This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.

On the Road with Mexico’s Caravan for Peace
Along the Border of the Surreal
by PAUL IMISON

San Diego.

If the Mexico-US border is the most surreal international boundary in the western hemisphere – often described as the only place where the so-called “First World” meets the Third, with all the envy, prejudice and distrust that implies – then the most surreal point along its two thousand-mile stretch might well be Border Field State Park, San Diego.

Essentially a nature reserve in the furthest southwest corner of the United States, it also resembles a militarized zone. Here, the border wall that occupies the dreams of “brown peril” fanatics nationwide is a vivid reality. It’s also the location where, following the Mexican-American War, a bi-national commission began the task of defining that very same border in 1848. Nowadays, on the US side, you can’t go within fifty feet of the boundary without a shaking down by the Border Patrol.

The wider border region has become yet more surreal in recent years as much-touted “Drug War” violence has gripped Mexican cities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, accompanied by largely right-wing paranoia in the US about an inevitable “spill-over” – which predictably never comes.

To quote one of the many Drug War statistics that beggar belief, in 2010 Ciudad Juarez saw 3,075 murders while its border town cousin El Paso, Texas, saw just five. Yet less well-reported is that some thousand people in the US die per year in gang violence as well, largely fueled by the same narcotics trade. The “war on drugs” – as christened by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and waged ever since on a rolling tab that may top US$2 trillion – ultimately takes more lives than the drugs themselves.

On Sunday, Border Field State Park was the venue for the opening ceremony of the Caravan for Peace, a 30-day tour of 27 US cities by Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. Specifically, the ceremony took place in what used to be known as Friendship Park (inaugurated by – irony of ironies – former First Lady Pat Nixon in 1971). The park was a meeting spot for families separated by the border for years until the Department of Homeland Security closed it in 2009 amid yet more paranoia about “border security”.

The symbolism of the venue was glaring. As the Mexican government fights a so-called “drug war” (lately rebranded by President Felipe Calderon as the “war on organized crime”), which has taken anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 lives in less than six years, one might ask exactly where is the “friendship” in the US-Mexico relationship? US trade policy destroys Mexican jobs and wages, immigration policy criminalizes those looking to escape their country’s economic quagmire, and US-trained Mexican troops run roughshod through the country’s cities. Meanwhile, 70% of firearms seized south of the border are illegally smuggled from – Well, where else?

The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity – largely made up of victims and survivors of the country’s “drug war” conflict – has made several trips around Mexico to speak to citizens, empower victims, and make a persuasive case against their government’s “war”. Their agenda is simple and was laid out in the National Pact for Peace presented to the Mexican government one year ago: stop the militarization, debate legalization, and focus on rebuilding a devastated society.

As it makes its way across thirteen American states, culminating in a three-day visit to Washington on September 10, the Peace Movement will look to build coalitions with US-based civil society groups to demand an end to Washington’s “war on drugs”, which currently includes funding for Latin America’s “drug warrior” du jour, Mexico’s own Felipe Calderon.

A Poet Lays Down his Pen 

While there had been opposition to Calderon’s “war” from the very beginning, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity came of age on May 8, 2011, when 200,000 people marched on Mexico City led by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year old son Juan Francisco lost his life two months earlier. Sicilia subsequently gave up writing (“The world is not worthy of words – they have been suffocated from the inside – just as they suffocated you,” he wrote in his final poem) yet he was able to bring a startling eloquence to a resistance movement that had long been ignored. The Peace Movement is now one of Mexico’s most high-profile social organizations and has broken through the country’s traditionally rigid class barriers, in large part due to Sicilia’s presence.

One of the proposals presented by the Peace Movement last year was for a Ley General de Victimas (General Victims’ Law) which would oblige the Mexican government to pay for psychological and medical assistance, as well as financial compensation, to victims of the country’s violence. While initially supported by the president, on the same day that citizens went to the polls this year (July 1), Calderon returned the bill to congress, claiming it placed too much of a burden on the federal government – which nevertheless has spent over US$15 billion on training and equipment for the military and police.

