|English | Español||February 9, 2016 | Issue #67|
After Four Months of Struggle in Mexico, a Lesson for the Cynics
The Movement Inspired by Javier Sicilia and Family Members of Drug War Victims Is Already Achieving Policy Changes
By Al Giordano
Other foreign reporters, a very few at first, made an honest attempt to report the fledgling movement, but would comment to me privately, “Al, c’mon, you don’t really think any change is going to come of this, do you?” (Yes, but better to let the facts speak for themselves to explain why that is.)
And the worst of our profession made such proclamations of this movement’s certain defeat in texts of their so-called “news stories” (which always strikes me as especially arrogant coming from people who have no actual experience organizing, leading or winning a social movement’s demands), with the obligatory kiss-of-death of declaring a young movement failed upon arrival. Some did it out of malice. Others did it because that is the tax they render unto the Caesar of freelance media employment and it’s an ironclad way to brownnose the bosses. Others, with even less intelligence, spout such nonsense in the name of “objectivity.” As our colleague Gregory Berger commented on one such story, “Declaring that a young movement is going to lose is akin to blowing up a convoy.”
Add to the cynicism of the mercenary journalists the envy and rivalry of the political class; from the political parties of right, left and other, to many “activists” who quickly expressed indignation with the movement, often personalized toward its most known figurehead Javier Sicilia, precisely because this movement was not repeating the same old tactics and rhetoric that most movements have parroted. The political party-liners loathed Sicilia’s anti-electoral tone and his equal opportunity disdain toward all the political parties. That resentment has been particularly embittered from some columnists and supporters of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD, in its Spanish initials), and its house organ, the daily La Jornada in Mexico City, where some folks apparently feel that this movement should simply drop all other plans, line up and support its electoral path to power.
The political hacks were not alone in this panic over Sicilia and the movement. The fetishists of armed struggle loathed the movement’s open adherence to nonviolence (interestingly, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation – EZLN, in its Spanish initials – has been a notable exception to the cynicism and has taken to the streets en masse to express clear solidarity and support for Sicilia and the movement of drug war victims). Others, obsessed with demonizing a single head of state (the “daddy figure” of whoever is president, they used to obsess similarly over guys named Fox, Zedillo and Salinas, as they surely will over whomever comes next) attacked Sicilia and other family members for meeting with President Felipe Calderón on national TV, and even for hugging him during the session. (You know that activism has become dysfunctional when some consider that arguing over whether other people should hug each other is a topic for serious political debate.) And some “professional activists,” expert in manipulating the group process of “assemblies” to get their way on behalf of their pet issues or ideological tendencies, accused Sicilia of not binding his actions and statements to the approval of some kind of Central Council or activist version of “democracy” that, in so many failed movements of the past, has caused the general public to tire, grow bored, detest the internecine power plays between factional groups, egos, and ideologues, and run for the exit doors leaving the aspiring generals without any troops to, ahem, assemble.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the “sure defeat” that so many predicted for what now titles itself the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity in Mexico. It refused to believe the many obituaries published about it, and walked to the beat of its own drummer. As Thoreau said and Frost put into a poem, it chose the path less traveled, and that has made all the difference in the world.
Last Thursday, in the same Castle of Chapultepec where they had met in June with Calderón, the families of drug war victims along with advisors knowledgeable in themes of human rights and legislation, and observers from the many flanks of the movement that has grown around Sicilia – indigenous, Catholic, youth, artist, poet, journalist, worker, campesino, middle class, and more – sustained an eight-hour meeting with the Congressional leaders of all six national political parties and their relevant committee chairman, and it was nationally televised on the Canal del Congreso with a hundred cameras and pens from the media to cover it.
Without the singularly polarizing figure of Calderón in the room, and with more practice the movement itself was better organized for the session, this historic meeting got down to business fairly quickly. Family members of drug war victims told their stories and of their pain, some, including Sicilia, wept at the memory of their open wounds, and then they fielded their experts on each of their chosen themes to outline exactly what kind of legislation they want out of Congress.
And there, on Thursday, July 28, 2011 – four months after the deaths of the young men who lit the fuse of this movement from their tombs – the leaders of each of the political parties fell all over each other trying to demonstrate that their party was most in favor of meeting most of those demands.
In this land of “no pasa nada,” where “no” has always been the answer by Congress (as it was by the President to this same movement in June) toward social movement demands – and this is as fresh a wound as the noncompliance with the San Andres Peace Accords for indigenous autonomy in 2001, and the 2005 “desafuero” that attempted to prohibit the presidential candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador – July 28 suddenly became The National Day of “Yes.”
