One of Mexico’s most cherished holidays has taken on a more melancholic significance. The Dia de los Muertos holiday has celebrated the life, memory and spirit of deceased loved ones on Nov. 1 and 2 since the ancient traditions of the Aztec empire. It is a day of celebration, dance, eating and music. On this day, death is not mourned. Instead, the memory of those that are gone is celebrated. One main element of the celebration is the altar. It is a decorative display containing photographs of deceased relatives and friends, some of their personal items and favorite food offerings.
The UC Berkeley student organization M.E.N.D. will be dedicating an altar to innocent victims of the drug war in Mexico that will be displayed at Sather Gate crescent this week. As of the last few years, this positive outlook on the afterlife has been hard to maintain given that Mexicans all over the country are haunted by the overly gruesome landscape they face every day. An estimated 100,000 Mexicans have been murdered since President Felipe Calderon started his war on drug trafficking in December of 2006. The initial groups involved in this war were an estimated 6,500 Mexican military officers and four of the main Mexican cartels in Mexico, the Beltran Leyva cartel, the Gulf cartel, the Juarez cartel, and the Tijuana cartel. Since then, those involved in the war have expanded to more than 50,000 soldiers, an estimated 35,000 federal police officers and eight different major drug cartels who themselves make up more than 100,000 foot soldiers.
Four of those new drug cartels are not only recently formed but are also expanding in size and power. This is a result of divisions and factions that occurred within the original main cartels as a result of the deaths of some of their leaders, disagreements among the cartels, and the emergence of drug trafficking as a quasi-legitimized trade. It is not uncommon to see “help wanted” ads hanging from bridge overpasses or as ads on flyers.
One of the newer cartels is now estimated to be the most powerful due to its ruthlessness and predatory recruitment tactics. They are known for beheading their victims and displaying their bodies in public squares, dumping groups of dead bodies in busy highways and stuffing people in oil drums and lighting them on fire. They were originally hired as a paramilitary branch by the Gulf cartel to fight off rival drug cartels whenever necessary. Disagreements within the cartel caused the group to form its own cartel. They now thrive on sales from drug trafficking, extortions, kidnapping ransoms and human trafficking. In one case, they are known to have mass murdered 72 migrants in northern Mexico, just 100 miles south of Brownsville, Texas. According to the only survivor of the attacks, they were murdered for refusing to work as assassins for the cartel. The cartel has now spread its operations into several Central American countries. Ironically the leaders of this cartel are former Mexican army Special Forces soldiers. This cartel is known as Los Zetas.
The Mexican government paints a much different picture of the war though. According to the Mexican government, only 10 percent of murders are that of innocent people. That is hard to believe given the fact that in the overwhelming majority of killings in Mexico, there is no criminal investigation. Benefitting from the increased state of terror in Mexico, cartels are depending more and more on making money from terrorizing innocent people.
In one case, cartels entered a popular nightclub in Juarez, Chihuahua demanding everyone there to turn over all their belongings while setting the bar on fire and gunning down everyone inside. To make matters worse, one of the survivors, who was able to run out before the shoot-out, was confronted by federal police who were standing guard as the cartel members were inside killing the innocent nightclub attendants.
Federal and municipal police are commonly hired by cartels to work as bodyguards during their free time. With the federal and state police against them, innocent Mexicans have nowhere to turn to for safety and assurance. It almost seems as if death is a looming threat that Mexicans are forced to face every day. Even on Mexico’s most celebrated day Mexicans cannot escape the threat of death. On Sept. 15, 2008 cartel members threw two grenades into a crowd of people gathered to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day in Morelia’s main city plaza. They left several dead and more than 100 wounded in the plaza.
Mexico has become a death-plagued country. At every corner there seems to be either a new dead body lying on the pavement, a closed down school due to extortion, disappeared families or bullet-riddled houses and cars. Sadly, there is very little Mexicans can do to demand for justice and change to this horrifying setting. As soon as someone speaks up or publicly demonstrates their frustrations, they end up either dead or missing. Fortunately, there are a rising number of individuals and organizations that are working towards alleviating this problem while helping Mexico in its search for peace. Through their work and commitment and the unrelenting courage of Mexicans everywhere, Mexico’s future looks hopeful.
Jose Antonio Flores is the president and founder of M.E.N.D. at UC Berkeley.
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