Red Pepper: Maria Felix and Siobhan McGuirk report on the growing protest backlash against the war on drugs in Mexico
On Monday 29 March, seven bodies were found in a car at the side of a highway in Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos State. They had been tortured and killed by asphyxiation. After four years of “the war on drugs”, people are used to such news, and to hearing soon after that the victims were linked to organized crime - no further investigation needed.
This case was different. One of the victims, Juan Francisco Sicilia, was the son of the well-known poet and a journalist, Javier Sicilia. He belonged to a social and cultural class with enough strength to pressure the authorities and prevent them washing their hands of the case. The criminalisation of the seven was quickly halted and the case is now undergoing further investigation.
The swift action has raised concerns over official statistics. What of the 153 young people assassinated in Cuernavaca over the past three years, officially presumed to be, “connected to the drugs trade”? How many were falsely incriminated? How many had been forced to work for dealers, or murdered for refusing to? How many parents were unable to speak out, or had no platform to be heard?
With these questions in mind, a new wave of protesters, led by intellectuals and artists suddenly touched by death, are speaking out for everyone, marching under the slogan: “We are all Francisco Sicilia”.
Demonstrations sprung up in the main square in Cuernavaca within a day of the murders, with 300 coming to register their sadness and anger. On 6 April, 40,000 took to the streets. Regular marches have spun out across the state and the movement has spread through the nation and abroad within weeks. In France, US, Spain and Argentina people have already marched in solidarity with Mexico. More are planned elsewhere. “¡Ya Basta!” (“Enough!”) they shout, appropriating the Rius graphic campaign, “¡No more Blood!”
Art, music and poetry for peace
Somebody died yesterday and I came here without knowing why.
Not knowing if it is empathy that moves me,
or sadness, or hope, or fear, or sarcasm, or black humour.
I myself do not have the courage to shoot
with a coup de grace,
he who I label
writ on his forehead:
- From the poem by Leonardo De On On Vide, read in the Square, “The son of a friend died yesterday”
A forum of musicians repeats a line in various guises, which has become a mantra in the Square: “Who has taken your life away? Who has taken your like away? Who has taken your life away?...”
Wamazo, a percussionist group, performs as a firing squad in front of the Government Palace. The singer shouts in a military style: “Ready. Aim. Fire!” They group turns their back to the public and, facing the Palace, begin shooting their “bullets of sound”, shouting: “Shoot the protesters! Shoot the denouncers”.
The approach is not only a satirical refusal to fight fire with fire, the methodology that sums up the “war”. It is also a form of protection. The protesters know that they are not indicting easily defined enemies. They accuse politicians and organized criminals, who often collude or collide, alike.
In an angry, emotional “open letter to criminals and politicians” published in the national news magazine Proceso, Scilia makes the point explicitly. His call to the gangs is the first time a direct, public dialog has been opened between citizens and organized crime:
“We are fed up of you, politicians… because you only have the imagination to use violence; weapons; insults and with that, a profound disrespect for education, culture, opportunities and honest work.
And of you, criminals, we are sick of your violence, your loss of honour, your cruelty […] Long ago you had codes of honour... you have become less than human, not animal – animals don’t even do what you do – but sub-human, demonic.”
While Scilia appeals to politicians to re-evaluate their approach and think more deeply about the social context that has given rise to the trade, a position widely shared by the protestors, his appeal to gangs to return to their “codes of honour” seems perverse. Many more feel that such an suggestion is deeply problematic. The resounding feeling is that an end – not a limit – to all violence is the only answer.
Siobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.