Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Photos from the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity: Baltimore and Washington, DC

By: Claudia Ana Rodriguez, Witness for Peace Mexico Team 

The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) traveled over 6000 miles for a month in the United States raising awareness about the impacts of the U.S. foreign policies in Mexico.  Find out more about the Movement and their Caravan from blogs by former WFP Delegate and Caravan Participant, Alissa Escarce here and here.

Below is a photo slide show from the caravan’s events in Baltimore and Washington, DC. Cavaneros met with local community activists and also government representatives, telling their stories and demanding changes in U.S. domestic drug policy, immigration policy, enforcement of laws against illegal gun sales, the fight against money laundering, and a stop to U.S. military aid to Mexico.

Created with flickr slideshow.

Photo #1: Caravan in Baltimore, Irvington Park
Photo #2: Posters with Photos of Loved Ones Murdered or Disappeared
Photo #3: Four Brothers from Michocan, Disappeared
Photo #4: Jesus Israel Moreno Perez, disappeared in Oaxaca
Photo #5: "We've had it up to here!"
Photo #6: Galactic Cowboy, Kidnapped in Nuevo Leon
Photo #7: Guillermo Gustavo Navarro Campos, Violently Murdered
Photo #8: "I am Their Grandmother, Neither Distance Nor Time Will Separate Me from You All"
Photo #9: Representative from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Speaks in Baltimore
Photo #10: Kimberly Armstrong, a mother in Baltimore Whose Son was Murdered Due to Neighborhood Violence
Photo #11: Artists from the Mix Tape Project  Perform for Caravan
Photo #12: Mothers from Mexico Share their Stories
Photo #13: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
Photo #14: Hector Cazares, Ruben Luna, and Alberto Cazares, Kidnapped
Photo #15: Mauricio Aguilar Leroux, Missing from Veracruz since May 27, 2011
Photo #16: Mario Jorge Tovar Martinez and Juan Manuel Ortiz Rodriguez, Disappeared
Photo #17: Five Women Disappeared in Nuevo Leon
Photo #18: Summit to End the War on Drugs: Baltimore and Beyond
Photo #19: Welcome Rally in Washington, DC
Photo #20: Margarita Lopez, Shares Story of Murdered Daughter, Yahaira Guadalupe
Photo #21: Guadalupe Aguilar, Shares Story of Disappeared Son, Jose Luis Arana Aguilar
Photo #22: Victims Speak at Closing Event
Photo #23: March in DC
Photo #24: Witness For Peace's NW Field Organizer Amy Traux
Photo #25: No More Deaths!
Photo #26: "Looking For: Franscisco 'Kiko' Guerrero”
Photo #27: Closing Event in DC

Slide show not working?  Click here to see the album.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"We are not satisfied:" Civil Society's Response to the Withholding of Honduran Police Funding

By Cyndi Malasky 

The microphone was suddenly in my hand. I cleared my throat, “Muy buenas tardes. Soy Cyndi.  Estamos muy felices para estar aqui compartiendo con ustedes (Good afternoon. I’m Cyndi. We are very happy to be here sharing with all of you.”) I could feel the heat radiating from my face as I shoved the microphone back into the radio hosts hands as fast I could. It was the 2 o’olock hour on La Voz Lenca 97.3, one of the only time slots that is broadcast over various commercial stations. I had been looking forward to seeing live radio, but actually producing words was more difficult for me than I had expected.  Our interview was over before the color had time to recede from my face and Salvador had taken hold of the microphone, advertising the lottery tickets COPINH was selling as a fundraiser.

mural by Javier Espinal at Utopia, COPIN community center
Salvador Zuñega is co-director of COPINH, the Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares y Indiginas de Honduras, a very busy civil rights organization that, since 1993, has defended the civil rights and natural environment of the Lenca indigenous people in the department of Intibucá, Honduras. Since the coup in 2009, members of COPINH, like most organization of human rights activists, have suffered threats, violence, intimidation and aggression including detention and assassination.  A significant number of the alleged perpetrators have been members of the Honduran police and military as well as private hit men hired by owners of private companies that seek to profit from indigenous land. Like the vast majority of the other 10,000 formal complaints filed against the police and military since the coup, none of the crimes against members of COPINH have been addressed.

Ever since Salvador, clad in his straw sun hat and frosted glass cross necklace, had jumped into the pickup truck carrying us to the radio station, he had been buzzing about the lottery.  He had signed up all the members of COPINH present in our meeting before the radio show, and throughout the meeting, counted out tickets, mumbling to himself, and bouncing around the room handing them out. As the meeting went on it was clear there were various other things going on in the office, Salvador and Bertha (the other co-director) having to excuse themselves from time to time to take care business.

