We've had it up to here!

Javier Sicilia hugs two women

For the last 6 years 40.000 people have been killed in the so-called drug war in Mexico. Most Mexicans have a profound sense of insecurity, since this war is fought not only in between the drug cartels, the military and the police but also hits innocent civilians. A new hope, however, has been lit through a peace movement initiated by the poet Javier Sicilia. In March 2011, his son was found tortured and killed in a car with six other corpses.

Using the slogan “Estamos hasta la madre” (which can be translated into “We’ve had it up to here”) Sicilia organized several large marches that marked the beginning of a new, Mexican peace movement. The peace movement is open to people from the whole political spectrum and has a decidedly grassroots character, organizing dialogue meetings in areas affected by the drug trade. But is this peace movement able to do what the government so far hasn’t been able to do, solving the drug war?

Growing Insecurity

For almost a decade I have frequented between Norway and Mexico, and for the last six years a significant change has occurred in Mexican society. The fear of becoming a random victim of violence has been instilled in most of its people, and murder records, drug cartels, beheadings and other brutal killing methods have become part of everyday gossip. Nothing surprises anyone anymore. The victims are almost considered “non-individuals” as their dead bodies are smeared over newspaper front-pages and turned into entertainment for the masses. Every day Mexicans wake up to news of new murders, and military and special forces patrol the streets.

The Power of the Drug Cartels

Today there are 8 drug cartels operating in Mexico. They are fighting for control over the huge drug loads going from South America to the U.S. It is estimated that the drug trade has a value of 13 trillion U.S. dollars a year, and in addition to this comes trade with people (often migrants from Central and South America) and the intra-arms trade between the cartels and other criminal associations. The cartels have many methods for controlling territories, which normally include paying off politicians and police officers. But the struggle for territorial dominance and smuggler routes often leads to armed conflict in between the cartels. Due to its proximity to the U.S.-border, there is most violence in the Northern region. But the violence is also escalating in other parts of the country.

The drug cartels are often glorified as soldiers in a war in videos posted on the Internet. In many communities young men dream of becoming part of a cartel, even though it means the certain death. For many, a short life of money, weapons, fast cars and women, is higher valued than a long life of misery.

The power of the cartels often surpasses those of the civil authorities, and they are able to rule whole cities – such as Cuernavaca where I lived last year – if they want to. While I was in Cuernavaca two curfews were announced by the cartels, and nobody dared moving outside. As the police, the military and politicians often are corrupt and bought by the drug cartels, the Mexican people do not trust in these institutions. Even when the military actually arrest a leader of the drug cartels – as they have done with several during the last year – new leaders show up as quickly as the formers disappeared. Unlike social movements that withers away if their charismatic leaders disappears, the drug cartels are not dependent on a particular commander and are extremely well organized.

So how to break this organized form of violence when the government cannot be trusted to do the job? Is it possible to organize oneself and take up the struggle against the powerful drug cartels? Faced with these questions many Mexicans turn to apathy. Ignorance is a defense mechanism that helps many through everyday life, but everyone feels the same. They want their security back again, but they do not know how to stop what is going on.

The Loss of a Son and the Beginning of a Struggle

One man stepped up to the challenge. Javier Sicilia got enough. As a famous poet he knew he had a voice that would be heard nationally. He also knew that he would be able to articulate the everyday fear and anxiety felt by most Mexicans. Normally the victims of the drug cartels are not able speak their opinion or ask for justice: They are often poor and have little education. The public view also work against them, as most people seem to think that if somebody was killed by the drug cartels, it surely had to mean that they were involved in the narco traffic.

The truth, however, is that the victims are often random like Javier Sicilia. When Sicilia’s son was found murdered March 28th 2011, the idea of a peace movement was born. Sicilia managed to gather people from both catholic and conservative circles, as well as leftist and Marxist movements. “Everyone” wanted to be part of the struggle, and the opportunities for dialogues with the victims, the participation grassroots organizations and support from among others the Zapatistas seemed like an excellent plan for a national peace movement. “Movimiento por la Paz,” as it was called, began its mission with a march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, and it sparked a whole new movement across Mexico.

