In Mexico, Growing Popular Movement Calls for End to Drug War

The Mexican government's drug war strategy currently focuses on using the military to go after the heads of the cartels. Calderon can claim the arrest and killing of many ranking narcos, which has disrupted the cartel operations. But it seems, though the government denies this, to have caused only more violence as drug lords fight over succession and turf.

Sicilia's coalition wants the drug war to demilitarize, but a dispute within the movement suggests that such a strategy would be difficult to implement. For days, leaders of the mostly leftist movement said they would not call for an immediate departure of the army from the streets because, in some areas, people see the army presence as better than the vacuum it would leave. But the final conference for mapping out a protest strategy was held Friday in beleaguered Juarez, where many believe the army is ineffective and abusive. Local activists pushed into the final document a call for an immediate military withdrawal.

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Mexican poet Javier Sicilia. By Gael Gonzalez/Reuters

On Saturday, Sicilia insisted that the subject is still up for discussion in places where the military's presence is still wanted. The plan had been rushed out at the end of a grueling week; it was a moment of typically disorganized movement politics, but also reflected real divisions in the country.

Some analysts, such as Jorge Castaneda, propose that security forces target criminals based on how violent they are, rather than their stature in trafficking drugs. That way, without making explicit deals with the narcos, they might modify their behavior.

Or Mexico could return to the strategy of the PRI, which may retake the presidency next year, when term limits bar Calderon from running again. A legendary patronage machine that ruled Mexico for 70 years, the PRI's presumed candidate seems to be standing by the militarized drug war. But Mexican analyst Jorge Chabat says the party tries to subtly remind people things were quieter when PRI was in power and enveloped the cartels amid a layer of mediation and complicity. The PRI could once again allow its local officials to make deals with the narcos to reduce violence while looking the other way on the drug trade.

It might be too late for that. As the war has dragged on, the cartels have become more inclined to massacres and mass graves. They have diversified into systematic extortion of businesses, kidnapping for ransom, and bootlegging products. At this point, says Brookings Institution Mexico expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, de facto deals with the narcos could result in their snatching sovereignty away from local officials even more than they do now. That would weaken the Mexican government itself and undermine U.S.-Mexico relations. Others worry about newly enriched cartels -- estimates already have them annually raking in $20 to $30 billion in cash, dwarfing the $1.4 billion the U.S. has pledged to Mexican military and law enforcement aid over three years -- trafficking heavy weapons or hand grenades into the United States. They could corrupt or outright infiltrate U.S. law enforcement, as they have in Mexico.

Deal-making wouldn't satisfy Sicilia either, who wants widespread social renewal, not a peace that subjugates Mexicans to a new conspiracy between pols and narcos. His call for a dialogue about legalizing drugs and ending U.S. assistance to Mexico's military is unlikely to go over well in Washington, but most U.S. policy makers share his desire for more accountability in elections laws, more investment in education and employment, and independent courts.

Closely followed in the press, Sicilia has the public eye and seems besieged by everyone with a cause -- indigenous rights, election reform, feminicide. He has trouble saying "no" to such groups asking for his support, in part because he sees them all as stemming from the same institutional rot and impunity that breeds criminality. Even the dead criminals, he says, should be mourned as war victims.

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Larry Kaplow is a freelance reporter living in Mexico City. He previously covered the Middle East for 12 years with Newsweek and Cox Newspapers, including more than six years in Baghdad.

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