The Common Good
February 2013

Nonviolence and the Drug War

by Margaret Regan | February 2013

The U.S. and Mexican governments have tried to battle drug violence with more violence. It hasn't worked. Gandhian groups in Mexico offer another way.

ON A BLAZING August day last summer, Rosa Pérez Triana faced a crowd of several hundred people in downtown Tucson and held up a color photo of a pretty young woman.

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“This is my daughter, Coral,” Pérez said in Spanish, her voice breaking. “A year ago she went missing. There are thousands of people in Mexico like me who don’t know what happened to their loved ones.”

A middle-aged woman from the violent state of Nuevo León in northern Mexico, Pérez had come to the United States with the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity to tell her North American neighbors what had happened to her daughter—and to an estimated 80,000 other Mexicans who have been killed or disappeared during the country’s six-year-old war on drugs.

Her daughter’s story is typical. Guadalupe Coral Pérez Triana vanished on July 24, 2011, somewhere on the road between Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and Monterrey, Nuevo León. Five other young women were traveling with her. All are missing and presumed dead.

“The main purpose of the caravan is to show a human face,” explained Laura Carlsen, director of the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program in Mexico, who joined the caravan on its last leg through the East Coast. “These are people whose family members were victims.” Such are the human costs of the war on drugs that the U.S. government supports with arms and money.

According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. government has contributed $1.9 billion through the Mérida Initiative to help Mexico wage the drug war. Not only do Americans provide the market for the drugs sold by the drug cartels, they also supply the weapons that have taken the lives of thousands.

Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, the catalyst for Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, the caravan rolled across the U.S. in August and September. Some 100 volunteers traveled in two buses, crossing the border at Tijuana and visiting 26 cities before ending up in Washington, D.C., where they begged U.S. congressional representatives to stop funding the drug war.

Along the way, Pérez and some 20 other people grieving the deaths of their loved ones stood up to speak, in city after city, armed with the photos of lost sons, husbands, daughters, sisters, and brothers. One of the caravanners, María Herrera Magdaleno of Michoacán, had suffered an unimaginable loss: Her poster bore the photos of her four missing sons.

“Think of the weapons going to Mexico to the hands of criminals; assault weapons designed for extermination, not healing,” Sicilia said in Tucson during the U.S. leg in 2012. “Arms sold in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are sold to people who ... use them to exterminate, kidnap, and destroy human life and democracy. The U.S. and Mexico must not allow this.” Many of the weapons that the drug cartels use are smuggled illegally across the U.S. southwest border.

In an open letter to the people of the U.S. released in April 2012, Sicilia urged the two nations to put an end to gun trafficking, “debate alternatives to drug prohibition ... combat money laundering,” and protect the migrants who are endangered.

Sicilia himself is among the suffering. His son Juan Francisco, a 24-year-old student, was found gagged and strangled in a car outside Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, in March 2011. The murder was blamed on drug-gang members. Sicilia’s very public grief—he vowed never again to write a line of poetry while violent death stalked his homeland—helped galvanize a popular peace movement against the murderous drug war.

In 2011, he led two caravans through Mexico, decrying as madness the Mexican and U.S. policy of fighting violence with violence.

The drug war ignited in Mexico in 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón called up thousands of troops to battle the cartels. (President Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated Dec. 1, 2012.) In the ensuing chaos, thousands of innocents have perished—shot in the crossfire, killed in cases of mistaken identity, or deliberately murdered to terrorize the population into compliance with the narcotraficantes’ demands.

In addition to the 60,000 dead, “at least 20,000 have disappeared,” Carlsen said. To make human beings vanish, organized criminal networks—such as the Zetas drug cartel—“dump bodies into a pit and drop acid on them” and cover them up. “Other times they leave bodies in full view, decapitated, to send a message.”

The Mexican military and police have also been implicated in the deaths. Few of the slayings are even investigated, let alone solved, Carlsen said, and some corrupt “state actors ... are complicit in the deaths.” The Zetas themselves metamorphosed from a crack law-enforcement unit into one of the most bloodthirsty of the cartels.

The government’s response to a brutal massacre in the dangerous border city of Ciudad Juárez in January 2010 was crucial in turning opinion against Calderón’s tactic of indiscriminate violence. When 16 young people, most of them students, were slaughtered by two truckloads of armed men, Calderón dismissed the victims as criminals. Luz María Davila, the mother of two of the dead teens, confronted the president when he visited the stricken city. In a video that went viral, Davila insisted her sons were innocent and called Calderón’s accusations lies.

“This was one of the first times people were accusing the government” of bearing some responsibility for the deaths, Carlsen explained. “Juárez was one of the major places where the armed forces carried out the war on drugs. It clearly backfired and generated violence.”

DESPITE THE HORROR of the slaughters, the movement is responding with nonviolence. Some of the participants act out of their Christian faith. At the Tucson rally, a Catholic priest compared the sufferings of the families to those of Jesus and cast their search for justice in religious terms.

