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  • Caravan participants unite against walls.

    Caravan participants unite against walls. | Photo: Hector Marti

Published 14 November 2017
Organizers believe that bringing together peoples as diverse as the Tohono O’odham, the Mixtecos of Oaxaca, and the Palestinians is a powerful step forward.

On Oct. 31, as Mexican families prepared festive marigolds and sugar skulls for traditional Day of the Dead altars, participants in the International Caravan Against Walls packed their bags for a two-week journey from Oaxaca to Nogales, where Sonora is separated from Arizona by a towering steel barrier. The caravan, organized by the People’s Human Rights Observatory, brings together dozens of grassroots organizations from Latin America, the United States and Palestine, with the aim of building common strategies against U.S. military intervention.

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“Fundamentally, it is very important for us to unite with Indigenous peoples,” explains Daniela González López, caravan organizer and International Coordinator of the Observatory, which in June laid out a blueprint for strengthening alliances between Mexican and Palestinian social movements: “We understand that the policies of colonization, occupation, and apartheid carried out by Israel against [the Palestinian people] are the same ones that have affected and continue to affect the peoples of Latin America.”

In October, a delegation of Mexican and U.S. activists met with BDS groups in occupied Palestine. On the Global Day of Action for a World Without Walls on Nov. 9, members of all three contingents gathered for a press conference in Hermosillo, Sonora, before heading to the bi-national Border Encounter convened by SOA Watch, a grassroots organization that opposes militarization in the Americas. “It is very important for us to consolidate and strengthen the defense of our territories and our natural resources,” Gonzalez Lopez tells me in Spanish, fatigued but determined after a late-night radio interview in Mexico City. “The unity of our peoples is necessary.”

Walls, both “visible and invisible”

During April and September budget negotiations, Trump pulled back from demands that congress make a down payment on his promised border expansion. Nevertheless, his administration seems intent on extracting every last ounce of political value from the figure of the “big, beautiful wall,” which proved to be such a potent ideological weapon on the campaign trail. In October, eight border prototypes as high as thirty feet were unveiled near the Otay Mesa border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. The irony that the huge slabs of metal and concrete were erected by undocumented Mexican laborers was not lost on locals.

In this way, the specter of a physical border barrier — whose technically complex construction through formidable mountain ranges and swaths of desert would take multiple years and cost billions of dollars — is as much a real threat as it is a facile stand-in for the "virtual wall" that already separates the United States from Mexico and its southern neighbors. This barrier is sustained not only by drones and electronic sensors but also by deepening systems of political and economic control over territories and their inhabitants.

From Palestine to Mexico, border surveillance technology is big business, and often for the same players: in 2014 Elbit Systems, an Israeli “defense electronics company” that is one of the primary contractors for Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank, won a contract to deploy "smart border" technology in southern Arizona. Currently, Elbit is in talks with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about expanding its operations in the region.

Still, Gonzalez Lopez insists that we must look beyond the border surveillance industrial complex to understand the “invisible walls” that impede the free movement of primarily Indigenous and rural peoples within their own territories: “the walls that we don’t see have to do with the paramilitary and militarization, which continuously attack our peoples and communities and generate terror,” far beyond borderlands. These political barriers undermine communities’ traditional social fabric, making it difficult for inhabitants to make a living or access safe food and water, and thus contributing to migration. In today’s Mexico, one of the primary forces leading to the disappearance of ways of life that value nature and community over profit is the “imposition of projects of death, such as mines, wind turbine parks, and hydroelectric dams, which are robbing us of our lands” and leaving a legacy of irreparable environmental damage. In short, says Gonzalez Lopez, communities face “plundering, destruction, and occupation.”

Building solidarity against border militarization

From Oaxaca, where many of the caravan’s participants are themselves members of Indigenous land defense movements as well as veterans of the 2006 teachers’ uprising, the group has traced a northern route through the Mexican states of Puebla, Querétaro, Michoacan, Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Sonora, where they are joining thousands of activists at the Border Encounter from Nov. 10-12.

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Organizers say both the caravan and the meeting highlight connections between the systematic violence faced by communities within countries like Mexico and Palestine, and the increasing militarization of their borders. For Eduardo Garcia, media and communications coordinator at SOA Watch, one of the primary goals of the “war on drugs” is to implement policies that facilitate the privatization of land and the exploitation of natural resources. “The militarization in Mexico is reflected in practices like the Merida Initiative and the Southern Border Plan,” he tells me over the phone as he runs errands in preparation for the meeting:

"With the pretext of the war on drugs, the Mexican government, with the support of the U.S. government, has implemented these strategies that have led to the assassination of more than 200,000 people, the disappearance of more than 30,000, and has converted more than 80,000 people into migrants and refugees…while these strategies are based on national security, they are actually criminalizing local communities. It’s no coincidence that the places in Mexico with the greatest military presence...are the places where the greatest struggles for the protection of the land are taking place."

In both Sonora and Arizona, the Border Encounter is taking place on the territory of the Tohono O’odham nation, whose story provides a salient reminder of the causes that link the route of the caravan to its final destination. A people cleaved in two by the Mexico-U.S. border, the Tohono O’odham have vowed to put their lives on the line to prevent the construction of a border wall on their ancestral territory. At the same time, Tohono O’odham communities have also fought against copper and salt mines which they say threaten their sacred sites and unique ecosystems.

Both Gonzalez Lopez and Garcia believe that bringing together peoples as diverse as the Tohono O’odham, the Mixtecos of Oaxaca, and the Palestinians is a powerful step forward. The goal of this month’s events, they say, is to provide an international platform for building the grassroots power necessary to push back against U.S. intervention. Working together, “we want to leave behind the visible and invisible walls that have been imposed upon us,” Gonzalez Lopez tells me on the sun-scorched highway to Morelia, Michoacan. “And so we say: another world is possible.”

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