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Thousands Across Mexico Call for New Strategy in Drug War

While frustration with the Mexican government's failure to stem the violence has been building for some time, Mexican author Javier Sicilia's grief proved to be a catalyst for unified action.
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In early April, thousands of Mexicans poured into the streets in over 20 Mexican cities to raise their voices in a chorus of protest against the government's ineffective and increasingly unpopular military campaign against organized crime. That same week, authorities unearthed 145 murder victims in northeastern Mexico, not far from where 72 migrants were massacred last August. This gruesome discovery has further fueled the Mexican people's anger at the government's failure to stem spiraling violence that has led to over 35,000 dead in the past four years.

These mass mobilizations mark some of the most heated condemnation yet of violence and impunity associated with President Calderón's U.S.-supported "drug war." 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 with the Mexican government's failure to stem the violence has been building for some time, 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 murdered, Sicilia called for nationwide demonstrations in a stirring open letter to Mexico's "politicians and criminals," declaring that "we will go out into the street: because we do not want one more child, one more son, assassinated."

Sicilia's grief and "cry of indignation" resonated with Mexicans across the country and proved to be a catalyst for unified action. But the protesters are not alone in calling for a new strategy.

Just a week earlier, 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 UN findings indicate that security forces have played a role in disappearances. 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 Calderon 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.

The L.A. Times noted on Monday that the recent discovery of mass graves in northern Mexico should serve as a catalyst to advance desperately-needed judicial reforms in order to address skyrocketing levels of violence and impunity and restore the public's trust. Yet the Mexican government's response to these most recent slayings has been to send in more troops to patrol the streets. The Mexican people, however, have resoundingly called for a fresh, more effective strategy that respects human rights and upholds the rule of law.

With a looming presidential election, 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.

Now, there are no easy answers in tackling brutal drug-related violence. And there's no question that the United States has failed to put its own house in order by taking an effective public health approach to addressing drug treatment and prevention and reining in trafficking of arms and bulk cash that fuels the violence in Mexico. Nevertheless, the Mexican government can do more to regain the trust and confidence of its people, 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.

The Latin America Working Group's Ben Leiter and Jennifer Johnson were lead authors on this blog.

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