The Mexican-led Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity passes through Fort Benning, Atlanta and Louisville this weekend before heading north to Chicago and finally east towards its September destination, Washington, DC, the seat of power for the War on Drugs that has claimed at least 60,000 lives south of the border since 2006.
This is a far different peace movement than the ones American officials and media are used to seeing. For the first time in memory, a caravan of Mexicans have crossed the border north to demand that the US government take responsibility for its major part in the mayhem, which escalated to a ground war with US advisers after a disputed 2006 election that installed Felipe Calderón as president, with the eager backing of the Bush White House. The killing of two American CIA agents in Mexico this week again revealed the spreading and secretive presence of US advisers, drones and counterterrorism units south of the border.
Also for the first time, the core of the movement is composed of Mexican victims of violence who are calling for the end of the militarized approach to drugs policy—in contrast to the common way the issue has been exploited to demand even greater law-and-order and suppression. Mexico’s people (and most Latin Americans) have had enough of tougher law-and-order (mano dura) crackdowns, police buildups, impunity for the powerful, corrupt judiciaries, dictatorships and torture chambers, as the caravan’s poet-leader Javier Sicilia explains in the exclusive interview below.
Also unique is the path the caravan will take though many of America’s most impoverished communities along the US-Mexican border, across the historic Black Belt and northward on the immigrant trail to cities like Chicago. These are the under-reported communities where incarceration and homicide rates are highest, amidst an underground economy of the underclass.
“This is putting the basic ingredients in place and planting the seeds for a unique transnational justice movement,” says the leader of one of the country’s largest immigrant rights organizations, Oscar Chacon, of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities.
Roberto Lovato of Presente.org , the largest Latino online advocacy group in the United States, agrees that the new binational movement is unique. But it also reminds him of the traumatic experiences of Central American victims during the civil wars of the seventies and ’80s. “As a Salvadoran, I have heard this before. Now it’s no longer the so-called war on communism but the war on drugs. There are women on this caravan because their husband’s heads were severed, a man who lost his wife and three daughters in a kidnapping by the Mexican military, people whose children are disappeared.”
“It was one thing to have wars in Central America,” Lovato notes, “and another for the war to be right here on the border. It’s one thing for a small Salvadoran population agitating for justice in their country, a whole ’nother thing to have these vast numbers of Mexicans on both sides of the border up in protest.” Lovato, who is 52, confesses that sleeping on church basement floors is getting to be too rough and says he’s just now learning “that women snore too.” But he wouldn’t miss the caravan for anything. “It’s pretty magnificent to those of us who know a movement when we see one. We’ve been waiting a long time for this awakening.”
Along the route, Lovato has seen Mexican refugees from the war beginning to form exile groups and petition for asylum in the United States, not unlike the Salvadorans a generation ago. Some already are submitting asylum applications in the face of persecutions in Mexico. One such newly formed group in El Paso alone, he says, already has eighty active members.
Most of the deaths in the Drug War, begun during the Bush era in 2006, are now on Obama’s watch from 2008 to 2012. Yet it’s often difficult for Americans, even sympathetic ones, to see the patterns of violence as a repeat of the Central American civil wars. Many Americans think of the 60,000 dead not as innocent victims but as somehow complicit in the drug culture. This perception is deceiving, as the cross-section of caravan witnesses dramatically reveals.
As one example, during my interviews with caravaners in Texas, I kept getting distracted by a face-painted young man clad in an all-green outfit including feathers and a cap. He looked like Peter Pan, and I took him to be some kind of countercultural artist belonging to one of the drug legalization groups supporting the caravan—not an ideal public relations image. Finally he forced me to focus on him and introduced himself as Arturo Malvido Conway, whose brother Rafael was shot and killed in 1997 in Mexico City, drowning in his own blood after two failed hospital surgeries. Arturo was dressed in forest green, he told me, not because it was the color of marijuana leaves but because his dead brother so loved nature, and his death “cut the tree of life in our whole family forever.” The costume was Arturo’s form of witness. I felt ashamed and thanked him for representing the severed branch of his family.
Also in Austin, I interviewed Susan Duncan, an old acquaintance from the Indochina Peace Campaign and other solidarity movements beginning with the Cuban Venceremos Brigades in the early ‘70s. Now living in Santa Fe and teaching in a community program, she eagerly supported the caravan’s stay, along with her daughter who is following in her movement footsteps. Javier Sicilia had spoken to religious congregations two days before in Santa Fe, both to traditional liberal parishioners and also about 150 immigrants who work in the town’s hotels, restaurants and homes as housecleaners. As in every city along the route, there was “great local media” in New Mexico, Susan said. If there was anything missing, she said, there wasn’t a flyer suggesting concrete next steps for local people to take. But she called Sicilia “our Gandhi” and told a story about the very personal, if imperceptible, progress being made along the way.
Susan thought she knew the immigrant women in her class quite well. But at the “encuentro” (meeting) to listen to victims’ stories in a local Catholic church, “one woman I know suddenly stood up and said ‘yes, my family too.’ ” Her relative was decapitated in Juarez in January. The woman had never said this to anyone before.
This is a very unique movement whose core consists of silenced and traumatized sufferers who have experienced unspeakable things, felt shamed and turned inward to a suffocating silence. But with each passing week, more are finding the power to speak out. When they speak, they shake. When they shake, the listener invariably shakes too. When the silence breaks, the caravan may have succeeded in its most fundamental task.
Asked what people of good will can do, Sicilia often answers simply, “Don’t leave us alone.”
