Friday, September 16, 2011

Mexico’s Caravan for Peace Unites Voices of Resistance in Oaxaca

By the Mexico-based International Team
“Today confusion, fear, distrust, shamelessness, fraud, death, and impunity reign. But in our stubbornness, hope has not died. We have had it up to here with this senseless war that has Mexico wounded and covered in a sea blood. We can no longer stand the hunger, poverty, violence. We live in an emergency, without justice, without government, but no evil is eternal if one thousand souls unite.”
These words describing the national crisis confronting Mexican society were recited by poet Fernando Guadarrama in Oaxaca’s central square on Monday night. Guadarrama was inspired to write the lines in dedication to nationally recognized poet and writer Javier Sicilia. On March 28, Sicilia became a grieving parent, as his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco, along with six others, was found brutally tortured and murdered in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico.

To listen to the full poem, click here.

A Movement is Born

Amidst his anguish, Sicilia has sparked a national movement to oppose Mexico’s war on drugs. This war, launched by President Felipe Calderon in late 2006, and supported with U.S. military aid through the Mérida Initiative, is estimated to have claimed nearly 50,000 lives in less than five years.

At a press conference on March 31, Sicilia called for an end to violence and a new strategy in this undeclared war. Two weeks later, he announced the first action of an emerging movement- a silent march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City from May 5 to 8. Uniting under the call of Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity), and the phrases No Más Sangre (No More Blood), and Estamos hasta la madre (We’ve had it up to here), this grassroots effort captured the attention of international media and united a number of social movements from across the country. Participants in the movement number well over 100,000 and include victims of state repression, family members of those murdered or disappeared, youth, migrants, and civil society organizations.

Javier Sicilia, members of the movement, and local organizers speak with the audience.

Since its launch in May, the Movement for Peace has held dialogues with the federal government and led a caravan throughout the central and northern regions of Mexico, where the drug war violence continues to rage in places like Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez.

In these northern cities, a sense of insecurity has gripped the population. The fear is not limited to drug trafficking organizations, which have proven disregard for innocent life in the battle to control routes and territories. State forces including the police and military are also linked to thousands of human rights violations, including over 5,000 forced disappearances that have been documented since Calderon came into office. Despite the myriad of documented cases of disappearance, murder, kidnapping, and torture, only 2% of criminal cases result in a conviction. An atmosphere of impunity reigns. The frustration felt across the country was summed up on a banner denouncing the drug war: “Militares en todas partes, justicia en ningun lado.” Military everywhere, justice nowhere.

Heading South

In an effort to unite the southern half of the country with the movement against the drug war, the Caravan for Peace and Justice with Dignity is currently traveling through Mexico City, seven Mexican states, and Guatemala. While the war on drugs and state repression play out differently in the southern half of the country, many pressing issues threaten the livelihood and security of these communities. The Caravan’s southern tour brings together the voices of those suffering violence in order to develop new peaceful strategies for repairing the social disintegration that is endemic to Mexican society under the militarized drug war.

One of the buses that is transporting the 600 caravan participants.

Oaxaca Vive, la Lucha Sigue

The fourth day of the caravan’s southern route was spent in Oaxaca city. Local social justice organizations hosted a series of events that brought human rights issues to the forefront. Indigenous rights defenders from the organization Flor y Canto, along with hundreds of caravan participants and locals opened the day’s events with a welcoming ceremony at the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.

Later that morning downtown, participants shared personal testimonies in spaces devoted to issues such as indigenous rights, state repression, women and gender violence, aggression towards journalists, and economic, political and cultural violence. Caravan members and supporters also visited a nearby prison to demand justice for political prisoners held there, and wrapped up the day with a large rally and concert in Oaxaca’s main square.

Indigenous Rights
Participants at the indigenous people’s table spoke about the impacts of economic violence in Oaxacan communities. According to one person in attendance, “Gringos sell guns to both sides, and [when we are out of the way] transnational corporations end up with our water, forests, and minerals.”

