When a body is found on the streets of Mexico—often young, and sometimes faceless from torture or mutilation—people don't usually say much, at least not openly. But there is a phrase that's commonly whispered behind the veil of violence that has become ubiquitous in Mexican daily life over the past five years: "En algo andaba."
He must have been caught up in something.
When Mexican poet Javier Sicilia's son, Juan Francisco, was murdered a year ago, his reaction was similar, in some ways. He dedicated a final poem to him and then declared that he had no more words to put into poetry or express his pain.
Instead, he dedicated his life to publicly identifying exactly what it was that his son was caught up in. That work brought him to the University of Arizona last week, where he laid it out in no uncertain terms for a packed room of hundreds of Tucsonans.
Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón would have you believe that Juan Francisco was up to no good, that he got what he deserved. Calderón's five-year offensive against the drug cartels has resulted in more than 50,000 deaths, 10,000 disappearances and a million people displaced from their homes. He insists that 90 percent of the victims in this ongoing bloodbath are guilty of something.
Javier Sicilia knows better. He knows that even when people are caught up in the drug trade, it's often not by choice. He knows that the choices often boil down to plata o plomo—silver or lead. And he intimately understands that the victims are not numbers. They're human beings, beloved by fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers.
Sicilia also understands very clearly that Calderón is merely a lieutenant in the War on Drugs, a war manufactured in the United States and exported to many countries.
In a cynical ploy to establish legitimacy after an obviously corrupt 2006 election that was protested by millions, Calderón pledged to take on the cartels and establish a more-secure Mexico. The country has since been flooded with U.S. military-grade arms and training, and more than 60,000 guns that crossed the border illegally, thousands of which were secretly facilitated by U.S. authorities.
The predictable result has been massive violence and a devastating breakdown of public security in Mexico. Not only do beloved sons and daughters die in the streets; there's almost no chance that their murderers will be prosecuted. For grieving family members, such near-total impunity may be hard to stomach, but for Javier, the political impunity of those who conduct the drug war is harder still.
That's why he wants Tucsonans to know that he and millions of other Mexicans are "hasta la madre" with our destructive exports—a phrase that bluntly invokes the sanctity of motherhood to express a profound exasperation with a senseless policy that's sanctioned and paid for by every red-blooded, taxpaying American citizen. We are caught up in something, and it's largely our responsibility.
But don't misunderstand—this issue goes beyond national allegiances. Javier puts U.S. and Mexican politicians in the same leaky boat. He'll be the first to tell you that institutions in both nations are corrupted by the same forces, that politicians use the same fears to manipulate people and maintain power, and that Mexico treats its undocumented immigrant labor force worse than we treat ours.
For Javier, the root of this evil is capitalismo, an economic system that reduces virtually every aspect of society to its monetary value. It's not just the half-trillion-dollar-a-year drug trade that corrupts—violence itself is a commodity, as are the human lives it swallows up.
We're unable to break our addiction to the drug war for the same reason that we can't free ourselves from petroleum, toxic chemicals, environmental destruction, for-profit health care or other powerful economic influences that have such a pernicious effect on human welfare: Our society is paralyzed by the pursuit of profit.
I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing "the economy" invoked as an excuse for so much destruction and suffering, as if it were some living entity or end in itself. There are many ways to exchange goods and services, and many ways to govern that exchange. Economics should serve the public welfare—not the other way around.
This August, Sicilia and his Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity will launch a caravan from San Diego to Washington, D.C. Modeled after efforts in Mexico, it will come through Tucson. Follow its progress, and the political poem that Javier's life has become online.