One hopes that this is the beginning of the end of Mexico’s “Drug War”, the nearly five-year long conflict between the Felipe Calderon administration and the drug-trafficking organizations that are tearing up the country. Sunday, May 8, saw “Marches for Peace” in 25 of Mexico’s 31 states, with the granddaddy of them all taking place between Cuernavaca, Morelos, and Mexico City’s Zocalo Square, the symbolic heart of the nation. Marches of solidarity also took place in the US, Canada, Europe and Brazil. The Mexico City march was organized by Javier Sicilia, a journalist and poet whose son was murdered in Cuernavaca two months ago, and who has since become a figurehead for Mexico’s burgeoning anti-war movement; a war waged by the government against its own people, resulting in nearly 40,000 deaths since 2006.
For a country that supposedly “returned to democracy” with the defeat of the PRI in 2000, the five years since Calderon took office have seen a desperately unpopular policy of Army and Federal Police deployed on the streets as part of the US-funded Merida Initiative. Since 2006, Mexico has received around $400 million per year in military aid to combat the drug cartels milking the vast market north of the border. As in Colombia and countless other cases, however, militarization of the “Drug War” has yielded no discernible results in reducing traffic nor the grip that major organized crime groups have over the country’s politicians, judiciary and security forces, with arrests for corruption among officials more commonplace than successful prosecutions of “narcos” (and both walking free with startling impunity).
Sunday’s nationwide protest against Calderon was the clearest sign yet that people are unwilling to take it anymore. Over 20,000 participated in the principal “Marcha Para La Paz (March for Peace)” on Mexico City, which began in Javier Sicilia’s native Cuernavaca on Thursday and gathered support along the way. Ordinary citizens que estan hasta la madre (have had it up to here) with the violence joined families of victims of the conflict, drug legalization advocates, the Zapatistas, and others in the 4-day protest. Those who arrived in Mexico City’s Zocalo, or main square, Sunday delivered envelopes bearing the names of the nearly 40,000 “Drug War” victims to Calderon’s office, highlighting a death toll which has soared under his administration. Sicilia also urged Mexicans to boycott next year’s presidential elections unless the elites “clean up their ranks” and cut out the corruption that allows organized crime to flourish.
And therein lies the most significant aspect of Mexico’s anti-war movement – that the hundreds of thousands involved were protesting the government and not just the organized crime gangs themselves. This has brought the likes of Sicilia in for criticism (it’s the criminals causing the violence, people say), but Mexican gangs have smuggled drugs across the border for decades (the cocaine is shipped from Colombia; the heroin, marijuana and meth grown or manufactured in-country) and while there had been skirmishes between the leading cartels for years, the violence spiked to unreal levels only after the implementation of Calderon’s militarization policy. Beyond funding Calderon’s War, Washington also offers crucial political support, with President Obama saying he has “complete faith in President Calderon’s ability to fight the drug cartels”.
This sentiment is not shared in Mexico, where Calderon struggles to maintain 50 per cent support and only then due to an extremely one-sided media that demonizes both the drugs and the underclass forced to make its living from them. A 2009 NPR investigation interviewed dozens of law enforcement agents, military personnel, journalists and politicians, and found that an overwhelming majority believe Calderon is deliberately favoring the Sinaloa Cartel against its rivals, enabling it to wage violent turf wars in key cities and expand its dominance of the trade (its leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is said to be numero uno on the US government’s Most Wanted List after the death of a certain Saudi-born terrorist). In the mid-2000s, El Chapo shattered what was said to be an unwritten truce between the drug gangs and began incursions into his rivals’ territory. Given that cartels’ profits plummet when they go to war with each other, it’s almost inconceivable that Chapo would have gambled so heavily without the guarantee that he could win. The Sinaloa hasn’t won the War of the Cartels just yet, but it’s getting there ? the crucial trafficking points of Tijuana and Juarez are virtually spoken for, and Chapo has taken over much of the rest of the country with relative ease.
The expansion of the Sinaloa Cartel has led its enemies to fight like dogs for every last scrap of trafficking territory, wheeling out ever-more impressive arsenals and hiring ex-soldiers and cops ? notably the former armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas ? to shake things up. In cities like Juarez, Tijuana and Monterrey ? to name just three ? people rarely venture out after dark as the cartels and affiliated street gangs do battle with each other, the military and the police, in the middle of once-peaceful communities. It is this stratospheric rise in violence that has seen so much blame leveled at the government. The controversial nature of Calderon’s election in 2006, where he beat a leftist party (the PRD) that had been riding high in the polls for months before, only adds fuel to the fire that his presidency is a sham.
Unfortunately, although Sunday’s protests saw the largest outpouring of public grief so far, there’s no guarantee that the elites will listen. Enrique Pena Nieto, the likely PRI candidate for 2012 and probable next president threw his weight behind more Obama-funded militarization during a visit to Washington last year (even as his party wins political points at home by lambasting Calderon’s “incompetence”). While the PRI would like everyone to think they are the true “Mexican” party, independent and upholding the values of the 1910-17 Revolution, the last decades of their 70-year rule were spent completely in thrall to US influence as they desperately clung to power by whatever means available.
Still, those of us who live in Mexico can only hope that Sunday’s protests were the real beginning of the end, that slowly but surely, Mexicans are seizing democracy by the reins and that we’ll see an end to the “Drug War” quagmire ? which is not only taking the lives of thousands of people, but also heightening Mexico’s dependence on Washington and its catch-all policy of militarization in Latin America.
Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org