One speaker referred to the expanding interest of foreign capital in resource-extraction projects in Oaxaca as a new form of the “Gold Fever” that gripped the Spaniards arriving in the New World over 500 years ago. During the conquest, physical violence facilitated the theft of natural resources from indigenous peoples. Now a well-armed state that promotes resource privatization represents more of the same for these communities: “It’s not the hacienda anymore, but corporations that cut down our forests, use the rivers, and erase our culture and identity.”

Defending Corn and Culture

The threats to Oaxaca’s 9000-year-old tradition of growing corn were a continuous theme in the session on different types of violence and aggressions in Oaxaca. Neoliberal politics that force migration out of the countryside, reforms to Article 27 in preparation for 1994’s NAFTA, as well as the deliberate lack of support from the federal government were criticized for dismantling the agrarian way of life that has been the foundation of Oaxaca’s communities for millennia.

Of serious concern to many Oaxacans is the potential for genetically modified corn to contaminate local seeds. Given that Oaxaca is the birthplace of corn, hundreds of varieties of seeds have traditionally been farmed with thousands of years of ancestral knowledge. The potential for foreign corporations like Monsanto to introduce patented GMO seeds into farming communities is considered to be a cultural death sentence, as traditional communities base their customs, diets, and systems of mutual aid around corn.

As indigenous campesino Joel Aquino stated during the session “For twenty years we have been in a process of re-evaluation of our culture, community, language, and in particular the value of corn. Of everything that makes up our culture, our community, the heart of the community is corn.”

Oaxacan campesino Joel Aquino

Politicians, Criminals, and Criminal Politicians

The Movement for Peace Caravan highlighted the state of insecurity in Oaxaca, not just since the uprising of 2006, but for several decades. Many people indicated that today in Mexico, it is impossible to distinguish between the country’s politicians and its criminals.

Here state violence, imprisonment under false pretenses, forced disappearances, and assassination of social movement leaders are frequent occurrences and are used as tactics to criminalize social protest.

As described by writer and intellectual Gustavo Esteva during the gathering, “Politicians [and] governors have become the model for criminals. Their practices and their impunity, the way in which they can commit the worst crimes without fear of punishment…has created a climate of violence that is unbearable.”

Javier Sicilia further connected the impunity in Mexico with the continued growth of criminal activity. He referred to the brutal repression of the 2006 teacher’s strike in Oaxaca, whose victims continue without justice five years later:
“What they are saying when they don’t convict, when they don’t make those responsible pay for the wrongdoings, the massacres, the contempt for the Mexican people and in this case the communities of Oaxaca… when they don’t do this, the message they are sending to criminals is ‘keep at it!’ It’s about finding a way to get around the law. It doesn’t matter how, whether it’s legal or illegal. And so the line between the state and crime has been erased. We don’t know where it is and if the political parties and the political class maintain [a state of] impunity for their governors, [and] members of the political class, they are simply working to further crime. They commit criminal acts just like organized crime and allow organized crime to run rampant like it is.”
U.S. Intervention

A die-in representing the 50,000 dead in the drug war violence.

Although a large percentage of Mexican people are opposed to Calderon’s militarized drug war, this has not stopped the U.S. government from supporting it. Since 2008, under the Mérida Initiative, it has provided Mexico with hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment, and military and police training. A total of $1.3 billion dollars have been dedicated to this initiative, which was originally set to run for three years. Despite critiques that the initiative contains no benchmarks for evaluation and has produced few results, it has been extended indefinitely under President Obama. As recent reports show, the U.S. is increasingly expanding its role in the war on drugs in Mexico. But with the death toll spiraling out of control, and little to no reduction in drug consumption on the northern side of the border, U.S. citizens and the Global Commission on Drug Policy are questioning the efficacy of fighting a war that could be better seen as a public health issue.

What Lies Ahead

While Oaxaca is not the epicenter of the drug war, there is fear that violence could increase. The eastern part of the state is increasingly dangerous for Central American migrants, who face extortion and kidnapping by gangs. The potential for more violence is troublesome; given that Oaxacans already face widespread poverty, violence towards women, threats to food sovereignty, decades of out-migration, and the legacy of corrupt and brutal state governments.

