A War of Anonymous Death

After four years of President Felipe Calder?n’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 C?sar Romero Jaimes; Luis Antonio Romero Jaimes; ?lvaro Jaimes Avelar; Jaime Gabriel Alejo Cadena; Mar?a del Socorro Estrada Hern?ndez; and Jes?s Ch?vez V?zquez.

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 Calder?n, who asked to see him upon his return. He would tell Calder?n that In Amsterdam people buy and sell drugs and they do not kill each other; what Calder?n has done with his drug war is shameful and has no pardon. Calder?n 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 Calder?n’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 Ju?rez 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 (http://upsidedownworld.org/main/mexico-archives-79/3029-mexicos-drug-war-victims-find-their-voice-in-massive-silent-march) to Mexico City’s central square, the Z?calo. 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, Michoac?n 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.

John Gibler is an independent journalist and author of two books, Mexico Unconquered (City Lights, 2009), and To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War forthcoming in June from City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.