We intercepted Salvador on the way out of his animated radio spot and asked if he wouldn’t mind giving us a short interview about the Associated Press article claiming that the U.S. was going to cut some funding to the Honduran police force. “Oh yes, of course of course!” He responded and took off to answer the ringing the phone in the office.

Salvador Zuñega
We set up some chairs outside, looking for a quiet spot, and before long Salvador appeared, his bag of lottery tickets flailing in the wind behind him. I though he looked just like a Christian Base Community pastors I had seen in movies about Oscar Romero, whose face was outlined on his shirt. Listening to the first question of the interview, he removed his hat and clasped his hands together, suddenly the most still I had seen him since we arrived.

“What do you think about the removal of funds by the State Department of the United States?” Without skipping a beat or needing time to think Salvador began with a wholly different voice than his marketing persona, speaking slowly and purposefully he began, “Well, for us it seems important, this decision to not fund the squadrons that are formed,” he went on, “(but) obviously we are not satisfied.” 

The United States has pledged $56 million to the Honduran government for this year alone. The 2012 appropriation bill, however, required the State Department to evaluate improvements to the Honduran government’s human rights policies before releasing 20% of the money allotted. At the same time as the decision to withhold an unspecified amount of funding for police units directly overseen by the Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, the State Department also certified the Honduran Government’s human rights record, and released the rest of the funding to flow freely to other security forces.

"El Tigre" Bonilla, chastised by Uncle Sam
Salvador does not agree with the U.S.’s evaluation. He sees assassinations and human rights abuses as remaining very much a part of the repressive schema of the Honduran government.  According to Salvador, the sanctions against Police Chief "El Tigre" Bonilla a man known for participating a decade ago in death squads and accused of directly participating in at least 3 murders, should send a message. To actually stop the rampant violations of human rights, however, much larger changes will need to be made.

“It would be more useful if all the military aid that the United States government provides to the military and police was cut, and instead that there would be aid for development—there would be aid for supporting human rights—so small farmers wouldn’t keep dying, so indigenous people wouldn’t keep dying.”

Salvador sites the presence and continued construction of U.S. bases on Honduran soil, and events like the DEA killing of two Miskita women as examples of how the United States has failed Hondurans on the issue of human rights.

“The cut is very positive but the North American society should demand that their government not invest the tax dollars of its citizens in objects of war, in repression, in death, but rather to invest in the development of their own country.”

He reminds us that without drug consumption in the U.S. there would be far fewer narcos, and without U.S. weapons manufacturers, there would be far fewer guns.  Salvador, even caught just for a moment during a hectic day, defined very clearly what responses would be appropriate for the United States when dealing with the rampant human rights abuses in Honduras. But the State Department never asked him.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Live from the Caravan for Peace: Mexico’s Movement for Peace Stands in Solidarity with the U.S. Victims of the Drug War

Javier Sicilia and local leaders, Edward DuBose
of the NAACP and Gerald Durley in Atlanta, GA
By Alissa Escarce, former Witness for Peace delegate

Since August 12th members of Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and U.S. citizens who stand in solidarity with them have been making their way through the United States to share personal testimonies of assassinated daughters, disappeared husbands, and the ways that U.S. policy is contributing to violence in Mexico. Along the way, they have met and joined forces with victims of the Drug War in the U.S., demanding an end to the violence through a radical rethinking of the drug prohibition model, addressing the trafficking of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico, finding tools to combat money laundering, abandoning a militarized approach to confronting drug cartels, and forgoing immigration policies which criminalize and endanger immigrants. The Caravan for Peace will conclude its journey through the U.S. on September 12 in D.C. Former Witness for Peace delegate, Alissa Escarce, writes more about her experience as part of the Caravan for Peace. Check out her first article from aboard the Caravan and stay tuned for more!

As the caravaneros spilled out of buses in Selma, Alabama last week, we were welcomed by a local black pastor who began the day with a bit of regional history. He told us about Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black deacon who was murdered in February 1965 for attempting to vote, and about the marchers who responded to the murder by setting out from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights. The first march, he said, was attended by 600 people and ended bloodily on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troopers and local sheriffs’ deputies beat the marchers back to Selma. Two weeks later, three thousand marchers set out, crossed the bridge successfully and arrived in Montgomery after four days, surrounded by 25,000 supporters.  In July of that same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

The caravaneros and local hosts had gathered on this morning to consider the lessons that the United States’ Civil Rights Movement could offer their struggle against the destruction that the War on Drugs has wreaked on their communities.  The caravaneros brought tales and photographs of family members murdered and disappeared during the six years since President Felipe Calderón declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels with U.S support.  Local hosts told stories of men and women disenfranchised by incarceration for nonviolent crimes, of drug addicts unable to find affordable rehabilitation programs, of communities ravaged by gang violence.  Following in the footsteps of those who demanded voting rights half a century ago, these two groups were gathered to demand that the U.S. government end the domestic and international War on Drugs, invest the savings in education and public health, and tighten regulations on weapons dealers and money laundering banks.

