“The narco conquest of Indigenous land is like all the other conquests”

In September 1987, during my first visit to Mexico, I took a train through the Sierra Tarahumara from Chihuahua city to Creel and then along the rim of the spectacular Copper Canyon (left) to Los Mochis on the Pacific coast in Sinaloa state. (Now the same trip is a fancier tourist excursion, the Chepe Express.)

The murders last month in the Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico’s Chihuahua state of two Jesuit priests sparked grief and tension among Indigenous people, the Catholic church and various levels of Mexican government. The priests were Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín Mora Salazar, 81, known respectively as Gallo and Morita. A third person killed with them, Pedro Heliodoro Palma, was described as a tourist guide. Their bodies were taken by the killers, who were said by police to be linked to the Sinaloa cartel.

Mexican Jesuits recognized “with humility” that in a country with more than 100,000 disappeared people, they were fortunate to recover the bodies of their brothers within 72 hours of their disappearance. “A search that was coordinated among three levels of government reflects intense attention and action are likely not accessible to the immense majority of families whose cases do not gain public attention.”

In the last 30 years, 70 Catholic priests have been murdered in Mexico, including seven during the current presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO). The motives, wrote sociologist Bernardo Barranco in La Jornada, are multiple: theft, kidnapping, extorsion, passion and politics. I would add incidental contact with drug-traffickers who, in this case, seem to have been chasing someone who sought refuge in the church in Cerocahui, municipality of Urique, where the Jesuits have carried out ministry among the Rarámuri Indigenous people in the Sierra Tarahumara. 

In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against the drug cartels in an attempt to curb their violent turf wars. Instead, the violence became worse. 

In the town of Creel, in southwest Chihuahua, on Aug. 16, 2008, gunmen opened fire on a group of young people who were participating in a barefoot family race. One of them was carrying his baby in his arms. Some of the youth were related to the town’s mayor but had no link to organized crime. Thirteen people, including the baby, died. 

A few weeks later, Jesuit Fr. Ricardo Robles wrote

For a while now, but especially in recent months, a group of friends and I have been trying to better understand the significance of the evermore extended presence of the narco in the Sierra Tarahumara. It’s the narco-planting, that in some areas has seen four generations of narco-cultivators and has made this way of life become ordinary, indeed almost the only lifestyle now. But it is also the narco-transportation, the narco-struggle for control of territories, the generalized narco-corruption, including paid-for narco-elections, the abundant narco-money-launderers and the small narco-traffickers and narco-consumers

What is new in what we are seeing with the narco? A Rarámuri friend said it is the same thing they have seen for five centuries. “It’s another activity in which Indigenous people are pressured and obliged to work. It was the same with the mines,” he said. “There was the same violence and crime, the same deaths, the same enrichment and impoverishment and in everything we were left with the worst part. The same with the invasion of our territories, the same with the theft of our forests, the same with tourism that even takes our water, the same with the return of the mines. The same when one day they brought the planting of marijuana and poppies. For us it’s the same thing. This is how invasions are, but perhaps for you this seems new.”  

Perhaps all that is truly new is that now the blood is spattered on all of us, that we are all being conquered, tyrannized and forced to submit.

The Spanish conquistadores, hungry for gold and other precious minerals, arrived in the Rarámuri territory in 1589. The Jesuit religious order followed in 1608. They were expelled from the Spanish colony and 19th-century Mexico, but returned after 133 years in 1900 with the intention of educating the Indigenous people. La Jornada journalist Luis Hernández Navarro writes that after facing about 40 years of resistance, the Mexican Jesuits finally began to learn from the Rarámuri. By the 1960s, they had set aside their western notions and moved closer to the Rarámuri cosmovision. The Rarámuri converted the Jesuits “from being carriers of a doctrine into disciples, from being do-gooders into friends of the men and women of the Sierra Tarahumara, and companions in their secular resistance and defence of their freedom and autonomy.” Hernández adds that the two Jesuits killed in June had “accompanied the Rarámuri people who were subjects of their own history and not objects for colonization.”

In 2017, one of Hernández’s own La Jornada colleagues, Miroslava Breach, was murdered after documenting the expansion of organized crimes and its links with political institutions in Chihuahua. The image on the right is from the Committee to Protect Journalists. By the end of June, at least 10 journalists had been killed in Mexico this year.

At the funeral June 25 of the slain priests, Fr. Javier Ávila Aguirre, the Jesuit who serves at Creel, called on President López Obrador during his homily to look again at his approach to public security. “Our tone is peaceful but loud and clear. We call for actions from government that end impunity. Thousands of people in pain and without voice clamour for justice in our nation. Hugs are no longer enough to cover the bullets.”

In his daily news conference on June 30, the president responded: “Those expressions of ‘hugs are not enough.’ What would the priests have us do? That we resolve problems with violence? That we disappear everyone? That we bet on war?”

