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Mexican Caravan of Solace: a movement begins

A movement has begun in Mexico. United by the poet Javier Sicilia, victims of the misguided, corruption-fuelled war on drugs are coming together to resist the cartels and the country’s widespread violence.

Alex Ellgee
19 July 2011

Mexico City

On June 23, an unlikely meeting took place in Mexico City's Chapultepec castle. Renowned poet Javier Sicilia sat down with Mexican President Felipe Calderón to discuss the latter's war on drugs. Together with relatives of those who have been murdered or disappeared since the war began in 2006, Sicilia had been blasting the government for its corrupt and inefficient efforts. The war saw tens of thousands of police and authorities being sent into the cities to fight the drug cartels. Instead of calming the violence, activists argue it just increased fighting between corrupt authorities and cartels, and between cartels themselves. Despite skepticism over what could be achieved from the meeting, it was a triumphant moment for the Movement for Peace and Justice. Javier Sicilia opened the historic discussion, announcing, "Against well-founded doubts that this meeting will not achieve anything, we have already accepted it because we believe this discussion is a fundamental part of democracy needed in order to build the pathways to peace”.

Nearly three months earlier, on March 28 2011, the poet's 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, was found in the back of a car with six other corpses. They had all been gagged, tortured and murdered.  The details of what happened are still unclear, but it is understood that the previous night Juan was drinking in a bar with friends in his hometown, Cuernavaca. Reports indicate that the young men were discussing the violence in Mexico when another group of men challenged them. The latter were members of the dangerous Pacifico Sur cartel. The two groups left the bar separately. Juan and his friends were later kidnapped and murdered.

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Movement for Peace and Justice

Juan could have easily become another statistic amongst the ever-growing number of civilians caught up in the escalating violence. Sicilia's friends did not let this happen. Sicilia was in the Philippines when the news came out, but fellow poet Rocato Balbot took the matter into his own hands. Together with other close friends, he set out to publicise what had happened and make sure Juan's case would not be buried like thousands of others. They had to react swiftly. Firstly, they made a permanent shrine outside the government building in Cuernavaca's main square – where people could offer flowers and put up names of victims. Then a press conference was held and a statement released. Campaigns against the war on drugs had been brewing for some time, but it was Juan's death, Balbot believes, which triggered the Movement for Peace and Justice. This is how Sicilia came to be in direct conversation with the Mexican President.

From the beginning, Balbot says, they wanted the pain from the death of Sicilia's son to be turned into something long term. "We wanted to make the shrine in the main square permanent, so people would be reminded what is happening in our country, and build something that would develop and last,"  Balbot explains. In the press statement, which they issued, he says they attempted to reach out to all civil society groups in the county in order to make the movement, "national and inclusive of all the people." Before Sicilia returned from the Philippines, Balbot and his close friends had already begun the wheels turning, but the pace changed on his arrival.

Balbot believes that Sicilia's presence made a huge difference. Relatives of the thousands of victims who had been killed, kidnapped or arrested on trumped up charges since the beginning of Calderón's “war on drugs” finally had someone they could relate to. "The movement did not start because of Javier, but it was born out of his grief and the grief of his friends," said Balbot. Javier comes from a middle class background, but Balbot believes his humanity transcended this barrier and led others to seek consolation with him. "Victims didn't know who to identify with beforehand," said Balbot. "He's cried with all the victims, you can see everything in his face. When they ask me why this movement could be different, I tell people it is because of Javier." Before the poet's return, Balbot and his friends organised a couple of night marches in Cuernavaca. But the movement gained momentum so quickly upon Sicilia's arrival, that the group decided to organise a demonstration. 30,000 people attended to make it the biggest march on April 6 in the history of Cuernavaca. A tranquil city an hour south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca is famous for its many poets and artists.

