Amid intense bloodshed against civilians by corrupted Mexican security forces, dozens of local residents marched on the streets of Santa Ana on Wednesday night in protest of U.S. government spending on Mexican military hardware and training.
Much of the American-funded weapons and training ends up being used to murder innocent civilians, said the protesters, who recalled the recent mass kidnapping and presumed murder of 43 students at the hands of police.
“They were taken alive; we want them back alive!” protesters chanted as they marched, referring to the students.
Other chants included calls for less police spending and more spending on education.
More than 80 people participated in the march, starting at a plaza next to Santa Ana’s federal courthouse and moving eastward on Fourth Street, south to busy First Street, westward to Flower Street, north to Santa Ana Blvd. and westward back to the plaza.
Rain had been pouring down almost all day, and the protest was no exception. Many demonstrators were drenched by the end of the march.
Along the way, they carried aloft signs that read “Justice for Murdered Students,” and “Resign [Mexican President Enrique] Peña Nieto.”
The demonstration targeted the U.S. funding program known officially as the Merida Initiative, or “Plan Mexico” by critics.
Protesters said the initiative is ultimately creating even more violence towards civilians, given that so many of Mexico’s police forces are on the payroll of organized drug gangs.
Josie Allen, an executive secretary from Acapulco, said she had gone to Mexican police for help after she was robbed, but that the police themselves then ended up robbing her.
“There is no faith” in the police in Mexico, said Allen.
The inherent contradiction, she added, is that U.S. government “is helping Mexico to eradicate the narcos, but the people in power are the narcos,” she added.
Many called for an end to U.S. military aid for Mexico, arguing instead that education programs and self-organized volunteer militias, or autodefensas, should instead be supported.
“People have the best solutions for their own lives,” said Alberto Castillo, a Cal State Fullerton student who grew up in Santa Ana. “It’s not really up to foreign powers to eliminate enemies in someone else’s state.”
The top example of state-sponsored violence cited by the protesters is the recent mass kidnapping and presumed murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero.
According to Mexican federal authorities, the students had been on their way to protest a speech by the wife of the mayor of Iguala. While en route, the mayor reportedly ordered police to detain the students, with police then turning them over to a drug gang with ties to the mayor.
The students were killed and their bodies burned, according to Mexico’s attorney general.
The town’s mayor was paid at least $150,000 per month by a local drug gang, which was in turn allowed to largely run the city itself, Mexican authorities have said.
Protesters say that’s just one example of the corruption that runs rampant at every level of government in Mexico.
Another case they cited was the Zetas cartel, which was formed from former Mexican special operations soldiers who had been trained by the U.S. military.
Supporters of the Merida Initiative argue that it has greatly enhanced security for civilians.
It’s served to “strengthen institutions, improve citizen safety, fight drug trafficking, organized crime, corruption, illicit arms trafficking, money-laundering, and demand for drugs on both sides of the border,” according to the U.S. State Department.
But critics argue that that while it’s generated high-profile takedowns of cartel leaders, the drug trade has simply adapted to newer, more nimble criminal organizations.
The initiative “has barely made a dent in the drug trade it aims to stop,” argued Fulton Armstrong, the former top Latin America analyst for the U.S. intelligence community, in a 2012 essay for Foreign Policy magazine.
“For every drug capo taken down, several lieutenants have surged forward to keep the business going -- but in a manner much harder for U.S. and Mexican intelligence to detect. That was one of the unheeded lessons from Colombia: taking down the ostentatious, sports car-driving bosses yields a political boost, but the atomization of the drug trade makes it much more challenging to combat.”
Santa Ana-based activist Abraham Medina noted that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed gun dealers to sell assault weapons to traffickers, in a failed program to track them.
At least 150 Mexicans have been killed or wounded by guns trafficked under the ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious, according to a Mexican lawmaker.
Such policies, including training of the Mexican military, have ultimately enabled the cartels to gain technology, weaponry, strategies and capabilities that they previously didn’t have, Medina said.
“It’s just insane,” said Medina.
He also noted that the illegal drug trade extends north of the border into Orange County, with the I-5 freeway serving as a major corridor into the U.S.
“Sometimes we think all that is happening in Mexico, but it’s really happening here” too, said Medina.
“It’s happening, but nobody really notices.”
Medina said U.S. authorities should invest in drug rehab programs that reduce demand for illegal drugs in the first place. Plans should also incorporate input from community members, like the mothers of the missing 43 students, he said.
“They’re the ones that know best” about corruption and the situation on the ground, Medina said of community members.
Protest organizers say they plan to keep up their demonstrations about state-sponsored violence in Mexico.
“México es familia. And more than a foreign policy, it’s our people. That’s one of the reasons [that] – rain or shine, we’re gonna be here,” said Emmanuel Gonzales, a senior at Beckman High School in Irvine who has helped organize recent protests.
“Some of them have to go through rape, through kidnappings, through killings, and that’s our family,” he continued. “If we don’t see any change soon, we’ll continue to be back in the streets raising our voice, because these things can’t happen.”