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How the Latin American Drug War Will End

When change comes, it will be brought about by grassroots civil society organizing in the U.S. and in Mexico.

As the underlying rationale for the war on drugs falls apart, some may wonder whether Latin America is really prepared to push back against Washington’s militaristic approach toward marijuana trafficking. While such a prospect would have been unheard of just a few scant years ago, recent developments in the U.S. suggest that change could come fast at the hemispheric level. Indeed, successful pushes for marijuana legalization in Washington state and Colorado brought together some unusual political constituencies, and that is putting it mildly. 

As I discussed in a  recent article, pro-legalization advocates managed to cultivate support from women and even mothers by stressing family-friendly values like public safety. As they looked north, Mexicans were probably surprised to find that a wide social spectrum supported marijuana legalization in Colorado, including the NAACP, labor unions, physicians and clergymen. Perhaps most surprisingly, Colorado campaigners also garnered significant support from the socially conservative Latino community, which voted 70 percent in favor of legalizing cannabis.    

In another development that raised eyebrows, 33 percent of Republican voters approved marijuana legalization in Washington. The Tea Party crowd, which opposes the encroachments of the federal government, might be persuaded to break ranks with the more establishment GOP in future. What is more, liberals might join forces with law enforcement no less. Recently, a former Baltimore cop remarked on the Rachel Maddow show that it was time for Obama to scrap the drug war. The policeman heads a group called Law Enforcement against Prohibition, which hails the Washington and Colorado decisions as beneficial for local cops. 

Mexican Poet Takes on the Drug War

While the Washington state and Colorado decisions garnered significant media attention in the U.S., Americans may be less aware of significant political and cultural changes afoot within Mexico --- changes which could also wind up undermining the war against marijuana. Indeed, if they are shrewd, civil society groups in Mexico might opt to cultivate unusual cross-border alliances in an effort to challenge the political establishment both at home and abroad.

Such coalitions have already begun to emerge: recently, a “Caravan for Peace” toured the U.S. in order to raise awareness about the devastation caused by the drug war on both sides of the border. Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was caught up and killed in senseless drug-related violence, organized the caravan which traveled through 25 cities. (To read about Sicilia’s moving story,  click here.)

Though a previous movement, “No Más Sangre” (No More Blood) protested the growing spate of violence in Mexico, it is Sicilia who has given most visibility to the terrible toll unleashed by the drug war. Moreover, as he speaks to local audiences, Sicilia has become something of an irritant to the Mexican political establishment. 

Mexico: From Yo Soy 132 to the Zapatistas

The prospect that Sicilia might stir up student radicals is particularly worrisome to the likes of Mexico’s PRI (or Institutional Revolutionary Party) and President Enrique Peña Nieto.  Recently, the poet met with members of the Yo Soy 132 movement, or “I am 132.” The nascent civil society group, which is comprised of young student activists, leapt into the media spotlight when it staged protests against Peña Nieto, a politician who had been linked to earlier human rights abuses when he served as governor of Mexico state. 

During the campaign season, Yo Soy 132 mercilessly heckled Peña Nieto. Later, when the candidate’s supporters claimed that the hecklers had been planted by the rival PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party) and its candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 131 students went on YouTube to validate their identity and furthermore denied they had been paid by anyone to stage political protests. Soon enough, many Mexicans began to proclaim a new popular slogan, “I am 132,” as a way of showing that they, too, held legitimate political concerns. Through extensive use of Twitter, Yo Soy 132 has demonstrated a certain technological savvy. Moreover, the students have inspired many by shunning the notion of a central figurehead to lead their movement.

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