Shocking Stories of Loss Motivate Mourners of Mexico's Drug War Victims to Hold the U.S. Responsible
In Mexico, where the authorities and the drug cartels are hard to separate, finding answers is often left to the survivors of drug war violence. Some survivors have dug through mass graves, turning over mutilated bodies, half-hoping to see the face of a loved one. Others have stared their children's killers in the eye while hearing the brutal details of how their kids were murdered. They interview incarcerated drug traffickers, desperate for some kind of closure. Determined to speak for the victims who have lost their voices, some relatives of victims have joined a new movement, the Caravan for Peace with Jusice and Dignity. The Caravan has demanded justice for the dead in Mexico, and this summer, they delivered their message -- a call for accountability -- across the United States.
That is the story of Margarita Lopez Perez, the mother of disappeared 19-year-old Yahaira Guadalupe Bahena Lopez. Lopez Perez’s expensive journey to find the truth led her to incarcerated drug traffickers who admitted to killing her child. In great detail, they told her the horror Yahaira endured. “They told me that they kidnapped my daughter, that they had her alive for many days,” she said, “They were torturing her, raping her, before taking her to a faraway place, and decapitating her alive.” Then, they played with her head, kicking it around like a soccer ball and kissing her cold lips. “They told me she was innocent, that they made a mistake,” said Lopez Perez.
In Mexico, many of the drug war’s dead are innocents. In the six years of drug war that have ravaged the country, more than 60,000 are dead and more than 10,000 are missing. Because only 2 percent of cases are granted judicial review, families of the lost regularly become their own investigators. They find, too often, horrors tied to the authorities themselves.
Olga Reyes Salazar knows this truth too well. She is from a family of human rights defenders; her sister Josefina Reyes Salazar denounced military abuses in Chihuahua after the drug war deployed troops to her neighborhood. In 2008, Josefina’s 25-year-old son Julio Cesar Reyes was shot and killed near a military checkpoint, kicking off a string of demonstrations and suspicious murders occurring near active military. The family continued to protest against military abuses, demanding investigations into the murders of their relatives, but their efforts were not well-received. Death plucked off the Reyes family like the petals on a flower. When they protested for justice, their homes were burned, and more fell.
Olga lost six of her relatives by the end of 2011. Their bodies were left by highways. Flowers from a defaced Reyes grave appeared in a nearby military garden. Molotov cocktails awakened them in the night. Now, the Reyes name is one of warning. “The family has become an example for the people of the town,” said Olga. There, signs warn troublemakers to leave or end up like the Reyes family.
The US backs, and even trains, Mexico’s military, despite allegations of human rights abuses. Eliana Garcia, a former political prisoner turned Mexican congresswoman who is an adviser to Mexican politicians, says the most deadly Mexican military force is the navy, and she is quick to note its training by US Navy SEALs.
“The US military are not [committing crimes] directly or openly,” said Garcia, adding that US influence goes beyond training and funding. Garcia says there is a widespread understanding, but no solid proof, that US forces dress and/or operate as Mexican military. “For instance, [this summer], two agents of the CIA were driving to a navy installation. Nobody knows what they were doing and then suddenly they were ambushed by policia federales,” said Garcia. US authorities confirmed that the two men ambushed by Mexican police were part of the CIA. “They were injured and then immediately they disappeared from Mexico. We don’t know their names. We know they were CIA agents, but what they were doing, why they were going to the navy base… We don’t know anything,” Garcia said.
Garcia says the drug war is an example of America imposing its “security agenda” to operate navy bases not just in Mexico, but El Salvador and Colombia.
The United States spends almost $500 million a year funding Mexico’s war against cartels that sell drugs to American consumers. As the US continues to consume drugs despite attempts at prohibition, unimaginable horror multiplies in Mexico. US and Mexican forces battle against the heavily armed cartels, which are so powerful they have been labeled an insurgency by US State Department officials and journalists alike. While authorities claim to target only drug traffickers, Mexicans say the war has only made the cartels more violent and the state authorities more corrupt. The result is that innocent bystanders are often caught up in the violence, with little or no access to justice.
