In March of last year, Javier Sicilia, one of Mexico’s leading poets, suffered a fate that is far too common in his country today: his 24-year-old son was murdered by a drug cartel. With over 40,000 dead since 2006 from cartel-related violence, and more than 9,000 unsolved disappearances, Sicilia’s plight is in many ways emblematic of his country’s. Shortly after his son’s death, he wrote and circulated an open letter addressed “To Mexico’s Politicians and Criminals,” in which he attacked the “cruelty and senselessness” of the cartels as well as the complicity of the political elite. At the core of this letter was Sicilia’s call for a return to dignity—a message that resonated powerfully with Mexicans across the country, and launched a grassroots movement that aims to end the War on Drugs. The Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity), has mobilized hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many of whom, like Sicilia, have lost family members to the savage drug wars that have shaken the country.
One of the movement’s tactics has been to launch massive street mobilizations, including caravans and marches—some attracting as many as 200,000 participants—through Mexico to raise awareness of the war, speak with its victims and formulate solutions. Last June the movement produced a list of demands, which included the demilitarization of security forces, a serious and scrupulous investigation of drug-related crime, the allowance of regulated drug use, new rules to stop international money laundering and an end to weapons trade with the United States. Thus far, they have succeeded in building widespread recognition and considerable momentum—earlier this week, for example, Sicilia met with Mexico’s presidential candidates—but the movement’s more substantive demands remain a distant goal. With the flow of American weapons and the draw of a very profitable drug trade continuing to produce brutal violence, the movement is targeting problems that many consider to be intractable. Just two weeks ago, authorities in Cadereyta, Mexico found and struggled to identify forty-nine bodies without heads, hands or feet—all victims of a cartel massacre.
The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is planning a caravan through the United States that will bring the discussion of the War on Drugs to Americans. Beginning in San Diego on August 12, the caravan will travel through more than a dozen cities on its way to Washington, DC. Earlier this month, Sicilia traveled to the United States to meet with grassroots organizers in Latino and African American communities, asking them to join the caravan and the dialogue.
We sat down with Sicilia in New York, shortly before he accepted the North American Congress on Latin America’s La Lucha Sigue award on behalf of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. The award is given every five years to an organization that has made significant contributions to Latin American peace and justice. Sicilia spoke to us through a translator.
The Nation: In Mexico, who is part of the drug cartels? What drives people to join the cartels?
Javier Sicilia: Cartels have a lot of bosses. We are talking now about fifteen cartels [in Mexico]. And they have multiplied since President Calderón’s [2006 military] strategy to make war on them. I think that the basic, fundamental issue is that the Mexican society is experiencing hyper economic development, and yet is very poor at the same time. Everything in life there is a product for purchase. And that helps destroy the social fabric. Drug smuggling is a good market to recruit young people and use them in this hyper economic society where everything is for purchase.