Click here to see the Caravan for Peace photo essay.
Photos by Erin Siegal
The first time I saw Javier Sicilia was earlier this month, the night before the Caravana por la Paz (Caravan for Peace) crossed the Mexican border into the United States for the first time. Sicilia arrived, slightly late, to a smoldering-hot press conference in one of Tijuana's oldest shelters, the Casa del Migrantes. He was relaxed, despite the fact he was hounded by reporters from the moment he stepped onto the cracked sidewalk outside the building. For a man carrying the weight of thousands of gruesome true stories about disappearances, rapes, and assassinations, he moved with an almost eerie sense of calm and purpose.
Since March 2011, when Sicilia's 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was murdered by gunmen, the noted Mexican poet has been single-minded in his mission: to raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of victims in Mexico's complex "drug war." In the years following Mexican President Felipe Calderón's 2006 announcement of a battle against drugs cartels, approximately 116,000 people have been killed and "disappeared," though official government statistics claim a toll of less than half that.
The grassroots Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity, also known the Caravan for Peace, was born. The traveling demonstration moved through various Mexican states. One march from Cuernavaca to Mexico's capital drew crowds in excess of 100,000 people. Participants faced death threats and assassination attempts, and some succeeded: at least two activists with the movement have been gunned down, and at least two have been abducted since it began. In 2011, the movement gained worldwide attention; TIME magazine even chose Sicilia as one of their "People of the Year."
Today, Sicilia and the Caravan are headed in a new direction. A northern Caravan route is now in the process of crisscrossing the United States in 5,600 miles, stopping in various U.S. cities. The goal of the Caravan (on Twitter, #CaravanaUSA) is to raise awareness about the United States' active role in the drug war as product consumers, foreign policy partners, and firearms suppliers.
Inside the small presentation room in Tijuana, on the eve of the Caravan's northern departure, plastic banners and homemade signs covered the walls. Almost all featured the faces of victims. Around the room's edges, journalists were crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounding neat rows of attendees sitting in white plastic chairs.
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"Thank you for being here," Sicilia began. His blue button-down shirt was unbuttoned enough to reveal a tangle of amulet necklaces, and he made a point of making eye contact with nearly everyone in the room. "It's very hard to bear witness and experience these victims' stories. But it's necessary to hear them, to see them ..."
Family members took turns on the mic, recalling the kidnappings of loved ones who never returned and the cold impunity haunting those touched by violence in Mexico. Mothers stood with thick reams of documents in their hands, explaining a lack of official concern from authorities regarding the deaths of their children. Local Tijuana organizers also spoke, including Fernando Oceguedo, the founder of Baja California's United Association For the Disappeared.
The next day, at dawn, the Caravan crossed from Mexico into California in two full-size passenger buses. The first demonstration took place in San Diego's Border Field State Park, the swath of national park land abutting the U.S. border wall. Around 110 Caravan members will continue traveling to Washington, D.C in the coming weeks with an anticipated arrival date of September 10th.
The Caravan stops in Fort Benning, Georgia, on Friday before heading north next week. Click here to view the full route.
After the death of his son, poet Javier Sicilia gave voice to the anguish of the Mexican people—and started a powerful movement of moral indignation against the senseless slaughter of the war on drugs.
What would happen if Mexican survivors of the “War on Drugs” reached out to work with Americans who have weathered its violence, too? Poet Javier Sicilia and his U.S.-bound Peace Caravan are about to find out.
Led by a popular poet, tens of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Mexico to speak out against the war on drugs.