In early October, I attended a rally outside the Mexican consulate in New York City to protest the disappearance of a group of students taken by police in the state of Guerrero two weeks earlier. On a busy midtown Manhattan street, a dozen people gathered to call attention to the missing students and demand their return. A passerby, puzzled by the commotion, stopped a protester to ask what they were shouting about. When he was told what had happened, he asked incredulously, “But they were Mexican students? Killed in Mexico? Why should we care here?”
Indeed, why should ordinary Americans care about the rampant corruption, extrajudicial violence and culture of impunity that has overtaken Mexico in the eight years since then-President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels? Why should they care about 100,000 dead and at least 20,000 disappeared, some of whose remains are being uncovered in a quickly metastasizing map of mass graves? Why should they care about the 43 teachers in training, rounded up by police and turned over to a gang of killers who, it is alleged, burned their bodies and dumped what remained in a local river? Why should they care about the surging protests, the tens of thousands marching in the streets of Mexico’s cities and towns, calling for the renunciation of President Enrique Peña Nieto and declaring “Fue el estado” (It was the state)?
Here’s why Americans should care: We are collectively funding this war. Our tax dollars, in the form of security aid, provide the equipment, weapons and training to state security forces responsible for an ever-lengthening rap sheet of human rights abuses. U.S. drug habits, in the form of an insatiable market for narcotics, marijuana and amphetamines, provide the liquid cash that has proved so corrosive when it has come into contact with every level of the Mexican state.
This is our war, on our drugs. We have created the Mexico from which we now distance ourselves — but we can’t afford to turn our backs any longer.
Since 2007, the U.S. government has spent roughly $3 billion on security aid to Mexico, through the George W. Bush–era Mérida Initiative, which was extended indefinitely by President Barack Obama, and through counternarcotics programs run by the Defense and Justice departments. Those funds served to militarize the war on drugs and contributed to the extraordinary increase in violence under Calderón. The Mexican government, using aircraft and equipment supplied by the United States, maintained that the mounting death toll was of little consequence — just criminals killing one another, the Mexican military argued. Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency quietly propped up the powerful Sinaloa cartel in exchange for information on its rivals, exacerbating the violence by picking off kingpins and splintering structures of power in the cartels.
The White House’s silence signals its intention to continue the failed policies that have led to such upheaval in Mexico.
The aid provided by the U.S. government pales compared with the estimated $30 billion a year that the sale of drugs in the United States sends to Mexico. And it is that money that is coursing through Mexico’s political veins, infecting everyone from small town mayors and state governors to federal security officials, rotting the Mexican state from within and leaving the protesters without recourse. Small wonder that many in Mexico have taken up the slogan that brought down the Argentine government in 2001: Que se vayan todos (Throw them all out).
The U.S. government’s response to the demands of the Mexican people for respect, answers and justice has been tellingly quiet. No word from Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. So far, we have only the pleas of a State Department spokeswoman for “all parties to remain calm.” This statement was triggered by fears that the protests will turn violent, an outrageous worry, given the scale and brutality of state violence that provoked them. Especially worrisome to authorities was a fire set at the National Palace in Mexico City during a demonstration, which generated a great deal of anxiety in the Mexican and international press (as well as, it should be said, many accusations of government provocation). Government buildings in Guerrero have also been burned. But to label those fires or other property damage violence in the face of the incineration of 43 young men is reprehensible.
In fact, fears of state violence against protesters are rising after Peña Nieto warned that his government was prepared to use force against the demonstrators if necessary. The government’s actions, however, are only serving to mobilize more people. After a police officer opened fire on students organizing a strike set to start today at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, wounding one, more students are vowing to participate. In addition to today’s student strike, there will be demonstrations across Mexico, with caravans led by the parents of the disappeared students converge on Mexico City from other states, and solidarity actions all over the United States and around the rest of the world. Demonstrations here will highlight the links between the ongoing crisis in Mexico and U.S. policy and Americans’ drug consumption. As we express our solidarity with those calling for change in Mexico, we must call for change at home as well.
Today marks the date that Francisco Madero released the Plan of San Luis Potosí in 1910, which called for Mexicans to take up arms against the dictator Porfirio Díaz and launched the Mexican Revolution. In his message, Madero decried the kind of peace the Díaz government was offering, “because its basis is not law but force, because its object is not the aggrandizement and prosperity of the country but to enrich a small group who, abusing their influence, have converted the public charges into fountains of exclusively personal benefit.” Today that message rings true again in Mexico, and protesters will echo it as they take to the streets across the country.
The White House’s silence signals its intention to continue the failed policies that have led to such upheaval in Mexico. Only by raising our voices — in solidarity with the families of the disappeared students, in support of the protesters and against these policies at home — can we put an end to U.S. complicity in this crisis.