Part 1:

The following is a personal dispatch from a site visit tour by the
 Angelica Foundation and its program partners in the spring of 2011.
 Since then, the violence in Mexico has spread – exploding in some areas
 while leaving others untouched. Social movements throughout the country 
are gathering strength, but still face daunting adversaries. This
 account is intended to mobilize and inform fellow progressive
 grant-makers. The Angelica Foundation’s Mexico Border Fund for Human 
Rights and Drug Policy Reform is now entering its second year.


I kept telling myself we were headed to a place where two black eyes 
mean you got off easy.

 The philanthropic site visit trip to Juarez was off to a rocky start. I
 landed in El Paso with eyes blackened from an eye surgery the week 
before, wounds that could only be hidden by the sunglasses I kept on
 even after dark, so as not to alarm my trip partners and the activists
 we were there to meet. Fortunately, in Ciudad Juarez people wear
 sunglasses a lot. In this place where identity is liability, where the
 windows to the soul are better left shielded, I would fit in just fine.

I am, however, a social justice donor with a family foundation called
 Angelica, and a middle-aged American mother of three. I was running 
around Juarez, over the protests of everyone who cares anything about
 me, with money to fund people and projects based in the city’s drug war-
inflamed, violence-ridden streets. In that respect, fitting in was
 going to take a lot more than sunglasses.

My husband Jim and I have been running a small scale progressive
 granting program in Mexico for years, supporting groups fighting for 
economic justice, migrant rights, indigenous rights, women’s rights,
 press freedom, fair elections and all of the other rights and liberties 
that could build a progressive Mexican future. And then the drug war
 exploded.

We went to Juarez as a team: Ted Lewis from Global Exchange; Ana Paula
 Hernandez, Angelica’s then Mexico-based program officer; and John 
Gibler, author of To Die in Mexico, an excellent book about the drug
war; and me. We teamed up to make seed grants to a small portfolio of 
border organizations. The four of us were there to see if philanthropy
 had any productive role to play to curb the violence, defend the
 victims, support what remains of the free press, and to affect the
 underlying economic and social inequities that have reaped the
 whirlwind.

We would be meeting in the days to come with women’s groups, drug harm
 reduction groups, human rights defenders, journalists, activists,
 political leaders. We weren’t kidding ourselves. There weren’t many
 other small foundations roaming around Juarez trying to be helpful. Who 
could blame them? The definition of helpful was up for grabs. What kind
 of grant-making strategy might be pursued in a war zone? How can civil
 society protect a population when its government can’t or won’t? What
 were the dangers to the groups we sought to help? What were the dangers
 to us?

**

The trip started in El Paso, at the book signing of our 
colleague and grantee, the journalist Marcela Turati, whose new book
 Fuego Cruzado, (Crossing Fire) about the Mexican drug war, just came
 out. She was having an event at the University of Texas, El Paso. A
 reporter from the magazine Proceso, Marcela just returned from the
 mass graves sites discovered in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. She was asked
 about her work capturing the stories of the mothers and wives who come
 daily to the 40 separate mass burial grounds looking for husbands,
fathers, sons. She doesn’t concern herself with which cartel is guilty 
of the crimes, Gulf or Zetas. To Marcela, the devils are 
interchangeable. Her stories are about the people who are living through
 this war, or who are not living through it. I found the stories brave 
and moving but I did not want to remember them. There is no place in the
 normal human heart to carry stories like that.

Marcela’s after party was in a hip, art-filled home owned by a painter
 in an historic old El Paso neighborhood. The small rooms overflowed with 
Mexicans and Americans, academics, writers and activists who share a 
love of this border zone. The wine flowed festively, but the
 conversations were dark.

 Felipe Calderon’s government had tried to pass a version of marshal
 law (Ley de Seguridad Social) over the Easter holiday when everyone was 
busy celebrating Semana Santa. Though the measure was scuttled by some 
quick resistance, the threat against the Mexican democracy still looms.
The government had also forced a pact among the major media
 organizations in the country to restrict coverage of the drug war, 
intending to further stem the flow of horrifying and already censored
 news. The rich, who can flee, are doing so in droves. Trading partners
 are nervously retreating from long range plans. Unable to improve the
 country’s actual security, the Mexican government is hell bent on 
improving its image.

 April 2011 had been the deadliest month for murders since Calderon’s war
on drugs began. The numbers are skewed by the discovery of the mass
graves – but those bodies notwithstanding, the numbers of murders,
 reported and anecdotal, was on an uptick. The official statistics -of
 the dead (then 35,000, and at the dawn of 2012 estimated at 47,000) , of
 the narcos captured (many), of convictions (few), and of drugs seized -
 are never correct . Just that day in Juarez a man was shot by narco
commandos one block from the US Mexico border bridge, right near an army
 stop. That last detail is not considered a big deal and is lost in the
 flow of bigger and bloodier news . A man was executed …one block
 from the bridge to Texas.

Everyone at the party was also discussing the latest citizen’s 
resistance movement, centered in the town Cuernavaca, organized by the
 Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered by drug gangs. “All 
men are not poets, but every child is a poem” was a rallying cry.
 Sicilia’s call to national action and organization of a major march to 
Mexico City was suffused with rage, poetry and grief – for his son and 
his country. He was calling for an end to the impunity that is the 
Mexican justice system, for the army to selectively and carefully stand
 down, for an end to the drug war as it is being fought by corrupt policy 
and military. He called for justice, for Mexican renewal, for peace.
 Opinion leaders had begun talking about a tipping point, the crisis 
opening up an opportunity for social change and drug policy reform.

As moving as Sicilia’s rise to the public stage has been, the crowd at 
Marcela’s after party wasn’t sanguine. They had seen the promise of 
Mexican renewal turn to Mexican dust too many times to count.

It was nearing the bewitching hour when my companions and I left safe,
 sleepy El Paso for the black menacing streets of Juarez, tooling our 
rented white SUV onto the empty boulevards. Patrols of Federal police
 gunned trucks through the streets, their uniformed and masked occupants 
holding automatic weapons casually, pointed generally in the direction
 of the cars surrounding them.

The streets were lined with hollowed- out buildings and dead
 landscaping. Every few blocks we would pass something almost
 hallucinatory, such as: An open Applebees, lights on, cars in the
parking lot, a few families inside. In Juarez there are Walmart,
 Starbucks and Wendy’s. There are commercial Maquiladora “Green Zones”,
 factory fortresses making cars, toys and appliances. There are
 150,000 abandoned houses and vast urban prairies where you should never 
go. In this post-modern dystopia, a traveler ventures from paradox to 
paradox, and on each block a vignette of normal life will play out in 
the theater of the apocalypse.

We arrived at the Hotel Lucerna, one of the city’s nicest hotels, and
 went to sleep in rooms overlooking the pool and walled garden. Sirens 
wailed through the night. Tomorrow would be a day of extreme 
philanthropy, and we all needed the sleep.

Suzanne Gollin, Angelica Foundation

**
Stay tuned for pt. 2, out next Wednesday, March 21st.