Following the murder of Sicilia's son, the authorities carried out an investigation, which eventually led to the detention of several suspects. The inefficient management of this investigation further motivated the Movement. The investigators ran through a list of suspects, leading Sicilia to accuse the authorities of using scapegoats rather than conducting a proper investigation. The boiling point for Sicilia was when the local attorney general implied that everyone, including Sicilia's son, may not be so innocent. The tendency of Mexican authorities to assume that victims are themselves criminals has become one of Sicilia's grievances and something he has fought against throughout the campaign. “The government assumes that everyone killed is a criminal. Our movement's goal is to show this is not true,” said Sicilia.

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Depth of corruption

As time passed, the authorities came no closer to solving the case. It became apparent that the problems were more intransigent and were not only with the criminals but also with the government that had launched the drug war. Sicilia blamed corruption in the institutions for the failure of the war, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of those authorities sent to combat the drug trade were in fact on the cartels' payroll. "The corruption at the heart and the root of the institutions has overtaken us," said Sicilia. Soon he called on Mexicans to unite and take to the streets  - to demand justice for the victims and call on the authorities to put an end to the violence. He went on to demand that President Calderón resign as he was unable to provide peace and security for the citizens -  thoughts summed up by what has become the slogan for a movement fast gaining the country's attention. "Estamos hasta la madre de ustedes," Sicilia said publicly - "We're fed up with you."

The decision was taken to march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City in order to gain awareness and support for the movement. Sicilia decided the march should be conducted in silence. "The pain is so much, our pain is indescribable. Because silence is the place for listening and speech, our world is full of noise and of empty words. Silence is the place where speech is collected and where speech comes out. It is a path of meditation," he explained. Their original plan to include as many civil society groups as possible paid off. The protestor ranks were packed full of students, trade unions, human rights groups and professionals, making it a diverse representation of Mexican society. Only a few hundred started out from Cuernavaca's main square on May 5. By the time the march arrived in Mexico City on May 8 nearly 100,000 people had come to show their support.

Lined along the streets, and crammed on city corners, people from all social classes came to catch a glimpse of Sicilia as he made his way through the streets, flanked by relatives of victims. At the front of the march a banner read, 'We are fed up'. Students danced behind and hula hooped. Relatives and friends of victims held photos of their lost ones, taking turns to tell their stories to both local and international media. Not all obeyed the silence of the march, and it was clear that some protestors had come out to raise awareness for their own causes. In the central square of Mexico City, they were met by thousands of citizens who had come to hear Sicilia and other protestors speak on stage. The crowd was covered in red paint and held signs saying, 'No more blood'. 

At one crossing, Acacia Sánchez, a 33-year-old nurse, held a simple and small sign, with 'No More' written on it. She said she had never been affected by the drug war but was fed up with all the violence in the newspapers. "I don't want to see my country being destroyed anymore," she said, becoming increasingly agitated by her words. "If something is not done soon then all our youth will disappear, Mexico City will be uninhabitable, and everyone will think to themselves, at what point did we lose our country?" With no history of activism and no personal reasons to be out in the street, Sánchez was an example of how Sicilia had managed to touch so many people. Walking past Sánchez, within the march's ranks, was Michelle Méndez whose son was killed by drug traffickers the previous year. "The movement has allowed us to tell our son's story so he doesn't just become another number," said Méndez . "We all need to come out to the streets, support Sicilia and change our country before it is too late".

Save the country from violence

Before the march, Calderón rejected the movement's calls, saying the war on drugs was the responsibility of all civilians and an end would allow drug cartels impunity. But, despite the president's arguments, nearly a hundred thousand still gathered to show their outrage at the escalating violence. Once Sicilia had battled his way through supporters he took his place on stage with the other speakers. To the emotional crowd he called for an end to the war on drugs, proclaiming it a complete failure and calling on the people of Mexico to save their country from the violence.