The point, however, made by human rights groups and some religious leaders, is that after nearly four years AMLO’s approach to the drug war has not produced a noticable reduction in violent attacks on civilians – or priests or journalists. While the president says he is working on the “causes of violence” – poverty, marginalization, exclusion – what people want is protection now. 

The issues raised by the Jesuits and human rights groups should not be seen as normal political attacks on an incumbent politician, but rather contributions in a search for real solutions. 

Bernardo Barranco, the sociologist-columnist cited above, told a La Jornada colleague in an interview that churches are present in places where the state is absent, and that they could have a mediating role. He pointed to the state of Guerrero where, for example, Bishop Salvador Rangel of Chilpancingo-Chilapa negotiated in 2018 with organized crime so as to end the assassination of local candidates and to permit the population to vote. 

Such conversations may not lead to solutions in every instance, but it’s clear that new ideas and less defensive dialogue are needed if Mexico is to find a way forward.

And North American narco-consumers need to say NO to illegal drugs, at least for the sake of solidarity with victims of narco-violence.

In Colombia, those who believe in peace with justice rejoice

A Gustavo Petro campaign poster from 2010.

On a winter evening about 20 years ago – I am sorry that I cannot be more precise – Bill Fairbairn and I met in Toronto with a Colombian congressman and one of his aides. Bill worked for the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), and I served on its board. And I can’t remember if this meeting was before or after mid-2001 when the work of ICCHRLA was folded (partially) into KAIROS. We were in what I think we used to call the Blue Room of Deer Park United Church in Toronto where the offices of ICCHRLA and later KAIROS were located.

I do remember the congressman, Gustavo Petro, and his earnest search for international allies in the struggle to end Colombia’s civil war and to obtain a measure of social justice to the oppressed majority.

Two decades later, Petro is weeks away from being sworn in as Colombia’s first president from a party of the left. His victory results from the mobilization of young and new voters from parts of Colombia that are always ignored, especially the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. 

Celebrating victory (left); voters from the margins propelled Petro to power.

A large measure of credit goes to his running mate, the environmental activist and lawyer Francia Márquez, 40. She will become the country’s first Afro-Colombian to hold executive office. This election was the first time voter turnout topped 60 per cent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

I met Petro again in August 2004 in Caracas, Venezuela. We were staying in the same hotel and both of us were observers of a referendum that opponents hoped would remove President Hugo Chávez from power. During Petro’s three campaigns to become president, along with his congressional and senate races, and the 2011 drive that made him mayor of Bogotá, right-wing politicians tagged him as castrochavista (as if that were a bad thing). They decried his youthful involvement in the M-19 guerrillas. They had made peace with the government in 1990. Petro, unlike many former fighters who laid down their weapons, survived the waves of selective assassinations that sought to eliminate them from political life.

Victory this past Sunday by Gustavo Petro, 62, in Colombia’s presidential election offers hope for reviving a peace process stalled these past four years by President Iván Duque, protegé of former president Álvaro Uribe – the fiercest guardian of the ways that things have always been done by those with power in Colombia.

Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire conservative who was frequently compared to Donald Trump.

This election (like recent ones in Chile, Honduras and Peru) is also firm rejection of Canadian and U.S. foreign policy that for the past 20 years has paid lip service to the search for peace, but always protected the interests of those who control land and natural resources. Before Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his majority in Parliament in 2011, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with Colombia that as a sop to the Liberal party contained a mechanism for a toothless human rights impact assessment. Colombia was also the key regional ally in setting up the “Lima Group,” the attempt by Washington and Ottawa to isolate Venezuela when most members of the Organization of American States refused to play along.

After the victories by Hugo Chávez in December 1998 in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva in Brazil in 2002, some of us starting talking about a “pink tide” sweeping across Latin America (forgetting perhaps that tides also recede). Now the tide is back, this time stronger than before. In Brazil, Lula is again leading the polls in anticipation of the election later this year.

The road ahead for Petro will be difficult, just as it has been for Pedro Castillo in Peru since his victory a year ago. The opposition will set traps and take advantage of every misstep. In this third attempt to win power, Petro proposed pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms. He would change how Colombia fights drug cartels and start new talks with remaining guerrilla fighters. But his coalition has only about 15 per cent of the seats in Congress, which will force him to make deals, limit some reforms or abandon others. Parts of the U.S. government (military and intelligence agencies) will not be friendly, and Canada (because of influence by resource-extraction companies) may not be either.

Perceptions of the Ukraine war in the Global South and Reflections on Peace

Too few of us are talking about peace – or about dialogue and diplomacy – these days. As U.S. journalist Katherine vanden Heuvel writes, it’s time to challenge conventional views on the war in Ukraine.

