By José de la Isla
EDITOR’S NOTE: Influential Mexican writer and poet Javier Sicilia jolted that country’s public and political conscience last year following the murder of his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco Sicilia, and six others, by members of one of that country’s drug cartels by forming and leading a national movement to end the years-long domestic warfare between the government and drug syndicates which has already cost as many as 70,000 lives.
The movement came to the United States to address our involvement as the cartels’ principal drug-user market, arms provider and multimillion-dollar partner, while the Mexican government’s counter-offensive has come at a price of additional victims — 10,000 missing and 160,000 displaced persons in Mexico alone.
Hispanic Link’s Mexico Citybased columnist José de la Isla has been traveling with the Caravan For Peace and Justice and is filing dispatches covering its final week of U.S. travel and activities in Washington, D.C., which wrapped up this week.
Episode I: 70,000 faces of the caravan for peace
NEW YORK, Sept. 6 — Before the historic Caravan For Peace with Justice and Dignity arrived at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side, local volunteers wearing white T-shirts with “#YoSoy132NY” brought refreshments and fruit for the 110 sojourners on the buses coming from Cleveland, Ohio.
The caravan is in its last week of a binational 27-city, 30-day journey across the United States to bring consciousness about the devastating effects the drug war has had on innocent families in Mexico.
This is writer and poet Javier Sicilia’s third such march as head of the group of victims’ families who have lost members due to the transnational drug war violence and its associated crime culture. Sicilia is himself a victim. His son was murdered over a year ago.
The 40-year-old U.S. policy emphasizing military and police action shows no sign of diminishing. Instead criminal activity has expanded through money laundering, illicit investment, graft and corruption, extortion, human trafficking, indiscriminate murders, associated crime, and public and private corruption. Victims’ families, among the 110 people forming the Caravan, tell jarring stories about their torment, their personal grief over the indiscriminate death of a member or about not knowing what became, what happened, to a loved one.
The large auditorium at Riverside Church is full. Service workers place more chairs out for the overflow crowd. Members of the audience have their own stories to tell. Representatives of local organizations have shown up.
Carol Edie, leader of formerly incarcerated women, tells how her group fought for a New York reform that keeps women from being manacled if arrested for an offense. Mark Johnson, of Fellowship of Reconciliation, explains his group’s effort over four decades concerning U.S. interventions in Latin America.
Here at Riverside Church, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his next to last discourse in 1967. In it, he referred to a “call to conscience” coming, “the burnings of my own heart” about how the War in Vietnam was morally damaging the people of this country.
He said “radical departures” were needed to end that war.
The rise of fatalities and casualties and destruction, translated into family suffering, which led to bringing a conclusion to the U.S. role in that conflict.
Experts now claim the number of casualties in Mexico from the last six years of the drug war is greater than the total of U.S. military fatalities in Vietnam.
Javier Sicilia refers to King’s speech.
He says the Caravan has already looked for ways to hold Mexico responsible for its participation in the drug war. Now the United States must find a way to accept its responsibility.
This is worse than Vietnam, he says. “That is why we are here. Our dead. Our missing. No one can imagine 70,000 faces. See our faces (and those of) distraught families and multiply them 70,000 times.”
He says they came to tell the U.S. of needing to work together to end the War on Drugs. “If we don’t stop the
capital of violence,” referring to money laundering, “we become those who turn their backs and become complicit. We need to build together and save democracy and do it at the kitchen table, (as) the route to peace.”
A candle-lit march from Riverside Church to St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church begins. At least 500 people, four abreast, participate.
Most of them carry signs with an anti-drugwar messages. Victim families carry photos of the dead and missing.
Through dozens of blocks, Enrique Morones, head of California’s Border Angels, leads the marchers in yells.
While these events take place in Manhattan, Barack Obama prepares to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In front of the famous Apollo Theater, the crowd is yelling, “Obama, escucha. Estamos en la lucha.”
Episode II: ‘George Washington would have joined us’
NEW YORK, Sept. 7 — The month-long Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity headed by acclaimed writer Javier Sicilia conducts its most dramatic actions to date in downtown Manhattan. The group, coming from Mexico, is on a 27-city journey in the United States to call attention to U.S. responsibility for the War on Drugs.
Sicilia tells dozens of reporters at a midmorning press conference outside City Hall that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had not rejected a request for an appointment, but had just not made one either. It was not yes, just not now, Sicilia explained.
Then the delegation of about 110 marchers crosses the street and goes to the HSBC Bank at 265 Broadway. The overflowing crowd covering most of the sidewalk is blocked at the entrance by a tall security guard in a dark suit who tells Sicilia and his aides they cannot enter the lobby. Sicilia wants to see a bank official, he explains. He wants the bank to take back the blood money it laundered in Mexico for organized drug crime groups there.
He pulls out red-stained bills to symbolize the blood money.
The bank is responsible for laundering more than $7 billion in drug money, he claims. Recent U.S. government findings allege HSBC’s complicity. The bank has negotiated with regulators and is paying a fine in Mexico stemming from the charges.
