Activists of Amnesty International hold a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy… (Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty…)
President Obama has much to discuss with Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, when they meet in Mexico City this week. No issue, however, is more urgent than the search for peace, justice and dignity for and between our peoples.
For seven years, Mexico has been living a nightmare. More than 70,000 people, by some estimates, have been killed and thousands more have been disappeared in the wave of criminal and institutional violence of Mexico's war on drug cartels. The collateral damage is a humanitarian tragedy that requires our leaders to have deep and frank discussions about how to transform the failed policies exacerbating the violence.
Our countries need to work together in prioritizing public health and regulation over a strategy that makes suspected drug offenders into military objectives. The effect of four decades of Mexico's drug war has been, ironically, to strengthen and enrich the very criminals we oppose. We also need urgent common action to shut down the torrent of guns being smuggled from the United States into Mexico, and into the hands of criminals, at a rate of more than 200,000 a year.
For me these issues are personal and transcend ideology, politics and even nationality. One of the victims of the violence was my 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco. He was an athletic, studious young man with no connections to the criminal world. In March 2011, he was murdered with six friends by cartel hit men.
Why were they killed? Because two of the boys tried to get back some tools stolen from the parking lot of a local gang-run nightclub. My son was enlisted by his friends to help. They were kidnapped, beaten, stripped, spit on, tortured and slowly asphyxiated.
We are certain Obama understands how insidious and dangerous this indiscriminate violence is, and the way American drug laws and gun laws empower it.
When it comes to guns, the consensus in Mexico is broad: Students, workers, elected officials and especially police and soldiers all know they would be safer if the United States effectively cracked down on gun traffickers, instituted background checks for all gun buyers and ended sales of military-style assault weapons.
The hard truth is that weak U.S. gun laws allow for conversion of drug trade profits into contraband weaponry in the hands of the very criminal organizations terrorizing Mexico. Most of these weapons can be legally purchased at any of 8,834 U.S. federally licensed firearms dealers in your border states, as counted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and then resold at a profit to a smuggler.
Obama's initiatives would have made this massive and continuous arming of Mexico's criminal organizations significantly more difficult. In Mexico, we were deeply disappointed when the U.S. Senate rejected popular, modest and eminently sensible measures to make it slightly harder for criminals, smugglers, the mentally ill and the cartels to get their hands on powerful weapons.
We urge Obama and Peña Nieto to use all their available executive powers to stem the tide of smuggled weapons and to support legislative and electoral efforts to overcome political inertia and roll back the power of the light arms industry and their political front groups like the National Rifle Assn.
But let's be clear. Presidents are not all-seeing and omnipotent. They need to be supported, nudged, cajoled, convinced, assisted and otherwise pressured to work on the right causes and make good decisions. It is the role of an engaged citizenry to make that happen.
After my son's death, our Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity arose. We pushed Mexico's former president, Felipe Calderon, into a series of public dialogues and directly challenged his militarized approach to fighting the gangs. We mobilized enormous caravans of consolation and hope led by victims of violence. Dozens of buses rolled through Mexico's worst conflict zones. Yet we knew that to end the killing, drug policy had to evolve. That meant crossing the border.
In August, I embarked on a 35-day, 125-person caravan across the United States. More than 200 U.S. organizations helped us with events in 27 cities focused on guns, money laundering and immigration justice. We underlined the need for the Obama administration to walk its talk of an evidence-based, public health model for drug policy. Yes, work to cut U.S. demand for drugs by devoting more resources to help addicts to recover and young people to make healthy choices. But to effectively shrink the profits of the illegal market, we must also consider regulating widely used recreational drugs.
In November, the citizens of Washington state and Colorado voted to start draining the coffers of criminal drug traffickers by establishing sensible state regulation of marijuana. We hope our leaders are listening.
As our presidents meet, let us wish them clarity and strong heart. We, the people on both sides of the border, will be very attentive.
Mexican poet Javier Sicilia has led the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity since the murder of his son, including working for the recently enacted "Victim's Law" that provides reparations for victims of Mexico's drug-related violence.