Violence, Human Rights, and the Drug War in Mexico

Author Ted Lewis
Author Ted Lewis

Testimony by Ted Lewis before the PC(USA) Drug Policy Task Force, February 14, 2015. Watch testimony in minutes 2:15 – 14:10 of this video of Day 1 of the Richmond Hearings.

I really appreciate this invitation to speak. My name is Ted Lewis, and I work with the human rights organization Global Exchange, based here in San Francisco. I’ve done a lot of international work having to do with Mexico; we focus a lot on Mexico. It’s an emblematic case where the drug war has done tremendous damage. We look at what people in Mexico have been doing about that damage and what people in the region are asking us to do about it – what kind of actions have they taken and what kind of actions are coming up in which people can participate. So that’s where I want to focus my talk.

Further, I want to thank everybody for putting this event together. I think that this is a really important move on the part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and I think that the impact of the church taking an interest, a serious interest, in convening this kind of a forum is of tremendous importance. It will have impacts that we can’t even imagine now. It has already been very encouraging to the drug policy reform movement, which has tended to be a secular kind of a movement that people of faith and people of other understandings of the world are getting involved in. It’s very heartening.

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I think that the impact of the church taking an interest, a serious interest, in convening this kind of a forum is of tremendous importance.
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I was asked this afternoon the question of the impact of the drug war on the communities I’ve worked with, things that I’ve observed in their response to the drug war, and opportunities of the United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs, which is coming up in 2016. So I want to touch on that, and in particular to look at how folks can be involved in the lead up to the United Nations General Assembly special session. I think that’s particularly important – important that we come to it in an alignment that will allow us to line up a lot of the forces that are against the drug war that have not been able to show themselves publicly in that environment. And I think this is a great opportunity to do it and it will be a big step forward.

map_of_mexico_public_domainThere are a couple of things I want to be sure I say right up front. First is to remember that we’re planning a caravan from Costa Rica to the United Nations General Assembly special session. That session, it was recently decided, will be held from April 19-21, 2016. So the caravan from Central America will most likely start the day after Easter, March 29, 2016. Put that on your mental calendar: people are requested, not required, to participate.

My own personal trajectory toward working in the area of drug policy reform comes from my work in human rights. I didn’t start out as a drug policy reformer. I’m not even sure if I’m there now, but I’m certainly linked arm in arm with people who see this as a top priority and have been working on it. My work in Mexico over the years – and I’ve worked professionally in Mexico for the last 20 years – has had to do with defending human rights, supporting human rights accompaniment on the ground in military occupied communities (we did that throughout the 90s), and in observing elections and pushing ahead an electoral democracy process.

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My own personal trajectory toward working in the area of drug policy reform comes from my work in human rights. I didn’t start out as a drug policy reformer. 
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Now, all these things may not seem immediately and directly related to the drug war, nor should they be. But things were going on beneath the surface, subtly and slowly. At that time, there were big changes going on in Mexico. They were making some serious advances in pushing back the military from communities in Chiapas that had been under very close, continuous occupation and opening up the electoral systems so that people’s votes actually counted for once, (and I think it unfortunately has only been once because they have not been counted in that same way since). But at the same time, there was a subtle shift in patterns of drug trafficking in our hemisphere that brought Mexico into a condition of crisis. I can’t go into all of that, but I can give you some of the important factors.

giant-mexican-flag-wavesThe big shift for democracy in Mexico took place in the year 2000, when the ruling parties were knocked out of power for the first time in 7 years. A couple of things happened almost immediately after that that set the stage for what’s happening now. One was that there was a mass defection of a group of top-level ‘green beret types’ in the Mexican military. Those people left the military and went to work for the drug cartels. That’s been heavily documented, but people usually forget about it. They took military training and all kinds of intelligence capacity right from the top of the Mexican military and put it into the hands of the drug cartels.

War started, and there was more conflict because of that, but the other big event was also a big event for us: September 11, 2001. After September 11th, the Caribbean was closed off by heavy surveillance, and drug trafficking changed from being something that moved by the air into the Caribbean into being something that moved more through Mexico. At the same time, for many reasons, Mexico’s cartels became profit centers. They hadn’t been as much so before; they hadn’t then learned the trade in the way they did later.

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This is where it gets tricky because it is the political use of the drug war, particularly in the case of Mexico, that has made it so violent, so terrible.
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These changes took place without a great deal of visibility in Mexico. The drug war really only started to become visible, it came into a kind of grotesque public fashion, around 2005 or 2006, in the lead up to the 2006 elections. And this is where it gets tricky because it is, in our observation, the political use of the drug war, particularly in the case of Mexico, that has made it so violent, so terrible. It was there as a damaging factor all along, but when it came in as a political element, it got worse in a hurry. So in 2005, George W. Bush had been working with the Mexican president to initiate the Merida Plan; they were working to integrate in Mexico more and more into the hemispheric security system. You know, control everything – that was the plan.