The crowd in Oaxaca's central square listening to reports from the day's events.

Yet Javier Sicilia, like many others, finds hope in the peoples of Oaxaca and their long history of resistance, rebellion, and diverse indigenous traditions. During one of the closing sessions, he reflected on the opening ceremony at Monte Alban.

“What was expressed there through the indigenous word that accompanied the ceremony… is precisely this, which is denied by a state at the service of only the economy [and] capitalists. That is to say dignity, humanity, and the presence of a life of peace and justice, which is in the memory of indigenous peoples. And [this] should be the seed in which this nation should grow.”

Friday, September 9, 2011

Oaxacan Mass Honors 97th World Day of Migrants

By the Mexico-based International Team

On Saturday September 3rd, the WFP Mexico Team attended a special Mass for Migrants in Oaxaca. We were joined by a number of our partner organizations and several migrants staying at the local shelter, where we heard testimonials from migrants and a homily that urged all of us to act in defense of those who are forced from home.

Click here for voices from the celebration.

Oaxaca Mexico is a place familiar with migration. Thousands of Oaxacans have left the state seeking work opportunities in other parts of Mexico as well as the United States. Oaxaca is also part of the route taken by thousands of Central Americans risking their lives to make it to the U.S.

For more photos of the mass, click here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Small Victory in the Struggle Against Dole, Thousands Still Waiting for Justice

By Brooke Denmark
International Team - Nicaragua

Last Thursday there was a rare excitement in the air when we met with the group of former banana plantation workers camped outside the Nicaraguan National Assembly. For almost 20 years, workers suffering from medical conditions due to their exposure to a dangerous pesticide popularly known as Nemagon have been struggling to receive compensation from large corporations such as Dole. On August 11, representatives of a U.S.-based law firm, Provost Umphrey, announced that they had reached a settlement with Dole for 3,153 workers affected by the chemical. The details of the settlement have not yet been announced.

ASONEF members' protest community in front of the Nicaraguan National Assembly from 2004-2010

Despite celebrating this small victory, large questions remain unanswered. An estimated 17,000 workers were affected by the toxin. The fates of the thousands of unrepresented workers remain unclear. Dole has said that this is not a precedent decision or admittance of guilt. The Dole spokesperson who announced the settlement stated,
“Dole Food Company reiterates that there was no harm through exposure nor proof that supports there were damages to health, but in order to fulfill our social responsibility, we have taken this monumental step, but it should not be interpreted as the basis for an economic model for other groups still claiming settlements.”
But how monumental is this step really if only a fraction of those affected will benefit?

The President of ASONEF, the Association of Ex-Banana Workers Affected by Nemagon, Altagracia del Socorro Solis Navas, is one of the thousands of workers still waiting for an answer. She worked on banana plantations for 11 years. The effects of the pesticides began to set in by her 6th year. Today she suffers from long-term effects of the pesticide such as kidney problems and skin cancer. Solis is hopeful about the settlement announcement with some workers, but remarked,
“We are all the same, we worked together and need to be paid, not just one of us, but all of us worked. If we had known that the transnational corporations were using this poison, we would not have worked there. They didn't provide us with protection or warn us that this poison was deadly.”

The ASONEF board members, July 2010
The pesticides did not only harm workers that had direct contact. The next generation is also feeling the effects. In Chinandega, where many of the banana plantations were located, during the 1990s children began to be born with deformities and studies showed alarmingly high rates of chemicals found in breast milk.

The son of Leonardo Ernesto Gonzalez Herrera, another member of ASONEF, was born after Leonardo was exposed to the chemicals. He was born with brain damage that continues to affect his daily life as an adult. None of the settlements so far have addressed the long-term damage done to other generations or the environment.

