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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.