We are here to tell each other and to tell them that this pain in our souls and our bodies must not turn into hate or more violence, but rather be a lever to help us restore the love, peace, justice, dignity, and bustling democracy that we are losing, to tell each other and them that we think it is possible for national pride to be reborn and to leave its ruins behind, to show these seniors of death that we are no fools and will not relent in defending the lives of all our children in this country, that we still believe that it is possible to rescue and rebuild the social fabric of our towns, neighbourhoods and cities. Javier Sicilia

He went on to blame the government and all citizens of Mexico for the violence -  "without a real cleaning up of their ranks and a total commitment to an ethics policy the public will have to ask ourselves in the next elections, for what cartel and for what power factor will we have to vote?". He explained that the drug problem is not a military issue but a problem of public health. Towards the end of his speech, he announced the next step for the Movement for Peace and Justice would be a caravan to the north. The caravan would rally in the most dangerous cities and aim to get citizens and victims out of their homes and onto the streets, “to wake the nation”. With civil society groups from all over the country they would then sign a pact in the northern most city, Juarez, which Sicilia explained would be a "fundamental commitment of peace with justice and dignity that will allow the nation to rebuild its land, a pact in which we recognise and assume our diverse responsibilities, a pact that allows our children to get their present and their future back, so that they stop being victims to the war or a reserve army of crime". Then, as tears rolled down cheeks, a five-minute silence was held.

The signing of the pact was planned to be in Ciudad Juárez, labelled the "epicentre of pain" by Sicilia. With a past average of eight to 12 murders occurring daily, the city on the US-Mexico border has been called one of the most violent cities in the world. As drug cartels battle it out to control the lucrative drug trade routes into the United States, over 8,000 people have been killed in the past four years.

The six points:

1) Clarify murders and disappearances of victims

2) End the war on drugs and focus on public safety,

3) Combat corruption and impunity

4) Combat financial proceeds to crime,

5) Emergency care to youth and repair the social fabric,

6) Build a participatory democracy.

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The movement’s shortcomings

A week before the beginning of the caravan, there were mixed sentiments in Juárez, the caravan’s final destination. Almost all were supportive of Sicilia's cause but many remained confused and unclear about the goals and strategy of the movement. Many were also pessimistic that the movement would even be able to achieve anything. It seemed there was a lack of community awareness and the organisers had failed to educate people on the movement's purpose. But then this movement had developed so quickly, perhaps much of the work of organizing still remained to be done.

Carlos Peralta, 34, a builder who has lived in Juárez all his life, said he was behind Sicilia but did not really understand the movement. Peralta said "He is obviously doing a good thing, we all need to respect him, but I don't know how he will achieve his goals, he seems quite emotional at the moment”.

Another concern, shared by many activists and civil society groups, was Sicilia's plan to negotiate with the government in Juárez. According to Sandra Rodríguez, a crime reporter at Juárez's local paper, El Diario, impunity and corruption is one of the city's biggest problems. This has led to grave distrust in the local authorities. She explained that there is much evidence of high-ranking police officers being paid by the cartels, and of politicians being corrupted the same way. "Fighting violence with more violence is not working, there is not one institution in Mexico that has the trust of the people. Everyone, all of them are corrupted: police, the army, state police and local police," said Rodríguez. The journalist said that of the 8,000 murders that took place in the city in the past four years, only 3% had been investigated. "There remain 7,900 (cases) which were never investigated and no body knows why they were killed".

Many of the local NGOs voiced their concerns to Sicilia about any form of dialogue with the government. Father Óscar Enríquez, one of the leading organisers in Juárez for the movement, said that the authorities in the city are all in the “cartels' pockets.” This feeling of distrust was heightened a few days before the caravan arrived in the city when local police broke into the office of his organisation, the Paso Del Norte Human Rights Centre , and took away several computers and files. "We know we can't make any agreement with the authorities. It's been done in the past and it has never worked," he said sitting in his office the week before the caravan began.

Raúl Quintero, a professor and researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez , voiced another worry. Many people in the city are simply indifferent to the violence or too scared to come out. "People living with violence all their lives try to block it out," he said sitting at a table in the university research centre. "We are also a city of migration, people care about their jobs, their families, and their own well being." The professor went on to say that he believed at the end of the day the caravan would have very little impact and would never have a chance to change the government's overall strategy towards the drug trade and violence because "there are too many interests involved.” He added that even if it wanted to, the government wouldn't be able to crush a peaceful movement - but President Calderón knows the movement won't last forever. "They will let the movement's support rise for a time but then will just wait for it to tire itself out." 