The victims speak now through the voices of their survivors. Family members seek answers from locals, whether they are incarcerated cartel members or private investigators, to understand their loved ones’ last minutes. And as they seek justice for the people responsible for their loved ones’ deaths, their quest reaches beyond the murderers and across borders, up to the US and Mexican governments. Their government no longer represents their best interests, nor does its rhetoric reflect the reality of innocence lost. Thus, they have come to the United States to create, as one mother called it, “some citizen diplomacy,” and stand up for the victims.
Photos of the dead and missing displayed at AFL-CIO in Washington, DC.
The Caravan includes women whose young daughters were taken in the night (suspected to be victims of human trafficking), relatives of dead police and military, a teenage couple missing their family, a mother who lost four of her sons, famed Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, and more. United by tragedy and pulling strength from shared experience, the caravaners took time off from their search for their dead and came to America with goals and demands. They desperately want the United States to understand the truth about Mexico’s drug war victims, that the media is wrong to suggest the violence is only among and against the cartels. The sad truth is that the military intervention in Mexico has provoked a strong reaction from the cartels, and as the military keeps fighting back, the violence spirals out of control into the streets and homes of the citizens.
The Caravan aims to wake us up, to remind America that it is our policies and institutions that help to fuel their tragedy. Our tax dollars fund their war; our banks launder the cartel cash; our guns arm the insurgents; and our drug consumption drives the market fueling all of it. Peace, the Caravan says, will be a multinational movement of the people. But for it to arrive, Americans must understand not only the carnage that takes in place in Mexico, but also the role we play in it.
I caught up with the Caravan near the end of its crosscountry journey in New York, following them from the Big Apple to Baltimore and Washington, DC. Their stories are horrific, but their mission, like their slogan, is one of peace, justice and dignity for all.
Reeling in Banker Greed
At a vigil in front of St. Cecilia Catholic church in Harlem, one of New York City’s most violent and drug war-ravaged neighborhoods, Teresa Carmona‘s candle melted as she explained why HSBC bank would be targeted as retribution for her son’s death. Joaquin, 21, was studying architecture in Mexico City. “His dreams were coming true,” said Carmona. “And he had a lot of dreams.” In August 2010, he was murdered with a bullet to the head in his car in Mexico City. “He did not deserve to die,” said his mother. “He deserves justice. The banks, they’re criminals.”
This summer, a Senate investigation found that HSBC was complicit in allowing Mexican drug cartels to launder billions of dollars through its U.S. operations. The Senate report also says U.S. regulators knew that the bank had a poor system to defend against laundering, but did nothing to demand improvement. While US forces were training and arming the Mexican military to fight cartels, US bankers were cashing in on cartel profits.
On September 7, Carmona and the Caravan delivered a suitcase full of “blood money” to HSBC bank. But they know that HSBC was simply the bank that got caught, and their message to all of Wall Street coalesced with a march to Occupy Wall Street’s birthplace, Zuccotti Park.
Holding "blood money" and a photo of her son, Teresa Carmona marches from HSBC to Zuccotti Park.
Demanding the government put people over profits, the Caravan for Peace carries very much the same message as Occupy Wall Street. Institutions like the Drug Enforcement Agency, privately owned prisons, law enforcement, and even the military rely on drug war operations to stay relevant. Prohibition has not stopped the use of drugs, but has empowered perpetrators of violence. The caravaners demand the conversation about drug policy include alternatives, legalization or decriminalization, that treat instead of criminalize drug addicts. The harm elicited by the joint US-Mexican war on drugs has been so egregious that there simply must be something better. What's stopping us from adapting to a more successful strategy, claims the Caravan, is profit.
The Caravan demands that the US put people before profit and take a series of steps to create a policy that will better protect them from violence. To stop money laundering, they say, the US must punish the banks cleaning the blood off cartel money. And to disarm the cartels the military is fighting, the Caravan demands the US change or enforce its gun policy to immediately end the illegal traffic of US assault weapons to Mexico. Resources spent on weapons and violence, they say, would be better spent defending life.
Javier Sicilia, a Mexican poet who put down his pen when his son was murdered, says, “It seems that what [the governments] understand is economic peace, a peace that benefits big capital, and the capital of death,” adding that US and Mexican drug policies “only benefit war.”
