I am trying to write this from my temporary home in Morelia, Michoacán, one of the places red alerted for travelers, to sum up Mexico’s War on Drugs so I can write about some of the things (extra)ordinary people are doing about it, but it is Sunday night, and while nearly 35,000 people have died in the U.S. and Mexico's war, the number that everyone is interested in is 3. Yes, Morelia’s Monarcas just crushed Mexico City's Cruz Azul (3-0) and the noise—car horns, whistles, whoops, bottles breaking—has been at top volume on for almost an hour. This is the disconnect that has baffled me ever since I arrived in Mexico ten months ago, that has made it impossible for me to reconcile what I read--35,000--with what I see and hear around me--¡Viva Morelia!
But there are three events—all of them grassroots, two of them all but spontaneous—in my inbox this week that make more sense of this conflict and this country for me. Or at least they appeal to the idealist in me that stubbornly believes that the power of the people's will is ultimately unmatchable.
Resistance Blockades in Indigenous Community
The first is local, and it's a bit of a David-and-Goliath situation. I heard about it through a letter calling for people to take notice of events in the indigenous Purhépechan community of Cherán, here in Michoacán, and desseminating an Amnesty International Urgent Alert. Apparently, because of collusion between criminal organizations (a.k.a. “cartels,” a misnomer, or narcotraficantes, a reductive term that doesn't quite get at the scope of these organizations) and local authorities--yes, Cherán's own municipal police, the community forests around Cherán have been logged illegally. The logging is the last straw, but it is not the only abuse the community has suffered. More than a dozen of this community's 16,000 citizens have been killed or disappeared in events linked to Michoacán's currently unnamed organization. (La Familia disbanded--or splintered, or who-knows-what--in Deceber.)
As the story has come out, the community’s patience snapped about a month ago when townspeople began throwing rocks at logging trucks. Then the community blockaded the road and captured five of the loggers (later turning them over to federal authorities). There has been violence—two members of the community have been killed in confrontations between narcos (accompanied by local police, rumor would have it). Cherán will no longer stand to have its forests or its community plundered.
Oh, and they'd like some justice, please.
Paso a Paso Hacia la Paz: Human Rights Demonstration and Father Solalinde
The second event is international, and it has yet to take place. It is an invitation to participate in a peace march/freedom ride that promises to be monumental, whatever numbers actually turn out. To my great frustration (do you know what it costs to change plane tickets these days?!), but I'm trying to convince my workaholic husband that his research can spare a few days to march for what organizers are calling the civil rights struggle of our time.
Paso a Paso Hacia la Paz is tracing the deadly route that migrants travel to get to el otro lado, the other side, a few states at a time. In January, the first Paso a Paso crossed Chiapas through to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. This summer, Paso a Paso will begin in Ixtepec on June 20th and travel to Orizaba by train and by bus, arriving June 24th. Family members of disappeared migrants presumed to be among the dead recently uncovered in Tamaulipas state will be among the demonstrators (this group will actually be making the entire journey from their homes in Central America, to a rendezvous in Guatemala, and then joining Paso a Paso before completing the journey to the U.S. border.
Leading the march will be Father Alejandro Solalinde, a priest whose name is known throughout Mexico and, gradually, internationally as well for his work for human rights. I'm a little starstruck, but it is my opinion that Father Solalinde is the Dr. King, the Archbishop Romero, fighting for the oppressed in Mexico.
The Paso a Paso movement is gaining momentum, albeit not in time for so many migrants whose travels have subjected them to extortion, rape, kidnapping, even execution. But if you are in Mexico, or are inclined to be in Mexico this June, try to be a part of this. (Find Casa Migrante Ixtepec on Facebook to get hooked up.)
A Poet for Peace
In March, seven university students were killed in Cuernavaca. One of them was a young man named Juan Francisco, who just happened to be the son of Javier Sicilia, one of Mexico’s most prestigious contemporary poets. Sicilia promptly put down his pen—making his son’s death essentially a double murder—and took to the street and people followed, rallying to the line “hasta la madre,” the rough equivalent of “we’ve had it up to here.” Even President Calderón, who clearly sees the threat in an angry poet, keeps tweeting his solidarity with the people who march with Sicilia, and, according to the poet, the president has even conceded that there are flaws in his combative approach.
Peace demonstrations that I’ve seen here in Morelia do not privilege one side over the other--the government or the criminal organizations--in the ostensible War on Drugs. Peace demonstrations simply call for peace, and neither side—the criminal organizations that claim to bring security to the region and even provide some services (see William Finnegan’s 2010 “Silver or Lead” in the New Yorker), or the U.S. funded federal forces that patrol the streets in pickup trucks with machine guns manned by masked troops. Most of Mexico seems to feel caught in the crossfire and futility. To hear people talk about it, the current strategy of taking out kingpins is a little like bowling: knock some down and the system coolly re-racks.
And these events—Cherán’s spontaneous resistance which now has the roads in and out of the community blockaded while the community awaits backup from anyone, anywhere, who will help them escape the exploitation and abuses of their current subjugation, Sicilia’s grief-powered marches, and Paso a Paso’s sweeping gesture of solidarity with another subjugated people—these events are grassroots resistance movements. Rather than machine guns, these movements apply the force of pride, patriotism, and connected sense of community—like that of this city that is honking so wildly tonight—against the status quo of abject violence and political posturing.
I know it is limp idealism that thinks that much can come from gestures. But I grew up on the legend of "We Shall Overcome"--so much so that Pete Seeger wrote the preface of my first book--and I still believe that when enough people say “ya, basta,” enough already, peace is possible.
Now we wait for the call for peace to cross the border, both ways, as the violence crosses, as the drugs and guns cross, as the migrants cross, coming and going.
For a little historical contextualizing for all of this, don't miss Brassawe's excellent 3-part series on Francisco Madero.