Despite Father Enríquez's concerns about the government, he disagreed with Quintero and asserted that the beginning of a long-term movement was afoot. "Juárez is the most hurt city in Mexico, most the people here can't see any future in their lives," he said. "The caravan will bring victims across the country to one of the most victimised cities so they can be heard and share their pain. In this sense I think that pain helps produce a strong feeling of hope. When victims break through the cycle of fear and are heard, they are backed by affection and solidarity."

Gustavo De La Rosa, the Ciudad Juárez state ombudsman for human rights, also felt the movement would have immediate effects, making the government realise that a lack of political will and corruption were to blame for the escalating problems. "This can become the movement that transforms Mexico into having a peaceful and humane perspective. We might be witnessing the birth of the Mexican version of Gandhi's pacifist movement. The only difference is that Sicilia is taller and bigger. We Mexicans are bigger." De la Rosa stressed that the importance of the movement is that the focus has been placed on the victims, allowing the caravan to become a voice for those who have lost their loved ones. “The victims have never had their own voice in this war," he says sitting in a government building where he ironically shares office space with federal police and state authorities. Stroking his beard, he sits back in his chair and explains that this movement is completely different from previous ones. Before it was always about punishing criminals. "This strategy only encourages the idea that the solution is to send more army and police into the streets," he said, looking frustrated by the notion. "Javier's movement is so different. It focuses on the people - the people’s need to change. They need to recognise the victims and defend human rights."

The ‘Caravan of Solace’

As planned thirteen buses, packed with relatives of those murdered, activists, students, professors and poets, gathered in Cuernavaca early on June 4 to begin the caravan. While hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets a few weeks earlier to hear Sicilia speak, only a couple of hundred came to show their support in Mexico City before the caravan headed off through some of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. The first stop was Morelia, a colonial city where only three years before a grenade was thrown into the main square killing eight and injuring hundreds. Allegedly this attack was carried out by one of the most powerful cartels. The stage from which Sicilia and the other victims were to speak was put in front of the main cathedral where the killing happened. Within hours of the caravan starting, it had been renamed the 'Caravan of Solace' to symbolise how it was giving hope and support to all the relatives of victims. The first speaker was María Herrera Magdalena , who had lost four sons in the last three years. "Today I have realised we are not alone, there are many people feeling the same pain as I am." 

The high turnout in Mexico City at the end of the 'silent march', was in contrast with the turnout in most of the cities throughout the week-long, 1,500-mile trek. According to Balbot it is hard to tell whether they received enough numbers. "We need to put it all in context", said Balbot. "In Juárez , there was maybe not enough, but people don't usually show up in Juárez, the centre is abandoned. Overall I think there were enough people."  One city which saw a huge turnout was Durango. When the caravan arrived at 9pm, hordes of people had come out on to the streets to show their support and welcome the caravan into the main square. While the city is home to only 1.5% of Mexico's population, it also has the second highest kidnapping rate in the whole country. According to Bridget Zavala, an archaeologist, when it gets dark people are normally too afraid to go out into the streets. "It is wonderful to have so many people come from outside, and have people participate locally who are fed up with what is going on at the moment and want to change the situation," she said, standing at the back of the rally. "We have to come out, to get the news out, a lot of people haven't really been able to announce that someone is missing in their family, or that the authorities arrested their family members and they are now in jail. The presence of the march helps us, brings in some fresh air and gets all these stories out in the open so hopefully we can get some justice".

To welcome the caravan into Ciudad Juárez on June 9, hundreds of supporters lined up on a bridge on the city outskirts. As the long trail of buses and cars edged past hordes of people, supporters in this town shouted out for "Justice!" and held banners calling for an end to the war on drugs. The caravan first headed to Ciudad Juárez's Villas de Salvárcar stadium, which was built in honour of 15 teenagers who were murdered when gunmen stormed a birthday party in 2010. That tragedy has become another symbol for a movement trying to gain acknowledgement from the government that thousands of innocent people have been killed during the war on drugs. Following those killings, Calderón came under fire for publicly calling the victims "gangsters." The mothers of the dead refused to meet him, and he was criticized by the media. The president later built the stadium to make up for his over-hasty remarks. A young man named Edwin, the single survivor of the shootings (despite taking 11 shots), was in the crowd, holding a banner with photos of his friends who had died. "I am happy to see so many people come together to end the violence," he said, listening to the testimony of a mother whose son had been killed.