As his history lesson drew to a close, the Reverend emphasized that the reason the Civil Rights Movement had been so successful was because it brought together black people from different class and social backgrounds, as well as people outside the black community. “For this Movement for Peace to be strong and succeed,” he explained, “it’s going to have to bring together the many different kinds of people suffering under the War on Drugs.”

Caravaneros march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge,
the site of important Voting Rights marches in the 60s
“The Edmund Pettus Bridge belongs to all those who are fighting for freedom!” he finished. The caravaneros picked up posters bearing photos of their dead and disappeared and marched across the bridge, chanting “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos! Alive they took them, alive we want them!”

From the Caravan’s starting points in California through its stops in Texas, I sometimes found myself forgetting which side of the border I was on.  Most of our local hosts spoke Spanish and served Mexican food, and many local witnesses to drug war violence had lost family members or received threats in Mexico.  As soon as we pulled into Jackson, Mississippi, however, it was clear that we had left Mexico behind.  Dry desert air was replaced by thick humidity, burritos by fried chicken.  In Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, and Atlanta, our hosts were black religious and community leaders.  Many came from institutions affiliated with the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement; some had marched beside Dr. Martin Luther King himself.  As they denounced drug war violence in Mexico and proclaimed their solidarity with the Caravan, the sacred Civil Rights sites we visited rang with the unique spiritual energy of the United States’ most influential grassroots movement.  It’s a contagious kind of energy, and it infected our group.

“It’s incredible to see how one man could move masses of people, could move almost thirty thousand people in a single march,” caravanera Olga Reyes told me as she reflected on our discussions about Dr. King.  A longtime human rights defender from Juarez, Olga joined the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) to denounce the murders of six of her family members, all victims of criminal-military collusion who were targeted for their social and environmental activism.  Her friend Margarita Lopez, who joined the movement after her nineteen-year-old daughter was kidnapped, tortured and decapitated alive, added, “I think it’s a great motivation, this movement that Martin Luther King led in the United States.  If they could go out in the streets so can we, as Mexicans, and that motivates me to get out there day after day.”

Equally striking to Olga and Margarita has been the realization that the War on Drugs has produced a kind of pain in the United States’ black community that is not so different from their own.  “We have learned that there is violence everywhere,” Margarita said of the Caravan.  “Every day we go to new places and see new people, and in each place there are people who come to us to tell us that they are suffering from the same circumstances as we are.  It’s been a very beautiful experience, but also a sad one.  I have had the opportunity to raise my voice with other cultures, with different kinds of people, and I think we understand each other.  They know our pain, they feel our anguish.”

Melchor Flores with a photograph of his disappeared son,
"El Vaquero Galactico," in front of the Civil Rights Memorial
Mural in Selma, Alabama
At a dinner in Montgomery, I interpreted as the two women chatted with a twenty-one year old black man who had moved to Alabama just months before to escape gang life in Washington, D.C.  He showed us the puckered scars on his elbow, on his hip, on the back of one calf, memories of the gunshot wounds he had received periodically since the age of 13.  He told us that he missed his mother, and Margarita reached out to squeeze his hand.  A young girl sitting by him asked them what the Caravan was about, and Olga told her, “We are here because we are suffering from violence in Mexico, and we know that you are suffering here too, and we want to come together to fight for peace.”  The girl smiled.

Several of our hosts, as well as Caravan supporter Neil Franklin from the U.S.-based organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, have referred to the anti-Drug-War movement as a contemporary moral equivalent to both the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement or the 19th century movement to abolish slavery.  History is a story of actions and reactions, and just as sharecropping and Jim Crow laws emerged to reinstate the status quo following abolition, so the War on Drugs emerged in response to Civil Rights and other movements of the 1960s—or so argues Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar whose work was a central topic at a Caravan event in Houston, Texas.  In the early 1970s, Alexander has found, conservative political strategists discovered “that thinly veiled promises to get tough on ‘them,’ a group of people not so suddenly defined by race, could be enormously successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party in droves.” It’s not difficult to imagine ways that enthusiasm for toughness towards people of color might also have fed into the militarized drug policies, like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, that the U.S. has implemented in Latin America since the end of the Cold War.

