Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

A War of Anonymous Death

Sunday, May 15, 2011 |

By JOHN GIBLER



After four years of President Felipe Calderón's so-called war on Mexico's drug trafficking organizations, murder and impunity have become the order of the day. Since December 2006, more than 38,000 people have been killed, with no noticeable reduction in drug shipments across the border. Federal authorities have opened investigations into less than five percent of those homicides. Most of the people killed are assumed to be guilty of their own murders by the implied logic that surely they were up to no good if they ended up in a ditch, wrapped in a blanket, and shot through the head. No one investigates the murders and the dead appear on tabloid front pages not as people, or even victims of crimes, but simply as twisted bodies, nameless masses of death. Such execution headlines assault daily and the nation risks growing numb to the news of spectacular murder. But a name could change that.

Police got the call at 6:20 a.m. on March 28, 2011. They dove out to the scene and pulled seven dead bodies from a Honda sedan on Brisas de Tampico Street near the Cuernavaca-Mexico City highway. Bodies were stuffed in the front and back seats. Bodies were stuffed in the trunk. Their hands and feet were bound. Asphyxiated, the autopsies would conclude. The police reported finding a poster board sign in the car threatening the Mexican military and signed "CDG." (Later that night banners signed CDG, Cartel del Golfo, would appear in Cuernavaca denying responsibility for the killings.) The police did not release the exact words written on the poster board. But the intended message—whoever its authors were—was clear: death. Nameless death.

But the names were waiting there in that car. And one name would break the siege of custom and silence: Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega.

Juan Francisco's father is Javier Sicilia, a well-known and respected novelist, journalist, and poet. Juan Francisco, age 24, was not another nameless dead youth. He was, in the eyes of Mexico's mass media, the son of a poet. The first news reports informed that seven bodies were found dead, but gave only one name. Mexico City's El Universal wrote on March 29, 2011: "The Morelos state Attorney General confirmed that Juan Francisco Sicilia Orteda, 24 years-old, son of the journalist and writer Javier Sicilia, was among the victims." The names of these six victims were left out: Julio César Romero Jaimes; Luis Antonio Romero Jaimes; Álvaro Jaimes Avelar; Jaime Gabriel Alejo Cadena; María del Socorro Estrada Hernández; and Jesús Chávez Vázquez.

The Morelos state authorities first announced that the killings appeared to have been a "settling of accounts" between drug traffickers. They soon rushed to clarify that Jose Francisco was not involved in any illicit activity. Two days after the killings the local Cartel del Pacifico Sur, or CPS, hung banners in town denying responsibility. One local blog posted that two of the young men killed, Gabriel Alejo and Luis Antonio Romero Jaimes, had been beaten and robbed by armed men who identified themselves as state police officers and threatened to kill the young men if they reported the crime. One local police officer commented that the victims appeared to have been asphyxiated slowly, using tourniquets, a method, he said, unseen before in executions in Cuernavaca. Rumors flew that the Army was involved. But the official reaction was again that of the presumed guilt of the dead: "it was a settling of accounts."

The poor mothers and fathers of the dead are almost as nameless as their murdered children. Rarely will the microphones and cameras seek them out. And rarely will they wish to speak in a place where the killers act with absolute impunity. The poet was different. The microphones and cameras sought and found him. And he spoke out.

On March 28, 2011 Javier Sicilia was attending a poetry conference in Manila when he heard that his son had been murdered. On his long trip to Manila he had a fourteen-hour layover in Amsterdam. He walked through the red light district and saw people buying and selling drugs. He did not see anyone firing AK-47s. He did not see any dead bodies being pulled from the trunks of cars. He would describe this vision to President Felipe Calderón, who asked to see him upon his return. He would tell Calderón that In Amsterdam people buy and sell drugs and they do not kill each other; what Calderón has done with his drug war is shameful and has no pardon. Calderón would respond, in so many words: You are right; I was mistaken, but there is no turning back now.