The following morning, Sicilia and other organisers of the movement met with local civil society groups from around the country in the local university. Workshops were carried out to discuss those topics that were most important for the participants of the caravan. They ranged from de-militarisation to indigenous rights. At the end of the day a massive list of points from the 'national pact' was read out, to 'boos' and 'cheers' from the audience as different groups agreed, or disagreed. The same happened later that evening in one of Juarez's main squares, as hundreds gathered in central Juárez to see the pact being signed. The aim of the workshops was to bring different groups together, but members of some groups were unhappy with issues of the other groups. "No one is really happy with the pact," said Julian LeBaron, whose brother and brother-in-law were executed by the cartels in 2009 for speaking out against violence after the kidnapping of another relative. "But we did it for national unity so we can work together to reduce violence," he continued. Explaining the pact, Sicilia said "what we're dealing with is a national offence, there is no left or right, no rich or poor, the offence has to do with everyone. We have to stay united around this”. 

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Stop funding a corrupt army and police forces

In the caravan's final rally, in El Paso, Texas, hours before the press conference, Sicilia asked US citizens to pressure their government to put an end to the Merida Initiative, which has provided more than $1.5 billion to the Mexican government to fight the cartels. Sicilia and his colleagues argue that by providing money to a corrupt army and police forces, the initiative has only increased the violence. They also asked for the US to delegalize guns, which they claim are flowing over the border into the hands of the cartels. "If US citizens don't pressure their government ... they will become accomplices to a crime against humanity," Sicilia told the El Paso crowd.

While the movement has been likened to the Arab uprising and labelled as the beginning of civil resistance, that may be premature. According to Balbot, the people involved with the caravan are mobilised but still have a long way to go to become a proper movement. "We are mobilised but we need structure, we have acted but we need to work on building up networks," he said. While they are able to carry out 'action', Balbot believes they need to spend more time trying to build up the pillars of the movement so it can become effective civil resistance. "We need to be able to gather people, to organise people, not to centre everything only around the victims. Of course victims are what give strength to the movement, and it needs to stay like this, but we need to keep working at the same time to incorporate more people, to create a wider front," said Balbot. He also said that the movement needs to give more attention and care to the victims, instead of going to these cities and leaving, which was what happened during the caravan, he felt the movement should be returning regularly to check up on them. This they have already begun. There has been a small caravan to Monterrey where they met with the prosecutor and another to Cheran. They have also begun a database listing all the victims’ cases in the country.

Despite some mistakes it is clear that the first steps have been taken in what looks set to be a long struggle not just to stop the war on drugs but to change a country devastated by violence and corruption. As Balbot said, the movement began quickly and needs to be consolidated as the organisation grows over time. One of the biggest achievements is that victims now feel empowered - the caravan has given solace to many, who before felt so alone. Hundreds were empowered to speak out despite the risks and tell their story of pain and suffering. Even more impressively, Sicilia was able to get the president of the country to agree to another meeting and will soon have another one with legislators.

It remains to be seen whether this is just a way of easing the tension on the president's behalf. With elections planned for next year, few believe that policy change is imminent as the political parties get their electioneering wheels in motion. However, the discourse is out there, victims are standing up, and even legislators and politicians are beginning to question policies which previously were seen to be the only way out of the violence. The organisers are already planning a new caravan which will be heading south towards Guatemala in order to reach out to migrants and indigenous communities, which the organisers also believe are victims of violence. Structure, support, discipline and unity will define whether this is just another Mexican movement: here one day, gone the next. Or something which can really last and repair a country so broken.

Summing up the movement at the end of a rally in Texas, Julian Le Baron said: "The seeds have been planted in a desert. I’m not sure if they'll grow, but if they do, it will be a beautiful thing."

Photographs of the march in Mexico City were taken by the author

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