By Alissa Escarce, former Witness for Peace delegate Since August 12th members of Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and U.S. citizens who stand in solidarity with them have been making their way through the United States to share personal testimonies of assassinated daughters, disappeared husbands, and the ways that U.S. policy is contributing to violence in Mexico. Along the way, they have met and joined forces with victims of the Drug War in the U.S., demanding an end to the violence through a radical rethinking of the drug prohibition model, addressing the trafficking of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico, finding tools to combat money laundering, abandoning a militarized approach to confronting drug cartels, and forgoing immigration policies which criminalize and endanger immigrants. The Caravan for Peace will conclude its journey through the U.S. on September 12 in D.C. Former Witness for Peace delegate, Alissa Escarce, writes more about her experience as part of the Caravan for Peace. Check out her first article from aboard the Caravan and stay tuned for more!
As the caravaneros spilled out of buses in Selma, Alabama last week, we were welcomed by a local black pastor who began the day with a bit of regional history. He told us about Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black deacon who was murdered in February 1965 for attempting to vote, and about the marchers who responded to the murder by setting out from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights. The first march, he said, was attended by 600 people and ended bloodily on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troopers and local sheriffs’ deputies beat the marchers back to Selma. Two weeks later, three thousand marchers set out, crossed the bridge successfully and arrived in Montgomery after four days, surrounded by 25,000 supporters. In July of that same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The caravaneros and local hosts had gathered on this morning to consider the lessons that the United States’ Civil Rights Movement could offer their struggle against the destruction that the War on Drugs has wreaked on their communities. The caravaneros brought tales and photographs of family members murdered and disappeared during the six years since President Felipe Calderón declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels with U.S support. Local hosts told stories of men and women disenfranchised by incarceration for nonviolent crimes, of drug addicts unable to find affordable rehabilitation programs, of communities ravaged by gang violence. Following in the footsteps of those who demanded voting rights half a century ago, these two groups were gathered to demand that the U.S. government end the domestic and international War on Drugs, invest the savings in education and public health, and tighten regulations on weapons dealers and money laundering banks.
As his history lesson drew to a close, the Reverend emphasized that the reason the Civil Rights Movement had been so successful was because it brought together black people from different class and social backgrounds, as well as people outside the black community. “For this Movement for Peace to be strong and succeed,” he explained, “it’s going to have to bring together the many different kinds of people suffering under the War on Drugs.”
“The Edmund Pettus Bridge belongs to all those who are fighting for freedom!” he finished. The caravaneros picked up posters bearing photos of their dead and disappeared and marched across the bridge, chanting “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos! Alive they took them, alive we want them!”
From the Caravan’s starting points in California through its stops in Texas, I sometimes found myself forgetting which side of the border I was on. Most of our local hosts spoke Spanish and served Mexican food, and many local witnesses to drug war violence had lost family members or received threats in Mexico. As soon as we pulled into Jackson, Mississippi, however, it was clear that we had left Mexico behind. Dry desert air was replaced by thick humidity, burritos by fried chicken. In Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, and Atlanta, our hosts were black religious and community leaders. Many came from institutions affiliated with the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement; some had marched beside Dr. Martin Luther King himself. As they denounced drug war violence in Mexico and proclaimed their solidarity with the Caravan, the sacred Civil Rights sites we visited rang with the unique spiritual energy of the United States’ most influential grassroots movement. It’s a contagious kind of energy, and it infected our group.
“It’s incredible to see how one man could move masses of people, could move almost thirty thousand people in a single march,” caravanera Olga Reyes told me as she reflected on our discussions about Dr. King. A longtime human rights defender from Juarez, Olga joined the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) to denounce the murders of six of her family members, all victims of criminal-military collusion who were targeted for their social and environmental activism. Her friend Margarita Lopez, who joined the movement after her nineteen-year-old daughter was kidnapped, tortured and decapitated alive, added, “I think it’s a great motivation, this movement that Martin Luther King led in the United States. If they could go out in the streets so can we, as Mexicans, and that motivates me to get out there day after day.”
Equally striking to Olga and Margarita has been the realization that the War on Drugs has produced a kind of pain in the United States’ black community that is not so different from their own. “We have learned that there is violence everywhere,” Margarita said of the Caravan. “Every day we go to new places and see new people, and in each place there are people who come to us to tell us that they are suffering from the same circumstances as we are. It’s been a very beautiful experience, but also a sad one. I have had the opportunity to raise my voice with other cultures, with different kinds of people, and I think we understand each other. They know our pain, they feel our anguish.”