ASONEF board members in front of one of the houses recently
constructed for them by the Nicaraguan government, August 2011

Solis raised another important concern about the recent settlement: the speed in which it will reach workers in grave condition. She warned that over the years many of her colleagues have already died waiting for a response from the transnational corporations, some before even reaching the age of fifty. “They died without anything but hope,” Solis warns.

Please call Dole today to pressure the corporation to provide compensation to everyone suffering the effects of Nemagon:

David A. DeLorenzo
, President, Director and Chief Executive Officer
David H. Murdock
, Chairman of the Board


Fax: 818-879-6615

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Martha Receives a New Death Threat

By Jeanine Legato
International Team - Colombia

At 9:30 in the evening of August 23rd, Martha Giraldo, Technical Secretary of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) in the Valle de Cauca province, received a death threat via text message from a well-known paramilitary group, the Black Eagles:
"You will die, you communists, you concealed FARC supporters...We are the Black Eagles, a new generation, in a three day alliance to exterminate you."
Martha has received numerous death threats since becoming vocal about the 2006 extrajudicial killing of her father by the Colombian military, and she has reason to take them seriously; her father was murdered by the military, who falsely claimed he was a guerrilla fighter to justify his murder, a common military tactic known to civilians in Colombia as the "False Positive."

Martha's uncle, a witness to her father's murder, barely survived after he was shot in the head in the city of Cali in 2009. In response to threats made toward Martha in 2010, and, in admittance of the risk Martha faces as a representative of victims of human rights violations, Martha was granted security protection measures by the Ministry of the Interior in 2009.
Despite increased security measures for Martha, the Black Eagles and other paramilitary groups remain at large and continue to terrorize civilians in an environment of impunity.

Since former president Alvaro Uribe's official demobilization of paramilitary groups, subsequent evolutions of these groups, or, "new generations" have appeared, using the same death squad tactics as their predecessors. A statement released by MOVICE and the human rights community of Valle de Cauca in response to the death threat echoes this fact:
"We want to be clear that in the report made to (Colombian government) officials, we, the victims of these threats, included the phone numbers of those who threatened us, yet the authorities seem to consider it unimportant information, despite its obvious relevance to us. These same officials, in meetings with social and human rights organizations have promised professionalism in their investigations, yet their investigations never result in finding of the authors of these death threats."
On August 17th, a Witness for Peace delegation of U.S. citizens met with Martha and other MOVICE members. When asked if accountability for paramilitary crime had improved under new president Juan Manuel Santos she responded, "Under Santos the methods of operation have changed some but the [paramilitary] violence has not changed."

Such was the case shared by Sandra Lara, whose husband was murdered by the military after being lured away from his community under the false ploy of getting a paying job. Sandra's case was closed by the prosecutor's office in August without resolution.

Given the failure of the Colombian government to redress the rights of victims as well as the ongoing context of extrajudicial military killings, Martha and Sandra now turn to Witness for Peace supporters and the international community.

Please respond to Martha and Sandra's appeal by contacting the Colombia desk at the State Department at 202-647-4173. Ask them to demand that the Colombian government investigate these death threats, punish those responsible and prosecute those responsible for the murders of MOVICE family members in Valle de Cauca.

Support Jobs and Unions This Labor Day: Three Reasons to Tell Congress to Vote "No" on New Free Trade Agreements

By Christine Goffredo
International Team - Nicaragua

Last week President Obama stated:
“Let’s pass trade deals to level the playing field for our businesses…These are common sense ideas – ideas that have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans. The only thing holding them back is politics…That’s what’s holding this country back. That’s what we have to change.”
There are certainly a lot of issues holding up Congressional approval of trade agreements between the United States and Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. However, approving these agreements is not common sense and it is not what is holding the United States back. In fact, there are many compelling, common sense reasons not to sign these free trade agreements, including potential increases in unemployment, human rights violations against union organizers, and poverty, just to name a few.

Now that Republican and Democratic Senators have come to an agreement on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a vote on these free trade agreements is fast approaching. Rallies, letter writing campaigns and call-ins in the last few months by organizations and individuals across the United States sent a clear message to Congress that constituents are unhappy with these agreements. 

