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."

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide