Last year was the bloodiest year on record for drug-related violence in Mexico, with the death toll reaching 15,000, according to the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. That is more than twice the number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq combined over the last decade. Since the beginning of the Mexican “War on Drugs” over four years ago, a staggering 35,000–40,000 people have died.
The discovery of a string of mass graves, as well as the unusual brutality of the murders, often involving torture, has made headlines around the world. Most recently, a series of graves with the bodies of 116 migrants were found in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, near the Texan border.
After narrowly winning the presidency in December 2006, Felipe Calderón declared a “War on Drugs,” fulfilling his campaign promise. He called in the army to assist police in cracking down on drug cartels, as well as intercepting the illegal trafficking of drugs and weapons.
The Mexican government has claimed many victories in its campaign, including the arrest of several drug lords—the most recent being the June 22 capture of the leader of La Familia, one of the most notorious cartels. The authorities have also confiscated massive caches of drugs and weapons.
The rising death toll speaks to another side of the story, however.
Officials claim that 90 percent of the people killed were involved in the drug trade, according to the Brookings Institution. Many observers doubt this figure, however, including Sanho Tree, a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and director of the Drug Policy Project.
Tree believes that many of the victims are innocent bystanders not involved in criminal acts, but adds that this is hard to verify, since “more than 95 percent … of the murders are never solved.”
Not captured in the death toll are people who have disappeared without a trace. The suffering of their relatives, who are left to live with a painful uncertainty, also cannot be described with statistics. A climate of fear and terror pervades Mexican society, which has become increasingly militarized, as well as controlled by organized crime.
Javier Sicilia: Poet Turned Activist
Seven lives were taken on March 28. The victims were found in a car in a little town south of Mexico City, wrapped with masking tape and left to suffocate. One of them was the 24-year-old son of the nationally known poet Javier Sicilia. After writing one last poem dedicated to this son, he stopped writing poetry.
On the same day, out of his grief, he called on the people of Mexico to break out of their fear and silence—and people responded.
Nationwide, people took to the streets to demand an end to the military campaign and reforms to Mexico’s judicial and political system. It was the first sizable protest against the drug war and the militarization of the country, and was supported by an unusually broad spectrum of society.
The citizen’s movement, National Movement for Peace, was born out of that protest. One month later, Sicilia led a 45-mile-long silent march from his hometown of Cuernavaca to Mexico City. By the time they reached the parliament on May 8, approximately 100,000 people had gathered, Sicilia wrote.
“We’re here to tell ourselves and them that we will not turn this pain in our souls, in our bodies into hate, nor into more violence, but into a vehicle to help us restore love, peace, justice, dignity, and the stuttering democracy that we’re losing,” Sicilia said at the rally, according to a report on NTD Television.