Caravan across U.S. calls attention to human impact of Mexico’s drug war

September 11, 2012

MEXICO CITY

Javier Sicilia once wrote poetry inspired by Catholic mysticism, but traded his pen to work for justice and peace after the March 2011 murder of his son Juan Francisco, 24, whose body was stuffed with six others into car in Cuernavaca.

Sicilia founded the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which has protested violence, impunity and the unexpected consequences of the government crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime.

He’s also convened caravans to the country’s northern and southern borders and pulled no punches during public forums with politicians including President Felipe Calderón, who told Sicilia that he had no regrets for cracking down on the country's drug cartels upon taking office in 2006.

Mostly though, Sicilia has given a voice to victims and their families, whose cases often go unsolved and who sometimes suffer from the stigmatization of having suspicions surround them that their loved ones were somehow mixed up in criminal activities. During the last six years, more than 50,000 lives have been lost. Thousands more simply have disappeared.

“His complaint is much more than his son’s case,” said political analyst Jorge Zepeda, director of the online publication Sin Embargo. “It’s saying, ‘Enough.’ It’s about all victims.”

Sicilia just concluded his movement north of border, where the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity crossed the United States. The trek began Aug. 12 in San Diego and concluded Sept. 10 in Washington, stopping in 20 cities along the way.

The caravan incorporated more than 200 groups ― many of them Catholic ― in an attempt to draw attention not only to the human impact of Mexico’s drug war, but also to U.S. drug policies and the American role in combating crime and insecurity in Mexico.

“We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war and the enormous shared responsibility in both our countries,” Sicilia said in a statement prior to the caravan’s departure.

Caravan organizers point to U.S. policies and practices that they say exacerbate problems in Mexico as it confronts cartels and criminal groups. Lax U.S. gun laws are cited as an example. The high demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. is another.

Bishop Raúl Vera López of Saltillo has expressed worries about the impact of U.S. assistance, which initially involved a program for boosting intelligence and better equipping the Mexican military through a program known as Plan Merida.

“Plan Merida doesn’t stop organized crime. Rather it’s supporting the militarization of the country,” said Bishop Vera, one of the few Catholic leaders to back the Sicilia’s movement.

For others, it’s about raising awareness.

“The mainstream media coverage is always about the violence and drug trafficking and you see this as a war next door, but you don’t really get the human face of what that really looks like,” said Maureen Meyer, Mexico program director for the Washington Office on Latin America.

Sicilia was one of the first to put a face on the victims of Mexico’s violence even though he was an unlikely social crusader. He smokes, speaks in long-winded statements and plants kisses on unsuspecting adversaries.

He comes from Cuernavaca, 50 miles south of Mexico City. There, liberal strains of Catholic thinking were common during the 1953-1983 administration of Bishop Sergio Méndez Arceo.

Father Manuel Corral, spokesman for the Mexican bishops’ conference, said Sicilia has been identified with the populist liberation theology, but he describes the poet’s movement as “lay Catholic” and acknowledged it is supported by some in the church if not by its hierarchy.

“It’s a group that is much more committed in these topics of social justice than the (bishops’) social ministry itself,” Father Corral said, noting that the bishops have been chastised by some in the movement for not openly embracing it.

“We’ve been very respectful and will continue being so,” Father Corral said. “We would like to have a dialogue that is much more open with him.”

Still, Sicilia’s marches have attracted thousands including some, in the beginning, still upset about the 2006 election that they consider to have been rigged and anxious to express displeasure with Calderon.

But the movement has had some staying power and achieved the passage in Congress of a victims’ law, which Calderón wants modified before agreeing to sign it. Sicilia also arranged a meeting in the spring between victims and the country’s four presidential candidates whom he has criticized equally as this year’s campaign unfolded.

Many movements are co-opted or fade, said Zepeda, the political analyst. But Sicilia has stayed out of partisan politics even though his attempts to push policy have drawn criticism.

He also made his movement about a cause larger than focusing on “the police process or the inability to resolve a case or police corruption in general,” Zepeda said, referring to past protests against kidnapping that attracted large crowds, but later lost steam.

The Sicilia protests instead focused on combating impunity and promoting human rights, important matters to the general public, he said.

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