I arrived in Mexico City on Saturday already worn out from a migraine and travel. As I rode in the car to the hotel I took in the sights while pondering why I was even there. I’m an academic and a blogger – why me? That night at dinner I started to understand.
During dinner we were briefed by human rights lawyers about the situation in Mexico and the women we would listen to over the next few days. Those of us in the US may think we know about the drug war. We see the headlines about kidnappings, beheadings and the lifestyles of drug lords. But we don’t know the full picture.
We needed to learn that it is not just that the drug war has gotten so violent that it has spilled out onto the streets, but rather that the Mexican government’s plan for winning the war on drugs is to send the army into the streets.
As we gathered to listen to women from different parts of Mexico at the University of Sor Juana, it was clear from the start that human rights, never mind freedom of speech, were the first casualties of the drug war. Mexico is the most dangerous place for journalists outside of Iraq. Women jounalists have been murdered for writing about corruption and the impunity the army wields. One woman journalist was, murdered and her body was left behind the newspaper’s office. On top of the overwhelming danger journalists — especially women journalists — face to get a story, they are then subjected to menial wages for their work. But they take the few hundred dollars a month because they know they must document what is happening.
Hearing and retelling stories is the mission of this delegation trip. We heard from mothers, sisters, nieces and representatives from organizations about the violence women face. Some organizations appear large, some were formed to address the disappearance of a few women. Maria, from Michoacán, came to tell us that nineteen young people have disappeared from her village — four of whom are her sons.
Yolanda detailed how families are left to search for loved ones on their own. She also discussed times when authorities not only ignore evidence, but destroy evidence and/or threaten the families to stop investigating.
Disappearances occur for many reasons, but the majority we heard about revolved around women and men who spoke out against injustice. A young woman from a family of bakers told of the murders of her family members, physical abuse and her own rape by authorities. Another young woman found the courage to speak of her parents’ disappearance that occurred just last month. She ended her testimony through tears with a plea for her mama to stay strong. Her parents crime? Organizing for environmental justice.
Fighting on behalf of farmers and land rights is another way to become one of the disappeared. At least two women spoke of a May 2006 incident in Atenco where women were arrested en masse, taken from their homes, and many were raped on the way to prison. Some were held in jail for 2-4 years. The women accuse a current candidate as being a responsible party to the atrocity.
This is an election year for both Mexico and the United States. This fact scares the women even more. In Mexican election years, there is a power vacuum. The current rash of violence began shortly after President Calderón came into office. He entered as a weak president and under a cloud of voter fraud. His method of showcasing his power was to empower the army to take to the streets. His drug war plan is taken straight from the plan the US has been using since the Nixon administration – attack the supply, ignore treating demand. This is where the elections in the US come into play. The US sets the stage for how the drug war plays out elsewhere.
Many of us on the delegation worried about the safety of the women testifying. Should we use their real names? Was it safe for them to speak out? The women we heard from have not much else to lose. They need to speak out on this international stage. Stories. It all comes down to stories. While some of the women spoke so fast our interpreters could barely keep up, we got the message. The government is failing the people of Mexico and hopefully the light we shine this week will help. But only if their stories are heard and retold.