In March of last year, Javier Sicilia, one of Mexico’s leading poets, suffered a fate that is far too common in his country today: his 24-year-old son was murdered by a drug cartel. With over 40,000 dead since 2006 from cartel-related violence, and more than 9,000 unsolved disappearances, Sicilia’s plight is in many ways emblematic of his country’s. Shortly after his son’s death, he wrote and circulated an open letter addressed “To Mexico’s Politicians and Criminals,” in which he attacked the “cruelty and senselessness” of the cartels as well as the complicity of the political elite. At the core of this letter was Sicilia’s call for a return to dignity—a message that resonated powerfully with Mexicans across the country, and launched a grassroots movement that aims to end the War on Drugs. The Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity), has mobilized hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many of whom, like Sicilia, have lost family members to the savage drug wars that have shaken the country.
One of the movement’s tactics has been to launch massive street mobilizations, including caravans and marches—some attracting as many as 200,000 participants—through Mexico to raise awareness of the war, speak with its victims and formulate solutions. Last June the movement produced a list of demands, which included the demilitarization of security forces, a serious and scrupulous investigation of drug-related crime, the allowance of regulated drug use, new rules to stop international money laundering and an end to weapons trade with the United States. Thus far, they have succeeded in building widespread recognition and considerable momentum—earlier this week, for example, Sicilia met with Mexico’s presidential candidates—but the movement’s more substantive demands remain a distant goal. With the flow of American weapons and the draw of a very profitable drug trade continuing to produce brutal violence, the movement is targeting problems that many consider to be intractable. Just two weeks ago, authorities in Cadereyta, Mexico found and struggled to identify forty-nine bodies without heads, hands or feet—all victims of a cartel massacre.
The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is planning a caravan through the United States that will bring the discussion of the War on Drugs to Americans. Beginning in San Diego on August 12, the caravan will travel through more than a dozen cities on its way to Washington, DC. Earlier this month, Sicilia traveled to the United States to meet with grassroots organizers in Latino and African American communities, asking them to join the caravan and the dialogue.
We sat down with Sicilia in New York, shortly before he accepted the North American Congress on Latin America’s La Lucha Sigue award on behalf of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. The award is given every five years to an organization that has made significant contributions to Latin American peace and justice. Sicilia spoke to us through a translator.
The Nation: In Mexico, who is part of the drug cartels? What drives people to join the cartels?
Javier Sicilia: Cartels have a lot of bosses. We are talking now about fifteen cartels [in Mexico]. And they have multiplied since President Calderón’s [2006 military] strategy to make war on them. I think that the basic, fundamental issue is that the Mexican society is experiencing hyper economic development, and yet is very poor at the same time. Everything in life there is a product for purchase. And that helps destroy the social fabric. Drug smuggling is a good market to recruit young people and use them in this hyper economic society where everything is for purchase.
Mexico’s federal attorney general revealed in 2010 that only 5 percent of murders had even been investigated. In a society where this type of criminal violence happens over a long period of time, you see that the classes become stratified, and you see that the wealthier people either leave or they make their own arrangements for security. In what ways does this exacerbate the problem in Mexico?
Not 5——it’s not just 5 percent, it’s 2 percent. And what you are saying is right, but it’s also that the state, the government is very corrupt. When 98 percent impunity exists in the country, what it means is that there must be a deal [with the criminals], which is inside the government.
Do you mean that people inside the government are actively helping the drug trafficking, or do you think they are just apathetic toward the victims?
Both. There are people involved in drug trafficking, and others are apathetic, indolent or just scared.
The movement that you are a part of has not endorsed anyone in the Mexican presidential election. Why?
Firstly because it’s a citizen’s movement, a movement of the people. And it’s a people’s movement that is formed by people from many different wings and tendencies. We have people from the right wing. We have people from the PRD [the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution], and from the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] too, and people who don’t want to belong to any party. The movement’s demands will be demands for any party.
One of the demands to come out last year was the creation of a database of victims, and a system to provide some sort of financial compensation for their families. Has the General Victims Act [which was passed May 1, and provides assistance to victims of drug crime and human rights violations] helped?