In response, on July 23, Sicilia wrote an open letter to Calderon which began with the following words:

“Dear Mr. President,

I say ‘dear’ because, despite your treachery and lack of respect for the victims and the nation that you govern, I continue to believe that a human being is more than his mistakes and wrongdoings and deserves love and respect. I also say it because with this letter I want to reach Felipe Calderon the man, not the mask of power whose falsity distorts him, and speak to his heart from the truth.”

While the Mexican government claims that 47,500 lives have been lost since Calderon militarized the fight against the drug cartels in 2006, independent researchers put the total anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000, along with 10,000 missing persons and some 160,000 displaced. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have together contributed some $2 billion in security aid, most of which – contrary to the spin about human rights and judicial reform – has been militaristic in nature.

The net result: nada in the reduction of drug-trafficking or use, and a whole lot of Mexican and US citizens dead or behind bars. The “progressive” Obama administration’s solution? Let’s spend yet more billions and keep plugging away.

Crossing the Line

Javier Sicilia has described the US Peace Caravan, which comprises some hundred people – half of them victims of the violence – as a “listening tour” with “citizen diplomacy” as the goal. Throughout the trip, the emphasis will be on building coalitions in its campaign for policy change in Washington, and will focus on five central issues: the war on drugs, arms-trafficking, money-laundering, international cooperation and migration.

“It’s not just Mexicans – or Colombians, or Central Americans – affected,” Sicilia told me in an interview in April. “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.”

Indeed, just as Mexico’s poor pays the price south of the border; ethnic minorities, mainly African-Americans, have been the main target in the “drug war” crosshairs in the US for decades, with some 160,000 currently within the penal system on drug charges (a hugely disproportionate 68% of the total sentenced for drug-related offenses). Forget the big banks and companies – HSBC Mexico, Wachovia, Western Union – that have been found guilty of laundering billions of drug money and gotten away with fines amounting to pocket change.

On the issue of arms-trafficking, some 70% – or 68,000 firearms – seized at crime scenes in Mexico in the past five and a half years originated in the US. As many as 3,000 of those weapons came straight from the US federal government itself – part of a botched sting operation (“Fast and Furious”) run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) out of Arizona. Despite the Republicans’ recent witch-hunt of Attorney General Eric Holder, we now know the Bush administration had a similar scam (Operation “Wide Receiver”) going in 2007.

Unfortunately, the prospects for (hope and) change are not good. Despite the shellacking he received at the 6th Summit of the Americas in April, President Obama has publicly refused to back a region-wide move for the decriminalization of drugs. While a scandal involving secret servicemen and hookers down in Cartagena grabbed the headlines in the US, much of the Latin American media pointed to how thoroughly isolated Obama was in his stance, including by conservative leaders like Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos.

Meanwhile in Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) “won” – via a still-unraveling web of illegal campaign funding and vote-buying – the country’s presidency on July 1 and will assume office in December. The big selling points of Peña’s forthcoming revamp of the “war” have been the construction of a national police force (which will recruit heavily from the military) and the addition of controversial former Colombian police chief Oscar Naranjo as a “special advisor”. He can also depend on another $200 million of security aid earmarked for Mexico in Obama’s 2013 budget.

Representatives of the Peace Movement admit that the timing of the caravan may be askew with the election on the horizon but say their trip is as much about reaching out to ordinary US citizens as embattled congressmen. As one of the coordinators of the Peace Caravan, an American, told me Sunday, “We want people to be able to put a face to the news reports. The impact may not be immediate but we’re going to sow seeds.”

I’ll be following the Caravan for Peace from San Diego to El Paso. If you want to attend any of the events along the route, a full itinerary can be found in English at: http://www.globalexchange.org/mexico/caravan/route

Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com