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MEXICO: Poet's peace caravan to end drug war approaches Ciudad Juarez

June 9, 2011 |  5:04 pm

Caravan peace march morelia

Every few years in Mexico, a grass-roots social movement pops up that seeks to shake up the status quo, take on longstanding corruption, the wide gap between rich and poor, and the often-unresponsive political class.

There was the Zapatistas' march to Mexico City in 2001, the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador "vote by vote" movement after the presidential election in 2006, and the "nullify your vote" movement during the 2009 midterm elections.

Each has expressed a simmering discontent. Some see Mexico as little changed over the years, despite the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the arrival of democratic pluralism with the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000.

This year, the movement nudging its way into headlines in Mexico is led by a poet named Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year-old son was kidnapped and killed in Cuernavaca. L.A. Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood profiled Sicilia here. Sicilia is calling for a "re-foundation of the state," or a "peaceful revolution" in which the primary and immediate goal is to halt the violence of the drug war.

It's a tall order. Mexico's war is a multi-theater conflict pitting the resources of the U.S. and Mexican governments against combat-ready drug-trafficking organizations that reach across borders and show little hesitation to kill anyone who stands in their way. Innocents, migrants passing through Mexican territory, women activists who have boldly criticized criminals in public — many have met their end at the hands of cartel assassins.

Many Mexicans say they feel caught in the cross-fire between the cartels and the country's military and federal police. So they've taken to the streets, marching in cities from Monterrey to Mexico City, dressed in white, demanding peace. After his son's death, Sicilia vowed never to write another poem again, striking a chord, (link in Spanish) and called tens of thousands to march alongside him.

At the demonstration in Mexico City's Zocalo on May 8, Sicilia delivered an impassioned rebuke of President Felipe Calderon's strategy against organized crime, seeking to crystallize the frustrations (link in Spanish) of residents fed up with the extreme violence.

Mexicans across the world (link in Spanish) have held concurrent protests and news conferences denouncing the drug war, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, including in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles.

On Friday, Sicilia's "peace caravan" is expected to roll into Ciudad Juarez for the signing of a "national pact" to change course as he called for on May 8 in Mexico City.

Activists from both sides of the border are set to converge on a city that has become the dark emblem of how horrific the drug-related violence can get. More than 8,000 people have died violently in Ciudad Juarez since the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels began battling there three years ago.

Drafts of the pact refer to six demands: Initiating a "new path to peace with justice and dignity"; an end to the war strategy against organized crime with a renewed focus on human rights; attacking corruption and impunity; attacking the economic roots and profits of organized crime; attending to the "emergency" facing Mexico's youth; initiating "participatory democracy" and democracy in mass media.

Ultimately, the pact appears to be a symbolic gesture. But can the movement translate emotional power into political strength? Can it avoid the fate of other social movements — being swallowed up by established political parties? Is Javier Sicilia's grief enough to force a change in the anti-crime strategy?

So far, the Mexican government has signaled it will not turn back in the drug cartel crackdown, an operation backed by the U.S. aid package known as the Merida Initiative. Both governments last week rejected the findings of a high-profile international commission calling for the legalization of some drugs.

On Wednesday, new U.S. government reports found that the "Obama administration is unable to show that the billions of dollars spent in the war on drugs have significantly stemmed the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States," reports The Times

For updates on the caravan to Ciudad Juarez, follow the Twitter hashtag #CaravanaMX.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Javier Sicilia's peace caravan passing through Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

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