By Natalia Cote-Muñoz
Javier Sicilia, the renowned Mexican poet and journalist, is not staying quiet. He is one of many recent victims of President Felipe Calderón’s ‘War on Drugs’, as his son was found murdered last March. In stark contrast to the recent plague of violence infecting the nation, Sicilia has now become a modern-day paladin for peace in Mexico, leading the National Movement for Peace and Justice, a social force of relatives of victims fighting to be heard. They have developed the Pact for Peace and Justice, a proposal that emphasizes civil unity over violence. This concept was embodied in the March for Peace and Justice, which triggered the Caravan for Peace that crisscrossed the country. On June 23rd 2011 they accomplished one of their goals: an unprecedented public discussion with President Calderón and his security cabinet, during which they harshly criticized the War on Drugs and showed their grievances.
Giving a Name and a Face to 40,000 Dead
On the morning of March 28, 2011, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, the 24-year-old son of poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, was found dead inside a car with six other suffocated and gagged bodies on the Cuernavaca-Acapulco highway. Juan Francisco had been with his friends at a bar in Cuernavaca. Reportedly, two of them entered into an altercation with a few men, not knowing that they were members of the Cartel del Pacífico Sur. Later that night, some gang members apparently kidnapped them, as well as two other acquaintances, while they were on their way home. Juan Francisco and his friends were all university students in their early twenties.
The investigation has been nothing but tumultuous. Morelos Attorney General Pedro Luis Benítez Vélez claimed that the alleged culprits possibly had ties to public officials, yet he did not give more details in order to maintain the integrity of the investigation. However, authorities have failed to follow an orthodox investigation, neglecting to adequately identify those who allegedly had plotted the murder. Sicilia accused authorities of using “scapegoats” rather than conducting a thorough investigation. The apprehended suspects were usually badly mauled and told confusing or distorted versions of how the crime had occurred. Furthermore, Benítez Vélez implied that some of the victims of the crime, excluding Sicilia Ortega, might not have been as innocent as portrayed. This cynical attitude follows a trend currently being used by Mexican authorities, which claims that victims of the ongoing violence are themselves criminals. Sicilia has passionately refuted this claim, stressing his movement as one composed of victims, their family members and supporters, not criminals, of these heinous crimes.
Juan Francisco Sicilia is only one of 40,000 individuals who have died since President Felipe Calderón took power through a contested election in 2006. Yet, Juan Francisco’s death gave a name and a face to the nearly 40,000 individuals brutally murdered in the conflict. Since authorities proved unable to protect the innocent son of a national celebrity, Mexican citizens now question the manner in which the police handle the deaths of “average” people, who remain nameless and do not appear in the news. Javier Sicilia began to realize that there were severe problems with not only violence, but also with the government’s approach to crime. Bewildered by the cynicism and cruelty surrounding Calderón’s War against Crime, Sicilia decided to raise his voice and take action against the tsunami of violence washing over Mexico.
¡Estamos hasta la madre!
Frustrated with the lack of official attention given to his son’s murder, Sicilia demanded that if President Calderón and Governor Adame were incapable of guaranteeing peace, security and justice in their country, they should resign and let someone more capable govern. Furthermore, Sicilia added: “Estamos hasta la madre de ustedes,” which roughly translates to “We’re sick of you.” This soon became the slogan for the movement Sicilia had initiated.
Sicilia called Mexicans to unite, take to the streets, and demand federal, state, and municipal authorities to cease violence and provide security. There have been enough young men, women and children murdered due to the War against Crime. Furthermore, he pleaded for criminals to follow an “honor code” and leave innocent civilians alone. On the afternoon of April 6th, Sicilia and close to 25,000 of his supporters marched from La Paloma de la Paz (Dove of Peace) to Cuernavaca’s zócalo, where they subsequently camped out in a demand for peace. He also issued a call for a national mobilization in silence for peace.
Sicilia continued to gain increasing public attention. Noted Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui wrote him a public letter, thanking him for raising awareness of the current situation in Mexico. Sub-Commander Marcos, leader of the EZLN guerrillas, has also publicly endorsed Sicilia’s movement. Several other supporters advocate the movement’s broader ideals, including Alejandro Martí, founder of México SOS, whose son was also kidnapped and murdered in Mexico. Movimiento de Unidad Social por un Gobierno del Pueblo (Social Unity Movement for a Government by the People), a social movement that integrated hundreds of rural organizations, has also taken part in Sicilia’s movement for peace. These supporters come from all areas of the political and social spectrums and are comprised primarily of victims, who have given the movement impressive strength. In cases where politicians have tried to endorse the movement in order to gain public support, Sicilia has defended his objective as apolitical. This was especially noticeable in the case of Manlio Fabio Beltrones, chief senator of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who called upon Calderón to pay attention to the protesters in an effort to place blame on Calderón and his party. Sicilia answered: “No, Senator Beltrones, we are not only asking Calderón to listen to us and receive us. We are also asking this to the benches of parties, to the presidents of parties, since they have also ignored us. Calderón has 40,000 dead, a bad war strategy, but it is they who created this shit, with the destruction of institutions. And they keep on ignoring us and acting like delinquents. Do not misinterpret me, this message goes to every party.”
