Practicing What He Preaches – Pietro Ameglio’s Nonviolent Pursuit of “Peace with Justice”

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Pietro Ameglio.

By Gabe Sanders.

Since his death in 1948, Mahatma Gandhi’s employment of civil disobedience has famously inspired some of history’s most prominent freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi’s name has even become the root of an adjective used for the principles by which he lived. These ideals, like his followers, are considered “Gandhian.” One corner of the globe that was never immune to his influence – but is too often neglected in conversation about nonviolent protest – is Latin America, where a Uruguay-born civil rights activist, Pietro Ameglio, has made his mark applying Gandhi’s method.

Although Ameglio was born in Uruguay, his career as an educator, author, and activist began in Mexico. He first studied history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, then went on to graduate from the Autonomous University of Morelos with a master’s degree in Contemporary History.[1] It was during these studies that Ameglio’s fixation with the work of Gandhi ignited his own passions for civil disobedience and pedagogy.

Ameglio settled down in Cuernavaca, Mexico about a decade after the Richard Nixon Administration had initiated a global campaign known as the War on Drugs. The drug war, which began in 1971 and principally aimed to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the United States (US), was yet to make a significant impact on Mexican policies. However, an internal conflict, dubbed the Mexican Dirty War, was underway and had created an atmosphere akin to that of the Cold War. Tension between Mexican citizens and law enforcement had peaked following brutal crackdowns on student protestors, and the standing model for addressing this tension mimicked the “Armed Peace” between the US and USSR – where both countries had developed nuclear arsenals to maintain a threat of war that deterred either side from launching an attack. Mexican government officials were in the process of carrying out the “enforced disappearances” of over 1,000 people nationwide, and many civilians felt compelled to take up arms alongside guerilla groups for the purpose of deterrence.[2]

Determined to put a damper on the growing rampancy of political corruption, militarism, and human rights abuses – but true to the Gandhian strategy of civil resistance – Ameglio made it his mission to change the “Armed Peace” model to one of “Peace with Justice.”[3] In 1987, he co-founded the first Mexican chapter of Servicio Paz y Justicia (Mexican Peace and Justice Service, or SERPAJ-Morelos), a Christian peace network that had been defending human rights in twelve other Latin American countries – including Uruguay – amid their own “dirty wars.” Through SERPAJ-Morelos, Ameglio began promoting peace education and direct action that reinforced “the positive values and moral sensibilities that characterize Mexican culture,” which he calls “the moral reserve.”[4] Precise with his terminology, Ameglio would “never speak about ‘non-violence’ in communities,” but rather “civil resistance,” which he regarded as more comprehensible and less subjective than “non-violence”[5] – a term some would misconstrue to mean submission. In 1995, he created a collective inspired by Gandhian philosophy, Pensar en Voz Alta (Thinking Out Loud), to publicize the statistical impact of the social conflict on the communities with which he was interacting on the ground. Pedagogically, as the Chair of the Humanities Department at La Salle University in Cuernavaca, Ameglio developed unique and engaging curricula for stimulating enthusiasm around the concept of peaceful activism.[6]

Then, in 2006 – just four years after Ameglio published his book, Gandhi y la desobediencia civil: México hoy (Gandhi and Civil Disobedience: Mexico Today) – President Felipe Calderón launched aggressive anti-cartel military operations. “Today” had become tomorrow, as the War on Drugs officially crossed the Mexican border. Mexico’s Drug War, like the Mexican Dirty War, is an internal theater of an international struggle. The grounds for this domestic conflict were a surge in drug trafficking and cartel violence, which were used to justify policies placing local drug control in the hands of the military. Mexican police and armed forces are known for the brutality with which they treat civilian suspects, as well as their susceptibility to the infiltrative efforts of cartels. The high percentage of compromised law enforcement personnel helps to explain why the 2006 increase in military presence led the yearly number of organized crime homicides to soar from roughly 3,000 in 2007 to over 12,500 in 2010.[7] Those four years also saw the yearly number of disappearances – many of which “involved the complicity of state forces” – climb from fewer than 800 to nearly 4,000.[8] These new yet familiar threats of violence and corruption would become Pietro Ameglio’s points of focus through present day.

In 2011, alongside Javier Sicilia, a prominent poet whose son was murdered by a drug cartel, Ameglio organized a four-day nationwide “Silent March” from Cuernavaca to Mexico City that began with around 20,000 protestors and culminated in 200,000 spectators gathering in the main plaza of the nation’s capital to hear the stories of victims and survivors of the drug war.[9] In leading this powerful demonstration and adopting the rally cry “¡Estoy hasta la madre!” (“We’ve had it up to here!”), Ameglio and Sicilia became co-founders of the Movimiento por la Paz Con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, or MPJD). Amplifying the voices of victims’ families quickly became a cornerstone of the movement, and throughout 2011, Ameglio helped to organize several marches and caravans – including the “Caravan of Consolation” and the “Caravan to the South” – of which those most aggrieved by the violence became the faces.[10] With Ameglio in a leading role, the MPJD took multiple pages from Gandhi’s book, staging peaceful protests outside military bases and even organizing a two-day fast to demand an end to the violence. After earning the 2014 El Hibri Foundation Peace Education Prize for his devotion to nonviolent resistance – as a professor holding two Special Chairs at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and as an activist with the MPJD and SERPAJ-Morelos[11] – Ameglio began using the international attention to bring his teachings and stories to other countries.

As of 2020, approximately “275,000 people have been killed and another 71,678 have disappeared” since the onset of Mexico’s Drug War.[12] Ameglio’s peaceful struggle against unconscionable violence is unfinished; but, at 64 years of age, he remains committed to the Gandhian method of civil resistance both in theory and in practice.

[1] “El-Hibri Foundation,” February 3, 2015.

[2] “Mexico Looks for ‘dirty War’ Graves on Army Base,” Reuters, July 8, 2008, sec. Latest Crisis.

[3] University of California Television (UCTV), A Space for Peace: The Audacity of Nonviolence in Mexico with Pietro Ameglio and Everard Meade, accessed July 25, 2021.

[4]“El-Hibri Foundation.”

[5] College of the Holy Cross, Mexican Peace Activist Pietro Ameglio on Civil Disobedience as a Moral Weapon for Inhumane Times, accessed August 6, 2021.

[6] “El-Hibri Foundation.”

[7] “Data Center,” Justice in Mexico (blog), accessed August 6, 2021.

[8] Clare Ribando Seelke and Rachel L Martin, “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico: Addressing Enforced Disappearances,” n.d., 3.

[9] Umar Farooq and Connor Guy, “The Movement for Peace and Justice in Mexico,” June 5, 2012.

[10] Farooq and Guy.

[11] “El-Hibri Foundation.”

[12] Seelke and Martin, “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico: Addressing Enforced Disappearances.”