Javier Sicilia would not turn back. In that rare media opening that gave him the opportunity to speak to millions, he said his son's name and the names of his friends, and in so doing reminded a wounded nation that behind the swelling statistic human beings with names and loved ones lie dead. And then he decried the murder, the impunity, the idiocy of prohibition; he railed against the United States government's blind eye toward arms trafficking into Mexico and Felipe Calderón's entirely failed war. He wrote an "open letter to politicians and criminals" widely reprinted and discussed across Mexico in which he told them that he and his nation were completely fed up, exhausted and repulsed with all the murder and impunity, that they had had enough. He called for people to take to the streets on April 6, 2011 and march against violence, march against the so-called "drug war."

Tens of thousands of people in some forty Mexican cities answered his call. In Cuernavaca alone, more than 20,000 people filled the streets in one of the largest demonstrations in that city's history. One of the many signs held up during the April 6 march in Cuernavaca read: "Mexico, wake up! Indifference kills." Another read: "If they don't kill me, the fear will." Another read: "Our deceased demand our justice. Legalize drugs now!" And yet another: "Some parents are poets, but all the children are poetry. No more blood." The march paused in front of the military base in Cuernavaca, where Javier Sicilia stood on top of a truck and addressed the crowd: "Our dead are not statistics," he said, "they are not numbers. They are human beings with names."

Javier Sicilia used his position of fame and unspeakable pain to carve his son's name into a wall of indifference, to wedge his son's name into a country's misery and in so doing pry open a space for all the names of the dead to be spoken, for the indifference to fall. On April 12, 2011, on the walls of the state government palace in Cuernavaca, Sicilia drilled a metal plaque bearing his son's name into the stone. He then drilled six other plaques into the wall bearing the names of those killed with his son. He called on the people of Morelos to come and drill more names of people killed in the so-called drug war into this same wall. Within hours others had put up 96 plaques. He called on people across Mexico to drill similar memorials into the walls of government palaces throughout the country. He called on people everywhere in Mexico to stand up and demand an end to the murder, an end to the prohibition regime, an end to the drug war.

A rebellion of names in a war of anonymous death.

A war that rages on. In April 2011, while Javier Sicilia spoke names into the drug-war dark, forensics teams were searching out mass graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, the same city of 60,000 where drugland killers executed seventy-two migrants in a barn in August 2010. By the end of April 2011, the forensics workers dug out 183 bodies there. Most of the dead had been traveling by bus on a toll-free highway. Armed men stopped the buses at military-style roadblocks, removed the passengers they wanted, robbed them, perhaps tried to recruit them, killed them with sledgehammer and iron-rod blows to the head, and then buried their bodies in huge mass graves. Nameless dead.

Journalist Marcela Turati traveled to the morgue in Matamoros, Tamaulipas to interview family members of missing persons standing in line to learn the identities of the recovered bodies. In an article published in Proceso on April 17, 2011, Turati quotes a woman bringing bottled water to the out-of-state people waiting in line who said furiously, "There have been many denunciations [of what was happening along the highway] but no one heard us, it was like speaking under water." Morgue officials asked the more than 400 family members waiting in line to prepare descriptions of their loved ones's clothing, jewelry, or tattoos. The bodies were "no longer recognizable due to the passing of time and the conditions of their deaths." One morgue official told Turati that the dead were all of the marginalized class. "They didn't have the money to pay the toll fees and take faster highways, and no one wanted to learn what was happening because they weren't the sons of anyone famous," the man said.

Murder, impunity, and the mass grave of indifference. This is precisely what Javier Sicilia and people throughout Mexico are up against. And from their grief and rage a movement is growing. The movement has roots in Ciudad Juárez where for more than two years people have taken to the streets in marches and organized community-based refuges from the violence. It has roots in the work of journalists who risk everything to report stories that pierce the silence.