On a humid evening at the end of May, I spoke with a local parish group convened by Toronto members of Development and Peace/Caritas Canada. I talked more than I usually do about my faith and about the teachings in our religious traditions about peace: “Blessed are the peace-makers,” the artisans of peace.
Not everyone sees this war in the same way. Whether every perception is correct is not the point. At their root is a reluctance to take sides in what looks like a conflict between the empires.

At the same time, Russia’s invasion draws from the tsarist past to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to self-determination. It is also strengthening Ukrainians’ sense of identity and nationhood. Changes should be negotiated without military threats and consented to in free and fair referendums. The 2014-15 Minsk Accords might have offered a way forward.

“Many people think that it is better that the winners be those who oppose U.S. imperialism, which leads them to support Russia or China, or occasionally, Iran or any other nation that opposes the western powers,” writes Raúl Zibechi, the Uruguayan observer of Latin America’s social movements. “Social movements should oppose war so as to deepen their own agenda: strengthening their ‘territorial roots so as to exercise autonomy and self-government, building other worlds that are new and different from the capitalist, patriarchal and colonial world.”
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentinean winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, says there are no “just wars.” But he adds that there are “just causes.” I think of the revolutionary struggles in Central America in the 1980s, but those did not bring about the social changes people hoped for (largely because the United States supplied weapons and mercenaries to the far-right forces), and tens of thousands of people died.
On the left is the garden were six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by a death squad in November 1989 at the University of Central America in San Salvador. On the right are Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Salvador and a group of student leaders in the ongoing effort to build a “culture of peace.”

The “peace” that Central Americans, together with others across the Global South, ended up with after the wars has advanced a model of development that impoverishes, excludes and drives people from their land. Even the new development proposals from the U.S. and Mexican governments are inadequate in the face of political-economic devastation and climate change. Hondurans, at least, at this moment, have a shot at something better. But their military (and its U.S. backers) may not tolerate real, meaningful change. The way forward must be different from the ways of the past.

The current war in Ukraine, in addition to the human and material costs of fighting, is having ripples far beyond the two countries directly involved. Not just higher energy prices, but the likelihood of food shortages. Russia and Ukraine have been responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and for large quantities of barley, corn and vegetable oil too.

I have been critical of the use of sanctions. Sanctions, as we see now in the case of Russia, are warfare by other means. (You can track the imposition of sanctions here.)

With regard to sanctions, it’s not the world against Russia. As Zhou Xiaoming has written, few non-Western countries have answered the U.S. call to isolate Russia economically, fearing the impact of disruptions to global production and trade on their own people. And countries that have already felt the effects of US sanctions and have no desire to inflict them on others.

This time, I am not exactly against the use of economic measures. Over the short-term, targeted measures seem reasonable. Between now and the onset of winter, their impact on civilians will need to be measured and their effectiveness evaluated. Space for diplomacy, public health and science, however, should remain open, including the Arctic Council and the International Space Station. 

What happened to our peace movement? NATO expanded, and seems likely to expand still further.

What should we do now?

We should do what we who believe in peace do in every other armed conflict: call for peace, withdrawal, dialogue, diplomacy. 

  • Support the refugees – and those Russians who dissent from Putin’s war. Indeed: support ALL refugees, wherever they are. By mid-2021, an unprecedented 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are 26.4 million refugees, around 42 per cent of whom are under the age of 18. 
  • Support humanitarian efforts by Development and Peace/Caritas Canada, the churches and agencies that are part of the global ACT Alliance, and other reputable organizations.
  • Revive conversations on common security and mutual understanding and increase official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross national income. These are investments in security and sustainability for all.
  • Whatever happens in Ukraine, keep nuclear weapons out
  • Support debt relief: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has borrowed more than $125 billion from international financial institutions, which pushed the sell-off of public enterprises and rewarded oligarchs and the super-rich with every loan they made. But being under attack doesn’t mean you can catch a break from international lenders. In 2022, unless loans are forgiven or suspended, Kyiv will spend $6.2 billion paying down foreign debt. Nearly half of that will go to the International Monetary Fund. 
The Hill Times, April 27, 2022. See as well a piece by Beth Woroniuk in iPolitics: “The world’s response to the invasion in Ukraine is only the latest example that ‘old school’ approaches to conflict resolution are not working. It is the time to bring anti-racist and decolonial analysis to international relations. It is time to ask questions about whose voices matter. This includes going beyond the warriors and including people who have a vested interest in stopping the guns for good, including women building peace at local, national and international levels.”

Early on in the conflict, it seemed that Pope Francis had potential as a mediator because of his pretty good relationship with Patriarch Kirill. But Kirill, like Putin, seems tied to a view of history – the Kievan Rus, the ancient state that converted to Christianity in 988 – that would subsume Ukraine into Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has largely broken with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Can churches that have fomented division in the past now lead the way in showing they can live with diversity?

The horrible thing about making peace is that you have to talk with your enemies. Diplomacy is a tool for doing that.

Deliver us from evil, deliver our leaders from evil and grant us peace in our day.