He warns that “if we don’t all become aware of our collective responsibility, and we as Mexicans do not retake our state which is full of criminals, we will soon live in hell for many, many decades. The War on Drugs started here in America, and we want Americans to take their share of responsibility and help end it. As citizens of world, all of us can stop the war by forcing our states to change to a public health policy, to control the trafficking of these arms of destruction, to end the money laundering and use the savings from the legalization of drugs to compensate the victims and recreate the social fabric.”
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Author’s note: This interview with Javier Sicilia was conducted on August 25 in an Austin church sanctuary after a long day’s rally.
Tom Hayden: Why did you once write a novel about John the Baptist, the wild-haired preacher who prepared the way for Christ and was beheaded by the Empire?
Javier Sicilia: John was a man of the border, who can see what’s coming but also belongs to a previous world. I’m still interested in his figure. The book was published in the ’90s.
John was a witness to the presence of Christ but he is never called, and he never follows him. He is a bridge on a border, a man on the threshold, at the entryway. He comes from the old Hebrew world of tradition. He opens the Old World up and re-imagines things in a new way. What’s coming is the only alternative that humans have, which is the revelation of faith in God and Love which has been hidden. John is signaling love as the new way.
The Old World was made up of different conflicting groups, the establishment, the Pharisees, the priests, the lawyers, the adaptable moderates, and below there were the Zealots who were the violent warriors against the empire. The novel has a character Simon, who’s an assassin. John is saying it’s not about war. It’s about the poor person from Bethlehem. John changes the script and it becomes about Jesus and love.
They imprison John because of the whim of a woman, a wife of Herod [who] asks for his head on a platter. In the end, John doesn’t have that luminosity, that pure humanity, and so John begins to doubt if the new world is actually real. He’s decapitated in the end, and all he can see on the other side is his friend, Jesus, the importance of love.
This reflects my spiritual experience. I am like John, a man also of the border, not rooted in institutions, not in ideologies, but a man of spiritual experiences who moves in a spiritual mode at that border.
Were you influenced by liberation theology?
I passed through liberation theology. Prior to entering the university I lived in the belts of misery around Mexico City with Jesuits who were working with liberation theology. I learned a lot, and wanted then to be Jesuit. But I wasn’t in a state of mind to be a novitiate. I distanced myself because it became too ideological and sociological. They use the instruments of Marxism to read things sociologically. There’s a line of messianism in their mission and in Marxism too.
I come from Gandhism. Since I was very small, my mother talked to me about Gandhi. Whenever they had a discussion about him she would take me. She gave me the biography of Gandhi written by Louis Fischer. I’ve never been in India, but I spent time with a Catholic disciple of Gandhi, Guiseppe Lanza del Vasto, an Italian who was a poet as well. I found him through a Mexican poet who is the ambassador to the Philippines, Tomas Calvillo, who’s been an adviser.
Is it right to say then that at the core of this movement is the experience of suffering of people at the border between an old world of violence and the new world they struggle toward, where more suffering and decapitations lie ahead?
Yes, and this is also why indigenous movements have joined up with us. We are the victims of violence and also of an economic and political system that has failed. War is part of this economic system, a means of enforcing exploitation and taking away humanity. The movement restores a human face to the victims.
This war is evidence that the people who govern us have stopped their own vocation of peace and instead put themselves into the service of capital and the lords of death, the ones who have maximized their profits at the death of women and young people. The only ones who benefit benefits are the criminals, the corrupt bureaucracy, the bankers who launder money protected by the state, and those who invest in prisons, the army, the police, industries of violence and horror.
Often the grievances of victims have become the platform of right-wing politicians who more armed force, more incarceration, more demonizing. Why is this movement taking a new and different view?
Because we already have seen mano dura policies fail, we saw torture in Argentina, we saw dictatorships in Chile and across Central America, and now we are living through it in our country. Gang members are only a product of the system. The state is corrupted, the state has bowed down before capital, and so the system itself generates gang warfare.
The presence of all of us—from the US, Latin America, Central America—all of us are evidence of the unity it will take to make peace.
This War against Drugs is one of the most absurd in the history of the world. It has taken more lives, caused more misery, more destruction of democracy, far more than the consumption of drugs has done. It is the opening the doors to hell.
How are you feeling physically so far? It’s 95 degrees today.
All of us are tired. Most of us sleep on floors. In San Antonio, a general man listened to the testimonies, and like grace from the heavens he gave all of us a place to stay.
How is it going so far, and what have you learned about the US on this caravan?
I can’t answer. It’s something new. We don’t measure success by results. Each day has had its achievements, and these make peace present. There are people we have met here who are very generous, and have a very profound spirituality. But I also understand that the average American is very self-referential and doesn’t know, or want to know, about the others. It’s difficult for the average American to understand their responsibility and that of their government in doing harm to other people. I run into lot of people who say the problems are Mexican, and they are right in one way, but the other side of the story is here in the US. The War on Drugs was invented by the Americans, the weapons that feed the war legally and illegally come from here, and this is what the people in US have to address.
I like the local people we have met—I like them a lot. They love this country despite the treatment, they are better off here than in Mexico, but they also love Mexico and preserve part of that culture. It could be a beautiful culture. Not only here but in Mexico, the caravan gives some kind of value, protection, returns a sense of their dignity allowing them to speak. We make the face of pain visible.
If you could talk to President Obama, what would you say?
He needs to stop this war, stop being foolish, creating horror and hurting democracy—he needs to know that. Presidents should have hearts, but too often they don’t. It has to be personal. He perhaps should think about his daughters.
When governments fail, the only thing left is citizen diplomacy.
I am a poet, I move by intuition. I can try to speak of the pure essence of the issue, that’s all. We don’t plan. When will I stop? I have been living every day, day to day, since the death of my son. The important thing now is to get to Washington.