On May 8, 2011, Javier Sicilia lead a march of tens of thousands of people to Mexico City's central square, the Zócalo. They marched in silence. They demanded peace with justice and dignity. In Chiapas, some 15,000 members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation marched on San Cristobal de las Casas in solidarity with the movement in Mexico City. Students marched in Morelia, Michoacán and Guadalajara, Jalisco. Evangelical Christians marched in Acapulco, Guerrero. Marches and vigils took place in more than forty cities across the world.

The main symbol of these marches has been the image created by the Mexican political cartoonist Riuz that packs the word 'NO' the plus symbol (in Spanish the word for "plus" is the same as the word for "more") and a red bloodstain into a tight square. "No more blood."

The blood in Mexico is inextricably linked to the market and the law in the United States. Here people buy and consume the cocaine, crack, heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana trafficked through Mexico. The US market in illegal drugs generates tens of billions of dollars in cash every year. The illegality of the commodities makes them so profitable. Prohibition is complicit in murder. (The legal US gun industry also supplies the drug war death squads and hired killers with their weapons of choice.) After a century of failed drug wars—more people in the United States consume illegal drugs now than ever before—the urgency of pursuing some form of regulation, public health, education, and harm reduction strategies for addressing the individual and social problems of substance abuse can no longer be denied. Absolute prohibition has not only failed to stop the flow of illegal drugs, but it has abandoned hundreds of neighborhoods and towns across the country to the devastating impacts of addiction while outsourcing the blood of a transnational, billion-dollar illegal industry to Mexico.

A name and a poet's courage have taken on the indifference surrounding drug war murder in Mexico. It will take a movement to stop it. That movement has begun. Here in the United States we should join it.

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16 Borderland Beat Comments:

Bones said...

Well the US is never going to legalize drugs, and if Mexico does, it isnt going to curb violence. So if thats the message behind your movement...mission not accomplished

Anonymous said...

Nothing is going to change, more and more people will be killed like this and nothing will happen. USA likes Drugs, Mexico Loves Death!

-790

Anonymous said...

Yes, the US should join this movement, as they are part of the problem. Here are some things that should be done:

1. Legalize drugs; obviously making them illegal has done nothing to stop the drug trade. People are still able to get drugs despite it being illegal, and if they were legal then criminals would have much less power and money (although, they do have other ways to making money, such as kidnapping...)

2. Regulate flow of guns across the border. Operation Gunrunner makes me sick and it should have never happened. There's no good reason why it should have occurred, and I don't believe that it was used to track down drug gangs more easily, especially when that was bungled up horribly. Also, most (although not all) weapons come from the US, sadly enough.

3. Educate people on why drugs are bad so that there would be less demand for them. This is already kind of true in that it is taught in school (which definitely convinced me to never use drugs), but apparently this isn't enough given the huge demand for drugs in the US.

4. Instead of punishing people who use drugs, rehabilitate them and convince them to stop using them.

5. Compared to other issues in the world, like the Middle East, the Mexican Drug War is almost completely neglected. Perhaps the media should pay attention to the drug war much more than they do. I doubt the average person knows that the war even exists in the first place. That's pretty bad. I, for one, didn't know about it at all until a friend of mine who lives in Monterrey, Nuevo León told me about it about a year ago (and believe me, that shocked me so much).

There are more things that can be done, but this is a good start for now.

Anonymous said...

That's a great idea. Let's protest more. That way they will know we care and they will take us seriously. The narcos will get scared and stop being criminals. The crooked cops/politicians/etc. will be impressed and they will become honest.

I remember the vietnam protests in the US. The politicians got so scared they shut that war down in 10 years flat. It probably would have been sooner if the mexicans had protested as well - but they didn't. They enjoyed seeing the gringos getting killed in a stupid war so they just laughed.

Protest marching is a waste of time. Who is John Gibler?

Anonymous said...

