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Survivors of Mexico's drug violence tell US government 'We need a new approach'

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(Read caption) Roberto Villanueva, from Mexico City, holds a sign as the Caravan for Peace arrives at the AFL-CIO headquarters Monday, Sept. 10, in Washington. The Caravan for Peace ended their month-long, 26 American city tour in Washington on September 12.

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

One hundred and ten victims of violence from Mexico and human rights activists traveled thousands of miles, caravanning in 2 buses to visit 25 cities across the United States to urge communities from Los Angeles to New York, Tucson to Montgomery to help them stop the ... violence that is afflicting their families and their country. The Latin America Working Group was proud to join with Global Exchange and other partners to host this historic caravan as they ended their journey on September 12, 2012 in Washington, DC. 

They came, in this “Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity,” to deliver a message: The United States has a responsibility in the violence that is causing us such immense pain.  You must rethink the ways in which your actions or your failure to act are contributing to the sorrow we endure.  There are over 60,000 dead and 10,000 disappeared in Mexico since 2006 as [a] result of the violence of the drug war.  These are our sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. There should not be one single victim more.

Eighteen-year-old Daniel, originally from Ciudad Juarez, has had 20 family members affected by the violence.  Five family members were murdered. “They were killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were killed for being witnesses to a crime. My aunt was taken away, disappeared. Others of us, including me, are now in exile.”  

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What can we do to help, we asked?  “You can enforce the laws to stop gun trafficking.”  Right now, arms from the United States, Daniel said, “are arming the cartels. Why do you need to sell assault weapons? You do not need them to defend yourselves.” 

Seventy percent of recovered guns in Mexico which are submitted for tracing have been smuggled from the United States, according to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.  The victims are asking the United States to prohibit the importation of assault weapons into the United States, which are often smuggled into Mexico, and better enforce the laws to halt arms trafficking across the border. The Latin America Working Group and partners from both sides of the border are currently circulating a petition calling on President Obama to halt the flow of assault weapons across our southern border. 

“And you can also enforce laws against money laundering,” said Daniel. “This just gives money to the cartels. And money is power.”

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Melchor Flores held a picture of his son, who was a street artist who dressed up in silver paint and entertained crowds in Mexico’s plazas.  His son was known as “the galactic cowboy.”  Shortly before he disappeared, he had been picked up by police in Monterrey.  “We have knocked on all the doors, the Attorney General’s office, the police,” Mr. Flores said.

Relatives of victims in Mexico are doubly affected, because President Calderón and other government officials have dismissed their loss, saying the victims must have been involved in the drug trade. “I did not raise a criminal,” says Flores emphatically.  “I raised a good man.”  

When Javier Sicilia, a renowned Mexican poet, lost his son to drug violence, he wrote an open letter “To Mexico’s Politicians and Criminals,” in which he blamed the criminals for their “cruelty and senselessness,” and the politicians for their violent, corrupt and ineffective response.

“The citizenry has lost confidence in its governors, its police, its Army, and is afraid and in pain,” Mr. Sicilia wrote.   

His response catalyzed a vibrant victims’ movement in Mexico, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. Victims are demanding justice for their sons, daughters, husbands and wives, and respect and sympathy, rather than blame, for their loss. They are also asking the Mexican government to take a more constructive approach to the problem of drugs, not a brute force approach that leaves more victims in its wake.

“Mexico is in a state of emergency – and companies and governments of both countries must take responsibility for their complicity in causing this damage,” the Caravan’s website states. “Leaders on both sides of the border are responsible for the fallout of treating the sale and use of illicit drugs as a matter of national security instead of addressing it as a public health matter. This approach, carried out in Mexico by institutions that fail to respect the rule of law and have been permeated by organized crime, has resulted in our governments’ failure to protect their people and defend their rights.”

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In Sicilia’s letter to politicians and criminals, he told his government that “we have had it up to here because you only have imagination for violence, for weapons.”  The movement calls on the US government to end military aid to Mexico, and to have the imagination to think of responses to insecurity and violence that do not increase militarization, but rather strengthen justice and build communities.

Finally, the movement calls for a humane approach to immigration, rather than policies that have militarized the border, criminalized migrants, escalated deportations and cruelly deported vulnerable migrants at night back into the hands of organized crime.

“Our loved ones have names, they have mothers and fathers.  They are not collateral damage.  They have the stories of our lives,” we heard the victims say in the halls of the US Congress.  We need to hear their stories, and then do something to change the policies that have brought violence and sorrow to so many families.  Let’s get on board the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity.

– Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director at the Latin America Working Group, was the main contributor to this blog post with assistance from Jenny Johnson, Senior Associate for Mexico and the Borderlands at the Latin America Working Group, and Ruth Isabel Robles, Program Assistant at the Latin America Working Group.

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