Outside the bank, Sicilia throws the redstained bills up in the air. He smiles wryly, saying they wouldn’t take his money. But they would take the laundered narco money.
The caravan members then begin their march down Broadway, escorted by stoic policemen and women. A bugler with the caravan blows his horn and the demonstrators march on. They carry signs and pictures of family members who had been killed and of missing loved ones. They represent an estimated 70,000 fatalities attributed to the militarization and increased police actions of the last six years.
The caravan is supported in its efforts by more than 200 organizations around the United States.
Lunch crowds from the buildings in the Financial District on Wall Street spill into the street. Arturo Malivo Conway, 51, from Mexico City, is near the front of the line when the bugle sounds. He wears a tree costume, explaining that a family is like a tree, with branches and extensions. “Violence is like an axe to a tree,” he says as he refers to his slain brother, Rafael. Malivo confesses having had “hate in my heart” and pleads, “‘Lord, let me be free.’” Now he seeks simple justice and dignity by participating in the caravan.
When the march arrives at 26 Wall Street, site of an iconic statue of George Washington, caravan members assemble around its pedestal. Financial District workers crowd the sidewalks to see what the demonstration is about and continue to spill into the street. The building’s uniformed security man waves his arms wildly as if to protect the statue, saying “You can’t do that.” He disappears inside. When he returns he is wearing a Smokey the Bear hat, which he had evidently left behind in his hurry to coax the demonstrators away when they began lining up on the steps.
Sicilia tells the crowd of Wall Street onlookers that ending the drug war is also about saving democracy.
A yell goes up: “Si Washington viviera, con nosotros estuviera!” If Washington were alive, he’d be with us.
After a few minutes, the march continues down Wall Street. The bugle blows. “Si Washington viviera…”
They are now going in the direction of Zuccotti Park, the place that gave birth to the Occupy Movement.
Episode III: The drug war and the two starfish
BALTIMORE, Sept 8 — When the two busloads of Drug War peace petitioners from New York pulled up to this city’s tree-shaded Irvington Park, representatives from the local NAACP and a law-officers association joined dozens of area residents extending their hands to greet them.
These Baltimoreans are among the 200 groups throughout the nation now supporting the Caravan for Peace With Justice and Dignity. The Mexican government estimates the unrelenting chaos has cost 60 thousand people their lives.
The Mexican caravan includes many members who have lost kin in the civil strife, which is now on the last leg of a journey through 27 U.S. cities in 30 days to call attention to this country’s responsibility for its part in the bloody War on Drugs.
Baltimore resident Kimberly Armstrong shares their own sorrow as she relates how her son was murdered, shot nine times, by a 14-year-old. How is it possible, she asks, how can someone who can’t even buy a tomato in his neighborhood — there is no grocery store — get his hands on a 9mm gun?
“I can’t say it in Spanish,” she tells the arrivals, looking for the word “lucha” to describe their mutual struggle to protect sons and grandsons. This is about family, she says, and it is their lucha together.
Women of the caravan, holding photos of murdered and missing kin, reach out to Armstrong as she descends from the platform.
One of them is Mercedes Moreno, of El Salvador, now living in Los Angeles. Her son, José Leonidas Moreno, disappeared in Mexico in 1991 after being, detained by federal police. Her point is that the drug war corrupts government and its authority, and members of civil society are collateral damage.
When your son is murdered, you have a place to cry. But when your family is missing, you don’t even have a place to do that.
Pain like hers, on its most elemental level, just doesn’t go away, ever.
Enrique Morones, one of the Caravan’s key partners, tells the audience a fable about starfish. An old man and his grandson, walking on the beach, find thousands of dying starfish in the sand. The boy throws one back into the water. The old man tells him, what’s the use? There are thousands and you can’t save them all.
The boy picks up another starfish to throw back in the sea.
“It won’t make a difference,” says the old man.
“It will make a difference,” says the boy, “to this one.”
That’s Morones’ point. Change comes by saving one life at a time.
He quotes Martin Luther King: “Changehere is change everywhere.”
Stephen Downing, president of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and former director of the Los Angeles Police
Department’s drug enforcement unit, is now retired. He tells how his job used to be to cut off those who control the drug flow. U.S. policy didn’t learn from the alcohol prohibition experience, he relates.
To cut off the flow means cutting off what drives it in the first place. When the policy is to cut a starfish in half, it regenerates and becomes two. The problem increases.
If you want something to go away, he says, you starve it out. You deny it nutrition. The nutrient is money.
That reminds him about the time J.W. Marriott was asked if there was one piece of advice he would give his guests, what would it be?
Put the shower curtain inside the tub, Marriott answered.
Downing sees the solution as simple as that: Stop the War on Drugs. Stop feeding it.
Episode IV: Don’t let the voices disappear
WASHINGTON, D.C. Sept. 11 — Early today, Javier Sicilia spoke to the scholars, staff and guests at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Mexico Institute there is one of a handful of fountainheads that policy leaders listen to.