It rapidly became clear, however, that it was not easy to organize a movement with so many different groups involved. When Javier Sicilia was invited to a meeting with President Felipe Calderón to talk about the security situation in the country, many withdrew from the movement criticizing Sicilia for “selling out” to the politicians. Several organizations on the Left criticized him for using the movement as a means to launch himself as a future political candidate. Miguel Valencia, the protagonist of the ecology organization Ecocomunidades, says in an interview that it was problematic that Sicilia opened a dialogue with Calderón. With this move, Sicilia lost a lot of the trust that he had obtained in civil society. In Mexico a person is often viewed as a traitor if she or he collaborate with the government. Many on the Left hold the view that the entire political elite is corrupt, at least when it comes to the drug war.

Miguel Valencia tells me that he joined the peace movement in the hope that everyone would join the struggle for a better country. “I have put the climate and nature in the background for a while. Fighting for human life and social rights must always be prioritized. Besides we cannot hope to improvements within our field if the country is on the brink of disintegration. But the peace movement has to be democratized if we are going to achieve what we are fighting for,” Valencia tells me.

If that happens more organizations and individuals might join the movement and create a nation-wide network. Presently only a few people have the authority to decide the movement’s strategy, and Sicilia is its dominant media figure – even though he is being criticized for using it in a political game.

Critique of Calderón

Despite the controversy surrounding Sicilia, in his dialogues with Calderón he has condemned the President for sending ever more soldiers to the most affected areas in the North. He has also held Calderón responsible for the dead victims of what he calls a “despicable and senseless war.” Sicilia has further criticized the Mexican government for failing to fulfill its duty to defend the Mexican people.

The government has not managed to make Mexico safer. Quite to the contrary, many analyses have concluded that Mexico is approaching the condition of a “failed state.” The government is weak and has no true authority. It has lost control over large chunks of its territory where corruption and crime prevails and people are forced to flee internally. The President, however, does not accept this responsibility. In a meeting with Sicilia in June 2011, Calderón asked for forgiveness from the victims’ families, but at the same time he told that he would not stop sending soldiers to fight the drug cartels.

The peace movement has several proposals for how to solve the drug war. A recent New York Times article summed these up as follows:

They call for Mr. Calderón to change his strategy against the drug cartels, one that goes beyond police and military power to include, for instance, a thorough investigation into the connections between politicians and criminals.

The movement has likewise asked Congress to modify the proposed National Security Law, which offers stronger tools against the cartels but which the movement considers inadequate on human rights. It also calls for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to the one in Colombia that has helped identify victims and uncover police corruption; a National Registry of the Disappeared and Detained; a program to halt the abuse of Central American migrants; and an independent auditor for the federal police, which it believes cannot be adequately monitored from within the government.

On a broader scale, the movement emphasizes the need for the eventual legalization of some drugs and the reconstruction of the social fabric in places damaged by the “narco war.”

In addition, the movement demands the Mexican government have to act more strongly in its negotiations with the U.S., and demand that the drug war has to be recognized as a health issue in both countries.

In October 2011, Calderón and Sicilia had a second conversation where they discussed the use of force, protection of civilians, impunity and how to combat the drug cartels. This conversation happened simultaneously as the National Security Law, which caused Sicilia to break the dialogue with Calderón in August, was about to be approved by the Congress. The peace movement believes that this law would mean a huge setback for Mexican society. Such a law gives too much power to the military and normalizes their presence in the streets. The law would lead to a “police state,” expanding the rights of the government to monitor the population and equipping it with the authority to detain people without reason.

Dialogue Meetings and Caravans

In advance of the conversations with president Calderón, the peace movement organized a caravan through the states in the south of Mexico to hold so-called dialogue meetings with victims of the violence, civil society organizations and concerned individuals – just as it did in the North in June. This is a method to involve broad sectors of the population, and people from all sides of the political spectrum. The dialogues have laid the foundation for the demands that the peace movement and Sicilia have presented to the president. Calderón, on his side, has stated that he approves of the participation of civil society, but at the same time upholds that the reconstruction of the communities worst affected by the drug trade and the defeat of the drug cartels depends on enforcing the position of the military.

Many believe the president is just paying lip service to the peace movement when he talks about the importance of civil participation. Sicilia believes that Calderón’s moves will only lead to more violence. He wants a state that puts more emphasis on prevention of violence rather than oppression, and says that the military should be removed from the street. In July 2012 there is a new presidential election in Mexico, and the question whether a new government will respond more to the demands of Sicilia and the peace movement remains open.