Poet fights futile war on Mexico’s murders

July 20, 2011

MEXICO CITY, July 20, 2011/ Troy Media/ – Javier Sicilia’s life is about words, but he recently decided that words alone would not be enough to address his country’s years-long struggle against drug cartels.

So the middle-aged Mexican journalist and poet took to the country’s highways in June and lead a caravan of buses through a number of cities, stopping along the way to make the case for a new approach to the problem. The last stop on Sicilia’s tour was in Mexico City for a meeting with President Felipe Calderón at the iconic Chapultepec Castle.

It didn’t go well. Sicilia received a respectful reception but little else, while Calderón missed an opportunity to rally his country around a new way to fight his war against drugs.

Indigenous peoples who live in Mexico’s famous Copper Canyon have been killed for refusing to help the cartels. Citizens of other Central American countries have been pulled from border-bound buses, kidnapped and presumably forced to work for the drug dealers. Shallow graves are routinely discovered.

In Ciudad Juarez, which sits across the border from El Paso, Texas, poor women who work in the maquiladoras, or factories, are targets of robbery, kidnapping and murder.  Adolescents are attacked and killed while attending a birthday party. Groups of prisoners let out of jail at night by guards act as death squads, only to return to jail after completing their task.

Calderón’s near singular response has been to send the Mexican army into a number of states near the frontier with the United States, a move that he maintains has resulted in significant gains in the “war,” though his critics suggest the presence of the army has simply forced the wealthy cartels to arm themselves to the teeth to fight back. It is a common belief in Mexico that many army officers have been on the cartels’ payrolls for years.

The poet’s lament 

Among the many who have been killed is 24-year-old Juan Francisco Sicilia, Javier Sicilia’s son. Juan and several friends were murdered in the city of Cuernavaca, likely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In an article in a left-of-centre magazine Sicilia, his father called for protests, which led to his “Caravana del Consuelo” to give some peace to a soul in pain. The collection of 13 buses and 22 cars travelled through 12 Mexican states, stopping to address crowds of people in the thousands.

If Calderón’s credibility on the issue is suspect, Javier Sicilia’s credibility was such that his caravan was the main drug war news for days. Stories about mass graves and shootouts were pushed down in newscasts, and became sidebars or secondary stories in newspapers for six days in early June.  At each stop, Sicilia would talk about the estimated 35,000 people who have been killed in the drug fight during Calderón’s term in office. He outlined a six point approach to the problem:

  • Withdraw the army from the conflict with the cartels to demilitarize the issue;
  • Demand that policing and judicial authorities renew their focus on solving all drug related crimes;
  • Overhaul Mexico’s policing and judicial institutions to root out systemic corruption;
  • Combat the issues poverty and joblessness, which contribute to crime levels;
  • Provide emergency care to affected youth and take action to men the country’s strained social fabric.

Sicilia wants to see government agencies identify and dignify every victim of the drug related violence, whether members of a cartel or bystanders. Every life is important, he argues, and a government that celebrates the deaths of members of one cartel at the hands of another is promoting violence.

Celebrating the ‘narco’ life 

The confounding factors of the drug business in Mexico are embodied in folk songs called “narcocorridos” that celebrate the narco live-fast, die-young lifestyle. With the murders of several of the country’s best known narcocorrido singers, the songs seem to have recently become less popular, but they remain symbols of Mexico’s long standing drug culture.

Spanish conquistadors reported witnessing the Aztecs smoking marijuana 500 years ago. Narcocorridos date back to the 1930s and may even date back to the Mexican revolution (1910-1920). In fact, Mexico has for decades been part of the pathway for moving drugs into the United States and Canada.

The most recent expansion of the drug business in Mexico would seem to be the result of the North American market becoming more lucrative on one hand, and with the declaration of a “war on drugs” on the other.  With cocaine becoming a drug of choice for wealthy, upwardly mobile North Americans, the drug trade now provides more cocaine and highly addictive crystal meth. The term “war on drugs” was declared by U.S president Richard Nixon and accelerated by Ronald Reagan, but the policy has cost billions and succeeded only in promoting violence.

It might be difficult for Mexico’s neighbours to the north to understand why Sicilia had such an impact in a country that has been under siege for several years now. News about Mexico in the United States is focused almost exclusively on immigration issues, while Canadians only hear about drug violence or mishaps that befall Canadian tourists in Mexico. Meanwhile in Mexico, most Mexicans live normal lives. The drug issue is one facet of life – but only one – and the country’s overall economy is reportedly sound.

Friends of mine in Mexico tell me they are worried about increasing levels of violence even in states where, until recently, the drug battles have had little or no visibility. And, like Canadians facing tough social issues, most Mexicans don’t have an answer beyond hoping the problem eventually goes away.  For others, such as Javier Sicilia, hoping for better days is not enough.

Face-to-face with Calderón

Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City holds a special place in Mexican history.  In 1847, 35 years after Mexico’s first revolution, and 25 years after independence from Spain, a small group of military cadets (known still as los Niños Haroes – the boy heros) fought to the death against a group of United States Marines during the Mexican-American war. With Mexico still trying to find a way to live with U.S. influence in the region, it was an interesting choice of venue for the meeting between Calderón and Sicilia – the right-wing Catholic politician versus the left-wing reporter and poet.

Sicilia asked Calderón to send a message to the world that using violence to combat violence will not be tolerated.  He asked that Calderón adopt his six point platform and suggested that Calderón would be remembered as “el presidente de los 40 mil muertos” (the president of 40,000 deaths) unless there were significant changes in levels of violence.

The plea fell on respectful but deaf ears. Calderón agreed that there needed to be more recognition of the harm to victims but reiterated that he would continue using the military against the cartels.

In the polarized world of Mexican politics, there was no way a conservative president, about to enter the last year of his six-year term in office, would act on a plan that would be a de facto admission of failure. Still, the rejection of the six-point plan was as a missed opportunity to at least engage Mexicans in the process. Had Calderón taken up the cause, even in choosing not to change his policies, he might have encouraged millions of Mexicans to fill the country’s central plazas, gardens and zocolos to say “estamos hasta la madre” or “we have had enough.”

Murders will continue

So, the death toll will continue to climb, the United States will continue to supply the revenue for the “war against drugs” and in July 2012 Mexicans will elect a new president.

The prevailing view is the political party that ruled over Mexico for 70 years, until 2000, will be returned to power, legitimately this time.  PRI (el Partido Revolucionario Institutional or Institutional Revolutionary Party) used corruption and threats as tools to ensure loyalty and maintain a dictatorship like control over the country.  A recent win by PRI (July 2011) in a significant state election has reprised old claims of vote manipulation and intimidation by the party.

More likely Mexicans simply want to see some political and social stability. The PRI could be a lot tougher for the cartels to deal, given its history of ensuring in any way necessary that enemies become friends.

Terry Field is the chair of the journalism degree program at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, and has reported previously on Mexican politics.