The studies written by visiting scholars and government leaders from Mexico evaluate and advise on policy moves both here and there.
It seemed like a pragmatic, even strategic, place for Sicilia. Meanwhile, other members of the Caravan for Peace and Progress went to the Capitol to speak to members of Congress.
This date marked the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States. Caravan members had been to the Twin Towers site in New York City. They had seen the two ghost searchlights where the buildings had stood on their ride to Brooklyn to conclude their activities that night.
In Washington this day, hearings had been previously scheduled before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz was due to present and discuss his report on Operation Fast and Furious, but this has been postponed until Sept. 20.
The government caper had been used by Republicans for political purposes to hold Attorney General Eric Holder responsible for withholding information and embarrass President Obama, who stepped in and imposed executive privilege in defense of Holder.
Yet the overriding public concern is not the politics but instead to what extent did our government lose control of at least 2000 military arms used in dismantling some of Mexico’s civic society? To what extent, if any, were some of the arms responsible for the deaths of Caravan families? To what extent, in the U.S. as in Mexico, does politics impede truth-telling?
Among the proven victims of “fast and furious” weapons are U.S. agents working with Mexican authorities and a U.S. border agent in Arizona. Details remain scarce or inconclusive about two CIA agents wounded outside of Cuernavaca, where Sicilia resides, in a referred to “mistaken” identity gunning by Mexican federal police.
Aracely Rodríguez’s son, a Mexican federal police officer, was kidnapped and killed in November 2009, when he and six fellow officers refused to cooperate with a drug cartel in Michoacán state. His body was cut into pieces with a chain saw and the parts put into a caldron of corrosive chemicals so it would never be found.
The officers’ guns have disappeared and “they are being used to continue with illicit activities and murdering people in my country,” she has stated.
The scholars at the Wilson Center also hear from María Herrera, a mother whose four sons have disappeared without a trace from remote areas in two states. Authorities are not cooperative. You don’t know with whom to talk (who they are) — public prosecutor or narco. This is not justice; this is injustice, she tells them.
Javier Sicilia is more direct: “We are the face of the nation.” Later he adds, “This is Auschwitz.”
Joy Olson of the Wilson Center is asked to comment.
“I spend a lot of time talking about numbers. But they are numbers,” she says.
“Those numbers have a presence today,” she contributes in the disembodied, practiced words that do not reveal this is not just shoptalk about public policy but about human compassion, rights, and justice, and not the show-and-tell game policy analysts play.
A Spanish-language reporter near the door asks Sicilia before he leaves why he chose to come to the Wilson Center. This is the place that rationalizes the policy and collaboration that has led to the mistaken militarized drug policy and astronomic toll under the so called Plan Merida that Sicilia wants abolished.
This is a forum, he says. This is a place to have a dialogue about it. “It is better to have it now than never.”
In the same complex but in another section of the Ronald Reagan Building, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute holds its 35th annual gathering. Present are leading experts and legislative leaders on issues on the minds of Latinos in this election season. A spokesman for the Institute knew of no reference to the violence, death, murder, mayhem in Mexico at the conference.
Nor did the Mexican Embassy have a public statement to make outside of dialogues that might have transpired with Sicilia. The U.S. State Department did not have a statement by Secretary Clinton nor anyone else but was rechecking at press time with the Hemisphere Section.
Around six o’clock at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, a group of about a hundred have come to the last public appearance ending the 6,000 mile, 33-day, 27-city pilgrimage across the United
States. Rev. Graylan Hagler tells those gathered that this historic event should never be forgotten: “You’re the ones who will never let the voices disappear.” The voices are those of the 70,000 dead, 10,000 missing and 160,000 displaced.
The march begins from St. Stephens around 7 p.m. down 16th Street for about a mile to Malcolm X Park.
The victims’ families are near the front, with picture displays of their families and loved ones. Javier Sicilia is arm-in-arm with leaders of some of the 200 organizations that have guided the caravan through the United States. First they march in silence. Then bullhorns lead a shout — “Vivos se los llevaron, Vivos los queremos.”
Alive they took them away, alive we want them back.
This is not the voice of vengeance coming down the street, but a demand for justice.
Hundreds of commuters in their cars going toward the Maryland suburbs bear witness to the march, which follows a motorcycle officer and standard bearers with the U.S. and Mexican flags. Tree Man, Arturo Malvido Conway, beside them, is holding up his Dove of Peace banner.
At Malcolm X Park, he tells me he was stopped at the Capitol Building when he went there with the others on their mission to lobby Congress. Evidently, security officers were concerned because of his costume. Malvido tells me he was questioned for a half hour.
The officers wanted to know what Malvido, as the Tree of Life, was doing there. What was his purpose? What did he intend to do? A press colleague tried to help and finally the two of them succeeded in convincing the officer to let them have their way.
This was, he tells me, why he came: the Dove of Peace flying from the Capitol of the United States.
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Hispanic Link.