Margarita Lopez begins to speak about the horrible events that marked the end of her daughter’s life in a low, even tone. Some 40 women in a plush Washington, D.C. meeting room listen silently as tears roll down their cheeks.
Lopez narrates how her 19-year-old daughter, Jahaira Guadalupe Vaena Lopez, was abducted in Tlacolula, Oaxaca. She describes her efforts to get the authorities to investigate the crime, how she was warned not to press the matter, how informants told her that her daughter was murdered in a turf battle between fractured drug gangs. Just days before leaving for the United States with the Caravan for Peace, she faced one of the assassins who had been apprehended and listened as he described in detail how her daughter was raped and beheaded.
Margarita has joined some 50 grieving family members to accompany caravan leader Javier Sicilia on a trip across the United States. Sicilia, a poet who lost his son to drug war violence in March of 2011, catalyzed a movement of victims and Mexican citizens fed up with the bloodshed that has claimed more than 60,000 lives and left tens of thousands more disappeared since former President Felipe Calderon launched the drug war five years ago.
Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity decided to organize the U.S. caravan after taking two caravans from Mexico City–one north to Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border, and one south to the border with Guatemala. Both drew out victims of the drug war and registered their cases to provide support for family members seeking justice and solace.
The decision to take their pain across the border came after discussion with the San Francisco-based group Global Exchange. Soon a coalition came together that included Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Latin American Working Group, the RFK Center, the Washington Office on Latin America, our CIP Americas Program, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, among the key players. The coalition later expanded to include the NAACP, and local organizations in each of the cities along the route.
A binational meeting in June defined five demands of the U.S. caravan: to open public debate on humane alternatives to drug prohibition, to ban the import of assault weapons and crack down on illegal gun smuggling over the border, to combat money-laundering with full investigation and strict enforcement, to suspend all aid to the Mexican armed forces and end the war on drugs abroad, and to halt the militarization of the border and criminalization of migrants.
I joined the caravan on the final east coast leg of its 6,000-mile trip. I had heard most of the stories before in Mexico, having accompanied the northern caravan and numerous marches and meetings.
I was curious to see the impact on people in the United States. As the women in the room told their stories, each one struck like a cold blade in the heart. Although women are a minority of the war’s deaths, attacks on women usually include brutal sexual violence, and women make up the majority of those actively seeking justice and an end to the war.
Along the route, caravan members like these women have become confident and eloquent spokespersons to end the drug war. They speak from the heart and appeal to the heart. Their empowerment as leaders is one of the most important achievements of the caravan. Another is the sympathy and outrage their testimonies evoke.
And it’s not a one-way street. Caravan members also listened to the stories of U.S. citizens. Like Kimberly Armstrong in Baltimore, whose 16-year-old son was shot and killed by a 14-year-old in endemic drug violence. Or Carole Eady, who struggled her way out of the stigma and life disruption of imprisonment for a drug offense in New York City.
The threads begin to come together. In her brilliant book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander notes that in Washington, D.C., the caravan’s last stop, it’s estimated that three out of four black men can expect to serve time in prison. She calls this mass incarceration of black people a new racial caste, the latest Jim Crow system of social control, where young black men and women are jailed, stigmatized, and in many cases disenfranchised for life by discriminatory drug laws.
Based on the shared sorrow of losing loved ones to jail, violence, death, or disappearance, Mexicans and Americas found they fight the same unjust system of social control of the poor and people of color. The drug war generates profits for the defense industry and siphons public funds into perpetuating itself. It rips apart families and communities, north and south of the border. The bogus attempt to eliminate rather than regulate something in great demand creates a multibillion-dollar black market run by groups that become more violent as they are selectively attacked. It pits security forces against the public, providing them with the tools to violate human rights and life with impunity. It erodes democracy and the rule of law it purports to uphold.
Whether it’s through imposing a military/police state in Mexico or shunting youth into the margins of society, the drug war machine runs on the human lives it destroys.
A binational peace movement?
The caravan’s call to end the drug war resonated in city after city. But has the caravan forged a binational movement for peace?
Not yet. As the Mexican caravaners go back home, their U.S. hosts return to daily life. Many will simply guard the memory of Mexico’s pain and begin to read the news a little differently.
But others will act. The Peace Caravan has already achieved something remarkable. It brought together groups in U.S. cities that scarcely knew each other before. Some community organizers in the scores of cities from San Diego to the nation’s capital plan to continue the dialogue with the Mexican movement and among themselves.
In New York City, the Latino and African-American communities plan a meeting to discuss the impact of mass arrests and detention. In Baltimore, the movement to block construction of yet another multimillion-dollar prison in one of the nation’s most economically devastated cities is making common cause with movements for drug policy reform, racial justice, and youth rights.
In Texas, faith-based organizations advocating stricter enforcement of gun laws are intensifying their campaign against gun show sales and arms smuggling after seeing close up the human cost of the flow of guns to Mexico. In Arizona, human rights organizations working against the militarization of the border and the death and detention of migrants came face-to-face with activists protesting Mexico’s militarized drug war in a cross-border reflection. In Washington, members of Congress received caravan lobbyists whose power to convince came not from money or influence, but from human empathy and reason.
The way many U.S. citizens understand the drug war has changed through meeting the Mexicans who bear the brunt of it. While U.S. politicians and media portray it as a necessary fight against the threat that organized crime supposedly poses to national security in both countries, the victims spoke of the violence that resulted from the war on drugs itself. Audiences and congressional representatives were surprised to learn that many of the victims on the caravan accused not gangs but the U.S.-funded Mexican police and military for the murder or disappearance of their loved ones.
Organizers now face the question of how the moral victory can lead to a political one. On the drug policy front, U.S. society seems to be moving toward a tipping point despite pushback from law enforcement and private prison interests that make big money off incarceration, as well as from politicians who convert insecurity into “law and order” votes. A recent poll shows Colorado could legalize marijuana in the November elections after a similar measure narrowly lost in California. The award-winning film The House I Live In presents a stunning indictment of the domestic drug war through the words of its enforcers, its participants, and its victims.
But the federal government continues to be on the wrong side of the trend. Some hope that President Obama, if he is reelected, could make bolder moves toward reorienting a policy that imprisons so many mostly African-American youths and costs the nation $51 billion a year, according to the DPA. I’m inclined to agree with a LEAP editorial that warns the reform movement to watch the actions, not the rhetoric, of the Obama administration. It will take a stronger push from constituents to get the administration to take on the interests that benefit from sustaining America’s longest war.
Moral victories plant seeds that are often slow to bear fruit. Evaluating the experience on the last morning in a church hall, exhausted caravan members saw a mix of catharsis and consciousness-raising that gave them strength. Lopez noted that the “the tragedy I’m living through can be useful to a lot of people.” Melchor Flores, whose son was arrested in January of 2009 in Monterrey and never seen again, stated that the caravan had “touched consciences”.
He added, “Wherever my son is, he should be satisfied because he knew I wouldn’t let him down.”
Teresa Carmona, a tiny, white-haired woman whose son Joaquin was murdered in Mexico City, has become a powerful voice before the public and the media. She believes the caravan met its goal.
“We brought the faces of our beloved children, parents, and relatives all the way here, and so we legitimated this pain and this reality.”
In the nation that first invented the drug war and exported it to their country with deadly results, the Mexican bereaved have left a mark in the hearts of thousands of men and women. Sometimes it takes tragedy to make change. The cumulative histories recounted in the peace caravan represent a tragedy of mammoth proportions.
That should be more than enough to act on.