Mexico’s silent March for Peace falls on deaf ears

Calderón stands firm as thousands take to the streets to demand an end to drug gang violence.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on Zócalo in Mexico City on Sunday, demanding an end to the wave of violence in which up to 40,000 people have been murdered in the past four and a half years.

Marching on the iconic square, protesters called for an immediate halt to the Calderón government's policy of fighting fire with fire as the country's ongoing "war on drug trafficking" shows no signs of relenting.

One of the event's principal organisers was the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered in brutal circumstances along with five companions, some exhibiting signs of torture, in March.

Thousands had marched the 50 miles from Cuernavaca, the site of Juan Francisco Sicilia's killing, to the centre of Mexico's gargantuan capital in complete silence, the procession gaining numbers along the way.

Since coming to power in an election marred by evidence of widespread electoral fraud in 2006, President Felipe Calderón has deployed about 50,000 troops to take on the armed cartels, which make their money by trafficking narcotics towards and into the United States.

As rival gangs compete for trade routes and regional supremacy, innocent people are invariably caught in the crossfire.

Killing fields

The fallout has been catastrophic. Since Calderón's disputed election, tens of thousands of Mexicans have paid with their lives as the conflict has spun out of control, turning the Mexican side of the border shared with the United States into one of the most dangerous regions on the planet.

Ciudad Juárez, population 1.3 million, sits a short distance over the frontier from El Paso, Texas, and has witnessed more than 600 murders since January – many of them women, and 50 claiming the lives of children under the age of 13. Three thousand people were murdered in the municipality in 2010.

Stories that would remain etched in the public consciousness for years in Britain disappear from the headlines in days in Mexico as news of fresh atrocities consigns them to the history books. In April, several mass graves, containing more than a hundred bodies in total, were found in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

Last August the corpses of 72 mostly central American migrants en route to the United States who had turned down offers to work for the potent Los Zetas cartel had been found in the same state.

Such incidents have become routine. The effect of the prolonged instability on business and tourism has been disastrous.

No more war

The government, turning a blind eye to the vociferous protestations of those who arrived in the capital on Sunday after several days' marching, insists it has played no role whatsoever in escalating the insecurity that today plagues much of the country.

"The military, the navy and the federal police do not generate violence," retorted an official government communiqué. "The federal government shares with its citizens the aspiration of making Mexico a safe country with opportunities for development for all."

For at least one former president, however, the war on drugs will never be won. Felipe Calderón's immediate predecessor, Vicente Fox, caused consternation last year when he pointed to the elephant in the room: the profit margins available to cartels because of the illegal status of marijuana and other illicit substances.

"What I am proposing is legalisation, so that the people running the trade are businessmen instead of criminals . . . They would pay taxes and this would generate jobs," said Fox, who, like Calderón, is a staunch conservative from the National Action Party.

The former president pointed out that, by every statistical measure, the war against the drug gangs has been an abject failure. "After four years of the war on trafficking in Mexico, the cartels are exporting more drugs, killing more people and getting richer than ever . . .

"Prohibition of alcohol in the United States failed. It just provoked violence and criminality until it was abandoned," Fox said.

President Calderón said he was against the proposal, but expressed a desire to see a national debate on the matter. He said that until the US alters its policy towards illegal substances, Mexico is in no position to do so: "This country would become a paradise for all the world's criminals."

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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.