And This Is What History Looks Like in Mexico
By Al Giordano
Yesterday, multitudes took to the streets in more than 40 Mexican cities - and in protests by Mexicans and their friends at consulates and embassies in Europe, North America and South America - to demand an end to the violence wrought by the US-imposed "war on drugs."
What? You haven't heard about this? Or if you have heard something about it, did you know that it is the biggest news story in the Mexican media, on the front page of virtually every daily newspaper in the country?
A sea change has occurred in Mexican public opinion. The people have turned definitively against the use of the Mexican Army to combat against drug traffickers. The cry from every city square yesterday was for the Army to return to its barracks and go back to doing the job it was formed to do; protect Mexico from foreign invasion and provide human aid relief in case of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Since President Felipe Calderón unleashed the Armed Forces, four years ago, to combat drug trafficking organizations, the violence between it and the competing narco organizations has led to a daily body count, widespread human rights abuses against civilians, and more than 40,000 deaths, so many of them of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and used by all sides in the armed conflict that still has no winners, that never will have any winner.
A fast moving series of events that began on March 28 have converged to usher Mexico into its very own "Arab spring." And it began just outside "the City of Eternal Spring," Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, about an hour south of Mexico City. Narco News has been covering these events for the past week (sadly, we are so far the only English-language media to do so at each step of the story, even as it has huge consequences for United States drug policy not only in Mexico but throughout the world and at home). On that date, in the town of Temixco, seven young men were assassinated. These were kids with jobs, who went to school, model kids, not criminals. And one of those kids, Juan Francisco Silvia, was the son of a nationally respected journalist and poet, Javier Sicilia, of Cuernavaca.
In a week, the soft spoken, increasingly beloved, intellectual has become the national vessel through which millions of voices now demand: End the war on drugs.
We translated Javier's Open Letter to Mexico's Politicians and Criminals this week, and penned what is our third editorial in eleven years to provide you with context and background to understand the magnitude of what he has unearthed. Yesterday we translated his statements calling for the legalization of drugs to restore peace and dignity to Mexico, and then we headed out to report the marches that this increasingly and deservedly beloved man called for to happen only days ago. We had reporters with Sicilia in his city of Cuernavaca, in Mexico City, and correspondents in numerous other Mexican and international locations, and over the course of the day I will be adding photos and more information about what happened to this page as updates.
Truth is that so much has happened in a day that processing it all tends to overwhelm. Last night, returning from the marches, ten reporters, photographers and video makers (all students or professors at the School of Authentic Journalism) met to compare notes. Everyone was so shaken - I mean that in the best possible way - by what we had seen and heard, and wanted to talk about it, to understand what exactly is happening here on the other side of the US border.
I was part of the team covering the demonstration in the capital, at which about 20,000 people came for the first ever demonstration against the war on drugs (there have been annual marijuana legalization marches in Mexico City for some time, but this was the first time a mass of people had convened to collapse the entire policy of the drug war, and the attendees were far more diverse). Here are some observations: A good half of the crowd looked like they had never attended a demonstration before. Couples, young and old, with homemade signs, many of which were versions of a popular piece of artwork that Mexican political cartoonists have caused to "go viral" on the Internet. Practicing the Debordian art of détournment, people added their own messages to it. Here is one example:
In Spanish, the plus sign ("+") translates as "mas," or "more." So to say "one plus one," you say "uno mas uno" (or "one, more one"). The original image - "No + (the red ink blot)" is immediately understood in Mexico as "No more blood." Everyday people added their own specific demands to this design, on placards, tee shirts, stickers, Xeroxed and photoshopped copies on letter paper. They called for no more deaths, injustice, impunity, corruption, police, and Calderón, among the related things they want no more of. The rage personalized on Calderón was particularly interesting, since many of these people were of the "middle class" demographic that constitute his electoral base. It's certain that a good number of people who came to this march had voted for Calderón in 2006 for president, but here they were, yesterday, chanting, "Out Calderón!" and "Urgent! Urgent! He Must Resign, the President!"
Many mothers and grandmothers carried signs they had made asking questions like, "If the children killed were named Calderón would you still want this war?" They marched next to businessmen in suits, Christian religious groups, punks with spiked hair, entire families with baby carriages, a few people walking their dogs, bicyclists, lesbians, gays, young office professionals with stylish printed placards, each of them unique, and small groups of three, four, five friends who told our reporters that they were not part of any organization or collective, but they had read about the march in the media or on Facebook and decided together to come out for it. I have reported on marches throughout Mexico for fourteen years and this was the first time I had seen so many of these kinds of people at a protest; regular people, who had they been walking without their signs on any given day on any corner wouldn't necessarily draw one's attention due to their sheer and pleasant normalcy.
