Sicilia’s Impact on Mexico, One Year On

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A year ago this week, the son of poet Javier Sicilia was murdered by a drug gang in Cuernavaca, sparking one of the most significant peace movements to emerge in Mexico in recent years.

The Murders and their Aftermath

Juan Francisco Sicilia, 24, was murdered along with six friends on March 28, 2011, after an altercation in a bar. Members of the South Pacific Cartel were accused of the crime. Within weeks, a host of suspects had been arrested, including the gang’s local leadership and an alleged protector in the police. Following the crack down from the authorities, the South Pacific Cartel faded from prominence not only in Cuernavaca, but throughout the territory they had previously dominated.

However, it was not the fate of the perpetrators but the reaction of Sicilia’s father Javier that turned the episode into a landmark in Mexico’s battle with organized crime. In the months after the killing, the grieving elder Sicilia became the face of victimhood in Mexico. He formed the Movement for Peace and Justice, embraced the slogan “No more blood,” and organized demonstrations to protest against the violence. Sicilia met with President Felipe Calderon and demanded that lawmakers give more attention to victims’ rights. He became the darling of the international media, leading a highly publicized Caravan of Peace around Mexico, with write-ups from outlets like Time Magazine and the New York Times.

Of all those to emerge as vital voices on security issues in 2011, Sicilia has garned by far the the most attention.

The Positive

Sicilia’s impact has been undeniably positive in one respect in particular: helping build a consensus that indiscriminate violence is the element of organized crime that should most concern policymakers.

While the point may seem obvious, Mexico’s battles with organized crime have been guided by two policy goals which often conflict. One is to weaken gangs, and the other is to reduce the violence generated by organized crime. Unfortunately, the systematically weakening of the most prominent criminal networks in Mexico has generated an unstable environment with more bloodshed, as the gangs splinter into factions and competing groups seek to exploit the vulnerability of their adversaries.

For much of Calderon’s tenure, his administration has argued that an increase in violence was not only of secondary importance to the goal of weakening gangs, but was a symptom of success, a demonstration that their hardline policy was working. Government officials from both the US and Mexico have explicitly made this argument on a number of occasions.

However, with something like 50,000 people dead in organized crime-related killings during Calderon’s time in office, violence reduction is the goal that receives the most attention today. While the government still focuses on taking down capos, it has largely ceased to justify increased violence as a necessary phase in the assault on crime. Most of its recent policy proposals focus on lowering the number of murders. Sicilia, who has enormous credibility as a man who lost his son to criminal violence, has been instrumental in bringing about this shift.

The Not-So-Positive

Sicilia’s movement has been compared to the Arab Spring, and is often described as the catalyst driving Mexicans to talk openly about organized crime for the first time. This is wrongheaded. Organized crime has been, along with the economy, the foremost public policy issue for the duration of the Calderon presidency, and Sicilia’s is just the latest in a string of anti-crime protests, from the Iluminemos Mexico march of 2008 to the massive demonstration in Mexico City in 2004. There is nothing new about the debate on organized crime in Mexico, nor about taking to the streets to protest against violence.

As with many of the movements that came before him, Sicilia has struggled to retain the same relevance he enjoyed at the beginning, when he was leading his caravan around Mexico. One way to counteract the inevitable erosion of enthusiasm is to anchor the protest to a small number of concrete policy goals, be they budgetary increases or legislative reforms. That way, long after the initial spasm of outrage, a movement is sustained by a driving objective. However, Sicilia has largely neglected to do this, instead bouncing between unfeasible demands (such as the resignation of Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, or the cancellation of the Merida Initiative).

Sicilia’s appeal stems in large part from his visceral and emotional force — the slogan for some of his demonstrations was, “Estamos hasta la madre”, a somewhat obscene declaration that can be translated as “We’re fed up.” However, while understandable, that anger has translated into a sometimes confused and counterproductive posture, which borders on hostility, toward the government.

For instance, Sicilia dismissed Mexico’s upcoming presidential elections, calling them a “disgrace” and essentially saying that his movement would not participate. While this attitude speaks to understandable frustration with the inefficacy of government policy, any solution to Mexico’s problems with organized crime will require a robust role for the government. NGOs and popular movements can provide a vital service by criticizing official policy and forcing policy makers to seek constant improvements in their strategies, but any group that shows its frustration with the government by ignoring it is going to have a severely limited impact.

Sicilia at one point said that his group sought “arms with which to pressure the politicians.” This makes sense, insofar as it refers to making politicians more responsive to the nation’s demands, yet the most obvious weapon in a democratic society is the vote. By abandoning greater participation in electoral campaigns, and refusing to get involved in the political fray, Sicilia reduces his impact substantially and unnecessarily.

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