downturned faces and manages to get us all up on our feet participating in his silly antics. He sets the mood for a long day filled with music, face painting for kids, and dancing that keep spirits high despite devastating testimonies from families whose loved ones have been victims of the growing violence that has inundated the city. Many of the people that take the microphone during the day comment that sharing their tears and fears in public space is uplifting and a needed ingredient to build resistance to the terror that has kept them hunkered in their homes.

At noon, we join a caravan of more than a dozen vehicles that heads to the border fence. There, in the presence of a dozen border patrol vehicles, we take place in an extraordinary bi-national demonstration against the violence in Mexico and its roots in the insanity of the never ending U.S. “war on drugs” and permissive gun laws that allow thousands of assault rifles to be legally purchased and then smuggled south across the border. Speakers on platforms set up in the glaring sunlight on both sides of the fence stir the crowd with a mixture of Spanish and English. One of the fasters, Emilio Alvarez, the former human rights ombudsman of Mexico City asks why the U.S. can catch so many migrants heading north, but can’t stop the thousands of guns heading south every year. Reporters mingle with the crowd and the border patrol looks on nervously.

At the conclusion of the rally, we return to the city center and gather anew around the statue of Juárez. We are buoyed by reports from simultaneous fasts happening in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and nearby in the Salvacrar neighborhood of Juárez where last year’s massacre of the 18 students took place.

As night falls, we light hundreds of candles in paper bags on the steps around the statue. The glowing bags, arranged to spell JUSTICIA, stay lit all night, reminding us why we are there as the temperature drops and we huddle around fires and sing together into the darkest hours of the night.

As day breaks, we are cold tired and hungry, but amongst the Juarenses one senses a spirit of victory. No, we have not changed the insane drug policies that fuel this war, nor have we broken the links between the Mexican state and the vicious criminal cartels, but we have stood up and said NO MAS SANGRE–NO MORE BLOODSHED.

A seed has been planted and at least for a moment people have broken though the fear that has paralyzed them. We depart at noon with hugs, prayers, songs, and silly clowning around and refresh determination to build a powerful movement to put an end to this scourge that has blighted so many lives.

It is clear that this tragic violence is fueled by U.S. military aid to Mexican security forces through the Merida Initiative. Help us grow our petition of calling on the Obama Administration to uphold human rights and halt drug war aid to Mexican security forces.

Despite nearly 30,000 drug-related homicides, a huge increase in human rights violations by the armed forces and growing citizen opposition to the bloody “war on drugs,” the U.S. Congress is once again considering the allocation of U.S. public funds to Mexico to support the failed counter-narcotics policy. Please consider adding your name to a petition calling on the Obama Administration and the US Congress to suspend United States support for Mexico’s military.

US support, channeled to the Mexican military through the Merida Initiative, enables a reckless strategy that has led to massive bloodshed in Mexico and failed to achieve goals to reduce illicit drug flows, assure public safety or significantly weaken cartels. With 45,000 troops in the streets as the core feature of this militarization strategy, the Mexican armed forces have been implicated in murders, rapes and violations of human rights—the vast majority of which have never been prosecuted.

This petition began circulating October 27th on the 4th anniversary of the killing of independent journalist Brad Will by paramilitary forces in 2006 while he was documenting the teacher’s strike in Oaxaca. Brad Will’s murder –- like that of so many thousands of Mexicans slain in the four years since his death – remains unpunished by a legal system which rewards incompetence and routinely confers impunity to criminals with connections to money and power.

Global Exchange joins the initial signers of the petition who include Kathy and Hardy Will (parents of Brad Will), the Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña “Tlachinollan”, General José Francisco Gallardo, and Reporters Without Borders, and the Center for International Policy.

Please consider signing on as an organization or individual.