A group of Central American women is making its way North through Mexico. Unlike most groups of Central Americans moving that direction, these women aren’t on their way to the United States in search of a way to support their family or to escape from a region plagued by violence, poverty and corruption. But at some point in time, their children were.
These 60 mothers are part of the Caravana Liberando la Esperanza (the ‘Freeing Hope Caravan‘) organized by the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement. They come from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, and they are searching for their children who disappeared in Mexico while making the dangerous journey to the United States of America. These mothers still harbor a glimmer of hope that they will find their loved ones during the tour, but the Caravan is also a cry for awareness and for change, for justice and for human rights.
Thousands of Central Americans travel through Mexico in hope of a better future, and many of these vulnerable migrants are robbed, tortured, killed, raped, blackmailed or forced into the drug trade by narcotraffickers, police and soldiers alike. The obstacles are terrible, but for many, they aren’t as terrible as the empty stomachs of their children.
One example of the tragedies inflicted upon migrants – and of the struggles to remember and to stop them – is the August 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The group of 58 men and 14 women were killed by members of one of the most violent drug cartels in Mexico at the time – Los Zetas – after refusing to work for the cartel. A website dedicated to this group and to all migrants honors them with a digital altar, designed to resemble the altars used on the Day of the Dead to remember those who have passed away.
The Day of the Dead was this week – I would encourage everyone to take a moment to reflect on the lives of loved ones, known or unknown, and maybe even light a candle to remind you of their presence in your life.
Another Caravan recently made its way through Mexico, into the U.S.A. and all the way to Washington, DC. La Caravana por la Paz (The Caravan for Peace) was also fighting for a more peaceful Mexico. Its participants, however, were Mexicans standing up against the violence produced by la Guerra Contra las Drogas – the War on Drugs. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which is responsible for the Caravan, was started when Mexican poet Juan Sicilia lost his son to one of the many stray bullets flying through the air in the war zone that much of his country has become.
So why was a Mexican poet leading a caravan of activists to Washington, DC?
In 2006, newly elected President Felipe Calderón declared a war on drugs, setting in motion the increasing militarization of the effort to enforce anti-drug policy. The U.S. Government encouraged and applauded this strategy, and continues to provide weaponry, funds and training to the Mexican military, primarily through the Mérida Initiative.
Militarization of the drug war and an emphasis on combating supply (in Latin America) rather than demand (at home) has been the U.S. strategy for quite a while. Our government has long supported the Colombian military, resulting in the displacement of much drug trafficking from Colombia – when drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993 – to other countries, like Bolivia. The training and financial support that the U.S. provides to Latin American militaries gives U.S. politicians the ability to tell their constituents that they are doing something about the ‘drug problem,’ though it is clear that the problem is only increasing. As Virgilio Barco said in 1990, “the only law the narco-terrorists do not break is the law of supply and demand.”
This U.S. strategy led, in 1989, to an invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause) under circumstances that were clearly designed to affect domestic politics – not the international drug problem. For years, the U.S. government had turned a blind eye to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s involvement in the drug trade because he allowed our military to stage anti-communist activities from their territory.
When Noriega’s corruption was outed in a Florida court and international scrutiny fell on him, the U.S. turned against him, and a newly elected H. W. Bush invaded the nation to depose Noriega and check ‘tough on drugs’ off the political to-do list. The move was resoundingly denounced by the Latin American and international community, but the deed was already done. Within a couple of years, drug trafficking and corruption were back to their pre-invasion levels.
A similar kind of politics led the U.S. to forcefully intervene in Latin American countries throughout the Cold War in the name of anti-communism. Support for right-wing dictators made it clear that anti-communism was more important to the U.S. government than human rights or democracy, and played an important role in the civil wars of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua – destabilizing the region and impeding social and economic progress, resulting waves of emigration then and today.
So the two caravans – one with Mexicans protesting the militarized drug war and the other with the mothers of disappeared Central American migrants – are both manifestations of the pain caused in part by the influences of U.S. policy in Latin America. Central Americans are fleeing a homeland fraught with the legacy of decades of civil war in which the U.S. supported the side most willing to oppose ‘communism,’ and in order to reach the U.S.A. in search of an opportunity to support their families they must pass through a region plagued with violence, greatly escalated as a result of U.S. pressure to militarize. That’s why Javier Sicilia’s Caravan went to Washington, D.C., and that’s why – if we care about our fellow humans – we should care about our government’s foreign policy.
There are organizations in Mexico dedicated to assisting migrants as they make the dangerous journey northward – shelters that remind me of the Underground Railroad. Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers in the Path) in Oaxaca, founded by Father Solalinde, and FM4 Paso Libre are a couple of them. I hope to be able to visit and work at some of these shelters during my travels.
For a deeply moving look into the lives of Central American migrants and the challenges they face, watch the Amnesty International documentary The Invisibles.