Yes. It was part of the demands to have a database, to record the dead people and the disappearances. It’s is a model law, a groundbreaking law. There is no law like it in the world. The problem is, Will it be enforced to make it effective?
What are some of the other things people in your movement are asking for from the Mexican government? What would you like to see?
We want a path to withdrawing the troops. A path. We want to re-found the institutions, to restore them. They are totally corrupted, and so are the political parties. A path to peace, to change the national security law to a human law for peace. And the allowance of regulated drug use, because its not a national security issue, it's a public health issue, and attacking drug abuse is causing a tremendous harm to the country.
Which drugs would you like to see decriminalized in Mexico, and in the US as well, which drugs should be decriminalized?
All the soft drugs that are natural and have always existed, [like] marijuana and hashish. We would also like restrictions, limits to hard drugs.
I remember a discussion in a panel that took place in Mexico about decriminalizing drug abuse, and an anecdote told by a judge from the US, which caught my attention. He was in favor of legalization of drugs and he was telling a story of a young man who was before him in court, charged with amphetamine use. The judge asked him, “Why did you use drugs?” And he said, “I used to use marijuana, but the only marijuana I can get in the market is artificial, synthetic, made from amphetamines; so I became an amphetamine addict.” So there are many measures that could help to put limits to the hard drugs.
The American people had a president who smoked marijuana: Clinton. Had he been arrested and jailed for possessing drugs, the American people wouldn’t have [had him as] a president; he would in fact have had his life destroyed. The American people also had an alcoholic president named Bush. But Bush was not a disastrous president because he was an alcoholic; rather, it was because he was an asshole. So this strategy is incorrectly devised and executed, the strategy of the War on Drugs.
There are other criticisms your movement has made of the War on Drugs—two main criticisms, it seems: the financial industry, money laundering and our complicity in that, and the arms industry, either the small arms that we sell to Mexicans, or the shipments our government sends.
The US has forbidden drug use, which should be a public health issue. And then they set up for us this war. Over two thousand million dollars [$2 billion] have been invested in this war [on drugs]—mostly for guns, for weapons and military intelligence. But on the other hand, they export weapons to arm organized crime. It is done legally, but they are exporting it.
Drugs and weapons are a business. Legal and illegal. We are producing dead people and we are destroying our nation. And if the American people don’t do anything, they are accomplices to the crime. Each one of their addicts, and each one of their guns and weapons, are our dead. We want you to be aware of that; together we can stop this war.
What role does religion play, for you and also for people in Mexico, for the victims in this drug war and the people that are trying to end it?
People forget that Mexico is a deeply Catholic country. People that we have incorporated into our movement, people we have helped, are poor people. They are very religious, and to me religion is fundamental. In my life, and in my spiritual life, I don’t see myself…doing this without religion.… The movement has been fostered a lot by religious people from the [Catholic] Church. A lot of people come from Liberation Theology.
Do you consider the people coming to the US, from Mexico or from other parts of Latin America, refugees because they are fleeing this violence?
Yes, absolutely. Aside from poverty, these millions of dollars are not being invested in jobs and restoring the social fabric. They are investing this money in weaponry and in the destruction of the social fabric. So people come to the US—people with money, and people without money. The places for refugees that I know, for example in Texas, are full of poor people who are fleeing, who are escaping, and they are “illegal” in the US. They came not because they wanted to leave Mexico but because their lives were threatened. On the other hand, Central American people who have to cross Mexican territory to come to the US are being disappeared by the army or the organized crime. Either way, it looks like social cleansing. In every sense, in every way, this war against drugs is inhuman.
Where are you looking to for support in the US?
I hope there will be a lot of support from the organizations here that can create awareness, from Mexican organizations and Latin American organizations, and also from African-American people, because African-American people have a lot of problems here with the War on Drugs, because they have been criminalized. And finally the media; if we can get support from the media, we would be able to put this on the politicians’ agendas, because it’s a problem in the US and Mexico. It’s a bi-national problem. Not only that, it is a continental problem, and if we are really serious, it is a world problem. We hope for your support.