Sicilia began the session with the Congressional leadership without pulling any punches. He gave it to them, “duro.” Hard:
“Here we are again, in Chapultepec Castle, after walking thousands of kilometers and embracing each other in order to break the loneliness and the pain which the criminals and a negligent state – co-opted and corrupt – have together imposed on us against the truth in our hearts that is peace and friendship. We have come here again, leaving our families, jobs, and carrying heavier loads than we can bear, in order to, as we did with the President, speak and remind you that despite the immense salaries that you earn, which are from the work of the good men and women in this nation, you have a duty. We don’t like it being like this. But a long time ago the lawmakers of this nation, in the name of their own petty interests and those of their political parties, in the name of their privileges and their business, in the name of bad ideas from the government, have moved away from us. The state, we remember, isn’t as it was conceived by the culture that left us with the old regime that you continually expand as a criminal education. It is not a place for political looting or a place for contractors. It is that which the nation has been building with the blood and the pain of its best men and women, a place for statesmen. The lawmakers don’t listen to the rhythms and the heartbeat of the country. They, joined by the criminals and other powers, seek to hijack the democratic aspirations and the hope for well being from the nation.
“You have done it through omission, ignorance and complicity. These things exist because you have not stopped them…”
Julián LeBaron of the northern state of Chihuahua, who lost family members to assassins in 2009 and has emerged as one of the strategic and tactical minds of the movement (for years prior he had studied successful nonviolent movements around the world), also addressed the legislative session and the greater public tuning in to it:
“I invite you, starting today, with your actions, to stop our historic legacy from being suffocated while the eagle drowns in our own blood. You cannot be makers of laws that have permitted the impugn atrocity against tens of thousands of Mexican citizens; assassinated, disappeared, tortured, kidnapped and humiliated. Not yesterday, not today, nor tomorrow. Never!
“Mexican citizens: It is time to stop being victims and stop asking for solutions from the interlocutors who have proved their indifference and incapacity and to take charge of our own destiny. It is time to accept this responsibility and that’s why it is necessary that you, the legislators, if you are our representatives, you must also participate in this Movement for Peace.”
One of the most emotional moments came early in the eight-hour session, when Gabriela Cadena, mother of one of the close friends killed with Juan Francisco Sicilia on March 27, spoke:
“Not a single day passes that I don’t think about the suffering and pain of my son and his friends, in his final moments, when they knew an evil they could never have imagined, an evil that has no name. When they went killing them one by one…
“It is not enough to punish those who commit a crime. You have to find mechanisms and ways to rescue and alleviate the difficult situation in which we remain the surviving victims.”
Cadena and Sicilia, seated side by side, first fought their tears, reliving that horrible night, and then could no more. They hugged in mutual solace while the legislators shifted nervously in their chairs around the long rectangular group of tables with a green garden in the middle. Moments like this have been regular occurrences in this movement, its walks, its caravans and its public events. They shatter the going about of business-as-usual and illustrate the authenticity and humanity of the cause. They cleanse the political and media environments of all the toxins, envies and rivalries for moments long enough for the rest of us to think and see the bigger picture of what is at stake here. They erase and put the pettiness that defines politics-as-we-know it in its proper discredited place.
After a series of men and women spoke of their personal stories and pain under the violent war on drugs, the movement then rolled out various specialists on themes of human rights who made concrete and very specific proposals for the Congress to act upon. Although Sicilia, in his opening remarks, made it crystal clear that this is a movement that seeks to decriminalize drugs the technical portion of the presentation was devoted to more immediately attainable goals. Human rights defender Emilio Alvarez Icaza summarized the proposals: A national law to protect and aid the victims of the war; federalize the crime of forced disappearance and design effective mechanisms to combat it; a national registry of kidnapped and disappeared persons; appoint civilian advisors to the National Security Council; create the position of Special Auditor of federal police forces; make a high school education obligatory and provide the resources to do so, the formation of a national Truth Commission to investigate and quantify the damage done by the errant policy of militarizing the drug war… And on each of those proposals, the leaders of the national political parties responded with resounding yeses.
The movement speakers didn’t stop at the incremental, though. They also demanded a political reform law to allow the citizens a right to referendum, plebiscite, candidates independent of political parties and other changes in the political system. And they demanded that the Security Law (something like a Mexican version of the US Patriot Act, giving broad new powers to the state that will surely be used against social movements as well) be defeated.
Distinct from the June meeting with Calderón, this time the Movement for Peace emphasized detailed policy proposals presented by experts in the themes like former UN High Commission on Human Rights officer and Mexican investigator Clara Jusidman Rapaport, Ernesto López Portillo and Elena Azaola of the Mexico City based Institute for Security and Democracy, human rights defender Fabian Sánchez, the Catholic gray eminence of human rights and liberation theology Father Miguel Concha, introduced one by one by Sicilia and Alvarez Icaza.