The March for Peace with Justice and Dignity
The March for Peace began on May 5th from Cuernavaca’s Paloma de la Paz, where the first mobilization had come to an end. It originally started with 500 people marching and sharing stories about the injustices and the violence tainting the War on Drugs. To express their nonconformity, protestors walked towards Mexico City demanding peace, holding giant banners with the slogan “¡Estamos hasta la madre!” Over 150 organizations were present with their own banners. The march was replicated in 17 major cities all around the world, such as Berlin, Paris and Madrid, as well as 20 major cities in Mexico.
Although there have been previous demonstrations for peace in Mexico, this march was different. Beginning with 500 participants and progressively gaining more along the way, the zócalo eventually witnessed a peak crowd of 150,000 demonstrators. Moreover, they all marched in silence, with no cries or chants being sounded. Families and friends of victims read out the names of the deceased, whose deaths occurred since President Calderón took office in 2006. Luggage of murdered migrants was left in front of the National Palace, representing lives that never reached their full potential. Fountains were painted blood red. Thousands of banners proclaimed: No +[more] blood; My proposal: more education and culture; We the children of Mexico demand NO + BLOOD! People of different social classes and educational levels came together, and diversity and tolerance reigned.
At around 4pm, the silence was broken by applause.
Sicilia called for the resignation of the Minister of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, who allegedly has ties with the Sinaloa cartel and has been the main architect of Calderón’s War on Drugs. Six weeks after Sicilia’s son was brutally murdered, no proper investigation had been launched. Equally alarming, the gang-related murders that have occurred since Calderón’s presidency began have shot up from 2,500 per year to approximately10,000 per year.  The call for García Luna’s dismissal is being seen as a call for a reformation of government security policy.
Furthermore at the gathering, Sicilia presented the 6 points contained in his Pact for Peace. The first requirement of this document is truth and justice for victims’ families, in which they are provided with proper investigations and information. Secondly, it calls for the end to the militaristic view of Calderón’s strategy by emphasizing a new security strategy, which features an increased defense of human rights. Thirdly, the pact demands that the government fight corruption in order to solve the discrepancies found within mainstream institutions — notably the judicial system. Fourth, the government is called to combat the economic roots of organized crime. Fifth, it insists on a new social policy for young people, in which education, not violence, is the answer. Finally, the Pact concludes with the need for a more participatory and representative democracy.
Mixed Messages from the Government
Only a few hours after Sicilia convoked the March for Peace in Mexico City, President Calderón responded that the manifestations against violence should be against criminals rather than the government. On April 6th, before the March for Peace commenced, Calderón received Sicilia in order to discuss each of their proposals. According to LatinNews, Sicilia dismissed Calderón’s advice. The President then expressed his condolences, yet failed to come forth with any new proposals.
President Calderón soon realized that Sicilia’s views had attracted a large degree of public support. Calderón invited Sicilia to meet for a second time on May 9th, one day after the march, at Los Pinos, the presidential residence. President Calderón applauded the march and offered his condolences once more to Sicilia, yet he refused to change his strategy or dismiss García Luna. Since the president’s responses failed to satisfy Sicilia and his supporters, Calderón offered a third meeting with Sicilia, which took place on June 23rd. Sicilia, in turn, accepted the invitation, but only under the condition that it should be made public, and that he would have the opportunity to present the six points of his Pact for Peace.
Sicilia has quickly gained political stature in other branches of the government and was issued an invitation to address the Mexican Congress. He accepted, but under the condition that the meeting would be open to the public and to Sicilia’s National Movement for Peace. The Congress is currently reviewing these conditions, and the meeting will be scheduled after the Caravan for Peace finishes its trajectory.
Despite Calderón’s so-called “support” for the Caravan, the journey did not go as smoothly as initially foreseen. Just three days after the Caravan had begun its trek, policemen illegally and inexplicably raided the offices of the Center for Human Rights of Paso del Norte, an organization that has been a major supporter of the Movement for Peace and Justice. In another instance, one of the coordinators of the Caravan for Peace, Laurencio Barraza, was detained. Sicilia responded by saying that once again the government was providing contradicting messages to the Caravan for Peace. However, these circumstances failed to dissuade the movement. The Caravan proceeded defiantly until its arrival at Ciudad Juarez.
A Caravan for Peace and Solace
Sicilia invoked citizens, entrepreneurs, the Catholic church, governors and politicians to sign a pact for peace and reconstruction in Ciudad Juárez, which is “the most brutalized city, as well as a symbol of [Mexico], suffering from a war that is not its own,” as Sicilia posited. On June 4th, hundreds of families and friends of victims came out to march in the Caravan for Peace. The Caravan passed through the states that have been most afflicted by the bloody War on Drugs, most of which are in the north of the country. Protestors passed through major cities such as Morelia, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, and Monterrey, finally ending in Juarez. The march gave participants the opportunity to find solidarity as well as catharsis. In every city, Javier Sicilia was well received and respected. Most importantly, the Caravan revealed the scope of the tragedy that has affected so many Mexican lives while the state has abandoned its victims and failed to prevent the escalating violence.