That was about half of the march's attendees.
The other half were sectors of society that had obviously marched for causes before. I recognized many from the Zapatista Other Campaign and anti-electoral fraud protests of 2006. The electrical workers union brought a contingent of hundreds, the teacher's union, groups of professors or students from the universities in the city, indigenous campesinos, alternative media makers numbered over 100 among the ones I recognized, and there were about as many reporters and cameras from official news organizations. There were people peddling newspapers from every leftist "tendency" that exists: the marxist-leninists, the trotskyists, the anarchists, the maoists, even the stalinists. There were people, pushed by NGOs, who had marched "for more security" in the past and had interpreted that as "more police and prisons." But here they were answering don Javier's call to march against the war on drugs! The People's Front for Defense of the Land came from Atenco - I hugged Nacho del Valle, who was freed from prison almost a year ago - who had arrived with his neighbors at this march against violence with their machetes high in the air. In other lands it might seem paradoxical the sight of machete swords at what others called a "march for peace" but it caused absolutely no concern or fright among other attendees. In Mexico, it is well understood that people's self defense is a less violent alternative to corrupt police forces. And so they fit right in.
See, what has happened here is politically significant: those who have long had and voiced their grievances with "the evil government" of Calderón have intelligently latched on to the anti-war-on-drugs cause as their own, too, because they smartly percieve it as a "wedge issue" that encompasses the whole of national discontent and which could very possibly result in the toppling of an authoritarian president, "elected" only via well documented electoral fraud, with absolutely not a shred of moral authority among his own people. In just one week, humble and dignified Javier Sicilia has collected the free-floating moral authority that nobody else could credibly assume in this Failed State named Mexico and supplanted the napoleanic Calderón as the moral leader of a nation. A big reason that has happened is because, due to his columns over so many years, everybody knows that Sicilia dislikes political parties, has zero interest in running for political office, and serves as a kind of "anti-caudillo" figure at contrast with the strong swashbuckling machismo of so many previous political and revolutionary leaders that the public has grown uneasy with. This is not to say that "the Sicilian" who now puts order to "the mafias" is any kind of pushover at all. When he speaks of the need for criminals to return to their "codes of honor" and leave civilians alone, a guy named Giordano understands exactly what a guy named Sicilia is talking about: this is a man with guts and cunning, too, and one who knows his enemy, and his enemy's history.
Which brings us to what was actually an even more significant march yesterday, led by Sicilia in his city of Cuernavaca. The photo up above, the front page of El Diario de Morelos, tells 50,000 words, all of them voiced by someone who came to the protest there. Greg Berger, who teaches cinema at the state university in Cuernavaca, and the Narco News Team were there, too, and are currently banging out a viral video for NNTV on what happened - and what is still happening - there.
In a country where the Armed Forces inspire fear among everyday citizens (so much so that it is routine for a bar or restaurant to have a sign indicating that it will not serve people in uniform), more so in the past four years than ever before, it is not every day that 50,000 people - the largest march in the history of Cuernavaca, even of the entire state of Morelos - go to the gates of a military base and demand that the soldiers stay quarantined there. But that is exactly what happened. On a normal day, you can pass by that base and there are multiple gunmen in uniform stationed at watchposts, watching you and everybody else pass by. The military had the good sense to pull those troops back yesterday and there were few to be seen at all, according to our reporters. Then Javier Sicilia climbed atop a microbus and addressed the Armed Forces directly, with a nonviolent army at his back. There, he told them, "You have always been the custodians of peace for our nation. That's why we never want to see you again outside of your barracks." That just isn't ever said. Oh, wait. It just was, and for the multitude assembled, it was the reestablishment of the proper social order: that in a democracy, an army, if there is one, must be at service of the people. Four years of Calderón having reversed that order - he converted the people into mere pieces on the Army's chess board, objects to be pushed around, stopped, searched, invaded, molested and assassinated - has brought the public to its absolute limit.
