Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Victims of Violence Demand the Truth

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Sep 20 2011 (IPS) - The Peace Caravan led by poet Javier Sicilia ended its tour through southern Mexico with a loud call for the creation of a truth commission to distinguish between murders committed by organised crime groups and killings by the security forces.

University students on Peace Caravan as it arrives in Villahermosa, Tabasco, on the "Che Bus" named for revolutionary icon Che Guevara.  Credit: Celia Guerrero/IPS

University students on Peace Caravan as it arrives in Villahermosa, Tabasco, on the "Che Bus" named for revolutionary icon Che Guevara. Credit: Celia Guerrero/IPS

The “Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity” held by the families of victims of Mexico’s wave of drug-related violence has travelled a total of more than 7,000 kms this year. The first edition was a four-day march, the second a motorcade to the northeast of the country, and the third a motorcade this month to the south of the country.

The movement has documented 521 cases of violence, and the authorities were reportedly involved in many of them.

In the Peace Caravan that ended at midnight Monday in Mexico City, the activists toured eight states and met with organisations of Central American migrants and members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), an indigenous movement that runs “autonomous” villages in the southern state of Chiapas.

“What is happening is very serious. We can no longer tell where the State is and where crime is,” Sicilia said Sunday Sep. 18 in Xalapa, the capital of the southeastern state of Veracruz, on one of the Caravan’s stops.

People poured out on the streets of Xalapa to welcome the caravan, and to tell the activists about forced disappearances and murders.

In that city, the family of Joaquín Figueroa, a father of three who worked as a mechanic at the Trituradora Río Seco company, reported that he and two of his fellow workers were picked up by the police, tortured and killed on Jun. 17, supposedly so they could be passed off as “sicarios” or thugs in the service of drug cartels.

Janet Figueroa, the victim’s daughter, publicly accused the army and the state and federal police of killing innocent civilians to show that they are making inroads against the cartels by killing supposed sicarios in the military’s war on criminal groups declared by conservative President Felipe Calderón when he took office in December 2006.

“When we demand justice, we are scorned and ignored because we are poor – they want to pay us off to keep us quiet, but no: we want them to know that my father was not a sicario. Joaquín Figueroa was an honest man,” the young woman said.

Calderón’s anti-crime strategy has caused more than 40,000 deaths, according to official figures which coincide with those of civil society organisations.

The president gave his assurances in April that only one percent of the murder victims were “civilian casualties”. However, the movement of relatives of victims of violence in Mexico, headed by Sicilia since his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was murdered on Mar. 28, has demonstrated that this is far from true.

The movement has registered 221 cases of victims of the security forces, including 116 forced disappearances. The states where the largest numbers of cases were documented were Guerrero, Chiapas and Veracruz in the south.

In Xalapa, Sicilia used a metaphor – “mud, which is water and dirt mixed together” – to explain the confusion about who is responsible for the wave of violence in Mexico.

“We don’t know if there are ‘false positives’ (the term used to refer to extrajudicial killings by authorities of civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat), like in Colombia; we don’t know who is ‘disappearing’ whom,” he said.

In the face of the “national emergency” in a country where, besides the murder victims, 10,000 people have been “disappeared”, 700,000 have been forced to flee their homes, and an undetermined number have been injured, maimed, widowed and orphaned, “the truth has to come to light, so justice can be done,” Sicilia added.

“That’s why we are urging the government to correct its course, because it looks like the only way it wants to combat this is, unfortunately, by militarising the country,” the renowned poet and journalist said.

In an interview with IPS, Pietro Ameglio, an academic who is a member of the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) human rights group, said it was necessary to return to the public outrage that fuelled the start of the movement, which in the last few months has lost the support of groups that are opposed to dialogue with the authorities.

“It should be understood that this is a movement of victims, and that it is they who set the pace,” he said.

Unlike the previous motorcade, which headed north from Mexico City, this time there was significantly less media coverage.

The local media have been focusing instead on the pre-campaigning and vying for nomination by aspiring candidates for the 2012 presidential elections.

In addition, several incidents occurred in this month’s edition of the Peace Caravan as it wound its way through Tabasco and Veracruz, including a warning of an ambush of the vehicle in which Sicilia was riding, and the detention of Catholic priest Tomás González on Saturday Sep. 17.

González, who receives constant death threats for his work on behalf of undocumented Central American migrants, had spoken out against alleged corruption in the National Migration Institute the evening before he was detained for several hours by members of the military.

Over the next few days, the peace movement must define the position it will take in its second meeting with Calderón, which was originally set for this week but was postponed to Sep. 30 by the president’s office.

The movement is facing the lack of an internal structure, a debt it owes to the transport service it hired for the southern Peace Caravan, and problems of coordination with regional organisations.

But Sicilia has the unconditional support of around two dozen relatives of victims of violence who in the past few months have become peace activists like him.

One of them is Julián Le Barón from the state of Chihuahua, whose brother Benjamín, the leader of a Mormon community that organised to protect itself against kidnappings and investigate and prosecute criminals, was killed in July 2009 by men dressed as soldiers.

“Sometimes it’s hard,” Le Barón said. “I haven’t seen my family for a month, but now (after the caravans) I feel that I know how the country’s problems could be solved.

“I wasn’t sure before, but Acteal confirmed it for me, and I feel that I have no right to stop fighting, because apathy is the worst kind of shame,” he said.

He was referring to a village in the southern state of Chiapas where he and other members of the Peace Caravan met over the weekend with survivors, relatives and friends of a group of 45 Tzotzil Indians murdered Dec. 22, 1997.

He told IPS that “Acteal is a symbol for all victims; these people are an example to all of us of what we should do, that is, not ask of anyone what we are not prepared to do ourselves.”

“The north gave us a picture of the pain racking the country, but the south gave us a demonstration of the dignity that is out there. And we need to see both of those things,” he told a group of journalists along the route.

On Monday Sep. 19, outside the National Palace, Mexico’s federal government building on the Zócalo, the central square in the capital, where the caravan was welcomed by a crowd of trade unionists and activists, Sicilia called on the Calderón administration to adopt the six-point citizens pact that the movement first presented in the square on May 8.

One of the pact’s demands is that the army, which Calderón has deployed to fight the drug cartels, be sent back to the barracks.

He also called for passage of a Victims Law, and spoke out against a National Security law currently being debated by the lower house of Congress, which would give the government greater leeway for deploying the armed forces in the fight against organised crime.

“We have seen that the open wound in Ciudad Juárez (the city on the U.S. border that was the destination of the first motorcade, and which has a reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world), due to President Calderón’s failed war strategy, has spread like gangrene towards the south of the country to converge with the ancestral pain suffered by the indigenous peoples and communities of the south,” said Sicilia, who says the two manifestations of violence have the same origin: the economic system.

“Guerrero and Veracruz have today become replicas of (the violence-racked areas of) Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey and Tamaulipas,” he lamented.

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