At a dinner in Montgomery, I interpreted as the two women chatted with a twenty-one year old black man who had moved to Alabama just months before to escape gang life in Washington, D.C. He showed us the puckered scars on his elbow, on his hip, on the back of one calf, memories of the gunshot wounds he had received periodically since the age of 13. He told us that he missed his mother, and Margarita reached out to squeeze his hand. A young girl sitting by him asked them what the Caravan was about, and Olga told her, “We are here because we are suffering from violence in Mexico, and we know that you are suffering here too, and we want to come together to fight for peace.” The girl smiled.
Several of our hosts, as well as Caravan supporter Neil Franklin from the U.S.-based organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, have referred to the anti-Drug-War movement as a contemporary moral equivalent to both the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement or the 19th century movement to abolish slavery. History is a story of actions and reactions, and just as sharecropping and Jim Crow laws emerged to reinstate the status quo following abolition, so the War on Drugs emerged in response to Civil Rights and other movements of the 1960s—or so argues Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar whose work was a central topic at a Caravan event in Houston, Texas. In the early 1970s, Alexander has found, conservative political strategists discovered “that thinly veiled promises to get tough on ‘them,’ a group of people not so suddenly defined by race, could be enormously successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party in droves.” It’s not difficult to imagine ways that enthusiasm for toughness towards people of color might also have fed into the militarized drug policies, like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, that the U.S. has implemented in Latin America since the end of the Cold War.
After four decades of the domestic War on Drugs, our hosts repeated again and again, the evils of Jim Crow have been replaced with those of mass incarceration. The U.S. now has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners, a quarter of whom are in jail on nonviolent drug charges. Despite much evidence that people of all races use and sell drugs at about the same rates, two thirds of those incarcerated for drugs are people of color. They are denied the very rights to vote, get good jobs, and freedom of movement that the Civil Rights Movement briefly achieved. Ending the War on Drugs, shifting from a model based on prohibition and national security to one based on regulation and public health, ought thus to be a priority for those concerned with social justice in the United States as much as it is for those concerned with peace abroad.
Standing by Dr. King’s tomb in Atlanta last Thursday, Civil Rights veteran Gerald Durley honored Javier Sicilia, the Mexican poet who founded the MPJD after his son, Juan Francisco, was assassinated on March 28th, 2011. Likening Sicilia to Dr. King, Durley shouted, “This man is a giant!” The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity cannot simply be compared to King’s, though. It’s a bold idea to take a grassroots movement across a border and into the heart of a global power whose own citizens are rarely aware of the horrific consequences of its foreign policies. Such an effort comes with new challenges. U.S. citizens joined the Civil Rights movement in droves because the issues were immediately relevant to their lives; Mexicans have done the same with the MPJD since the spring of 2011, flooding roads and public squares whenever marches are announced. Their collective howl of pain and outrage, hundreds of thousands of voices strong, has drawn the attention international media and of President Calderón. But these hundreds of thousands of Mexican drug war victims’ family members cannot cross the border to join us in New York or Washington, D.C. If the movement is to be successful in calling for changes to U.S. policies that contribute to violence in Mexico, then, masses of people on this side of the border will have to find common cause with the caravaneros in unprecedented ways.
New challenges are generating creative solutions, though, not least in the Movement’s growing repertoire of bi-national chants. These include adaptations of both Civil Rights classics and Mexican protest anthems. As we marched from Dr. King’s tomb to Atlanta’s City Hall, a local black community leader crooned “Ain’t gonna let no Drug War turn me ‘round,” while the rest of us sang a Spanish translation of “We Shall Overcome.” Mexico City activists adjusted the words of a chant usually used to invoke the early-20th-century revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, shouting, “Si Luther King viviera, con nosotros estuviera!/If King were alive, he would be on our side!” Such cultural integration bodes well for the caravan, whose end goal, in Margarita Lopez’s words, is “to bring together every culture, to bring together many, many people, so that the Movement for Peace will be reborn from its ashes, like a phoenix.” Let’s stand together to turn the MPJD into a movement that will make a difference not just in Mexico, but also show the best of what the United States represents.
Stand in solidarity with the victims of the Drug War in the U.S. and Mexico by joining the Caravan’s last events in Washington, D.C.
To learn more about how the Drug War and U.S. policies are affecting people in Mexico, consider joining a Witness for Peace delegation. Visit www.witnessforpeace.org for more information.