A poet is Mexico’s new voice against drug violence

Javier Sicilia led 200,000 people to Mexico City’s El Zocalo plaza in May in a National March for Justice and against Impunity. Just last week he led hundreds of others people in a Citizens Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity, he called it a “trail of pain” to protest the violence of the Mexican drug war. But until recently he had spent most of his life as a poet, known primarily in literary circles as the editor of the literary magazine Conspiratio and winner of Mexico’s top literary prize, the Aguascalientes National Award in Poetry.

That changed on March 28, 2011 when his 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega was murdered in Cuernavaca, Mexico, by a drug gang. Ortega’s body was discovered in an abandoned car, along with six friends, they had been tortured. The deaths were “collateral damage” in Mexico’s drug war.

Now Sicilia is the nation’s new leader of civil resistance against the drug war and a beacon for free speech. His message demands justice for the victims of Mexico’s drug war, like his son.

But his new role does not come without difficulties, earlier this week, Sicilia had to clarify his beliefs, assuring the public that he was not calling for the removal of army units that patrol some northern Mexican cities even though those police units have been rendered useless by traffickers with greater firepower. Instead, he said that residents of Ciudad Juarez, on the US-Mexico border, need to be heard: most citizens want the army to leave their city, but some in other northern border cities can’t carry on with their daily lives without the presence of army units.

Sicilia is one of a handful of representatives of civil society, who have climbed onto the bully pulpit after their children were killed by drug traffickers, government forces or corrupt officials.

Isabel Miranda de Wallace, a matronly businesswoman jumped into the public arena after the kidnapping and disappearance of her son Hugo in 2005. Wallace was the first to confront corrupt police officials whom she claimed were protecting the killers. She paid for large billboards that identified the names of the suspected killers and denounced the kidnapping of her son.

Alejandro Marti, one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most successful businessman, is another grieving father turned social activist. His 14 year-old son, Fernando Marti, was kidnapped by a group of men posing as police officers. They forced the boy, his bodyguard and a chauffeur out of a bullet-proof limousine on its way to the boy’s school. The driver was tortured and killed, the bodyguard left for dead. The kidnappers killed the boy after they received the hefty ransom from his father.

Sicilia, Wallace and Marti have become examples of free speech and bravery in Mexico, unafraid of the dangers they face for demanding justice from their government.

Mexico’s regional press falls silent

In the last year, foreign and Mexican news reports have relayed the dangers faced by the Mexican provincial media by recounting anecdotes of journalists been intimidated, killed and disappeared.

But nothing illustrated better how dangerous the situation was than a meeting with a group of reporters in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon last May. There was mistrust, fear and expectation. One reporter was paranoid when a colleague kept the list of participants in the meeting with him; another one asked a colleague not to take pictures of those present. And a third said he would be quizzed by local drug traffickers about his trip to Monterrey. Those from Monterrey listened carefully to what those in Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria, two cities on the US Mexico border, were saying. One of the reporters from Monterrey told me, “It looks like we could become like them.” read more …

Phonetapping on the rise in Mexico

It was the scandal of the week. A clandestine telephone interception revealed the conversation between two top executives from Stendhal and Norvartis pharmaceutical companies, as they discussed pay offs to a government official working for the Mexican social security system called Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social (IMSS) in order to obtain an $80m government contract.

The tape was aired by Televisa, the television giant, on its nightly show last Tuesday to a national uproar. It was picked up by every newsmedia, something that is rare in Mexico, where professional jealousy keeps national media away from stories that are broken by other colleagues. The story conveniently broke as the Mexican Congress was debating an overhaul of the social security system, a multi-million programme that provides top medical care to more than 14 million Mexicans employed by private businesses. The system is facing bankruptcy. The tape release cost the two pharmaceutical officials their jobs, and the position of a top social security official.

The tapes are part of a trend that has taken over Mexico, a place where charges of corruption abound, and few government officials pay for their misdoings. Citizens, politicians and unknown sources are producing clandestine telephone recordings and videotapes that go on to accuse corrupt officials. In another case, a complaint by a resident of Aguascalientes province led police to videotape a doctor who was illegally asking for graft before he offered a service that fell within his insurance.

The tape was also released in another Televisa news program called Primero Noticias and placed in YouTube. The second case led to the government levying charges against the doctor.

But the proliferation of illegal recordings and videotapes is of concern to some in Mexico, as leaks from unidentified sources often further the personal goals of those who release the material to the media.

In the case of the pharmaceutical executives, it has been revealed that the recordings disappeared from social security offices. The telephone tapes had been sent to social security director, Daniel Karam, earlier on Tuesday and submitted for an internal investigation. Thus someone in the system decided it was better to send them to national television where an outcry would condemn the individuals featured on the tape before it was investigated whether the charges were real.

One of the executives in the tape has claimed that whoever taped their private conversations conducted an illegal act and connected three different conversations to make it seem convincing. It will be hard for the public, which is so accustomed to government officials asking for bribes to believe this turn of the story. A doctor friend of mine who works at the IMSS told me corruption in the system is endemic and even doctors engage in it by not working more than three hours a day. But it seems this tape appearance is more political—the two opposition political parties have used it to attack the ruling Partido de Accion Nacional for missteps in public policy.

Last year’s most famous recording was that of the former minister of labour, Luis Tellez, who accused former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of stealing money. The release of the tape cost Tellez his job. Nothing happened to Salinas.

These illegal tapings or videotapes subvert Mexico’s legal system. They contribute to an overall cynicism among citizens who already feel the legal system does not protect them from corruption.

More dangerous is the possibility that drug cartels are also taping individuals and government officials. One security expert said he didn’t doubt the cartels are using sophisticated eavesdropping equipment. In Ciudad Juarez last year, the Federal Police were surprised when they discovered that an aerostatic balloon that had gone up in the city had eavesdropping equipment that could target their operation communications. This balloon apparently cost the lives of several police officers.

Fifteen years ago, while working on a story on Ciudad Juarez, I found a US citizen working for the Juarez Cartel who had built intercepting equipment to tape cellular conversations. The boxes cost $50,000 at the time and had been acquired by the late kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes. The inventor was eventually killed by Carrillo Fuentes. Technology has improved and with that the right to have interception free conversations has become more and more of an issue in Mexico these days.