Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Peace Tour Follows Route of Fear

Daniela Pastrana

ZACATECAS, Mexico, Jun 7 2011 (IPS) - Carlos Sánchez knows a lot about the fear faced by Mexican society today, because he crisscrosses the country in his job as a bus driver. But he feels that now he has begun to help fight it, driving one of the vehicles in the Peace and Justice Caravan headed by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia.

Sánchez, 45, told IPS that he was happy that the head of the private bus company he works for asked him to drive one of the buses in which the peace caravan is heading northward to Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. border.

“The violence and crime are terrible in this country, and it’s good that people are doing something,” he said as he drove, before launching into a lengthy description of the horrors he sees in his job: bodies on the roadside, shootouts, armed assaults – day-to-day scenes of which he is an invisible and mute witness.

“No justice has ever been done for the innocent victims. In Reynosa (in the northern state of Tamaulipas) you can see the fear in people’s faces,” he says, before adding almost to himself: “This isn’t a safe job anymore. What future lies ahead for my kids?”

The “caravan of solace”, as Sicilia has dubbed it, is a winding ride by 13 buses and 25 cars carrying peace activists and relatives of victims from around the country through a number of the cities that have been hit hardest by the drug violence that has spiralled in this country over the last few years.

The caravan set out on Saturday May 4 from Cuernavaca, capital of the central state of Morelos, where Sicilia’s son, Juan Francisco, and six other young people were tortured and murdered Mar. 28, allegedly by drug gangs.

From there it headed to Mexico City and Morelia, capital of the west-central state of Michoacán, where the La Familia drug cartel is based. In Morelia, eight people were killed in 2008 when grenades were thrown into a crowd of people celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day.

Sunday night it stopped in San Luis Potosí, capital of the state of the same name, where a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed in February.

On Monday they continued through the neighbouring states of Zacatecas and Durango, where mass graves containing the remains of at least 200 people have been found since April.

Tuesday’s stop is Monterrey, capital of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, which went from being the country’s most prosperous industrial city to a battleground of the drug cartels. From there it will head to the adjacent state of Coahuila and after that on to Chihuahua, where the participants will stay the night Wednesday in the state capital.

By the time it reaches Ciudad Juárez, the most violent city in Latin America, Thursday the caravan will have travelled 3,000 kilometres and will have offered solace in exchange for dozens of stories of pain shared in gatherings that bring together families of victims, to show them that they are not alone.

In Ciudad Juárez a social pact will be signed calling for an end to the militarisation of the country, the strategy followed to fight the drug cartels since conservative President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

Since the government’s “war on drugs” began, there have been at least 40,000 drug-related murders.

The social pact will call for militarisation to be replaced by a model of law enforcement and public safety based on the reconstruction of the social fabric and on respect for human rights.

In a packed public square on Saturday, Sicilia heard the accounts of people from Cherán, an indigenous village where the people have mounted blockades and taken security into their own hands since Apr. 15 to keep out illegal loggers allied with drug traffickers.

One of the women who spoke was María Herrera Magdalena, who said four of her sons have disappeared since August 2008. “Every night I imagine their faces, hoping to see them again,” she said, in one of the most moving moments since the march began.

On Saturday, when the caravan was setting out, the army arrested Jorge Hank Rhon, a former mayor of Tijuana who belongs to a powerful family that is generally considered “untouchable.”

The arrest of Rhon, a leader of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), pushed news of the start of the peace tour off the front pages of the newspapers in Mexico.

It also overshadowed the second anniversary of a fire in which 49 children were killed in a public day care centre in Hermosillo, capital of the northeast state of Sonora – a tragedy for which no one has been held responsible, despite clear signs of negligence found by a Supreme Court inquiry.

“It is an act of demagoguery, a deployment of resources to show people that the army is doing things for them,” Sicilia told IPS during one stretch of the peace tour, referring to Rhon’s arrest.

In San Luis Potosí, the poet spoke for the first time of possible acts of civil disobedience: “If we don’t manage to transform the heart of the institutions (with the caravan and the social pact), there are other weapons, other legitimate non-violent means, such as a tax boycott or civil disobedience.”

On the way out of San Luis Potosí, the caravan learned that the night before, the federal police carried out a raid without a warrant on the offices of the Paso del Norte Human Rights Centre headed by Catholic priest Óscar Enríquez, one of Ciudad Juárez’s most prominent organisations.

The news caused tension among the participants as they headed into areas with a heavier presence of organised criminal gangs, and prompted the drivers to demand that the organisers make the caravan more compact and shorten the public events in towns along the way, to avoid driving at night.

The caravan has once again brought together many of the victims’ families who took part in the May 8 peace march that marked the start of a new movement organised by people who have lost loved ones in the wave of violence.

In front of the Ángel de la Independencia monument in the Mexican capital, Julián Lebarón from the state of Chihuahua read out a letter addressed to Juan Francisco Sicilia, saying “this collective tragedy has to be capable of bringing us together as never before in history. This time the cause won’t be an earthquake or a flood; the cause is a seed of scorn for us, the people of Mexico.

“I am marching to shout that the dead are someone’s sons and daughters, they aren’t stones or numbers…I don’t want to be anyone’s anonymous son, I don’t want apathy to end up wiping us all away,” said Lebarón, who added that the march “is for us to find each other again, on a route of humanity and strength.”

The organisers hope that more vehicles and demonstrators will join the caravan as it approaches Ciudad Juárez, where civil society organisations are preparing a welcome. But before they get there, the participants have to drive through dangerous areas where drug trafficking gangs operate and kill – areas where Carlos Sánchez has seen so many horrors.

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