Flying protest banner intrudes on Mexican president’s graduation speech at Stanford


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President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered the 2011 commencement address before 30,000 people at Stanford University on Sunday. The event made headlines in Mexico after an unidentified airplane carried a banner over Stanford Stadium during the president’s speech with a protest message directed at Mexico’s drug war.

‘40,000 DEAD!’ the banner read. ‘HOW MANY MORE?’

In a video that Calderon’s office released of the speech, the sound of a light aircraft is heard at about the 15-minute mark into the 18-minute address, which Calderon delivered in English.


The president appears either to ignore or not notice the plane with a few quick glances he makes toward the sky, the video shows. Here’s an amateur YouTube clip showing the airplane flying over the stadium. Several amateur photos of the plane and banner also quickly popped up on Twitter.

The banner was marked with the logo of an antiwar group in Mexico known as ‘No más sangre,’ or, ‘No more blood.’ Yet as of Monday, no one had come forward claiming responsibility for the intrusion on Stanford’s commencement, and a spokeswoman for the group in Mexico City said they were not involved.

‘We would have loved if it were us, but it was not,’ spokeswoman Nelly Muñohierro told La Plaza on Monday.

‘Obviously it had to have been someone with a lot of cash, possibly even a political party, maybe the PRI,’ she added, referring to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated institutions in Mexico until 2000 and was the brunt of fierce criticism in Calderon’s speech.

Another member of the collective organization, the Mexico-based political scientist John Ackerman, said the group is ‘not in any way a structured or financed movement that in any way could pay for an airplane over there.’

[Update: 11:50 a.m. June 14: Activist poet Javier Sicilia suggested in a press report on Monday that the San Francisco-based organization Global Exchange was behind the protest banner. However, Ted Lewis, human-rights director at Global Exchange, said in an interview Tuesday that the banner was not directly financed by the organization but by a group of ‘local citizens, Mexican and U.S. citizens, that decided they wanted to ask the president that question.’]

The incident was the first signal that Mexico’s nascent grassroots peace movement had made inroads with like-minded activists in the United States and is willing to engage in political publicity stunts to get its message across to U.S. voters and policymakers. The ‘No + sangre’ insignia was designed by a political cartoonist in Mexico and has been taken up as a rallying symbol by many different branches and organizations represented within the country’s antiwar movement.


U.S. media reports from the commencement at one of the country’s premiere private universities barely mentioned the stunt, but the incident was being parroted by news outlets and on social networking sites in Mexico as Calderon faces sustained pressure to change his government’s strategy against the powerful drug cartels. The San Jose Mercury News reported some protesters were present outside the event, with one holding a sign that read: ‘Calderon stay here. Mexico is better off without you.’

An estimated 38,000 people -- but possibly many more -- have been killed since Calderon dispatched the Mexican military to take on the country’s main drug-trafficking organizations. Opponents of the government’s campaign against the cartels say 40,000 have been killed in the past 4 1/2 years since Calderon took office.

The Mexican president exhorted Stanford graduates to stick to their ideals no matter the odds, citing his own political upbringing as a young activist for the National Action Party, or PAN, in his native state of Michoacan. Following in his father’s footsteps, Calderon worked for the PAN during a period in which the PRI machine was at its strongest and most corrupt.

‘You must never stop defending your ideas and dreams,’ said the president, whose term ends in 2012. ‘Do not hesitate in your efforts because in the end man’s power to create is bigger than his power to destroy.’

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City