By Alissa Escarce, Former Witness for Peace Delegate
From September 10th to the 12th, the Caravan for Peace closed its journey across the United States with lobbying, press conferences, and other activities in Washington, D.C. On the last day I asked four caravaneros about their impressions of the city, their thoughts on lobbying, their reactions to the United States, their reflections on the Caravan, and their hopes for the future of the movement. Here are some of their answers.
Maria’s* son, a policeman, was murdered at the hands of organized crime. Julia’s* brother was disappeared on the U.S.-Mexico border. Marco and Alex’s brothers have been disappeared*. All have channeled their grief into political action, supporting the Caravan’s demands that the United States end the failed war on drugs and treat drugs as an issue of public health, not of national security; shift foreign aid away from military initiatives and towards programs to repair Mexico’s social fabric; enforce laws against illegal gun sales and money laundering; and develop more humane policies towards immigrants.
Maria: In Mexico, when my husband went out for a walk or to the store, we would joke around. I would say, “Hey, where are you going?” and he would laugh and answer “to Washington!” It was a joke, but now it’s become a reality for me… Now he and I laugh when we talk on the telephone. Two days ago when we set foot here in Washington I called him immediately and told him, “Well, now it’s real. I’ve arrived in Washington!”
Julia: I’ve been impressed, because I’d never been here. Seeing the symbols and the architecture of the capitol, of the White House, of everything that is Washington—it has been a very, very, very gratifying personal experience.
Marco: This is a great city, where great powers govern, where the nation’s most important decisions are made. But these also do harm to much of the world, right? The city is very beautiful, very calm, but also hollow.
We are here with great hope. Perhaps the eyes through which you see a place cause you to perceive it in a different way, in the way that you want to see it. Full of your dreams. So we see this city filled with the light of hope, you know? We have arrived with the hope of being listened to, so that it may be known that people who live very far from this country, very far from Washington, are here to protest the injustices that this country has committed.
Julia: Yesterday I lobbied the assistant of a congressperson from Los Angeles. This representative was an African-American woman whose father was also an immigrant from Nigeria. I found her so lovely. When you enter the House of Representatives, the first thing you see are women in suits, with high heels, with a cold, serious, distant demeanor. The men are the same. But when I saw this representative, when I met her, I felt inspired. We spoke just like I do with my friends and compañeros on the caravan. It was a very human, very beautiful experience. It was very gratifying to speak with a person like her, who was very human and down to earth.
Maria: Yesterday I had a meeting with the assistant Secretary of State, there at the State Department. It was a pleasure to meet her, this woman named Maria, because she was shocked by my testimony and by that of Luisa* [mother of Marco and Alex]. She was very surprised to hear the voices of the victims telling her that the Mexican reality is not what she had been told… She also has children and she would not like to be in our shoes, living this pain. It gave me great pleasure, and much hope that she will raise her voice on our behalf.
Marco: We also lobbied at senators’ offices… They didn’t know the magnitude of the violence, and had based their opinions solely on statistics. They were very moved. They said that they have contributed to this problem because it began, first and foremost, with the anti-drug issue.
We visited the office of a congress person from Colorado, and there we were told the same thing, that this violence is occurring because of the war on drugs. Colorado is beginning to become more independent on these matters. Now, neither Mexican cartels nor other types of cartels are doing the kinds of things they are doing in other states, because in Colorado they cultivate their own drugs, marijuana is being legalized, and they have seen that violence is dropping in the state. I don’t know much about it, of course, but the important thing is that if they are seeing some improvement in that state, they should create similar policies throughout the country.
Alex: Behind each of the people we have lobbied, who are so removed from our pain, there are excellent human beings… Each has a heart inside, a heart that feels, a heart which is not insensitive to another’s pain… Some of them told me openly, that it’s not the same to experience a situation through statistics, through a project that you are assigned at work, as it is to be the object of a protest. Statistics can’t protest, but a person can protest, you know?
Julia: I think that this caravan brought to Washington something that it badly needs, which is God, which is love, which is pain, which is the dignity of others, which is respect for all. I think it was necessary, because it feels empty here. It gave me enormous satisfaction to feel that I not only brought my thoughts, my words, and my time, but also God. He is in each of us, with all of our defects and difficulties, our internal miseries… Despite the fact that this caravan brought demands and questions and ideas and many other things, it also brought love.
It would be immature to say that we can change laws, right? Very immature. But this movement was not only for Washington, it was for the whole United States. If the laws can be changed, wonderful; but I think that when we take initiative it doesn’t matter how much power Washington may have. What matters is the power we want to give it.
We have reminded Washington, like many have earlier in history, that they are doing something wrong, but that it can be repaired. Not now, not in five or ten years, but it can be repaired.
Maria: Over the years, many of my friends came to the United States as undocumented migrants. When they returned to Mexico they would show off and tell me things about the United States. They told me that it was the greatest, that it was very pretty, that the cities where they were living were the greatest. But you know, now that I have had the incredible opportunity to come here, I have realized that they exaggerated, that it’s not true. I have realized that when I asked them if there were homeless people, if there was garbage, if there were people on the streets and they told me, “No, there’s no poverty”—I now realize that they were lying.
One of the cities I saw that was very devastated was in Mississippi. I saw burned houses, also related to the drug war. I learned that white people don’t like black people, that there is horrific racism. I saw that things are very dirty. I was shocked to see the differences from one street to the next, that one could have the capitol and very elegant buildings, and that a block away there could be great poverty… In Baltimore I was also shocked by the devastation. I can’t understand how from one city to the next, or from one street to the next the degree of marginalization can change so much.
