(IPS) - A pressing concern of Mexican communities today is how to organise against the escalation of violence triggered by the government's militarised war on drugs, and how to counteract the temptation of easy money and other perks offered by the drug trade, especially to young men.
"It is necessary to invest in processes of social organisation and strengthen micro projects in the barrios," said Imelda Marrufo, founding director of the Red Mesa de Mujeres, a network of women's groups in Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S. border.
"We have copied citizen experiences to make Ciudad Juárez a better place," she told IPS after taking part in an international meeting in Mexico City organised by the Central America and Mexico office of the Germany-based Heinrich Böll Foundation to discuss community-level initiatives aimed at preventing violent crime.
Organisations from Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador and Guatemala participated in the meeting, as well as Italian journalist María Ficara, who published a unique book to shed light on the Calabrian mafia of southern Italy.
The Red Mesa de Mujeres, which emerged in the 1990s and groups 10 different organisations, has documented cases of violence against women and other human rights violations in and around Ciudad Juárez, considered one of the most violent cities in the world.
In 2010, 3,111 people were murdered in the city, compared to only five just across the border in El Paso, Texas.
Last year, the government launched the project "Todos somos Juárez" (We Are All Juárez), which includes security, health, education and social development policies aimed at reducing the levels of violence.
But civil society organisations say the government initiative has been a flop.
Shortly after taking office in December 2006, conservative President Felipe Calderón drew the armed forces into the fight against drug trafficking. Since then, there have been more than 50,000 drug-related deaths, according to statistics compiled on the basis of press reports. The great majority of the killings have never been investigated
The government says the deaths were the result of turf wars between drug cartels.
Learning from the fight against the mafia
In 2006, Ficara compiled fictional stories written by 14 and 15-year-olds in a book aimed at breaking the silence around the 'Ndrangheta mafia from the southern Italian region of Calabria, which is one of the most powerful crime syndicates in Europe.
"The stories showed us the kids' perception of the mafia, and the book was a success," the Italian reporter, who is in charge of public relations at the Museo della 'Ndrangheta, a museum on the crime syndicate in the Calabrian city of Regio, told IPS.
The book edited by Ficara, titled "A mani libere" (Hands Free), is based on a pilot project carried out in three schools to foment a culture of peace and to remember and bring visibility to the victims of violence in the region.
The 'Ndrangheta operates in 30 countries and is a leading player in the cocaine trade, allied with the powerful Sinaloa cartel headed in Mexico by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, which is one of seven groups involved in the fighting between warring cartels in Mexico over smuggling routes into the lucrative U.S. market.
"A sense of ethical citizenship must be built among young people and society at large, to delegitimise war and violence and exalt the value of life," said Teresa Bernal, president of Colombia's National Network of Initiatives for Peace and Against War (REDEPAZ), who also took part in the international meeting.
"Networks and alliances have to be built and combined with alternative proposals," she said.
Since the 1990s, REDEPAZ has been pressing for a negotiated solution to the decades-old armed conflict in that South American nation.
In Mexico, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity led by Mexican writer Javier Sicilia, whose son Juan Francisco was murdered in March, is seeking to bring visibility to the victims of violence.
The Movement is demanding a "law on victims" similar to the one passed by the Colombian Congress in June to restore to the original owners land seized mainly by far-right paramilitaries.
Communities take a stance
Some communities in Mexico are already organising in response to the high levels of violence. In Cherán in the southwestern state of Michoacán, local residents patrol the town and have set up roadblocks to keep out drug traffickers and illegal loggers.
And in 10 towns in the southern state of Guerrero, "community police" forces are in charge of public security.
The Museum on the 'Ndrangheta "could be replicated in places like Mexico, based on the same model: the recovery of memory and drawing attention to the testimony (of victims). Violence has to be demystified, and the culture of violence has to be deconstructed," said Ficara.
Her museum, which charges no entrance fee, operates in a building confiscated from the 'Ndrangheta, and has been visited by thousands of people, especially students.
Ficara is now editing a second book in which she has compiled some 120 life stories of people killed by the mafia. Local students between the ages of 16 and 17 took part in the project.
In the 1990s Ficara was on the staff of the anti-mafia monthly magazine I Sicialini, whose founder Giuseppe Fava was killed in 1984 by Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia.
In 1993, I Sicialini published a report on the alleged ties with the mafia of an emerging politician, Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned Nov. 12 after holding the post of prime minister off and on for 18 years.
"We have been investigating and speaking out," said Imelda Marrufo. "It is false that all of the people killed in relation to the war on drugs in Mexico had ties to crime. In the case of the victims, the families want to tell their stories and be heard. We are simply overwhelmed by the violence."
The Red Mesa de Mujeres network is building a movement of the families of victims of violence in the northern states of Chihuahua - where Ciudad Juárez is located - Zacatecas and Coahuila, to document cases of murders and disappearance and protest the lack of investigations and the prevailing impunity.
According to the network, 310 women were killed in Ciudad Juárez in 2010, and 200 have been killed so far this year.
According to a European Parliament report on the situation in Mexico, 230,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of the soaring violence.