By Alissa Escarce, former Witness for Peace Delegate
For the past two weeks two white buses, each emblazoned with red block letters spelling “Caravan for Peace,“ have been rolling through the Southwestern desert. This Caravan, the latest from Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, is led by Javier Sicilia, “el poeta,” who left literature for activism following his son’s murder at the hands of drug war violence. After nearly a year and a half of traveling around Mexico, sharing stories and pain with thousands, and speaking truth to the Mexican government, Sicilia and the family members of nineteen other innocent drug war victims have crossed the border to the U.S.
They have come in the name of the 70,000 murdered and 15,000 disappeared since Mexico adopted a militarized approach to combating drug trafficking. They are here to address the nation that pushed the Mexican government to initiate the drug war; that both consumes and prohibits drugs, setting the conditions that have allowed drug cartels to thrive; that launders the profits of drug sales and extortions; that sells 90% of the firearms used by drug cartels in barely regulated markets; that through the Merida Initiative has spent billions on arming and training Mexico’s corrupt, often murderous military, rather than funding programs to alleviate the inequities at the root of much crime; and that has deported hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to dangerous border towns
I, an American citizen who has witnessed the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs on both sides of the border, have joined them on the bus.
I joined the Caravan for Peace in Los Angeles, my hometown and the Caravan’s second stop. I had been looking forward to the event since I saw it announced, in April, in a Mexican newspaper. I was living in Oaxaca at the time, working with the binational migrant workers’ rights law center Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Center for Migrants’ Rights, or CDM), an organization that works in communities that experience a lot of migration. It was the longest of several periods I had spent in Mexico since 2007, since the time that President Felipe Calderon first declared war on the drug cartels and that the U.S. committed to supporting it through the Merida Initiative.
Back in 2007, the drug war was barely on my radar, and my visit to Mexico gave me little reason to notice it. By the time I returned in 2011, though, insecurity had reached such extremes that it was impossible to ignore. I reflected on this change during the Caravan demonstration in Austin, Texas, where I ran into a former colleague from CDM. We had worked together in 2008 in the city of Zacatecas, which was, at the time, relatively unaffected by drug war violence. This colleague left Zacatecas for Austin about a year ago, after months of seeing neighbors’ funeral notices, hearing about shoot-outs in the parks where her toddler liked to ride her tricycle, and encountering hooded men armed with machine guns and grenades on her way home from her second daughter’s birth.
By the spring of 2011, CDM’s main office had to relocate to Mexico City following a string of strange threats. Our security protocol became the central topic of most staff meetings, and we stopped working in many regions altogether. Clients and colleagues alike suffered trauma. Communities became suspicious of outsiders. Like many human rights defenders working in Mexico, some of us began to wonder whether this conflict would make our work so difficult that we might be forced to shut down.
I am on the bus, then, not because of personal tragedy, but because of a commitment to social justice in both Mexico and the United States. I have seen that the drug war is not only destroying innocent lives at an astonishing pace, but also paralyzing movements and civil organizations that work for justice of every kind. I am outraged by the ugly reality of policies carried out in my name, and so I believe that the caravaneros’ cause, as we move across my country, is also my own.
Those of us on the bus come from different backgrounds, and are here for a range of reasons. Most have experienced the spike in violence in Mexico, and have come “to conquer injustice,” in one young man’s words, and to promote peace. Many have lost children or brothers or husbands in the conflict, and have come to share their stories in the hopes that their histories will not be repeated. Those whose loved ones have been “disappeared,” but perhaps not killed, harbor hopes of finding them.
The Movement for Peace with Justice has become a space of solidarity and hope for many who feel as one bereaved mother, who explained, “my heart dried up with my son, and in my pain I feel alone… but this movement made me feel less alone, as I met other mothers who had experienced the same thing.” We hope to expand that space of solidarity to include compassionate U.S. citizens, whose government’s policies have planted the seeds that have led to this violence. “To people in the United States, our pain feels far removed,” says a man whose brothers have disappeared. But the anguish of realizing a sister has been tortured, or of receiving a nephew’s corpse, should translate beyond physical and cultural borders. By sharing these personal stories of tragedy, the Caravan hopes to open serious discussions about U.S. policy.