2012 Caravan for Peace in Washington, DC Photo Credit: Zarah Patriana, Global Exchange
2012 Caravan for Peace in Washington, DC
Photo Credit: Zarah Patriana, Global Exchange

And there was an election campaign going on in Mexico. Philippe Calderon – I’m sure you all have heard of him, he’s been the president of Mexico for 6 years – ran a very dirty election and didn’t really win, but he came close, and he clawed his way into office with the backing of the United States. And immediately, as his first act in office, he started the drug war. He declared war on the drug cartels, said we’ve got to get this situation under control. And that’s when the violence in Mexico began to spiral out of control and become the crisis that Mexico is still living today. And it’s precisely the political use of the drug war that caused that.

Now the groups that we work with in Mexico were not prepared for the kind of changes in the terrain: the explosion of homicides, the violations of human rights by the military, by gangs – it was just something that people weren’t prepared for. For a couple of years people were confounded; they didn’t know how to interpret it, to figure out what was going on. But eventually people started to speak up, and it came from the victims of the war.

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Eventually, they said you know what? We’re never going to prevent this violence if we don’t figure out that it’s not just violence, it’s about the drug war. It’s about this whole system that’s been set up.
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So they began to organize, and they really pushed back and started to affect the movement; it started to become more organized. And then there were these ‘lightning bolts’ of passion that hit certain prominent people like Jorge Xavier Cecilia, who became involved after his son’s murder, using all his passions and energy to bring together people to organize caravans. These were large caravans that went across Mexico consoling people and giving them a chance to get on a platform and talk about what’s happening in their community. And eventually, those same folks who organized the caravans in Mexico, in talking among themselves and with some pushing and discussion with people in the United States, recognized you know what? We’re never going to prevent this violence if we don’t figure out that it’s not just violence, it’s about the drug war. It’s about this whole system that’s been set up. We’ve got to go to the United States and talk about it.

Scenes from the 2012 Caravan for Peace Photo Credit: Carleen Pickard, Global Exchange
Scenes from the 2012 Caravan for Peace
Photo Credit: Carleen Pickard, Global Exchange

That was behind the caravan that came to the United States in 2012 and traveled across the country – went to 27 cities, covered 5,000 miles. It was a very important kind of connection, particularly with African American communities in the United States. Because one of the things that the Mexican folks were very sensitive to, and much more so than a lot of our compatriots, was that it’s not just their suffering in Mexico, that people are suffering in the United States, too. And so they started to look into a lot of the facts.

I’m not going to go through all of those – we know the kind of thing that should be covered in this type of conversation. That the United States contains five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That two and a half million people are behind bars every night.

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There is a movement afoot in Latin America that has been led at the elite level, particularly by ex-presidents, to really question the drug war. It’s very much in alignment with what the Presbyterian Church is doing.
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I know I’m running out of time, but before I stop I have to talk about the United Nations General Assembly special sessions on drugs. It’s something that was pushed by Latin American countries. There is a movement afoot in Latin America that has been led at the elite level, particularly by ex-presidents, to really question the drug war. It’s very much in alignment with what the Presbyterian Church is doing. One of the big studies that came out of that was the Scenarios for Drug Policies in the Americas that the Organization of American States put together. They held large meetings to examine this. This is a document that doesn’t reach any conclusions but presents scenarios, and if that hasn’t been looked at and studied by your commission, it ought to be. And the same people who have been pushing those conversations are the ones who have been pushing open the doors so that there will be this meeting at the United Nations in April. It’s a General Assembly special session. People from the entire world, from all member states of the UN, will participate.

un-flag-public domainIn light of that, we want to organize something that can have an impact and that can show how the drug wars are affecting people throughout this continent. Hence the caravan from Central America – that’s the action we want you and the Presbyterian Church to be involved in. We actively appeal for your assistance on that, particularly with your congregations in Central America – Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, all throughout Eastern Mexico. That’s what we’re about. Thank you very much.

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AUTHOR BIO: Ted Lewis has worked with Mexican Human Rights and Democracy organizations for two decades. He led hundreds of international observers covering eight Mexican Presidential and regional elections since 1994. He also organized hundreds of international volunteers that accompanied Mexican human rights observers and communities threatened by Army and paramilitary actions. He coordinated the publication of Always Near, Always Far: The Armed Forces in Mexico, a groundbreaking publication that gave a platform to dissident generals from Mexico’s Army as well as critical voices from Mexican civil society. Since 2006, Ted has led a project to highlight the causes of economic conditions in Mexico drive excessive migration and disadvantage workers throughout North America. In 2008, he edited The Right to Stay Home: Alternatives to Mass Displacement and Forced Migration in North America, a collection of essays critiquing both Mexican and U.S. economic and immigration policies. Currently he is organizing an international civil society observation of the 2010 election process in Colombia.

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