Mexico’s Anti-Drug War March Demands Far-Reaching Political Reforms

Source: Americas Program

Thousands of Mexicans changed the face of national and international politics May 8 in the world’s first mass protest against the drug war.

Following a four-day march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, an estimated 90,000 protesters poured into the central plaza (see Americas Program coverage of the entire march at the Americas Program’s MexicoBlog). The march was led by relatives of victims and convoked by the poet, Javier Sicilia, whose son was brutally assassinated in March.

Protesters in the march demanded far-reaching changes in Mexico’s security policy and an end to the “war on drugs”. In speeches and documents they also called for political reforms to go the root of the alarming deterioration in public safety and well-being since President Felipe Calderón deployed the army in an offensive against organized crime in December of 2006.

The historic demonstration presented a  “citizen’s pact” to replace the “absurd war that has cost 40,000 lives and left millions of Mexicans in fear and uncertainty”, in the words of Sicilia.

The pact demands that the victims of the recent violence be named and that their memory serve as a catalyst for restoring lasting peace with justice in Mexico. Two women directly affected by the violence and impunity that characterizes the current crisis read the pact aloud to the crowd. Olga Reyes Salazar of Ciudad Juarez lost six family members–including her sister Josefina Reyes, a prominent anti-militarization activist, her brothers Ruben and Elias, sister Magdalena, sister-in-law Luisa Ornelas and a nephew–to assassinations in the past year and a half. Not a single suspect has been apprehended in the cases. Patricia Duarte’s child was killed in a fire in the ABC daycare center. The case, unsolved after two years, has become a symbol of impunity in the country.

The six-point pact demands: 1) Resolution of the assassinations and disappearances and the naming of victims; 2) An end to the war strategy and adoption of a “citizen security” strategy; 3) Effective measures against corruption and impunity; 4) A focused attack on the economic roots and criminal revenue streams, including money laundering; 5) Immediate attention to the plight of youth and effective actions to rebuild a broken society, including reorienting the budget to education, health, culture and employment; 6) Participatory democracy.

The pact “seeks to promote a new way of living together and establish the basis of legality. The proposals are the beginning of the path, not the end.”

Sicilia, who has become the figurehead for the new movement against the drug war, called the pact “a fundamental commitment to peace with justice and dignity that allows the nation to be restored.” The mobilization, he noted, seeks to replace a government policy that “assumes that there are only two ways to confront this threat [of organized crime]: illegally administering it as was common in the past and still common in many places today, or declaring war with the army in the streets, which is happening today.

“It ignores that drugs are an historical phenomenon that… should be treated as a problem of urban sociology and public health and not as a criminal matter to be confronted with violence.”

The demonstration in downtown Mexico City capped a march of hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands from Cuernavaca to the Zócalo, or central plaza. Signs along the way signs expressed gratitude to Sicilia for catalyzing widespread discontent—“Gracias, Sicilia, for shaking my spirit out of lethargy, Today the people cry in unison-No More Blood!” – and opposition to the president and his policies. Indigenous communities joined students and workers, middle class professionals and artists in the protest.

Call for Change in U.S. Actions

Mexico’s new civil pact concludes with a call to Mexicans living in the U.S. and other U.S. citizens to support the movement by demanding that the U.S. government stop the flow of arms to Mexico and crack down on money laundering.

In his speech to the crowd, Sicilia also attacked U.S. policies and actions as part of the problem.

“Their multi-million dollar market for drug consumption, their banks and businesses that launder money in complicity with ours, their arms industry—more lethal than drugs, for being so evident and expansionist—whose weapons come into our country, not only strengthen criminal groups, but also provide them with an immense capacity for carnage. The United States has designed a security policy whose logic responds fundamentally to its global interests and Mexico has been trapped within it.”

In an open letter to Javier Sicilia, a group of prominent Mexican intellectuals and organizations states, “There is more and more evidence that policies and actions relative to U.S. national security have been disguised as public safety issues, under the euphemism of the joint security of both countries.

