Mexican Caravan for Peace Promotes Necessary Conversation About the War on Drugs

The recent high profile capture of the Mexican drug kingpin Ivan Velazquez, also known as “El Taliban,” garnered headlines around the world. He was a senior leader of the Zetas drug cartel with a 2.34 million bounty on his head. In a set piece press conference and photo opportunity that has become de rigueur in the war on drugs, Velazquez, clad in a bulletproof vest, was flanked by two soldiers wearing black ski masks. In front of the men was a table stacked high with guns, cash, and drugs.

The arrest of Velazquez won’t end the gruesome violence of the Mexican drug war. If anything, it could set off a bloody, internecine struggle for power among other senior leaders of the Zetas.

What has the potential to end the war on drugs in Mexico is la Caravana por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad. The Caravan for Peace and Justice with Dignity that toured the United States this summer was an enormous step forward in challenging the core assumptions of the war on drugs in Mexico and the United States. Javier Sicilia, the renowned Mexican poet and writer whose son was murdered by drug cartel assassins last year, organized the caravan.

Riding with Sicilia on the caravan were dozens of family members from Mexico who had endured unspeakable losses of loved ones to the war on drugs.

Survivors of the American drug war joined them on the tour to expose the racism of the war on drugs and the astronomical incarceration rates of drug law offenders in the U.S.

From Tijuana to Washington, DC, they put a name and face on the victims who’ve died in drug-related violence. One of the central goals was to break the silence and confront the shame and stigma that surrounds drug use and involvement in the drug trade. The reality is that few Mexicans or Americans willingly chose to work for drug cartels or to participate in the cultivation and distribution of drugs: It’s a desperate, economic necessity.

The demands of the movement are pragmatic and would end the drug war.

Specifically they call for:

  • Legalizing and regulating drugs.
  • Treating drug addiction as a public health problem, not a crime.
  • Stopping the smuggling of weapons across the border into Mexico.
  • An end to money laundering.
  • Suspending U.S. aid to Mexico’s armed forces.
  • Ending the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants.

In a statement prepared for the press, Sicilia connected all the issues: “This war is an unspeakable failure. The twenty-three million drug users in America, far from diminishing in number, only increases. Mexico in the last five years has accumulated more than 70,000 deaths, more than 20,000 disappeared, more than a quarter million displaced, tens of thousands of widows and orphans. American gun manufacturers funnel weapons for this conflict via illegal networks as well as legal structures like Plan Mérida, which arms the Mexican military. American prisons hold millions for merely consuming drugs. Migrants are criminalized on this side of the border or extorted or disappeared on the other side….”

In every city, a mix of clergy, politicians, celebrities, mothers whose children died from drug overdoses, and members of drug law reform organizations joined the caravan to denounce the war on drugs.

In Arizona, caravanistas along with activists in Phoenix confronted the vicious anti-immigrant racism of Sheriff and former DEA agent Joe Arpaio. A protest was organized at Arpaio’s notorious “Tent City” jail in the desert where 2,000 prisoners are forced to wear pink underwear and endure triple-digit temperatures. The Sheriff brought back chain gangs and marches inmates through the streets, shackled, and dressed in black and white striped jumpsuits to be humiliated by onlookers. Tent City jail is crammed full of undocumented immigrant workers and young drug law violators and addicts.

In Texas, activists gathered at the El Paso-Juárez border, a major drug trafficking nexus. In 2010, a war between the Sinloa and Juárez cartels erupted over markets and transit routes. President Calderón sent thousands of troops into Cuidad Juárez. The Sinaloa gang eventually won the battle but only after 10,000 dead bodies were found on the streets. Thousands more fled from Cuidad Juárez to El Paso to escape the gruesome violence.

In a gesture of binational solidarity, the caravanistas held a moment of silence to remember the victims in Cuidad Juárez.

The offices of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were also targeted for protest. The sole purpose of the DEA is to continue ramping up the war on drugs. The organization has agents stationed in over 70 countries and a duplicitous history of ignoring drug trafficking when it’s politically expedient for the U.S. government. Recently, the DEA was implicated in the killing of four Hondurans, two were pregnant women, in a drug bust gone horribly wrong.

It doesn’t seem to matter that for over forty years the drug warriors, armed with high-tech weapons, state-of-the-art surveillance systems and a budget of billions that there’s been no decrease whatsoever in the supply or consumption of drugs anywhere in the world.

At the DEA protest, Richard Newton, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) said, “As a former federal border patrol agent, I can attest to the fact that the DEA’s criminalization approach to drug control doesn’t work, but creates so many more problems. If we replaced the failed drug war with legalized regulation, it would deal a bigger financial blow to the cartels than any law enforcement crackdown ever could.”

When the caravan pulled up at the historic Riverside Church in New York City on September 6th, spirits were high. The caravanistas were welcomed by activists from YoSoy132NY, New Sanctuary Movement, VOCAL-NY, Occupy Wall Street, and the Drug Policy Alliance.

New York City is the marijuana arrest capital of the world. Since 1996, the New York City Police Department has made nearly 600,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In 2011 alone, 50,684 were arrested for marijuana possession. This is despite the fact that marijuana was decriminalized in 1977. This marijuana dragnet is the leading edge of the war on drugs in the U.S. and disproportionately targets Blacks and Latinos who make up the vast majority of those arrested in stop and frisk searches.

Inside the packed church hall, victims of the drug war shared powerful stories during the open mic event. A Latina woman talked about her crack addiction and how the NYPD arrested her over and over again and threatened her with a ten-year prison sentence.

Melchor Flores Landa from the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon held up a large placard with a photo of his son who disappeared two years ago. With his voice full of grief and anger he said, “In Mexico we don’t live anymore, we survive.” His son was a performance artist. Landa finished by shouting, “Estoy hasta la madre!,” (We are fed up.)

There wasn’t a dry eye in the church when Olga Reyes finished telling the story of how 6 family members were murdered in drug war violence in Mexico. And now 20 of her family members are living in exile to avoid the same fate.

Other speakers talked about how Mexico has become a country of outlaws, orphans, and of modern slavery.

Javier Sicilia spoke at the end and underscored that the war on drugs in Mexico won’t end until the war on drugs in the U.S. ends. He added, “This is a fake, stupid, and mistaken war. We are neighbors and without peace, we live in brutality.”

The caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity that visited 26 U.S. cities reached an audience of thousands with the uncompromising message that the war on drugs must end.

And this grassroots activism is having an impact in both countries.

Just a few weeks after the caravan returned to Mexico, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico spoke at the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly. They called for a serious discussion and fundamental revision of international drug laws. This is unprecedented in the history of the U.N. President Otto Pérez Molina has gone the furthest and advocates for the legalization and regulation of all drugs.

That three presidents in Central America admit that the war on drugs has failed and are willing to look at alternatives is also unprecedented. It is an important step in the right direction. But it will take a movement with many more caravanistas on both sides of the border to pressure these leaders to follow through on alternatives to drug prohibition and to stand up to the United States who wants to continue it’s violent and deadly prohibitionist drug policies all over the world.