Now is the time to increase the pressure and state our position loud and clear. Congress is currently on recess, making this a perfect time to contact your Senators and Representatives in their home states and tell them not to sign these agreements once they return to Washington.

Here is a short list of three more than compelling reasons to tell your Senators and Representatives to honor Labor Day by rejecting more free trade agreements until concrete changes are made to counter these problems.

Continued Violence in Colombia

In the last few weeks, four more union members were assassinated in Colombia, two from a banana workers’ union, highlighting the continued violence against union members and organizers in that country. The trade agreement with Colombia includes a “Labor Action Plan” in which the Colombian government has promised to work to curtail violence and impunity. This is not enough. According to a recent Huffington Post article, half of all unionist murders in the world happen in Colombia. This grave situation does not require commitments for future action; it requires action right now.

Learn from Example: Violence and Intimidation in El Salvador

In 2006, five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic entered into the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States. Lessons should be learned from this free trade agreement, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

One lesson is from a case being heard by a World Bank tribunal in which the Canadian mining corporation Pacific Rim is suing the El Salvadoran government for $77 million in lost revenue for not approving Pacific Rim’s request for exploitation permits. Pacific Rim, using a Nevada-based subsidiary that has not been active in several years in order to fall under CAFTA jurisdiction, is relying on Chapter 10 of CAFTA. This chapter protects foreign investors by allowing them to sue governments that create policy or deny permits that conflict with a company’s “expectations of obtaining earnings…” (see Sister Cities article).

This case threatens the ability of the El Salvadoran government to protect its people from pollutants, the depletion of available water, and agricultural damage. It has also led to increased violence and intimidation in the region. Just this June, Juan Francisco Durán Ayala, a young anti-mining activist from the region, was murdered. His death adds to the three that occurred in 2009 within a six-day period. There have also been reports of death threats and other forms of intimidation against anti-mining activists.

This “foreign investment protection” chapter will be present in all three upcoming free trade agreements. To date, these regulations in NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Peru Free Trade Agreement with the United States have cost countries over $350 million in compensation to corporations. According to Public Citizen, all of these cases have dealt with “attacks on natural resource policies, environmental protection and health and safety measures.” They continue, “in fact, of the over $9.5 billion in pending claims, all relate to environmental, public health and transportation policy – not traditional trade issues.” The negative effects of this legislation for the people and governments of Mexico, Canada, and now El Salvador is clear. It is time to change these policies before Congress passes these new trade agreements.

Lost Jobs

Prior to signing the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Clinton and Congressional leaders promised job creation in the United States and Mexico. 17 years later, over 680,000 net jobs have been lost in the United States alone. Just last month, the Senate cleared the way for enhancing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which gives financial assistance to United States workers that lose their jobs as a result of trade agreements with other countries. If it is true that signing more free trade agreements is in the best interest of the United States and will create jobs, why would the Senate be voting to enhance it?

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that trade deals with Korea, Colombia, and Panama will result in a net loss of 214,000 jobs, even taking into account the export jobs that would be created as a result of the agreements. This number is for the United States alone. Colombia, Korea, and Panama, who do not have Trade Adjustment Assistance programs in place, arguably stand to lose just as many if not more jobs—especially given Mexico’s experience with NAFTA.

Learn from Experience: Don’t Pass without Concrete Changes

It is clear from these three examples that the free trade agreements need serious changes. Unfortunately, all three agreements coming to a vote—Colombia, Panama, and Korea—fall under Fast Track passing rules because they were already in negotiation when Fast Track expired. This means that Congress will not be able to make ANY changes to ensure that more jobs are not lost, that more union members are not murdered, and that more communities are not threatened by harmful corporate practices.

Show your support for union members, workers’ rights, and jobs this Labor Day by urging your House Representatives and Senators to vote “no” on these trade agreements. Now is not the time for Congress to hastily pass these agreements. Now is the time to make changes—to make trade just.