“The instruments and commitments that form part of this linkage between the two governments are the Merida Initiative, the North American Security and Prosperity Agreement, and the reorganization of the Federal Police along the lines of the U.S. Patriot Act, implemented in Mexico by the Minister of Public Security, Genaro García Luna… In effect, Mexico is not –as has been posited–a ‘failed state’ but a state that has been infiltrated to such a degree that it is losing its independence and true sovereignty.”

Signs along the march referred to the U.S. role: One showed a map of the United States and Mexico-“They provide the arms, Mexico the dead”; another read simply: “This isn’t a war; it’s a business”.

Demands for Change

In the downtown Zócalo, Sicilia called for the resignation of Security Secretary García Luna as a sign that the Calderón administration has heard the demands of the populace. He urged a profound clean-up within the political system and all political parties of those who, “disguised in legality, are in collusion with criminals and have the State’s hands tied and co-opted by using its own instruments to erode citizens’ hopes for change.

“Without an honorable cleansing of their ranks and a total commitment to political ethics, citizens will be forced to ask ourselves in the next elections which cartel to vote for.”

As thousands demanded an end to the violence in front of the National Palace, the government responded in a communiqué from the Ministry of the Interior.

“Without the permanent effort of the Mexican Army, the Navy and the Federal Police in localities with a high incidence of crime, the populations there would be subject to the will of the criminals and it would be impossible to begin to rebuild a damaged society.”

The communiqué responded indirectly to the demands of youth and other sectors represented in the march for the immediate withdrawal of the armed forces from communities across Mexico. This demand is strongest in places like Ciudad Juarez, high crime areas where much of the population has come to view the presence of the army as a factor of conflict rather than its solution.

The drug-related homicide rate went from an average of 2,000 a year before the Calderón drug war to 15,000 murders last year.

Yesterday’s massive demonstration set the terms of debate in Mexico. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Mexico City and other cities throughout the country to demand an end to the drug war model imposed by the Calderon administration with the support and encouragement of the U.S. government. They have established the outlines of a far-reaching civil pact and specific proposals to attack organized crime at the roots by addressing the failure of the political and judicial systems and the inequality, poverty and lack of full democracy that weaken society.

The response from the government has been a reaffirmation of the military strategy. There are no signs of flexibility with regard to the demands of the demonstrators and signs point to a retrenchment, as more troops are dispatched to a growing number of hot spots in the country.

The March for Peace with Justice and Dignity marks a sea change in Mexican politics. A significant part of the population has demanded an end to the drug war, identifying the security strategy itself as a major part of the problem, not part of the solution. The citizens’ pact goes beyond the fight against organized crime and puts on the table political reforms including the elimination of immunity from prosecution for government officials, real autonomy for the judicial branch, participation in referendums and plebiscites, and a focus on social programs and expansion of educational opportunities.

This clash of paradigms on security implies much more than a difference of opinion on how to fight organized crime. A little over a year before the next presidential elections and in the midst of the worst crisis in Mexico since war, citizens are taking the lead in establishing the framework for rebuilding their society on their terms.

As the pact makes clear, the first step is to demand actions from political leadership across the spectrum that indicate a willingness to clean up corruption and respond to social needs that have been building up and have come to a head in the peace movement. It defines a starting point for consructing ground-up solutions, moving beyond mere protest or opposition.

The victims remain at the moral center of the movement, while urging society to rise above the status of victimhood—as they have in leading the movement.

Javier Sicilia summed up the convicitons of the marchers:

“We are here to say that we will not convert this pain in our souls into hate or more violence, but into a tool that helps to restore the love, the peace, the justice, the dignity of the ailing democracy that we are losing… To show the lords of death that we are standing up and we will not stop defending the lives of all our sons and daughters in this country, that we still believe it’s possible to rescue and rebuild our people’s society, our neighborhoods and our cities.”

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City at