After four decades of the domestic War on Drugs, our hosts repeated again and again, the evils of Jim Crow have been replaced with those of mass incarceration. The U.S. now has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners, a quarter of whom are in jail on nonviolent drug charges.  Despite much evidence that people of all races use and sell drugs at about the same rates, two thirds of those incarcerated for drugs are people of color.  They are denied the very rights to vote, get good jobs, and freedom of movement that the Civil Rights Movement briefly achieved.  Ending the War on Drugs, shifting from a model based on prohibition and national security to one based on regulation and public health, ought thus to be a priority for those concerned with social justice in the United States as much as it is for those concerned with peace abroad.

Standing by Dr. King’s tomb in Atlanta last Thursday, Civil Rights veteran Gerald Durley honored Javier Sicilia, the Mexican poet who founded the MPJD after his son, Juan Francisco, was assassinated on March 28th, 2011. Likening Sicilia to Dr. King, Durley shouted, “This man is a giant!”  The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity cannot simply be compared to King’s, though.  It’s a bold idea to take a grassroots movement across a border and into the heart of a global power whose own citizens are rarely aware of the horrific consequences of its foreign policies.  Such an effort comes with new challenges.  U.S. citizens joined the Civil Rights movement in droves because the issues were immediately relevant to their lives; Mexicans have done the same with the MPJD since the spring of 2011, flooding roads and public squares whenever marches are announced. Their collective howl of pain and outrage, hundreds of thousands of voices strong, has drawn the attention international media and of President Calderón.  But these hundreds of thousands of Mexican drug war victims’ family members cannot cross the border to join us in New York or Washington, D.C.  If the movement is to be successful in calling for changes to U.S. policies that contribute to violence in Mexico, then, masses of people on this side of the border will have to find common cause with the caravaneros in unprecedented ways.

Caravaneros marching and chanting in Atlanta, GA
New challenges are generating creative solutions, though, not least in the Movement’s growing repertoire of bi-national chants. These include adaptations of both Civil Rights classics and Mexican protest anthems.  As we marched from Dr. King’s tomb to Atlanta’s City Hall, a local black community leader crooned “Ain’t gonna let no Drug War turn me ‘round,” while the rest of us sang a Spanish translation of “We Shall Overcome.”  Mexico City activists adjusted the words of a chant usually used to invoke the early-20th-century revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, shouting, “Si Luther King viviera, con nosotros estuviera!/If King were alive, he would be on our side!” Such cultural integration bodes well for the caravan, whose end goal, in Margarita Lopez’s words, is “to bring together every culture, to bring together many, many people, so that the Movement for Peace will be reborn from its ashes, like a phoenix.” Let’s stand together to turn the MPJD into a movement that will make a difference not just in Mexico, but also show the best of what the United States represents.

Stand in solidarity with the victims of the Drug War in the U.S. and Mexico by joining the Caravan’s last events in Washington, D.C.

To learn more about how the Drug War and U.S. policies are affecting people in Mexico, consider joining a Witness for Peace delegation. Visit for more information.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Free is not Fair

Photo by teen delegate Noah Levine.

New IT reflects on first delegation experience

by Elizabeth Perkins

It’s been two months since I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua to begin as a new International Team member. Since then, I've been exposed to the world of free trade in a myriad of ways. As opposed to witnessing free trade from the perspective of the consumer, I have been exposed to the perspective of the worker in a way I could not have been at home in the U.S. After a week-long training, my first delegation of  20 teens ranging in age from 13 to 19 from the Southeast region of the U.S arrived. The schedule was full. It included talks on neoliberalism and free trade, Nicaraguan history and power and privilege. We saw a lot of Managua and the department surrounding the city. We spent a lot of time on the bus, slept and ate together, and did a whole lot of group processing together. This delegation’s focus was free trade and its consequences in Nicaragua. We spent a lot of time learning about and reflecting on free trade and its alternatives, like fair trade.

My first encounter with the effects of free trade and neoliberalism was in Masatepe, a town about a half hour south of Managua. We visited a small community there called La Curva. It’s comprised of about 120 families and contains a small school, a few small churches, and a preschool that houses about 30 children. A train used to run through the community until the early 1990s. Since it stopped, the inhabitants in and around the town have experienced economic difficulties due to loss of income. The majority of its current inhabitants work either in maquilas or seasonally as coffee pickers. Many are employed in Managua.

