Mexico’s Peace Movement and Javier Sicilia: One Year On

Little over a year ago, Javier Sicilia was simply a journalist, poet, teacher and father; he would finish 2011 as one of TIME magazine’s “People of the Year”.

Little over a year ago, Javier Sicilia was simply a journalist, poet, teacher and father; he would finish 2011 as one of TIME magazine’s “People of the Year”. After his 24-year old son Juan and six friends were murdered by a gang in Cuernavaca, Morelos, on March 28, Sicilia became a full-time activist and one of the most eloquent critics of the Mexican government’s “war on drugs”. Last May, he led a 200,000-strong march on Mexico City to protest both the drug gangs and the government’s violent crackdown, becoming a spokesman for tens of thousands of families destroyed by the violence.

At 56 years of age, Sicilia still appears more poet than social activist. Tall, softly-spoken, even shy, he does not seem suited to the podiums and protest marches he has frequented tirelessly over the past twelve months. Speaking in El Paso, Texas, on April 28, ahead of a planned Peace Caravan to Washington D.C in August, Sicilia once again labeled President Felipe Calderón’s US-backed war on the country’s drug-trafficking gangs as “stupid” and “absurd”. The aim of the caravan – which will kick off in San Diego and take in 20 US cities – is to urge Americans to look at the consequences of their government’s policy.

Asked what has changed in Mexico since the historic march of May 8 last year, he replies: “Nothing has changed. We’re still in the midst of this conflict and of the struggle against it. There’s been enough violence.” He pauses. “But of course, we have hope, or we wouldn’t be doing this.”

El Paso was a fitting destination for Sicilia to address US citizens. The border city, where 75% of the population claims Mexican ancestry, lies just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, the bloodiest battleground of Mexico’s “war”. Scene of a rivalry between Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel and the local Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization, the city of over a million people has seen a staggering 12,613 homicides since 2008.

Sicilia was speaking at “Voice of the Voiceless”, an annual immigration forum organized by Annunciation House, a shelter for undocumented persons in El Paso. For six nights leading up to the forum, the names of those nearly 13,000 killed in Juárez were projected onto the front of the shelter in the city’s downtown.

Also speaking at the forum were notable voices from inside Mexico’s Drug War: Silvia Méndez from the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center in Juárez; Cipriana Jurado, a labor and human rights activist who won asylum in the US after repeated threats against her life; and Raúl Gómez Franco, a journalist who works for Juárez daily El Diario, which famously published the headline “What do you want from us?” after two reporters from the paper were murdered in 2010. According to Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights, 74 journalists have been murdered since 2000; a further four working in the state of Veracruz were found dead last week. 

“We Have Morality on our Side”

From the outset, the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity) – whose slogans include “Estamos hasta la madre!” (We’ve Had Enough!) and “No Más Sangre” (No More Blood) – made concrete demands of the Mexican government. A National Pact for Peace was drawn up June 14 calling for an end to the militarized approach to law enforcement, an end to official corruption and impunity that have crippled investigations, the naming of victims (for a long time, the Mexican government withheld official data on deaths), and a shift of the “war” from a security focus to addressing the socio-economic problems affecting so many Mexicans.

The movement has reason to celebrate the April 30 passing of the General Law for Victims, which will oblige the Mexican government to provide legal, medical, psychological, social support, as well as financial compensation, for victims of crime. Speaking to me four days after the bill was passed by the Mexican Senate; Sicilia had mixed feelings on its potential. “The law recognizes that the state has a debt to victims,” he says. “It’s a step forward but not a means to an end for the struggle. First of all, corruption will make this law very difficult to apply.” 

Sicilia’s decision to denounce the strategy of Felipe Calderón’s government as robustly as he did the drug lords, corrupt officials and gang members was a controversial one. Yet despite the support and funding the government has received from consecutive US administrations, it’s hard not to question what has become known as “Calderón’s war”. The official figure is 47,515 murders since 2006; independent sources claim 50,000-60,000. An additional 20,000 people may be missing – the government admitted in February that it has kept no official database. Incredibly, a leaked report from Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office in 2010 revealed that only 5% of murders were even investigated. Furthermore, both military and law enforcement personnel have been implicated in killings and disappearances.

As the Peace Movement snowballed, key members such as Sicilia were invited to meet with President Calderón last June. What was Sicilia’s perception of the man many blame for the upsurge in violence in Mexico? “I think he is sensitive to the problems that Mexicans face, but he’s also stubborn. He has refused to change his position. Now we are approaching the end of his administration and nothing has changed. We just ask him to listen to the people. What we’re saying is estamos hasta la madre – enough is enough.”

As a result, the movement has grown beyond simply protesting the Drug War to include the corruption, impunity and social inequality that harms all Mexicans, but especially those “without a voice” – among them the 52 million that officially live below the poverty line.

Now on his way to Washington, does Sicilia expect American citizens to embrace the movement? “Unfortunately, right now there are only small groups in the US who sympathize with us,” he explains. “We hope to change that. I think the problem is that [US citizens] don’t like to think about what effect their government’s policies have in Latin America. We’re asking them to do just that.”

“It’s not just Mexicans – or Colombians, or Central Americans – affected,” he argues. “Look at the families destroyed in the US by this war. Most people in prison on drug-related offenses are either black or Hispanic. They are poor people. I would also like to see Americans address their policy towards firearms. It’s a policy of immense stupidity.”

Arms-smuggling is another major bone of contention in the US-Mexico partnership, but in this case the shoe is on the other foot. The Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) reported April 26 that 68,000 firearms seized in Mexico have been traced to the United States. US Attorney General Eric Holder is currently under congressional investigation for a botched ATF “sting” operation codenamed Fast and Furious (2009-10) in which thousands of weapons were illegally smuggled across the border in a supposed bid to snare drug bosses.

The debate over the Drug War is all the more pressing this year as Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new president on July 1. The likeliest outcome, according to the polls, is a return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico’s old ruling dynasty, which was notorious for its pacts with the country’s drug cartels and which Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) unseated in 2000. In January, Sicilia appeared on Mexican television insisting that the upcoming elections were “a farce” and vowed to leave his ballot blank.

His movement has undoubtedly been courted by political forces – namely the PRI and the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), both of whom are aiming to capitalize on disillusion with Felipe Calderón’s PAN and claim they would implement a fresh strategy in the war on drugs. While the PRI are generally viewed by Mexicans as corrupt and untrustworthy – they governed the country as a de facto dictatorship from 1929 to 2000 – some observers were surprised that Sicilia did not ally himself with left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD. López Obrador, running on a social democratic platform, even suggested that Sicilia was “playing into the hands of the right wing” by refusing to vote.

Out of courtesy, Sicilia has agreed to meet with all four presidential candidates later this month. “We’ll see what they have to say,” he says dryly. “We’ll ask each one why we should bother to vote for them and not leave the ballot blank.”

Yet Sicilia is adamant that the movement not be co-opted. “We’re an ethical and moral movement; not a political one,” he says. “We make demands of the state; we don’t seek to join it. Without peace and justice, there is no democracy. Yes, we take a very strong position, but we have morality on our side.”