The tenth anniversary of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity: thoughts on mobilisation dynamics

Faced by rising violence and innumerable murders of citizens, the government of the then Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) used various forms of state denial (Cohen, 2001) to defend his security strategy—declaring a «war» and deploying armed forces to deal with organised crime—and prevent protests around the increasing death rate. Led by the poet Javier Sicilia after the murder of his 24-year-old son Juanelo in 2011, multiple relatives of victims of violence formed the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD), a national social movement that fractured the official narrative of criminalisation of victims and concealment of atrocities. On March 28, we will commemorate ten years of the MPJD formation. Thus, in this text, I will present a brief chronicle of the actions that the movement has carried out during these years and, then, I will share some reflections on the resonance of its discourse, the construction of a sense of collectivity through its mobilisations and the consequences that its public irruption has had for the country.

A decade of nonviolent direct action

When the news of the murder of Juanelo was known, a group of people close to Javier Sicilia decided to set an ofrenda outside the Government Palace of Morelos in protest and to avoid the common official criminalisation. In addition, they held a march in the centre of Cuernavaca and a series of poetry readings. After two days, Javier returned to the country and, at the insistence of the press, gave a conference in which he announced a march for 6 April. Immediately afterwards, the poet published his now-famous article “Estamos hasta la madre» [We are fucking fed up], in which he outlined the importance of articulating large social mobilisations to demand the political elite and criminal groups to stop the violence. Faced with the massive response in the aforementioned march, the organising group sought to expand the scope of the protests to the national level and mobilise the country’s “moral reserve” (Ameglio, 2011). Thus, accompanied by hundreds of relatives of victims, activists, representatives of indigenous peoples and social organisations, Javier led the March for peace with justice and dignity that started on 5 May — after three days of walking from the state of Morelos, tens of thousands of people marched in Mexico City on 8 May.

At the end of the march, the MPJD read the content of the “National Pact for Peace”, a document with proposals and actions around six areas to end the violence that would be signed in the “epicentre of pain”: Juárez, Chihuahua. To get to this city, the MPJD carried out the Caravan of Consolation that toured several states in the northern region of the country. From 4 to 10 June, thousands of people joined the public meetings, marches and artistic events that the Caravan included. Besides, dozens of relatives of victims shared with the public, many for the first time, their testimonies of pain and impunity.

After a few weeks, the MPJD held a public dialogue with president Calderón, in which five relatives of victims of femicide, murder, disappearance, and structural violence directly demanded him a change in the militarised security strategy. A similar exercise was later carried out with members of Congress, who were required to assume their responsibilities in the crisis and to legislate in favour of the victims. Then, in September 2011, the MPJD held the Caravan to the South, in which it articulated solidarity networks with indigenous peoples and migrant communities, in addition to holding two meetings in Zapatista territory. Later, given the obstacles that the government imposed for the second meeting with Calderón, the MPJD decided to stop the dialogue processes, and, after the disappearance and murder of several members, the mobilisations were also suspended.

The lobbying and awareness-raising work of the MPJD in Congress led to the approval of the General Law of Victims in April 2012, a legal instrument that, although perfectible, laid a basis to address the national emergency (Gordillo García, 2020). However, Calderón vetoed the law, and it was not enacted until January 2013, once Enrique Peña became president. The MPJD continued to criticize the new government’s security strategy and warned that it was a continuation of the so-called Calderón’s war. Predictably, the tragedies continued until and the most emblematic case of Peña’s term occurred: the forced disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. The case remains without justice and society still does not know the truth about what happened, but the search for the families of the students inspired more relatives of disappeared persons to search for clandestine pits. The images of hundreds of people digging in the open field and unearthing human remains attracted international attention and, with the formation of dozens of collectives, the agenda focused on the search for disappeared persons. In this context, in 2016, members of the MPJD collaborated with a Morelos collective to open the Tetelcingo pits, where the local government buried 119 bodies without respecting forensic protocols.

After the 2018 elections, President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to implement certain justice mechanisms to resolve the crisis he inherited from previous administrations, but upon taking office, he modified his discourse and expanded the powers of the military in policing tasks. The number of people murdered and disappeared continued to increase and, at the end of 2019, a massacre occurred against the family of Julián LeBarón, who was a member of the MPJD between 2011 and 2012. Javier Sicilia then called a new march to demand the president fulfil his promises and correct his mistakes regarding pacification, but López Obrador disregarded the demands and assured that it was a “show” mounted by his “adversaries”. Thus, the Walk for Truth, Justice and Peace departed from Cuernavaca on 23 January 2020 and culminated three days later in Mexico City, where dozens of supporters of the ruling party verbally attacked the participants, an act that the president dismissed a day later.

