Written by Kristin Bricker
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."
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.”