Over the past few weeks, mass mobilizations and pointed criticism by groups and communities across Mexico have marked some of the most heated condemnation yet of the Mexican government’s increasingly unpopular military campaign to defeat organized crime. On Wednesday, April 6 thousands of people took to the streets in at least 20 Mexican cities to demand an end to the violence and impunity associated with President Calderón’s U.S.-supported “drug war” that has claimed over 35,000 lives. The day of protest has been described as a historic “sea change” in Mexican public opinion as well as an unprecedented rejection of the Mexican Army’s role in public security efforts.
While frustration and anger at the Mexican government’s failure to stem the violence have been building for some time now, these most recent protests were spurred by the murder of seven young people, one of whom was the son of acclaimed Mexican author Javier Sicilia. Upon hearing the news that his 24-year-old son had been found murdered alongside the remains of six youths, Sicilia called for nationwide demonstrations, declaring that “we will go out into the street: because we do not want one more child, one more son, assassinated.” In a stirring open letter to Mexico’s “politicians and criminals,” Sicilia writes:
We have had it up to here with you, politicians…because in your fight for power you have shamed the fabric of the nation. Because in middle of this badly proposed, badly made, badly led war, of this war that has put the country in a state of emergency, you have been incapable… of creating the consensus that the nation needs to find the unity without which this country will not be able to escape.
Sicilia’s grief over losing his son, combined with his frustration over the Mexican government’s response, resonated with Mexicans across the country and proved to be a catalyst for unified and organized action. As the Mexican people voiced their weariness with ongoing bloodshed and insecurity, several mass graves were discovered in the northern state of Tamaulipas, not far from where 72 migrants were massacred last August, further fueling people’s outrage.
But the Mexican people are not alone in calling for a new strategy.
Two weeks ago, the United Nations released a report urging Mexican authorities to immediately withdraw the armed forces from “public security operations and criminal law enforcement” as a critical step to prevent forced disappearances. Simply put, the UN is urging Mexico to send its soldiers back to the barracks. The recommendation has been called one of the strongest criticisms yet of Mexico’s use of the military to police the streets.
The UN findings indicate that security forces have played a part in the disappearances, and Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) agrees, citing that 5,397 people have been reported missing since 2006 when a newly inaugurated Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers across the country in an effort to pursue drug cartels. CNDH president Raúl Plascencia Villanueva echoed the UN recommendation when he urged the Mexican government to revise its public security strategy, emphasizing that only the police ought to carry out public security operations.
Mexicans are fed up, and for a good reason. Reports of grisly human rights abuses committed by the military, including torture, rape, and murder, have gone unchecked. Over 4,000 complaints of human rights violations have been filed with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission since President Calderón took office. Yet, the notoriously opaque military tribunals have sentenced only one soldier for a human rights violation committed during the Calderón administration.
For years, as complaints of abuses by the military multiplied, rights groups have demanded that basic human rights be protected and that putting an end to rampant impunity is the enduring and effective solution to contesting organized crime, not military might. Without full and fair investigations, prosecutions and conviction, criminals—both organized crime and corrupt officials—will continue to be let off the hook, victims will continue to be denied justice, and the climate of lawlessness, in which violence thrives, will continue to undermine public support for efforts to ensure public safety.
With a presidential election on the horizon, Calderón is quick to deny that he is losing the battle against organized crime. But as the Mexican people demonstrated earlier this month, he has already lost the fight over public opinion. The Mexican government can still regain the trust and confidence of its people, however, starting with a well thought-out strategy to remove the military from the streets, hold corrupt officials who collude with organized crime accountable, fiercely protect human rights, and ensure a competent judicial system that can deliver real justice. That, perhaps, will be a strategy the Mexican people can believe in.