MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The men and women took to the stage in the capital’s vast plaza and tearfully told stories of how they lost their loved ones: how a son was kidnapped, tortured and dumped dead in a car trunk; how a brother was killed for standing up to gangsters; how a child died in crossfire.
But while such stories have become tragically common in Mexico, this was the first time the mourners could vent their grief in front of tens of thousands of sympathizers and TV cameras from across the world.
And in this media spotlight, the protesters made a new demand — amid the failure of the government to provide security, they cried, the Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna must resign.
“We don’t want more dead. We don’t want more hate,” protest leader Javier Sicilia told the crowd. “President Felipe Calderon — show you are listening to us, and make the public safety secretary resign.”
The demand announced at Sunday’s rally gave a new edge to a movement that has been steadily rising amid the massacres and mass graves of Mexico’s drug war.
Up until then, protesters had come out with a mix of condemnations — of the cruelty of cartels, abuses by the army and the failure U.S. war on drugs — but not a clear solution.
However, rallying to topple a particular official is a tactic that has successfully unified movements throughout history, from the French Bastille to modern Cairo.
In fact, many protesters in Mexico City’s central plaza said they were directly inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world.
“People are standing up to transform their societies in Egypt and in Syria. We have to do the same thing here — to change our country from the bottom up,” said Ruben Bueno, a 42-year-old school teacher, who said two of his valued students had been gunned in the violence.
Like many protesters, Bueno marched 60 miles from the spa town of Cuernavaca to Mexico’s central plaza, where the number of protesters was estimated to be between 50,000 and 150,000.
Dozens of smaller protests were held simultaneously across Mexico as well in New York and London. Thousands of Zapatista rebels also resurfaced to join the marchers in the southern city of San Cristobal.
The protests have mushroomed since their leader Javier Sicilia, a poet and journalist, lost his son Juan Francisco to violence in March and called for people to take to the streets.
A 24-year-old student, Juan Francisco Sicilia was kidnapped and murdered along with six friends after they left a bar. According to reports, they may have been targeted for simply having a loud conversation about the drug war, which made some gangsters accuse them of being snitches.
In total, almost 40,000 people have died in apparent drug-related violence since December 2006, when Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels.
“Why did the president launch the army in an absurd war that has cost 40,000 victims and left millions of Mexicans in fear?” Sicilia asked in his speech in the plaza. “Everyday, we hear terrible stories that wound us and we ask ourselves, “When and where did we lose our dignity?”
Calderon responded on Monday that he would meet with Sicilia and other protest leaders.
“I also want a Mexico in peace. I also want a Mexico without violence. I also want Mexico without the repression of organized crime,” Calderon said in the presidential palace, before setting off to meetings in the United States. “I salute the march for the peace.”
However, he did not say he would change his strategy or mention the demand for Public Safety Secretary Garcia Luna to resign.
The former head of Mexico’s Federal Intelligence Agency, the equivalent of the FBI, Garcia Luna has been the architect of Calderon’s campaign.
Under his leadership, Mexico has expanded a federal paramilitary police force, which has worked with the army in making record busts and arresting or shooting dead dozens of drug kingpins.
However, critics argue the military approach has thrown oil on the fire of violence, while not tackling the roots of the problem.
April was Mexico’s bloodiest month so far, with the discovery of two mass graves holding a total of more than 300 victims.
However, some analysts say that Garcia Luna cannot be solely blamed for such bloodshed and the protesters are looking for a scapegoat.
“Why the head of Garcia Luna?” wrote TV presenter and pundit Ciro Gomez Leyva. “In the plaza, Sicilia sacrificed a beating heart to try and get the reward of the gods.”