The buses, as well as the public events organized in city after city, are primarily places for storytelling, and the stories told make clear why these questions of policy are so urgent. Rafael, who has joined the caravan with his mother and brother, tells me about the changes that unfolded in his community following Calderon’s first drug war campaign. Rafael and his family live in a rural farming community in the state of Michoacán, where in 2006 Calderon attacked the Familia Michoacán cartel, capturing its leaders and removing its members from political posts. It was as power dynamics between cartels began to shift in Michoacán, and as headless organizations broke down into warring factions, that violence in Michoacán was unleashed. “The cartels started to terrorize the civilian population, so that people wouldn’t dare report them to the government,” his brother Carlos adds. “They built fear as a protective barrier.” Four years later, four of Carlos and Rafael’s brothers, door-to-door metal salesmen, have disappeared. During that time, the influx of assault weapons into Michoacán was so great the price dropped from around $2000, to $300.
To me, the most powerful event has been an evening vigil held a few days ago in Brownsville, Texas. We stood in a circle with locals, candles shimmering in our hands, steps from the tall rusted fence that divides our two nations. After a moment of silence and a few speeches on politics, Margarita, a warm woman I knew by smile and her tendency to call all of us “Beautiful!,” began to describe the struggle that had brought her to the caravan. Her daughter, the wife of an officer in the Mexican military, disappeared in Oaxaca over a year ago. Margarita had gone from authority to authority, from the government to the military to private investigators, encountering wall after impenetrable bureaucratic wall. After months of searching and confronting criminal organizations, she was finally presented with a decapitated, decomposing body. She was told that it belonged to her daughter, a fact that DNA testing initially confirmed. Later, presented with a head, she requested more DNA testing—which resulted inconclusive, positive one time, negative the next. She was provided with gory details of her daughter’s last days. “She was raped every day!” she screamed, her voice ripping. “She was shown the bodies decomposing in the mass grave where she was soon going to be thrown! They told me of her pleas, how she begged them ‘please, please don’t kill me.’” To this day, Margarita cannot be sure where her daughter’s body was laid to rest. “But I will keep fighting, even if it kills me!” she finished. Behind her, a crowd of mothers held her, shaking, faces shining with tears and rage.
The horror of these stories is difficult to absorb, and they are the stories of many tens of thousands of Mexicans—and, I’m learning, a stunning number of U.S. citizens and residents, who have come to tell stories of pain that echo those of the caravaneros. My seatmate on the bus, for example, is a U.S. citizen born in Mexico. Her brother, also a U.S. citizen, was a truck driver for a large American company. He disappeared about a year ago while driving a truck across the border. She often babysits her brother’s U.S.-born son, and has found that eleven-year-old boy cannot sleep. “I’m afraid,” he tells her. Locals at our many stops come to tell of family members assassinated following deportation, of painful decisions to seek asylum in the U.S., of being limited to choosing between drug violence in Mexico and anti-immigrant violence in the U.S. Even those with no ties to Mexico have found common ground with the movement, drawing connections to the scourge of mass incarceration in the black community, and with the lack of funding for treating addiction. Many kinds of pain are bringing people together.
That the United States has had a part in creating the conditions for so much inhumanity troubles me deeply. Some of our challengers on this side of the border say that because the U.S. has provided Mexico with military aid, that we have done our part, and that we should just throw up our hands. But story after story suggests that militarization has only escalated the horror, and if we are sincere in our wish to halt horrific human rights violations, we must demand a fundamental shift in our drug and foreign policies.
In quieter moments, the Caravan is deeply spiritual, drawing on Catholic and Aztec and Buddhist rituals, on poetry and folk songs. Sicilia has insisted that victims’ pain not lead them to hate, and discussions of love for our American hosts are frequent. A few days ago, as our hosts in New Mexico closed a ceremony, they said a prayer I wish my whole country could have witnessed. An older woman, dressed in traditional clothes, raised her arms in the air and shouted, “To everyone who is rotting Mexico, including politicians on both sides of the border, may their conscience awaken. Let’s send them love!” The crowd flung its arms towards the sky.
On Monday morning we left Texas for Mississippi. As we crossed the Texas border, one of my bus mates commented that this would be our true departure from what is both historically and culturally Mexican territory. The further we go from Mexico, the more we will need your support.
We need the support of every person of conscience, around the world and especially in the United States. If you can, join us at an event in a city near you. Join us in Washington, DC on September 12th, and invite five of your friends. We need everyone to be there.
If you want to learn about these issues from those most affected by them, join Witness for Peace in Mexico City this September 22nd through the 30th for its first ever Drug War delegation! I participated in a Witness for Peace delegation to Mexico last year, and couldn’t recommend it more highly. For more information go to www.witnessforpeace.org