“Jesus also suffered violence,” he said. “We are invoking Christ resurrected to end the violence in our homes, communities, and nations. Search for justice; end the violence.”

The movement’s methods—deploying large numbers of people peacefully bearing witness—hark back to earlier campaigns of nonviolent resistance. Sicilia’s own writings reflect a Christian mysticism, and when he spoke at the caravan rally in Washington, D.C., in September, he invoked Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration. And like King, he is influenced by his studies of Gandhi. He told Tom Hayden in The Nation, “I come from Gandhism.”

The movement as a whole is inspired by Gandhian principles, Carlsen said, and its members offer “alternatives to violence to create another path.”

The peace movement has taken multiple new forms throughout Mexico, with groups creatively using social media and art projects to get the message out. EmergenciaMX.org is one of many sites that post online video testimonials of family members about the murders of their loved ones. In Ecatepec, a poor suburb of Mexico City, giant photographs of crime victims were attached to modest houses on the hills, the better to be seen by everyone in town.

In Monterrey—the northern city young Coral Pérez was trying to reach when she vanished—Mesa de Paz (Peace Table) takes a different approach. A consortium of 12 different groups, Mesa de Paz employs direct action, putting Gandhi’s teachings into practice to counteract the violence that has gripped the region in the last three years.

Long one of the most prosperous and peaceful cities in Mexico, Monterrey took a violent turn in 2010, when the Zetas began battling the Gulf cartel for dominance in the city. From 2011 until fall 2012, there were more than 1,600 murders. A massacre in May 2012 left the bodies of 49 victims outside the city, mutilated and decapitated. And the violence is only getting worse, said Fernando Ferrara Rivero of Mesa de Paz.

“You go downtown, 8:30 or 9 at night, you can hear the machine guns. I have seen people run [away] with guys trying to shoot them,” he said. “It’s really a war here.”

But Ferrara and his colleagues see the U.S.-backed government strategy of countering violence with violence as a failure. “We don’t think punitive law is going to solve the problem.”

Instead, Mesa de Paz tries to attack the root causes of crime and violence by improving the lives of those directly around them. Following the principle of Swadeshi, or self-sufficiency—“an instrument Gandhi used in the nonviolent struggle” against British rule in India—“we target Monterrey alone.” The principle, Ferrara explained, is that “the closest to me is myself—what you can change. You—America—can’t come to Mexico and save us. We have to save ourselves.”

Nelson Mandela, King, and Gandhi all followed these precepts, he said. “I’m very Gandhian. I studied in India at the Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha.”

The activities of Mesa de Paz’s member NGOs in distressed parts of the city in some ways resemble old-fashioned settlement work. Members fan out, visiting jails, schools, and families of the sick; they do art with kids in rough neighborhoods; they work with alcoholics and ex-prisoners in halfway houses.

A former gang leader has “developed a program to make the gangs into leaders,” Ferrara stated. “He has 15 people working with 80 to 90 gangs.” His idea is to leave in place the social networks that give the kids a sense of belonging, while turning them away from crime and toward social good. “He’s not destroying gangs so much as making them leaders, positive leaders.” However, he cannot naïvely ignore the presence of the cartels. “The cartels are there,” Ferrara said. “He has to struggle with that” and asks for permission to work in neighborhoods they control. (For the safety of the groups and their members, Ferrara declines to give names.)

ANOTHER ORGANIZATION works with “cops who have gone bad,” Ferrara said. The leader is a woman “with the biggest heart.” In her day job, she’s a lawyer who negotiates between cartels and police, and in her activist work, she tries to persuade corrupt police to reform.

She sweetens her message by organizing festivals for the cops’ kids. On any given Saturday, she might have 200 children, Ferrara said, leading them in fun activities and teaching them good values. A male colleague in her group, a one-time criminal, “tells the police they can change.” The work is dangerous, Ferrara said. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been killed. I know some of the people (in Mesa de Paz) will be martyrs. I’m sure of it.”

Ferrara fears for his own safety sometimes in his work with gangs and a halfway house, he said, “but our goal should be worth putting ourselves in danger.” It’s important to reach out to boys who feel alienated from society, he explained, because without intervention, they’re likely to get involved in gangs—and go down the path to crime and violence.

“You see the boys excluded. You see hopelessness, powerlessness, and anomie. We are waiting for them to commit a crime to put them in jail. It’s a stupid approach.” Likewise, he added, it’s foolish for the government to kill narcotraficantes in hopes of eliminating the cartels—or in hopes of preventing more deaths. Violence begets violence, he said, and murders lead to more murders.

Ferrara cited an incident last October in which Mexican marines killed Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the much-sought-after leader of the Zetas. (The case became notorious when Lazcano’s followers stole his body back from government custody.)

“It’s useless to kill him: he’s only going to be replaced,” Ferrara said. “Another guy is going to be the boss. It’s not going to stop. I think moral and conscience development are the only things that can end the violence.”

Margaret Regan, a longtime journalist in Tucson, Ariz., is the author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, named Southwest Book of the Year in 2010. Regan has won many journalism awards for her border reporting and arts criticism.

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