[Marisol Valles Garcia, left, sits with her older sister Miriam before the premier of “So Go the Ghosts of Mexico, Part One,” a play based on Marisol's life.]
By Christopher Shay
An ice chest containing the head of Manuel Castro Martinez was left on the steps of the Praxedis G. Guerrero city hall four years ago. Martinez, who had been the Mexican border town’s police chief for just three days, is one of up to 100,000 murdered in the country’s drug wars since 2009. Most of the town’s police officers resigned, and for over a year, no one wanted to replace Martinez as violence ravaged Praxedis.
At the time, Marisol Valles Garcia was a teenage mother and criminology student in Praxedis, located near the drug war’s epicenter in Ciudad Juárez. Before the cartels and the drug war, she says her community was “healthy,” a place where everyone knew and cared for each other. Now, people she knew simply disappeared. Sometimes their bodies would show up, she says, and sometimes not. Out her window, her heart broke as she watched local kids imitate cartel assassins on the streets. The town she grew up in was gone.
After more than a year of no one filling the role, Garcia decided to step up and become the town’s police chief “for my son and the entire community.” She was 20 when she was sworn in 2010. “I didn’t want my son to become a killer for hire at age 10,” she explains.
It was a Rosa Parks moment—a soft-spoken hero and mother standing up to violence. Just taking the job was a courageous act that said enough is enough. “I wanted to inspire people to put in a little grain of sand, just I like I did,” Garcia says.
An international media frenzy followed. The media declared Garcia “the bravest woman in Mexico.” ABC, CBS, and NBC all featured the young police chief on the nightly news, turning her into an international celebrity.
As the town’s top cop, Garcia tried to re-establish trust between the community and the police. Unable to compete with the firepower of the cartels, the police carried no guns under Garcia. She hired more women, hoping they’d be less threatening to the cartel and had them go door-to-door talking to residents. Going after the cartels was the job of the federal police and army, so she wanted her police to deal with the everyday problems facing the town—domestic violence, petty crime, and bicycle theft. She told CNN in 2010, “The weapons we have are principles and values, which are the best weapons for prevention.”
But the media attention put her in danger. When the press landed, says Garcia’s lawyer Carlos Spector, they put the world’s focus on these small border towns under the control of the cartels, adding that the drug dealers “couldn’t go about their daily business.” The cartels feared the media would expose the relationship they had with elements in the Mexican government. The international media could film open-air trucks filled with cartel hit-men driving openly through town. Garcia jeopardized business-as-usual for narcotraffickers.
With personal threats on her escalating, Garcia and her family fled to the United States, and just in time. The night they left a squad of hit men broke into their bungalow and ransacked their rooms.
Garcia’s story inspired a young playwright, Matthew Paul Olmos. “So Go the Ghosts of Mexico, Part One” is the first of an off-Broadway trilogy by Olmos on the Mexican drug war. Hand-selected by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard out of a stack of scripts, the piece is playing at New York’s La MaMa theater until April 28. Olmos says he was attracted to Marisol’s story because of her focus on community building and non-violence. To Olmos, Garcia’s story represents a different, more human perspective on the drug wars.
Garcia flew into New York to attend the premier—the first time she’d ever seen a play. While Olmos took a number of liberties with her life story, Garcia says she recognized his violent vision of Praxedis G. Guerrero. “There are a lot of ghosts in Mexico, “ she said in a question and answer period following the premier. “It was difficult to see here. We witnessed a lot of those deaths.”
Garcia stood up bravely for her community, but now she’s facing another daunting challenge: the U.S. immigration system. She can never head home while the cartels still hold power in the region. At about the same time Garcia took over as police chief, three other women became top cops in their towns. Of those three, one was murdered and two fled the region.
Garcia and her family have applied for asylum in the United States, but in 2011, only about 1.5 percent of Mexicans seeking asylum won the right to stay here. By comparison, of Colombian and Chinese applicants in 2011 about 40 percent received asylum. Under U.S. law, asylum is most often granted if there is legitimate risk of state persecution back in the person’s home country. Spector, Garcia’s lawyer, says the United States is reluctant to grant Mexicans asylum, because doing so would be an acknowledgment that the cartels are allied with institutions in the Mexican government, and that, as he’s written before, “aid from Washington is financing military abuses against the Mexican civilian population.”
Yet Spector says, “Criminals in Mexico don’t exist without the state.”
An acknowledgment that Garcia and others like her face persecution for their roles standing up against corruption and violence would allow such Mexican heroes a chance at another life. It would also encourage other courageous individuals to confront Mexico’s narco-violence. The United States is closely involved with Mexico’s war on drugs—politically, logistically, and as the leading market for the drugs. Recognizing the need for asylum is the least the United States can do for people standing up to the cartels, and by encouraging others to do the same, it would make both sides of the border safer.
Christopher Shay is the managing editor of World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of World Policy Institute]