Upon the Caravan’s grand finale in Ciudad Juarez, the different organizations that compose the Caravan for Peace and Justice signed the National Pact for Peace. As a symbol of unity against violence, Sicilia and his supporters placed a plaque with the name of Marisela Escobedo at the foot of Chihuahua’s Government Palace where she was murdered while fighting to imprison her daughter’s assassin. Afterward, Sicilia amassed a large applause by proclaiming, “[…] we left her alone, and because of that, they killed her. That’s why they keep killing everybody. This is why I have decided to look at the future and stop this war. […] I want to be a promoter of peace,” Sicilia said, surrounded by applauses.”
The movement’s main cause is the adoption of the six points mentioned in Sicilia’s Pact for Peace, including the immediate end of the current war strategies and the demilitarization of police forces, as well as the return of soldiers to their barracks. It also demands the end of the Mérida Initiative and other types of military action. Sicilia and the other signers of the Pact hold that Mexico should not only change its strategies but that the United States should also follow suit, as the Mérida Initiative is primarily responsible for this bloody War on Drugs.
The Mérida initiative is a bi-national anti-drugs scheme launched in 2007 that has enabled the U.S. government to fund and train personnel to fight drug trafficking. These military agents are put on the streets to combat crime, focusing on leaders of drug cartels. This creates power struggles within cartels, as well as conflicts over territory, in the midst of which hundreds of Mexicans have been assassinated. In an interview with CIP Americas’ Laura Carlsen, Sicilia stated, “I believe that the United States, looking to protect its global interests, has in a way imposed this war against drug trafficking on us […], even though the U.S. has the highest number of drug users.” Furthermore, he added, “They need to realize that they are killing us. And beyond just killing us, these crimes go unpunished.” Instead, he proposed to approach the crime problem holistically by looking at the social and economic roots of organized crime.  Sicilia does not consider his efforts to be finished with the Pact, and he plans to expand the movement with a new caravan through the underdeveloped and violent southern region of the country in order to call attention to the region’s high levels of violence and underdevelopment. A date has not yet been decided.
In the end, Sicilia acknowledged that even though government authorities have been responsible for the violence, protestors must enter into negotiations with these government figures in order to achieve the desired ends. However, he warned government officials that if they were not to carry out their duties, citizens would unite through civil disobedience. In his letter to Proceso on June 19th, he wrote: “If governments do not establish an order based on security, justice, and peace, citizens will not cooperate with them to remind them of their duties.”
A Public Dialogue with Calderón
This past Thursday, June 23rd, President Calderón accepted an invitation to meet Javier Sicilia and his supporters for a public dialogue in Mexico City’s Chapultepec castle, an act that is unique to Mexican history. Sicilia laid out the reasons for meeting with Calderón: first, to ask for an apology, which Calderón, as President, should give to the nation, and especially to the families of victims; secondly, to find justice; thirdly to end the war and find conditions of justice and dignity.  To this, Calderón responded that he was “glad to offer an apology to the innocent victims who he was not able to protect, but not for the deaths of criminals,” and with a slam of his fist on the table, he added, “In this case, Javier (Sicilia), you are wrong.”
However, Sicilia pointed out that although many drug cartel leaders have been captured, government officials and businessmen who have close ties with criminal activities have not been punished. Sicilia further argued that Calderón’s war has been counterproductive, “with thousands of dead, rotting institutions, growth of cartels, […] where are the gains of this strategy?” In turn, President Calderón replied, “I would rather be judged, albeit unjustly, for having acted than for not having done anything at all.”
Although Calderón remained obstinate with his drug war strategy, a few gains were achieved through the dialogue, including the creation of an office for attention to victims. The office used seized drug trafficking funds to install a plaque with the names of victims of violence under the Calderón administration. Both Sicilia and Calderón described the three-hour dialogue as positive and agreed to have a second dialogue in three months.
Sicilia’s movement has strengthened citizens’ voices in a society where the government has repeatedly turned a blind eye to their problems. Despite the mixed messages sent by the government, Sicilia’s National Movement for Peace has remained a strong presence among the Mexican public. The Caravan for Peace has generated hope among the population for a solution, as well as an outlet to voice their concerns to the government and make their causes visible. As Sicilia gains political presence and public support, this movement becomes the most viable way for victims to enter into a dialogue with the government, as seen with the recent exchange between Sicilia and Calderón. Slowly, but surely, Sicilia’s National Movement for Peace will hopefully represent another step towards the end of the bloody War on Drugs and offer justice to all victims, including Juan Francisco Sicilia. Perhaps Julián Lebarón, a Mennonite whose brother was murdered in 2009 and fellow organizer of the National Movement for Peace, best exemplified the movement’s peaceful conviction by proclaiming “violence does not end violence.”
References for this article can be found here.