In La Curva we heard from two maquila workers who described their jobs to us. One of them, Doña Mary, recounted an experience she'd had the week before at work. She fainted in the maquila due to respiratory problems induced by constant inhalation of fabric dust for the past five years she’s worked there. She was taken to a clinic, where she eventually regained consciousness. Doña Mary lost pay for her time out of the maquila and also had to pay for the medicines she needed herself. She returned to work the next day, working from 5AM until 7PM, even though she was still feeling ill. If she hadn’t she would not have received her normal pay. As it is, her salary is not enough to support her family. She is the sole breadwinner in her family of five. One of her co-workers who suffered from the same illness Doña Mary has acquired had a much worse fate. Under pressure from a supervisor (who would not grant her permission to leave due to a large order they were completing) she continued to work, even though she felt ill. When she was finally allowed to leave later that day, she fell to the ground dead as she walked out the door. This blatant disregard for human life is unacceptable, but it is very common in the maquilas.

Paved road to the new free trade zone being constructed in La Curva. Photo by Christine Geoffredo
Jairo Ampie, a community leader in La Curva and founder of ArtePintura, showed us an area where a new free trade zone is being constructed in the town. It will be the largest free trade zone in the department of Masaya. He told us that people in La Curva are both anxious about and interested in its opening. It will bring jobs. However they’re low paying and many are worried they’ll be treated badly there based on experiences in other maquilas. He also shared that people who work in the maquilas often feel they have no choice because of the lack of other job opportunities. As we approached the construction site for the zone we were greeted with massive grey cement blocks topped with barbed wire. At first site, one of the delegates understandably asked if they were building a prison.

The following Monday our experience with free trade continued when we got a tour of a Taiwanese maquila in the Las Mercedes Fair Trade Zone. Our guide  Emilio Noguera, a legal consultant for the Free Trade Zone Corporation, was very articulate and very patient with my first group interpretation attempt. We walked into the warehouse and saw rows and rows of people (mostly women) sitting at sewing tables, many of them wearing face masks. As we walked through we were shown the steps of the process of making a North Face jacket. (Brands we saw included Patagonia and Jansport, among others.) Workers are paid based on how many pieces they can make in an hour. To earn more than minimum wage you have to produce more than the number of pieces determined to be the production minimum, which is set by a group of engineers for each order. They work 10-12 hour days 5 or 6 days a week doing the same task over and over and over again.

Emilio  told us that this is not the worst or the best maquila we could have seen. I had to pause in interpreting when he reminded us about the suicides of factory workers producing Apple products in China. His bottom line was that to attract foreign investors to bring these jobs into Nicaragua, the wages and production costs have to be “competitive,” meaning extremely low. Brands are created to produce the most they can in order to sell as much as they can with the highest profit margin possible, he explained. They do this because there are consumers who want to buy their products. He asked who was to blame for the working conditions and low wages. Not the maquilas, which he explained, are just trying to compete. It's the companies that are looking for low production prices for the consumers who want to buy those products. It was a powerful visit; contrasted by a visit to a fair trade factory in a free trade zone later that day.

The fair trade factory at Masili was a dramatic difference. Walking into the small open building we heard music playing. The atmosphere was laid back. People were moving around the space, not required to stay at one specific station. Workers spoke and interacted with one another. They casually looked up from their work when we came by and did not seem hurried. Formerly called Nueva Vida, this free trade zone began as a sewing cooperative. According to their website, it was founded with the help of an NGO called Centro por Desarrollo en Centroamerica, Juliblee House Community. The NGO had been looking for ways to help combat the high unemployment rates after Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998. As a cooperative, the workers own the Masili Free Trade Zone. From their website: “Being worker-owners requires a true promise and commitment to provide other women in our community with better working conditions.” Seeing the remarkable difference in both versions of free trade zones, it was clear which seemed the more desirable place to work.

ZONA FRANCA MASILI from Zona Franca Masili on Vimeo.

Neoliberal policies inherent to DR-CAFTA do not empower workers. They favor corporations. As cheap labor is abundant in Nicaragua, workers are expendable and have little bargaining power. Putting the power in the hands of the workers, the way it’s done at Masili, allows for workers to access the perks of free trade zones, while also controlling their own working conditions. Unfortunately, this is not the case in maquilas where human rights are disregarded. Unjust economic policies have contributed to the dehumanization of the worker. This delegation brought consumers to the workers who produce the products they buy. As consumers we have a responsibility to spend money ethically.  Delegates can return and act in solidarity by sharing stories and voting with their purchasing dollars in the U.S. Putting economic pressure on retailers to change their policies will aid the struggle of workers in Latin America.