The University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point’s Latin American/ Caribbean speaker series coordinated with the activist group Witness for Peace to bring Francisco Cerezo, a founding member of the human rights organization Comité Cerezo, to campus last Thursday to speak about the effects the United States’ War on Drugs is having on the Mexican people.
Since 2007, the drug war has claimed the lives of over 60,000 Mexican citizens. In addition, about 25,000 people have been seized by Mexican police forces, and a staggering 150,000 people have been displaced by violent conflict.
All of this has been funded by American taxpayers and comes to a total of around 1.6 billion dollars.
This is the situation that Francisco, and the rest of Comité Cerezo, fight every day in Mexico. Comité Cerezo was formed in 2000 when Francisco’s three brothers, also activists, were arrested and imprisoned by the Mexican government on charges of terrorism.
“We eventually managed to defeat those charges in court,” Francisco said. “But one of my brothers was in jail for three and a half years before we could get him out, and the other two were both in for seven years.”
Today, Comité Cerezo focuses on documenting police abuse and advocating for political prisoners in Mexico, as well raising awareness about US policies driving the drug war.
In Thursday’s presentation, Francisco singled out one particularpolicy, the Mérida Initiative, as the biggest contributor to the human rights crisis in Mexico today.
The initiative was created in 2008 by the US and Mexican governments to outfit Mexican forces with the tools and training needed to achieve two goals: wage war against the drug cartels and prevent human rights abuses. However, according to Francisco and Witness for Peace, the effects of the initiative have fallen far from this stated purpose.
Witness for Peace reports, “Between 2007 and 2012, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission saw a fivefold increase in complaints of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers and federal police, including torture, rape, extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance.”
Francisco asserts that the initiative is the cause of this jump in human rights violations.
“Support of the Merida Initiative from US is 99 percent military training, one percent human rights,” Francisco said. “The police have been trained to fight enemy combatants, so they treat Mexican citizens like enemies.”
When acting to disperse public protests, police officers will “Restrain protesters and kick them into submission, while others try to stop activists from recording what’s happening by blocking their cameras with riots shields,” Francisco said.
People beaten in this way are often left on the street and there is no official documentation of the abuse that can be used against the police. Other times, people are taken in and their arrest is never put on official record.“When this happens, the families of the people who are arrested will go to the police to find out what happened to their loved ones, and the police deny they ever arrested them,” Francisco said.
Francisco also claimed that the other stated goal of the initiative, to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico, is not being followed through on.
“What is the true reason the US is sending so much money to Mexico?” one audience member asked.
“We believe that the Mexican Army, instead of fighting the Cartels to stop the drug trade, is actually fighting them to control the drug trade,” Francisco said.
This ties to another theory Comité Cerezo and Witness for Peace have about the true motivations of the drug war: that US corporations that influence policy use it as way to seize land and power in developing countries.
“There is an alliance between the Mexican government, the army, and US corporations,” Francisco said. “The government creates paramilitary groups that kill people, which causes those people to ask for help from the army, which then allows the government to take the land and turn it over to the corporations.”
As outrageous as that situation may sound, Francisco maintained that there are still actions that UWSP students can take to help.
Students can sign up at WitnessForPeace.org to receive action alerts, which are forms that call for signatures to pressure military and political forces to take action on a certain issue.
Francisco has received thirteen death threats over the course of his activism and responses to action alerts have helped insure that none of them have been followed through with.
Students can also follow Witness for Peace and Comité Cerezo on Facebook and Twitter. This type of social media activism can actually make a huge difference when these groups fight in court on behalf of political prisoners.
“The Courts will not be so harsh if they know there is US support,” said Elise Roberts, regional organizer for Witness for Peace’s upper Midwest branch.