Resonance, collective identity and cultural consequences

The formation of the MPJD must be understood in the context of the official denial of violence (Treviño-Rangel, 2018) and the discursive construction of national enemies (Madrazo Lajous, 2016) that led to the constant criminalisation of victims as a strategy of governmental legitimation. Javier Sicilia’s call to mobilise around pain and indignation was responded by the solidarity of thousands of people because his discourse resonated (Snow and Benford, 1988) amongst those who knew the context of violence and impunity from their own experience—the relatives of the victims—or because of their previous politicisation—the activists who started the protests. Thus, although they lived and individually experienced the grievance of violence, these people shared a system of meanings around impunity that laid the basis of the MPJD discourse’s traits of salience, credibility (Benford and Snow, 2000) and authenticity (Luna, 2017; Walker and Stepick, 2020).

According to the classic approach of Snow and colleagues (Snow and Benford, 1988), social movements carry out three fundamental discursive tasks that are empirically intertwined: the construction of a diagnosis about the problem they face, a prognosis with possible solutions, and the motivational argumentation that invites to join collective actions. Although the signing of the “National Pact for Peace” caused a series of breaks with various organisations due to the refusal of various groups to establish any type of dialogue with the government (Gordillo García, 2015; Romero Gallardo, 2016; Vázquez Martín, 2011), the document summarised the diagnostic and prognostic frames of the MPJD. In addition, the motivational frame invited participation in contentious actions by presenting them as an effective way to dignify the victims, demand the cessation of violence from criminals and authorities, and promote compliance with the Pact that, eventually, would allow the crisis to be solved.

Now, given that social movements are essentially relational phenomena (Diani, 1992), tactical repertoires can be understood from contentious, intentional and identity-construction dimensions (Taylor and Van Dyke, 2004). I will only reflect on the latter. Through constant marches, caravans, memory events, public dialogues and meetings, the MPJD redefined the collective identity of its participants, which is reflected in cognitive, moral, emotional (Polletta and Jasper, 2001) and even political (Simon and Klandermans, 2001) links of each person with a larger community. A fundamental action in the repertoire of the MPJD is the presentation of testimonies by victims of different types of violence, narratives and experiences that in different contexts have served not only to record the atrocity experienced but also to frame an individual and collective transformative project (Beverley, 2008).

In recent years, a group of social anthropologists led by Myriam Jimeno have developed the concept of a political-emotional community (Jimeno, 2010; Macleod and De Marinis, 2018). According to the authors, this type of community is based on the connections created from the narration of an individual or collective tragedy, listened to by an audience that not only empathizes with pain but also actively responds to it. In this way, Jimeno argues, this dialectical interaction goes from a moment of compassion and consolation to the construction of a political bond that leads a wider public to get involved in actions that seek justice for the victims. There are multiple observable implications for arguing around the development of a political-emotional community within the MPJD. Although the limits of this text do not allow it to be widely discussed, the empirical research of my doctoral project will deeply develop the construction of these ties.

Finally, although establishing what counts as an outcome of the activity of a movement is a subject open to debate (Tilly, 1999), the literature has studied the consequences of social mobilisation in the political, cultural and biographical fields (Bosi and Uba, 2009; Bosi et al., 2016). For reasons of extension, I will only reflect on the second field.

Several of the relatives of disappeared persons who today lead a collective had their first experience of activism with the MPJD and point out that, based on the learning they developed, they began to promote organisation with other families in their respective regions. Thus, many of these groups have established alliances to carry out various actions, due, at least in part, to the fact that their leaders have known each other since their participation in the MPJD. In addition, to date, former members of the MPJD who are not relatives of victims advise some of these groups with non-violent direct action workshops. This kind of situations allows the observation of organisational and relational diffusion processes (Van Dyke and Taylor, 2019) that have occurred from the MPJD. Of course, I am not suggesting that the actions of the groups of relatives of disappeared persons are exclusively inspired by the mobilisations of the MPJD, but rather that there is empirical evidence to sustain that these were important for the formation of a contentious culture amongst the relatives of victims and their companions. After all, diffusion is not a simple imitation of repertoires and discourses, but rather involves their creative adaptation (Givan et al., 2010).

Final thoughts

The placement of the ofrenda on 28 March 2011 was a catalytic, transformative and critical event that implied a fracture with certain dynamics of political power promoted by the governments in Mexico (Benksi, 2005; Bosi, 2007; McAdam and Sewell, 2001; Staggenborg, 2001). Although many criticisms can be raised to the MPJD—amongst which its lack of integration with the feminist struggle stands out—Mexican contemporary history cannot be understood without discussing its mobilisations. The country owes a huge debt of justice to Juanelo and hundreds of thousands of people killed, disappeared, tortured, dismembered, raped, discarded. For 10 years and regardless of which party occupies the elite positions, those who participate in the MPJD have been fighting daily from their respective fields so that no one else suffers a horrible crime again, and that is a struggle in which no one should have to get involved.


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