I realized that people here also need a lot of help and that President Obama is not doing what he should be doing. We in Mexico have the same problems with our President.
Marco: This is just a beginning of people taking to the streets to express their pain and the violence that we are living through. When we started the caravan, someone asked me if we would be able to endure a whole month, and I thought of the pain that pulls us—the victims of the violence—forward. For us there is no defined period of time, indeed we could endure this caravan and thousands of caravans. The idea is to leave a seed in each city we have visited. If we are to be the symbol of pain which will be a shield for the rest of humanity, so that all of this may stop, we must do it. For me, this has not ended. It is entering a stage of maturation. We have sown something very sincere, and that which is planted well will be harvested by our children and grandchildren, and by the people of the United States and the African-American community who accompanied us. We know that this is for their well-being, and for ours.
Alex: As we leave I am very happy, and also sad that it is over. I wish I could split my heart in two, so that one part could continue on, and the other could go back to the cruel reality that we are living through. This is the end, but it is only one stage in a cycle that opens and closes… and we are going to think about the doors we were able to open, and hope that the seeds that we left in people’s consciences reproduce themselves. We won’t wait for the seeds to flower on their own—we realize that we will have to water them. We have a very clear objective: peace for generations to come.
Now that we have begun we have to continue, right?
Maria: When I decided to cross borders it was because of the promise that I made to Julian* at the moment that the federal authorities told me the way that he had been executed. At that moment I shrieked at God, asking why he had blindfolded himself and failed to see how my son and his companions were being torn apart.
I cried hard, I fell down because my legs could no longer tolerate so much pain. But in that same moment I reacted, I got up, I wiped my tears and I shouted to Julian that I didn’t know why they had done this to him, but that I was going to fight to cross borders, to make his name echo throughout the world… I started traveling and working on the caravans. I became a human rights defender, even though I am not formally educated. To defend human rights one doesn’t need to have studied—I think I’ve come to understand that. There are no coincidences; everything happens for a reason. If Julian and his companions were martyrs, it was for something. God wanted to turn them into angels so that there would be justice here on earth. He wanted someone from the families of those men to raise their voices, so that those here on earth would realize that there is a great deal of injustice.
Julia: My brother brought me here. My brother took me by the shoulder and told me “let’s go, I’m going to show you where I am.” And I think I have been finding him in each experience and in each person who I have spent time with, in each of the beings who surround me.
As for my goals and hopes and expectations for the caravan when I began—to be honest I was afraid to come. I don’t know why, but I was very afraid, and that has changed enormously. The caravan has changed my life entirely, from my head to my toes, spiritually, emotionally, even physically. I don’t know if this is all I have to give, and I only ask God that, if he has designed me for something greater, that he show me the way. If I can give more, I will. At this point I don’t know.
Now that the Caravan has ended, people in the United States must begin to seriously reevaluate our commitment, both personally and politically, to drug prohibition and the War on Drugs. Most of the crimes against people like Julia, Maria, Alex, and Marco’s family members have been committed by members of criminal organizations—organizations that formed to provide drugs to users in the U.S. while circumventing U.S. law enforcement. By fulfilling U.S. demand, these organizations became fabulously wealthy. When President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels in 2006—influenced by U.S. pressure and aided militarily by the U.S.-funded Merida Initiative —the cartels used their wealth to arm themselves, heavily. Around 70% of the military-style assault weapons they acquired were purchased from U.S. arms dealers.
The bi-national strategy of killing or imprisoning the leaders of criminal organizations has removed the forces that kept cartels functioning mainly as drug businesses and that prevented them, for the most part, from attacking the civilian population. Headless cartels have become sites of power struggles, have splintered and formed new organizations, have diversified their businesses to reap the profits of ransoms, “taxes” and human trafficking. All of these changes have led to bloodshed and disappearances. To protect themselves traffickers terrorize the civilian population, especially those civilians who might know a little too much—human rights defenders, journalists, activists. Some young men in these organizations have become so inured to murder that they have come to relish it. They’ve become killing machines devoid of human empathy, whose violent tendencies may well outlive this conflict and continue to haunt their communities for decades.
As Stephen Downing, former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told us repeatedly during the caravan, drug trafficking organizations are like starfish. When you cut a starfish into pieces, intending to kill it, each piece grows instead into a new, whole starfish. The only way to kill a starfish is to deprive it of nutrients—in this case, the profits of drug sales in the U.S. After four decades of the War on Drugs, drug abuse in the U.S. is higher than ever, so to assume current policies will reduce addiction and overdose is wishful thinking. The type of organized crime that flourished during alcohol prohibition withered and disappeared following legalization; I believe that the same would happen if we were to begin legalizing drugs. The process must be gradual and careful, backed by research, public health programs, and strong regulations. Such a proposal will be frightening for many Americans. But of all the things I learned on the Caravan, the most important is that ending this war is extraordinarily urgent—for Mexico, for other Latin American countries, and, most strikingly, for communities throughout the United States.
We cannot remain paralyzed by fear. Let’s educate ourselves, reassess our assumptions, and engage politically. No policy, as Julia says, will repair this problem immediately or even within a decade—but the problem can be repaired. I’m committed. *Names have been changed, and some details of stories have been omitted Witness for Peace-Mexico Team would like to thank Alissa Escarce for her hard work on the caravan and sharing the stories and experiences with us!