By Joe Wallen, interviewing Alicia Calderon – Benito Juárez, President of Mexico between 1861-72, famously said: “Among individuals as among nations, the respect to other people’s rights is peace”.
It is 2017, and Mexico is still waiting.
It’s a cold, crisp March evening in London, and I’m seated in the Frontline Club for a showing of Alicia Calderón’s documentary ‘Retratos de una Búsqueda’ or ‘Portraits of a Search’.
The room is so quiet you can hear a pin drop.
Guadalupe Aguilar, is discussing the fate of her daughter in a manner which is utterly heart-breaking.
“All the horror stories that they told me about the girl, I thought they were all lies. I wanted them not to be true. Unfortunately it was all true.
“They took her and held her captive, at the house of a mayor. They told me they were torturing her and raping her.
“After a week of her captivity, they took her. My girl had to watch as they finished digging the ditch where she would be buried.
“She asked, what are they going to do with me? Why are they going to kill me?
“He (a member of the cartel) said he turned around to smoke a joint and when he turned back he saw the two other men cut her head off.
“They started playing with her head, kissing her on the lips, and she was buried at that spot”.
In 2016, studies suggested Mexico’s murder rate was second only to war-torn Syria.
Ms. Aguilar is one of three protagonists in Alicia Calderón’s documentary.
Her daughter, Yahaira, is certainly not an isolated case.
Powers for and Against the People
Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs’ is believed to have claimed an estimated 200,000 lives and left more than 30,000 people missing.
Alicia Calderón’s documentary primarily focuses on three Mexican mothers, Guadalupe, Natividad and Margarita, as they search for their children who have gone missing.
In her documentary, Calderón focuses on the mothers’ resilience and resolve as opposed to portraying the women as mothers-in-mourning. They are seen to possess an inexhaustible, irrepressible desire to discover the truth about their offspring, however devastating it may.
One mother enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests. Another scours the country, making call after call to yet another unhelpful person in the Mexican authorities. At the end of the film we see all three women unite to endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the office of local government.
Shooting such a documentary in Mexico brings with it extreme risks for both Alicia, and her protagonists.
On the 10th May, gunmen shot and killed prominent Mexican activist and mother, Miriam Rodriguez, who was dedicated to searching for “disappeared” people in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
Her crime? After her daughter went missing in 2014, Rodriguez began a search which led to her finding her daughter’s remains in a hidden grave in the Tamaulipas town of San Fernando.
The information she passed on to the police ensured the gang members behind her daughter’s murder were jailed. According to the BBC, one of the gang members escaped from jail in March and began to threaten Rodriguez.
Her colleagues said she had asked for police protection but this was ignored.
Mexico: The Most Dangerous Country in the World to be a Journalist
According to Reporters without Borders, Mexico is currently the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist, with nine journalists murdered in 2016 alone.
In March, 2017, five journalists were targeted in Mexico by cartels, with three of them killed.
However, Alicia was not phased by the very evident threat she and her subjects faced:
“I went to a demonstration against the violence in Mexico and I was very moved to listen to the mothers who were looking for their missing sons and daughters over the previous few months.
“I had a new born baby and maybe I was especially sensitive to the subject. At that time, at the end of 2010, Mexicans had not noticed the seriousness of the problem of the disappeared, we were just looking focusing on those killed.
I thought then that the disappearance of people would be one of our most serious human rights crises in the country. The time has proven to be so and it will be decades before we can solve it.”
Knowing the Past to Understand the Present
We are currently in the tenth year of Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs’, initially launched by the then newly inaugurated president, Felipe Calderón. He sent 6,500 troops into the state of Michoacán on 10th December 2006, where rival cartels were massacring each other as they battled over lucrative narco-territory.
Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country, which initially attracted support from communities tired of being subject to gun battles between cartels, terrifying execution-style murders and corrupt police officers.
Since the launch of the ‘War on Drugs’, Mexico has spent at least $54 billion on security and defence, and this has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts.
Officials say that 25 out of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderón’s most wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the United States or killed.
More than 110,000 tonnes of cocaine and almost 180,000 hectares of marijuana and poppies were destroyed during Calderón’s term.
