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.”

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