Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Social Networking Sites Mobilise Mexicans Fed Up with Violence

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Apr 7 2011 (IPS) - Thousands of people took to the streets in 20 cities across Mexico Wednesday to protest the wave of drug-related killings, in demonstrations triggered by the murder of the son of poet Javier Sicilia, in another show of the power of social networking sites in channelling public outrage.

At the time set for the protest, 5:00 PM (11:00 PM GMT), there were no more than 1,000 demonstrators on the esplanade outside the Palace of Fine Arts in downtown Mexico City.

“We’re going to face a national emergency with this?” one young woman asked her friends in a discouraged voice.

Fifteen minutes later, when a group of students from the Claustro de Sor Juana private university began to lead the march, the column started to widen, although there were not enough people yet to prevent the anxious looks of activists who peered back to check on the size of the crowd.

But by 6:30, when the first protesters reached the National Palace, the seat of the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón, they breathed a sigh of relief: the plaza was packed full of people.

Estimates by participants in the protest in the Mexican capital ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 demonstrators. That might sound like a small number in a city of 21 million people. But it was seen as impressive for the first protest to emerge from the social networking sites, against the spiralling violence that has plagued this country over the last few years.

“It is an impressive demonstration, if you consider that there was no organisation, political party or TV station behind it,” Agustín Guerrero, a federal lawmaker of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), told IPS, walking alongside the party’s local leader, Manuel Oropeza.

This time, the mainstream media did not play a central role in the demonstrations, and were reluctant guests in a citizen movement, which in just 48 hours took off in Twitter and Facebook, giving rise to protests in 20 cities in Mexico and half a dozen cities in several other countries.

The call for the protest was launched by poet Javier Sicilia, who writes for the weekly newspaper Proceso. His 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was killed Mar. 28 along with three of his friends and three other people.

The seven bodies were found in a car parked in an upscale neighbourhood in Morelos, a state that borders the capital. The victims bore signs of torture, and their bodies were bound.

Javier Sicilia, a well-known pacifist, quickly became a symbol for millions of Mexicans tired of the bloodshed unleashed when Calderón launched an all-out offensive against the drug cartels upon taking office in December 2006.

The strategy, which has involved the participation of the military in the war on organised crime, has left 35,000 people dead in four years, and an undetermined number of widows, orphans, victims of forced disappearance, maimed victims, and people who have been forced to leave their homes or flee into exile.

“We have had it up to here,” Sicilia told the criminals, the politicians and the government when he flew back from the Philippines, where he was reading his work in a recital when the body of his son was found.

His call for people to come out and protest drew a diverse crowd. Tatiana Clouthier, the daughter of late former presidential candidate Manuel Clouthier, an iconic figure in the ruling National Action Party (PAN), took part in the march in the northern state of Sinaloa, for example.

And Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos participated in the protest in Morelos, explaining that he read Sicilia’s letter on the Internet and caught a plane to accompany him.

The parents of young people killed last year when gunmen stormed a birthday party in the border city of Ciudad Juárez and of children killed in a 2009 fire at a day care centre in the northwestern state of Sonora were also in the march in Morelos.

In the capital, the protest included trade unionists from the Compañía de Luz y Fuerza power company shut down by the Calderón administration; peasant farmers from San Salvador Atenco, who fought the state for their right to land; Eduardo Gallo, a father who tracked down the murderers of his daughter; feminists, writers, caricaturists, actors and people from all walks of life and of all ages.

“I’m not protesting because of the violence, but because of the impunity,” said actor Joaquín Cosío, who played the character of Cochiloco in the film El Infierno, a visually shocking parody of Mexico’s drug trafficking industry and drug-related violence.

“Because we have a near-sighted, deaf government that only engages in monologues and only knows how to say it is not guilty of anything,” he told IPS.

Others quite literally wore their pain on their sleeves, like dance teacher Beatriz Alba, who travelled from the resort city of Acapulco to take part in the march, with the name of her young student Erika Lizeth Chávez written on her arms. Chávez was murdered by her kidnappers in 2010 when her family was unable to pay the ransom they demanded.

“They found her suffocated with tape, in a diaper box,” she says, crying.

The death of Sicilia’s son occurred just before the government and Mexico’s leading news organisations signed an agreement to follow a list of guidelines in the coverage of drug-related violence.

The agreement was signed four days before the murders and publicised as part of the “Mexico Initiative”, a campaign aimed at showing the country’s “success stories.”

The guidelines include, for example, not publishing gruesome images, like photos of beheaded bodies.

The big media did not put the news of the murders of Sicilia and his friends on their front pages or at the opening of their newscasts. But the news, as well as statements by the poet and expressions of solidarity and condolences, circulated swiftly on the social networking sites.

The tension grew in the hours leading up to the demonstrations. Calderón invited Sicilia to Los Pinos, the president’s official residence, to inform him of the progress made in the investigation of the murders.

But the writer responded by calling for a change in strategy, and later sent a new message from Morelos.

“I have decided to stay here in the protest in this plaza, in front of the offerings that have been made to our children, together with all those who want to accompany me, and in prayer, until Apr. 13. That is the deadline we have given the governments of (Morelos Governor) Marco Antonio Adame and Felipe Calderón to bring the murderers of our children and their accomplices to court.

“If they fail to do so, we will hold a national march in Mexico City demanding the resignation of the governor himself and a halt to this absurd war, where the immense majority of the victims have come from civil society,” he added.

His message was also addressed to young people in Mexico, who he said should use the social networking sites to organise and take to the streets. “Take control of the present and decide the destiny and the nation that you want,” he urged them.

But the challenge issued by the writer also raised questions in a country where only three out of 10 people have access to the Internet, and just 10 percent of Mexico’s 110 million people are users of the social networking sites.

In the meantime, at least 59 bodies were found Wednesday in eight mass graves on a ranch in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The remains were found during an investigation into the kidnapping of passengers from buses by gunmen in late March.

The impact of the online mobilisation on what seems like an impossible task, curbing the bloodshed, has yet to be seen.

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