However, it can easily be argued that the cost to humanity of the ‘War on Drugs’ in Mexico has overshadowed any work done to reduce crime and restore stability to a country ruined by the narco-trade.
Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, took power in December 2012 and continued his predecessor’s efforts on the ‘War on Drugs’.
Whilst Peña Nieto’s crackdown and capture of drug kingpins has attracted praise from the wider media and the United States, such as the recapture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, his efforts have been futile in reducing violence or in establishing rule of law.
Many cartels have splintered and reformed, producing additional groups who have resorted to increasingly violent tactics when attempting to claim the same narco territory.
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This increased competition has created new battlegrounds, springing up in previously peaceful states, as gangs seek to find different drug smuggling routes away from high conflict areas.
Bloodshed has risen. Around 63,000 people were murdered in the first half of Peña Nieto’s term. This is 50% more than in Calderón’s first three years.
Mexico is set to go to the polls again in 2018 to elect Peña Nieto’s successor. Any preservation of what remains of civil society in Mexico will depend on the new President and his or her views towards the ‘War on Drugs’.
Calderón is pessimistic on any improvements in her country in the lead up to the election:
“The change I have only seen in speech but not in actions. Enrique Peña has not mentioned the consequences of the war against and between drug trafficking, but the number of disappeared people continues to grow during his mandate and we have not seen a real strategy to reduce impunity and to effectively search for missing persons.
“The figures tell us that every day 13 people disappear and, on the other hand, very few are located.
“There are hundreds of graves that the families of the disappeared have located in different parts of Mexico and many of them have not been analysed by the authorities.
“The remains of thousands of people are underground, without the government of Enrique Peña Nieto being able to rescue them and analyse them to try to identify them and give them to their relatives.
“The Mexican Army continues in the streets committing arbitrariness and participating in many of the crimes committed against the civilian population.
“Mexicans have not seen any benefit in the alleged fight against criminals, on the contrary, our quality of life is increasingly worse because of the fear we have of being a victim of growing violence.”
OP-ED: President Trump’s Mexico Policies & One Latin American Perspective regarding certain Implications…Thus Far
The election of Donald Trump is expected to bring further hardship for the Mexican people.
Whilst his ‘Build a Wall’ policy has attracted widespread media attention, the reality for Mexicans at home is much worse.
Alicia comments: “I definitely see it as something negative for Mexico. Trump is not in favour of regional growth and development in North America, including Mexico.
“On the contrary, he has repeated dozens of times his famous phrase “America First”.
“Mexico’s economic development is highly dependent on the United States. Trump does not try to promote Mexico’s economic growth, on the contrary, he has announced a renegotiation of the Free Trade Agreement that benefits the United States more.
“The poor people of Mexico are the “cannon fodder” of drug cartels and criminal groups that take advantage of the families’ need to include them in their criminal tasks.
“If Mexico fails to combat poverty, it will be difficult to combat organized crime. I think that with Trump, the poverty of Mexico could be aggravated.
“On the other hand, the United States is the largest consumer of drugs in the world.
“Most of the drugs produced in Mexico go to the neighbouring country. Trump does not appear to have a policy or intention to discuss the legalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, which in my view would reduce illegal demand and thus hundreds of deaths.
“Also, the excessive use of weapons in the United States and illegal traffic of firearms to Mexico is not a debatable issue for Trump, on the contrary, he is a president who favours arms policy and the use of arms by the civilian population. He is not a peaceful president.”
Alicia concludes: “In my opinion, both Mexico and the rest of Latin America have to work to strengthen their democracy, the substantial reduction of poverty and the judicial system that allows more effective control of drug cartel operations and organized crime and that will increasingly respect the integrity of the population.”
She looks despondent when thinking of this future.
“This is perhaps for the time being a utopia, given that criminals have a good presence within governments at all levels”.
Towards the end of the film Natividad is shown playing with her grandson, Diego, whose mother is missing. It is an uplifting sight.
The next generation deserves so much more.
About The Author: Joe Wallen
Joe Wallen is a British journalist. He has had work published in a number of national papers in the United Kingdom, such as the Guardian and the Times but his focus is on Latin America. Wallace has written this article after a private screening of Alicia Calderón’s documentary ‘Retratos de una Búsqueda‘ or ‘Portraits for a Search’.