The response from the legislative leaders, including the Senate and House leaders of the National Action Party (PAN, in its Spanish initials), the party of Calderon, was to “pedir perdón”: to ask for forgiveness from Sicilia and the families for having participated in the creation of the monstrous situation of violence plaguing the Mexican people. “I add mine to the apologies that have been given here. I beg your forgiveness for not having been up to the speed that the citizens deserve and demand. I beg forgiveness because shielded by legislative immunity, that the citizens do not have, sometimes one turns to verbal violence and resigns from dialogue and the value of the word that is the value of the person,” said PAN legislator and presidential aspirant Josefina Vásquez Mota to Sicilia during the session, echoing what leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the Green Party, the Convergence for Democracy party, the PRD and others had also done during the session.
Senator Alejandro Gertz Manero of the Convergencia party, and former district attorney of Mexico City, has long made the same argument made by Sicilia: that drug prohibition only worsens the harm to society related with illegal drugs. In an interesting moment of the dialogue, Gertz Manero, said he had been trying to reach Alvarez Icaza by telephone “every week. Let me work with you, please, as we have done before. Please return my calls!” Usually, in any country, it’s the legislators that don’t return a movement’s calls. But in four short months, the tables have turned in Mexico.
Perhaps the most powerful member of Congress, the Senate President Manlio Fabio Beltrones, of the PRI party, very specifically responded, point by point: “Yes, there will be political reform. Yes, there will be a victim’s law. Yes, there will be a budget for students to attend high school. Yes, there will be damages paid to the victims…” At the end of his intervention, Beltrones commented the obvious: “True, this really wasn’t a normal session!”
The following Monday, Beltrones told Radio Formula in Mexico City, “we are going to honor our word. We will make the reforms when we get to the Congressional session (in September) in which we also pass the economic package.”
Whether or not the Chorus of Yes was sincere or not (please refrain from the cliché stern lecture that politicians cannot be trusted – it only reveals the condescension and snobbery of those that scold social movements from their own supposed perch of superiority, especially when such warnings come from supporters of their own politicians or political parties, because everybody in the general public already knows politicians don’t keep their word) is beside the point.
The story here is that the Movement has set a series of traps for those same politicians, utilizing their preexisting rivalries with each other to crank action out of them. It is in Beltrones’ self-interest, for example, to get out in front of these reforms; they embarrass the PAN and his own rival faction inside the PRI, led by former Mexico State governor Enrique Peña Nieto, a drug war and police state hardliner with his own presidential aspirations. Perhaps the PAN presidential hopeful Vasquez Mota and her allies will also see self-interest in doing the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter to any movement that sincerely wants to attain its goals. The PRD and Convergence and Labor Party forces that make up the center-left have almost no choice but to go along with these proposals, and the possibilities for a majority coalition have advanced considerably in the course of a single day’s dialogue. That is also a trait of effective nonviolent movements: they give those in power the opportunity to do well by doing good, making it clear that the goal is changes in policy, not a hidden agenda of discrediting one faction or another, which is how too many people in politics define their own sport.
The politicians perceive, accurately, that the arrival of this movement has boomeranged the harm inflicted on a nation by its government’s own policies back in their direction and it now gathers steam toward them, much as the monster turned on Dr. Frankenstein. It has nationalized the pain and made it patrimony of the nation. They know they have to at least put on a show of sincerity and at the appearance of offering real response to the movement.
When, after the first meeting in June between the movement people and Calderón provoked a wave of criticisms by others who thought that Sicilia was somehow “legitimizing” Calderón, movement strategist Julian LeBaron told Narco News, “Now that the president has met with us, everybody has to meet with us: Congress, the governors, the state prosecutors, nobody can say no.” The second meeting, with Congress now puts Calderón in a much weaker position, especially with the smarter and more politically agile (that’s not entirely a compliment, it just means he is more effectively Machiavellian, although he would probably receive it as such) Manlio Fabio Beltrones seeing opportunity here. Congress can put the president-in-name-only back on his heels, having to acquiesce to demands he rejected back in June, or become the bad guy in the national movie to even more people than to whom he already is the devil incarnate. And given the pressures upon him from Washington to keep up the drug war farce, the Mexican head of state probably will dig his heels in, enriching his political rivals even more with the opportunity to weaken his power using the very drug war with which he once maximized it.
The loudest criticism against Javier Sicilia after the June meeting was, “how could he give that terrible man a hug?” Last Thursday, at the close of the meeting with the Congressional leadership, Sicilia said, “I have been criticized for hugging the president, and for kissing the attorney general’s hand. There are a hell of a lot of you, but I give you a hug, a kiss in the hand, even a kiss on the lips, to every one of you.”
But it still doesn’t mean that the movement will return their calls, as Senator Gertz Manero complained last Thursday. I ask you, kind readers: With so many powerful people all in one room, who is really running the show? Who has the moral authority? In four short months, everything has changed in Mexico, the country where things can be made to happen.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism