Until the spring of 2011, Mexican writer Javier Sicilia was best known for his fiction, poetry, and essays. Then, on March 8 of that year, his son and six other friends were kidnapped, tortured, and suffocated by hit men for complaining about a theft in the parking lot of a narco-run nightclub. The hit men, Sicilia later explained, were from one of many gangs jockeying for dominance after narco boss Beltrán Leyva was killed by Mexican Special Forces in late 2009. After his son’s death, Sicilia began a series of protests against the runaway corruption and carnage of the drug war. The protests grew into a movement called “Estamos Hasta la Madre” (“We’ve Had It Up to Here”) that galvanized Mexico. Tens of thousands marched in cities across Mexico, including one march that started in Cuernavaca—not far from where both Leyva and Sicilia’s son were killed—and ended in Mexico City, 54 miles away, with 200,000 in attendance. This fall, Sicilia came to Seattle with fellow activist Teresa Carmona, whose son was also killed by narcos, as part of a North American tour. We spoke shortly after he delivered a lecture at the Seattle University Law School. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Javier, you have been writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for many years but, in 2011, you began writing and protesting directly against prohibition and the drug war.
Javier Sicilia: Yes.
What happened to trigger that?
JS: Well, there was no change from back when I was in the trenches as a reporter—I always had this criticism of drug policy. I was always a strong opponent of that “war of strategy.” The problem that happened in 2011 is that my son Juan Francisco was murdered, along with six of his friends. They were innocents, victims of this war of strategy.
Then something happened that I would classify as a civic miracle. I was in the Philippines at the time, and my activist friends, my poet friends began a protest—they had placed an offering in front of the palace in Cuernavaca, pictures of these young guys with crosses, and they would get together every night to read poetry and pray. I asked them to let me come in the next day and said I would give a press conference at that same spot.
What month was this?
JS: March. On the 27th and 28th they murdered my son, and I came back on the 30th. They waited for me, held a vigil for him for three days. I asked the reporters to let my son be cremated, and then the next day I would give a press conference in front of the offering, the altar. There, I denounced in the strongest terms the criminals and the state. I used this phrase, what became a catchphrase for that moment, “Estamos hasta la madre.” “We’ve had it up to here.”
I wrote an open letter to be published in El Proceso, the most important newspaper in the country on politics, which was entitled “Estamos Hasta La Madre,” “We’ve Had It Up to Here,” with the criminals and the politicians. I called for big march and this is where what I would refer to as the civic miracle takes place. The victims started to appear, they started coming out of the woodwork and joining us from the left, from the right, Zapatistas, the business community, and we had our first major march. What can be seen clearly is that [former president Felipe] Calderón’s policies denied the existence of victims—they had been criminalized. We had denied them.
They are killing each other with “collateral” losses, “collateral” damage, and you could read through the lines that there was a perception that these people were cockroaches, worth nothing. But we were able to show that they were victims, many of whom were innocent victims who had been robbed of their civil rights and human rights.
I’m curious. Why was it at that moment—after years and years of carnage, so many people had been murdered, had been disappeared—why was it that moment when public outrage became apparent?
Teresa Carmona: I think it just was the drop that made the glass overflow. We were calculating about 40,000 dead people at that moment. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of pain—many families. So “estamos hasta la madre” resounded with a huge proportion of the country.
Teresa, can you tell me a little bit about your history of activism and your relationship to the policies of the drug war?
TC: I actually didn’t have any history of activism until Javier said “estamos hasta la madre.” That was the beginning. It started eight months before that—my firstborn, Joaquin, 21 years old, was murdered as well. Violently. In a different way—he was murdered inside his own apartment. After eight months up to that point, no advances in the investigation, nobody really had any progress in finding out what had happened. So [the movement] really appealed to me.
Then what happened?
TC: Javier said, “Let’s pick up, we have to go out into the streets and show that these people are not ciphers, are not numbers—they have faces, they have stories.” So that’s what I did, I went to the beginning in my own city and I started walking. Three or four weeks after that, there was this huge meeting at Cuernavaca and that’s where I met my fellow compañeros of the movement.
So it was just people walking from all over the country.
TC: From all over the country we met there, yes. It was very impressive because we started out walking with 200, 250 people. By the time we got to the zócalo of Mexico City, days later, it was—woo—maybe more than 150,000 people were there. It was huge.
As you both are aware, in Washington State and in Colorado, voters moved recently to legalize marijuana, and a national opinion poll has been released just within the last week that shows a very quick rise in the number of Americans who think that regulation is a better policy than prohibition. Do you think the march and the movement had an effect in the United States that changed people’s minds about what functional drug policy might look like?
TC: That’s a difficult question to answer—we had a caravan in the United States last year, and we did plant some seeds of consciousness, we did touch some hearts. I hope it did have something to do with it, but I’m not sure about that. But it definitely means a lot to what’s happening in Mexico.
Can you see an impact of the movement in terms of Mexican politics and Mexican policy?
TC: We have a brand-new president, it’s been only a year, and there’s been a change but maybe not for the better.
TC: Because President Enrique Peña Nieto’s strategy has more to do with denial, like nothing is going on, there’s no more drug war, there’s no casualties, nobody speaks about the victims anymore. That’s not a change for the better. There are more casualties, the country has been militarized—disappeared people, the numbers are on the rise, as well as displaced people. The situation of migrants in the country is horrible.
At least in public perception, maybe there’s been a shift from the Bush-Calderón era to the Obama-Peña Nieto era. Do you think there’s been any significant change between those two presidents and these two presidents we have now?
JS: There has only been a change of discourse, nothing more, which might change perceptions but does not change reality. The reality continues to be what Teresa said—perhaps worse yet, because it makes people defenseless. They want to believe that things are better and if they are not it makes people feel defenseless. A change of discourse does not change reality.
You’ve said many times that legalization and regulation of drugs is only one part of the picture—that there are the problems of money laundering in the US and the availability of assault weapons.
JS: Yes, that’s the binational part. The problem has to be addressed and dealt with in all of its manifestations. In this case, state corruption has to be attacked. Mexico is a very corrupt state.
Some journalists and academics argue that to speak of “the government” on one side and “the cartels” on the other is misleading because they’re so intertwined with each other.
JS: Unfortunately, that’s so—and that doesn’t condemn the government in its entirety. I think there are honest public officials. Or I hope that there are. We would hope that those honest public elected officials would do their job against these criminals. I think Obama is an honest man, I think what he lacks is political grandeur. I’ll quote Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t remember which, but it was a great man who said that the problem is not the violent ones or the evil ones, the problem is the silence of the good ones. This is what allows state corruption to continue existing.
You said today at your lecture at Seattle University: “When the state fears its citizenry, then we begin to see democracy.”
JS: Yes. Democracy is the power of the people when they make demands of their government. When the government fears its citizenry because it has not lived up to its demands, then we have a real democratic moment. When we sat down with the president and with the legislature to talk about the issue of victims—this was something the people did by mobilizing. President Calderón wouldn’t have sat down with us unless he was under pressure from the citizenry. This was a great democratic moment—because the government was afraid.
You also talked about revolution as an option to get over these more global problems that we’re wrestling with. What do you mean by that?
JS: It’s a complex subject, no? We can no longer think of revolution in the terms of the Enlightenment: the French Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, or the Russian Revolution. They’ve been great failures. These revolutions, and this revolutionary tradition that has sought to make grand changes on a global scale, have ended in failure. But we can think instead of nonviolent revolution and reviving the nonviolent traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., where the pressure and the ethical power of movements make changes at state level and system level. Zapatismo is a good example of a movement that made profound transformations of the conscience of the people in the indigenous world.
It seems that in the past few years there have been a series of popular movements: “Hasta la Madre” in Mexico, the Indignados in Spain, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street—do you think these phenomena are connected?
TC: Certainly! Everything is connected! I think this neoliberal system—people have had it up to here. Voices are starting to be articulated loudly.
What are the next steps for the movement in Mexico?
TC: When we were here for the Caravan for Peace [a rolling series of demonstrations and press conferences across the US about the drug war] in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr.’s people and civil rights people told us all the time—organize, organize, organize. I think that is the next step. I don’t know if we will be capable: Mexican society is in a real crisis of values, and we lack empathy, we lack compassion. I think we are too troubled or too misled.
In the past few years, the discourse around drug legalization and regulation has shifted from one that’s just about civil liberties and recreational use to a larger social-justice issue—the interconnectedness of different countries and the markets and the violence. What are the next steps from a policy perspective? Legalizing further drugs? What do you think would be the best way to go forward?
TC: Yes, more drugs should be legalized, maybe all drugs. I think a really important issue that governments are not addressing is money laundering. That’s where the authorized crime gets its power, that’s its fuel—money. If we deprive them of that money, they would have no power.
People have been intimidated, threatened, murdered for speaking out against the drug war, journalists and activists.
TC: The journalists’ situation is really bad in our country. They are murdered, they are threatened, they are silenced, they are disappeared. It’s a bad thing, but the worse thing is that you don’t have to be a pain in the ass for the government to be at risk of being murdered. Anybody can be. We’re all vulnerable.
And you’re seeing this in activist circles as well?
TC: Movimiento por la Paz has had its casualties. There was this father, Nepomuceno Moreno, who was looking for his disappeared son and three more friends. He addressed President Calderón in one of the dialogues, personally. And a few months after that, President Calderón promised that he would do something to find his son—and Nepomuceno was killed.
You don’t know by whom?
JS: By the police! Nepomuceno had identified the police officers who had kidnapped and murdered his son. He had brought that to the attention of the government of Sonora, and the governor and the attorney general did nothing. His life was threatened by the same people he’d pointed the finger at. In our second dialogue with President Calderón, we put Nepomuceno in front of the president, and he said: “These are the murderers of my son and I’m receiving death threats and I’m asking for protection.” Two weeks after that (it’s been two years now, it was on November 28), they murdered him in the street. We don’t know where his son is; we don’t have Nepomuceno’s killers. The government washed its hands of the matter, saying Nepomuceno had had some trouble in the United States some 20 years before—so here we are once again with this logic of criminalizing victims.
Have you been threatened yourself, as a high-profile activist?
JS: No, I never have, but there are a lot of people in the movement who have been threatened and have taken measures to protect themselves. They have bodyguards. But these are people who pointed the finger at police who have committed crimes against their families.
What do you think a post-drug-prohibition world might look like?
TC: Hopefully, less violent. Hopefully a world where people would look at each other as equals—users or not users. All of this stigma that falls upon drug users will hopefully get diluted. Maybe a more equal world.
What about you, Javier?
JS: Some rehabilitation—not just liberation and legalization. Some control because drugs have power. It has to be orderly.