Cuernavaca is now the unlikely epicenter of something of revolutionary potential: the reestablishment of the proper order of things in which a people rule its own country. It has been a bloody battlefield for four years (before that it was a tranquil flowered city with a strong pull on tourists who now no longer come there due to Calderón's War) but now it is a new kind of battlefield: a struggle to reconquer the terrain of daily life for every citizen, every family, block by block for every neighborhood. And nobody knows where this is going to go but I have an idea, and I will pose it with a question:
What happens when a neighborhood declares itself a military-free zone, and erects its own nonviolent checkpoints and barricades on traffic that enters it, with the goal of either keeping uniformed authorities out, or making them agree to the people's established rules before they enter? Very soon, Calderón, as commander of the Armed Forces, may have to answer this question. Does he repeat his arrogant history and engage the people themselves as enemy combatants, this time under the attention of the national media? And if he does, what will that spark in the next neighborhood over, in the city, in the state, in the entire country?
It is often said that the war on drugs has no clear enemy nor objectives. Javier Sicilia and the people of Cuernavaca - as well as the tens of thousands from throughout Mexico who marched in solidarity and for the same demands with them - have just called the bluff of the drug war. They have said, We know who the enemy is. It is us! And now we accept that fact and will deal with it accordingly, our way.
Kind reader, I would like you to think about that. It is important that you understand what is underway in Mexico, and especially in Cairovaca... oh, excuse me, I meant to say... Cuernavaca.
And in a little while I'll come back to this page and begin posting photos and reflections of yesterday's marches. But what you have just read, that is what makes this history.
And now for the updates...
5:13 p.m. The homemade sign in this placard at yesterday's march in Mexico City translates as: "Some fathers are poets. All children are poems."
Poets, writers (many journalists consider themselves one or the other or both), songwriters, screenwriters, really, artists of any sort, tend to identify with Javier Sicilia's tragic loss of a son. The Mexican painter Francisco Toledo led yesterday's march in Oaxaca city, and today the actor Edward James Olmos showed up in Cuernavaca to add his voice to the struggle. I ran into a poet friend of mine yesterday who has always told me he didn't like demonstrations or political organizations, but there he was. He looked almost embarrassed to have done so but at the same time he could not turn away. We can safely expect that the entire artistic and creative class of Mexico is in this fight, in one way or another, already. And that will help greatly in its creativity beyond the "same old, same old" slogans, images, icons and tactics that have slowed down other worthy but in the end not very creative struggles...
More to come...
5:37 p.m. Oh my, it seems this report has "gone viral" on the Internet and its social networks. If you would like to see more of this kind of reporting - we call it authentic journalism - then check out another essay we posted today from one of the talents we are training this year, Namees Arnous, of Cairo: An Authentic Journalist Speaks from a Free Egypt: "Let Me Tell You a Story about Media and Revolution."
Namees, along with other Egyptians and 80 journalists from 40 countries, will be with us soon in Mexico at the School of Authentic Journalism at a ten-day course that charges no tuition. We are already learning plenty from our colleagues who toppled Mubarak and finding many applications for their tactics and strategies on this side of the lake! Feel free to help that along; this project does all that it does mostly on small contributions from readers like you. Listen to Namees and do what she says!
Anyway, now back to our regularly scheduled programing...
Friday, 11:35 a.m. A group of university students in Cuernavaca had already been studying the use of viral video in the Egyptian revolution when recent events hit their own city. In a collaboration with our creative friends, Los Detonadores, they started a Facebook page, Todos Somos Juan Francisco Sicilia ("We Are All Juan Francisco Sicilia") in memory and tribute to the poet's son, of their city and generation, whose assassination began this fast-moving chain of events. It is modeled after a Facebook page in Egypt that they studied in sequence, from the page's first day of publication, named We Are All Kahled Said, through its growth to its present 100,000+ strong. The Egyptian page served as a clearing house for "viral video conversations" in which people would borrow from each others' videos (adding new music or ideas) to make new ones. And it helped create a collective vision of what resistance and revolution in Egypt might look like, long in advance of the January 25 protests. (And there happens to be real interesting news out of Cairo today, with a new mobilization on Tahrir Square to "purify" the government from the remnants of the regime, under the title of "Warning Friday: Revolution Still Alive.")
They and their friends have now collaborated on two viral videos from Cuernavaca. This first one is from the demonstrations on Wednesday in Cuernavaca and Mexico City, and includes don Javier's message to the Armed Forces to go back to their barracks:
The second one highlights the protests in solidarity with Cuernavaca around the world:
NNTV's video report on these events is in fast and furious production as I type (some of the same youngsters who did such fast and good work on these videos are also busy assisting in our Cuernavaca newsroom with that). Stay tuned!