Who cares about Javier Sicilia. After his own son is killed suddenly it's a big deal, where was the outcry before he was personally affected? And no, the US government is not turning a blind eye to gunrunning, infact they're doing the exact opposite and are blowing the issue out of proportion because it serves the administrations political agenda.

Ardent said...

Protesting is not a waste of time since it has the potential to get millions to move into action. YES, it can be done if the conditions are right!

These people who tell you that protesting is a waste of time are the people who never do anything themselves to try to change things other than 'vote' individually sheeple like in rigged 'elections' where the corporoate candidate are selected for you by $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$..

Anonymous said...

My friend opened a factory in Mexico in the early 1990's making electrical wiring systems for GM. After a couple of years he had to leave because the government kept asking him for more and more bribes threating him that if he doesn't pay they will seize his equipment. He was someone helping Mexico by bringing jobs and this is how he is treated.Corrupt violent Mexico is reaping what it sowed. Hopefully those government official's heads are rolling around on the ground somewhere.

Anonymous said...

This article is so much conjecture and slim on facts. I have lived in Amsterdam and I can tell you that the "legalized drugs" are a big problem. Addiction rates are atrocious in the city.

Drugs are not legal everywhere either, but only in parts of the city.

One of the issues with drugs in the US is the desire to have everything now! So many people use drugs to escape their lives, legalizing it will make little difference.

Maybe legalizing some drugs would be ok, like pot or some of the milder ones, but addiction and the harder stuff presents major problems. In California and approximately 25 other states, marijuana is legal, and yet the cartels still kill to move marijuana in. So legalizing doesn't appear to be the answer.

And the cartels have been making huge moves to export overseas, so even if the US stopped everything, there are still markets in the new world economy

And don't forget the endemic corruption in Mexico, with almost all politicians, military, police and other officials on the take. And the embarrassingly low conviction rates and the practically revolving door on prisons. Those things are not the fault of the US, but Mexico likes to point the blame away from themselves and what they created by being in bed with these criminals for decades.

So, for Sicilia, I am sorry your son died. But Calderon's war is not the cause. Imagine the violence that would occur if unchecked. Calderon just had poor timing. The PRI created this monster that was unleashed when Calderon's poked it with a stick in 2006. But I can recall killings and kidnappings and extortion occurring prior to that. All the way back to 1998 when I moved to Monterrey. And for decades before according to friends.

Sicilia, you can bury your head in the sand, but it will NOT make the problem disappear.

Anonymous said...

To compare what happens in Amsterdam with what happens in Mexico might be poetic but is more unrealistic than comparing apples with oranges.

Anonymous said...

Calderon is attempting Reform in a country where corruption is a national tradition,not just govt. but at all levels of business, I CAN SEE WHY THERE IS RESISTANCE,I can see why Calderon is not supported,I see why Mexicans want this reform stopped so they can get back to business uninterupted. Problem for Mexico is the standard of living will fall further, Mexico is disfunctional and is Balking at REBIRTH.

Ardent said...

This is such a blatantly wrong notion you have, Anonymous 6:43 pm, that it defies replying to even...

'One of the issues with drugs in the US is the desire to have everything now! So many people use drugs to escape their lives, legalizing it will make little difference.'

Oh sure! Just like it made absolutely no difference supposedly to you, I guess?, when the US ended Prohibition?????

YES, it will make all the difference in the world when the US government stops trying to make us all Right Wing church goer type by threatening to throw us in jail all the time for our supposed sins...

Layla2 said...

Begin decriminalization procedures in the US. Take pointers from evidence over 10-year period in Portugal and elsewhere.

Focus in the near-term on stopping the guns from crossing into MX.

US needs to take the lead in doable solutions. Training of MX police forces should also focus on vetting and eliminating corruption in their country.

These are starters.

Anonymous said...

