MEXICO CITY – A total of 215 Latino soldiers serving in the U.S. Army have already died in Iraq, but according to antiwar activists, this bad news comes with a silver lining: an ever smaller number of young people of Latin American descent are enlisting in the armed forces.
"I'm glad that the Army is no longer able to recruit as many soldiers, and that more people are raising their voices against this criminal invasion," said Camilo Mejía, a Nicaraguan-born former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who refused to return to his unit in Iraq after spending five months stationed there in 2003.
While Mejía declared himself a conscientious objector, the United States deemed him a deserter, and sentenced him to nine months in prison.
Last year, 9,477 foreign-born residents of the United States signed up for the U.S. armed forces – 2,352 fewer than in 2003, according to official statistics from the George W. Bush administration.
"There are so many people dying in this senseless, criminal war that going to jail to oppose it or refusing to join the Army are not very big sacrifices when you compare them to all the innocent people killed in the war," Mejía told IPS.
"I didn't want to die in a war that isn't mine, a war that is unjust and immoral. That's why I turned myself in to my superiors," declared the soldier-turned-activist, the son of Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, whose music served as the "soundtrack" to the 1979 leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
Since the beginning of the occupation of Iraq in March 2003, a total of 1,653 soldiers from the United States have died there. Almost 15 percent of these casualties were of Latin American birth or descent, according to figures gathered by the Guerrero Azteca (Aztec Warrior) Project, a U.S.-based group that is demanding the return of the soldiers sent to the Middle East.
The proportion of Latino soldiers who have died in Iraq, most of whom were privates, is higher than the proportion of Latinos in the U.S. armed forces as a whole, which stands at 9.2 percent.
To join the U.S. Army, it is sufficient to be a legal resident of the United States, and not necessarily a citizen. In fact, non-citizens are encouraged to sign up by the Bush administration's promises to speed up the citizenship process and grant scholarships to those who enlist.
Monday was Memorial Day in the United States, a day for paying tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives in war.
In his Memorial Day address, President Bush stated, "Another generation is fighting a new war against an enemy that threatens the peace and stability of the world, and thanks to their efforts, freedom is on the march."
"Freedom – real freedom, not the one sold by Mr. Bush – obliges us to say that the invasion of Iraq is a colossal deception, and the best thing to do is to get out of there," Mexican-American activist Fernando Suárez, the founder of Aztec Warrior, told IPS.
"More and more Latinos are dying in Iraq, and we weep for these deaths, because they are absurd, but thanks to the antiwar movement, and the prolongation of the occupation, there has been a major drop in willingness to join in the invasion, and that is good news," he stressed.
Suárez, whose son Jesús joined the U.S. Army and died in Iraq at the start of the occupation, maintained that the "irrational war" in the Middle East is "crumbling under the weight of its own immorality."
He spoke with IPS by telephone from a public school in California, where he was giving a presentation against the occupation. Mejía was also interviewed by telephone, but from his home in the state of Georgia.
Both are legal residents of the United States, and both are devoting themselves to traveling around the country to voice their opposition to the war and demand that the U.S. soldiers in Iraq be sent home.
"Because I have seen the war, because I have seen what the Army is doing, I feel I have the responsibility and the moral obligation to raise awareness, so that people will know what is really going on and will try to stop this war," said Mejía.
"I have received a lot of letters from the families of fallen soldiers who were against the war but who went over anyway, because they were afraid, or because they didn't feel strong enough to stand up to their superiors and say that they didn't want to take part," he recounted.
"They died while doing something that was against their principles, and that is very sad. But I tell their families to support the soldiers who are still over there and don't want to be in the war. I tell them to tell those soldiers not to be afraid, because going to jail for desertion is nothing when you are following your conscience," he added.
Mejía, like Suárez's son and hundreds of other young people of Latin American descent, were drawn to enlist in the U.S. Army by the promises of assistance and scholarships.
"At the time , I was looking for somewhere to put down roots, because I had lived in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, and the United States, and I wanted to be a part of something," said the former staff sergeant , who is now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
But "going to war wasn't what I was looking for, and I was very critical of the invasion," he said.
"I went to Iraq, and being there raised my consciousness to the point where I was able to speak out and say that this is a criminal war. And the price I paid was a court martial and nine months in jail," he added.
According to Mejía, who was locked up on a military base in the United States until February, dozens of Latino soldiers do not want to be in Iraq, but they stay because they are afraid of going to jail and being branded deserters.
Nevertheless, he concluded, "That occupation is going to end, since more and more soldiers will dare to speak out, because they can't fool us anymore."