U.S. Weapons Used in Mexican Murders
In Washington, DC., the Caravan presented to the Mexican embassy two dismantled firearms stuck in a concrete block. The symbol, said Sicilia, was of the need to protect peace. In 2009 and 2010, 70 percent of firearms recovered by authorities in Mexico came from the United States. At a gun show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, witnessing the ease with which Americans buy weapons was a great shock to the movement.
“It was easier for us to get a gun than a cell phone,” said Araceli Rodriguez. At a gun fair in NM, she was told she could have “all the weapons I want” as long as she had ID and “the money to buy them.” When it came to a cell phone, however, payment plans and red tape took “five days so we could activate it, because they kept asking us for information that we didn’t have.”
The Albuquerque gun show was a defining moment for many of the caravaneiros, who know too many killed by American weapons.
At the gun show, Rodriguez said, “I cried because I saw mothers with their children in strollers, passing through like it was a park, as if they were looking at butterflies. There were these assault weapons, these huge guns that kill our people in Mexico, and 9- and 10-year-old children running around.”
Araceli Rodriguez is comforted in Malcolm X Park, Washington, DC.
In November 2009, Rodriguez lost her son, a federal police officer. Luis Angel Leon Rodriguez had recruited a civilian to drive him to a dangerous location in Mexico because the police force did not provide him with a car. He had only a piece of paper and a gun, and police say he was shot with his own weapon.
Araceli Rodriguez never forgave the bosses who did not offer her son the necessary protection he needed to do his job, but she did forgive one of her son’s murderers. She looked him right in the eye as he told her that, after killing her son, he cut him into pieces and burned his remains. Rodriguez, like many family members of victims, interviewed incarcerated narcos in her search to find answers. Many caravaneiros have had better luck with the locked-up cartel members than they have turning over bodies in mass graves.
“I asked him how they could have done that, because he is a human being, and they were all brothers in that land,” she said, crying. “He said that he worked for a cartel and that he had been paid $3,000 pesos [a little over $250] to kill my son and his partners.”
Many of the women are quicker to forgive the murderers of their loved ones than the authorities who did not protect or help them find justice. The violence is structural, they say. They believe that circumstances and poverty can make people commit unimaginable crimes just to survive.
Rodriguez said that her son’s murderer had been beaten up in jail. When the authorities refused to treat him, Rodriguez took a painkiller out of her purse. “Take this pill in the name of my son,” she told him. Crying, he reached out to touch her, but the authorities would not allow it. “I told him I wouldn’t keep hate in my heart, but that there was a god and that one day there would be divine justice.”
Now, says Rodriguez, “I’m the voice of those who are not here, that are dead, who maybe their destiny was a common grave -- and for the missing ones -- I’m their voice. I’m the voice of the children that have been orphaned by the loss of their father or their mother, that will never be hugged again. I’m here to put my grain of sand,” she said. “This is what keeps me in this Caravan. Faith and illusion. That one day that I'll wake up and I’ll realize that the nightmare of pain has ended, and that there is justice with dignity for all.”
Solidarity Across Borders
While the Caravan pleads for the United States to have compassion for its struggle, it also found solidarity with communities devastated by the drug war on this side of the border. In Baltimore, the reality of the drug war’s violence at home was made clear. For many in the African-American community, their demands for peace, justice and dignity are the same as the caravaneiros.
There were 196 murders in Baltimore last year. Dominique Stevenson, director of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program for incarcerated youth, said the drug war in Baltimore looks like “conflicts that have taken place in other lands.”
“You basically have the equivalent of child soldiers here,” she said, “It looks like losing people almost every day. It looks like a tragedy. It looks like grief.”
Stevenson says the tragedy black, urban communities face on a daily basis is not a symptom of American capitalism, but intentional oppression that actually creates capital. She says change may not happen the way liberals envision, with well-intentioned, yet sideways initiatives that target symptoms of oppression, like poor education, without stopping the system itself.
“The uplift of those communities will come from the people in those communities,” she said, “Place the resources in the hands of the people that are attempting to do that work. That work is not going to look like liberal folks imagine. It might look revolutionary to them. To me, it would look like love.”
Ending prohibition, or considering alternatives to it, is nowhere near reaching the mainstream in the US. But while ending the drug war may seem revolutionary, to those who live within it every day, radical change is the only alternative to death and suffering.