"The blood in Mexico is inextricably linked to the market and the law in the United States." Bull Shit! The blood in Mexico is inextricably linked to Mexico! Mexican politics created the conditions that allowed the drug cartels to become powerful. Mexican politicians didn’t give a damn when US streets were flowing with blood during the drug epidemics in the eighties. Life was good for Mexican elite and their cartel connections. Then came political change in Mexico and post 9/11 border restrictions by the US. The cartels lost their government connections and they could no longer readily move drugs north. The price of cartel operations increased. Organized crime branched out to expand extortions, kidnapping, human trafficking and other non-traditional crimes and Mexican elite were not off limits. Now Mexico is a battle for survival and the secrets between the Mexican government and the drug cartels are clear. The bestial affair created offspring that are rampant. Mexican drug cartels were born and bred in Mexico. The blood in Mexico is inextricably linked to Mexico.

Anonymous said...

@Ardent,

Still waiting for the results of Mr. Sicilia's protest march, which involved 'tens of thousands.'

Let's be real about one thing...this guy is angry and upset about the murder of his son (understandable) but if that tragic event wouldn't have happened Mr. Sicilia wouldn't be worried about it. Prior to his son being murdered, +36,000 people had already been killed as a result of the drug war in Mexico...he certainly wasn't worried about it then (at least not publicly). Plus, his solution to legalize drugs in Mexico wouldn't change a thing..simply because the U.S. is NEVER going to legalize drugs..PERIOD. What would the point be with regards to legalization in Mexico, when your primary consumer (U.S.) a foreign country, which you share a border, has strict laws against legalization. If nothing else, such an act (legalization) would put a tremendous strain, if not disastrous relations between the two countries.

I would agree

Ardent said...

I agree with you that legalization in Mexico alone is not the solution to the drug trafficking there, Anony 9:02 am. The US market has everything to do with Mexico's current situation, and it is usually only the racists who late Latino Spanish speaking culture who are the people in the US who try to deny this US responsibility for the bloodshed. It is as simpleton as if Europeans would only blame Afghans for their heroin trade, and not their own governments and the US who have invaded and occupied that country, nor their own drug and social policies that create so many Europe and and US heroin addicts.

'Let's be real about one thing...this guy is angry and upset about the murder of his son (understandable) but if that tragic event wouldn't have happened Mr. Sicilia wouldn't be worried about it. Prior to his son being murdered, +36,000 people had already been killed as a result of the drug war in Mexico...he certainly wasn't worried about it then (at least not publicly).'

Why be so hard on this guy for his own activism which is admirable. He reminds me a lot of CIndy Sheehan, who was always against the war, but when her son disregarded her advice and died in the war that turned her only then into a super charged pro Peace crusader. She stepped up to the plate instead of just fading into the shade with her own personal grief.

Just Me said...

US laws making drugs illegal make the drug trade an extremely valuable, profitable business. With so much profit, of course there is going to be competition.

tobacco and alcohol for example: Legal, and less valuable. So we don't have people running around beheading people.
Alcohol and tobacco being legal, still claiming the lives of users, but this is still way better than the foolish violence we are seeing with the illegal drugs.

Let's forget about Mexico and USA for a minute.

The drugs are already here. Let's face it. They are here to stay. In the name of humanity, how can you sentence a human being to jail/prison for being a drug addict.

In the USA, Drug Addict = Criminal

Maybe try less mandatory minimums, less prison sentences, and maybe more treatment and education.

Christ people, the drugs are here. Everybody say it. Drugs are here to stay. If you don't think so, then you're ignorant..

Is there anybody here that actually believes that eventually the government(s) will win this battle? A successful drug war would be what? No drugs. Fat Chance.

Being an American, I am embarrassed of our ignorance and bullheaded ways. Other countries probably laugh at our legislation.

But we are the proud and mighty United States (not to mention ignorant), and our answer to everything is if it doesn't work, force it. More helicopters, more drug agents, more prisons, more destroyed lives, more wasted tax money, more foolishness.

Wake up people, drugs don't have to be the negative evil we have made them.

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