Margarita Lopez begins to speak about the horrible events that marked the end of her daughter’s life in a low, even tone. Some 40 women in a plush Washington, D.C. meeting room listen silently as tears roll down their cheeks.
Lopez narrates how her 19-year-old daughter, Jahaira Guadalupe Vaena Lopez, was abducted in Tlacolula, Oaxaca. She describes her efforts to get the authorities to investigate the crime, how she was warned not to press the matter, how informants told her that her daughter was murdered in a turf battle between fractured drug gangs. Just days before leaving for the United States with the Caravan for Peace, she faced one of the assassins who had been apprehended and listened as he described in detail how her daughter was raped and beheaded.
Margarita has joined some 50 grieving family members to accompany caravan leader Javier Sicilia on a trip across the United States. Sicilia, a poet who lost his son to drug war violence in March of 2011, catalyzed a movement of victims and Mexican citizens fed up with the bloodshed that has claimed more than 60,000 lives and left tens of thousands more missing since former President Felipe Calderon launched the drug war five years ago.
Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity decided to organize the U.S. caravan after taking two caravans from Mexico City—one north to Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border, and one south to the border with Guatemala. Both drew out victims of the drug war and registered their cases to provide support for family members seeking justice and solace.
The decision to take their pain across the border came after discussion with the San Francisco-based group Global Exchange. Soon a coalition came together that included Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Latin American Working Group, the RFK Center, the Washington Office on Latin America, our CIP Americas Program, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, among the key players. The coalition later expanded to include the NAACP, and local organizations in each of the cities along the route.
A binational meeting in June defined five demands of the U.S. caravan: to open public debate on humane alternatives to drug prohibition, to ban the import of assault weapons and crack down on illegal gun smuggling over the border, to combat money-laundering with full investigation and strict enforcement, to suspend all aid to the Mexican armed forces and end the war on drugs abroad, and to halt the militarization of the border and criminalization of migrants.
I joined the caravan on the final east coast leg of its 6,000-mile trip. I had heard most of the stories before in Mexico, having accompanied the northern caravan and numerous marches and meetings.
I was curious to see the impact on people in the United States. As the women in the room told their stories, each one struck like a cold blade in the heart. Although women are a minority of the war’s deaths, attacks on women usually include brutal sexual violence, and women make up the majority of those actively seeking justice and an end to the war.
Along the route, caravan members like these women have become confident and eloquent spokespersons to end the drug war. They speak from the heart and appeal to the heart. Their empowerment as leaders is one of the most important achievements of the caravan. Another is the sympathy and outrage their testimonies evoke.
And it’s not a one-way street. Caravan members also listened to the stories of U.S. citizens. Like Kimberly Armstrong in Baltimore, whose 16-year-old son was shot and killed by a 14-year-old in endemic drug violence. Or Carole Eady, who struggled her way out of the stigma and life disruption of imprisonment for a drug offense in New York City.
The threads begin to come together. In her brilliant book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander notes that in Washington, D.C., the caravan’s last stop, it’s estimated that three out of four black men can expect to serve time in prison. She calls this mass incarceration of black people a new racial caste, the latest Jim Crow system of social control, where young black men and women are jailed, stigmatized, and in many cases disenfranchised for life by discriminatory drug laws.
Based on the shared sorrow of losing loved ones to jail, violence, death, or disappearance, Mexicans and Americans found they fight the same unjust system of social control of the poor and people of color. The drug war generates profits for the defense industry and siphons public funds into perpetuating itself. It rips apart families and communities, north and south of the border. The bogus attempt to eliminate rather than regulate something in great demand creates a multibillion-dollar black market run by groups that become more violent as they are selectively attacked. It pits security forces against the public, providing them with the tools to violate human rights and life with impunity. It erodes democracy and the rule of law it purports to uphold.
Whether it’s through imposing a military/police state in Mexico or shunting youth into the margins of society, the drug war machine runs on the human lives it destroys.
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