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A Poet’s Pain Launches a Peace Movement in Mexico

Javier Sicilia: Can a poet overcome a state of lawlessness and corruption to bring peace to Mexico? (Photo: Mark Karlin)

Part of the Series

This is the fifth article in Truthout’s series looking at US immigration and Mexican border policies through a social justice lens. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the border region recently to file these reports.

Previous installments

The Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity in Mexico

It is this that you must know about Javier Sicilia: if he has only five hours of hope left, he will use them to try and bring peace with justice and dignity to Mexico.

Sicilia, 55, is a poet, a journalist, a novelist, a professor – a man of letters in the European model. The son of a poet, he considers his foremost passion that most ethereal of arts, the distillation of words and images into revelations. Mexico recognized him with the coveted Aguascalientes National Award in Poetry in 2009.

What Sicilia did not anticipate was that he would stop writing – that his poetry would turn to silence – when his 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco, was killed and became collateral damage in the US-backed war on drugs in Mexico. But the silence that fell upon Sicilia’s poems was replaced with his leadership of a movement that began as We Have Had It (Estamos Hasta La Madre in Spanish) and has evolved into a populist movement, The Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity (Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad in Spanish).

Not long after the killing of his son, Sicilia led a march from Cuernavaca, where he is a professor of literature, to the Zócalo, the historical central plaza in Mexico City. It began with hundreds of Mexicans calling for an end to the onslaught of killing and crime that began when Felipe Calderón became president in 2006 and jumped on board a so-called war on drug cartels. The trek for peace, which became known as the peace caravan, grew to between about 150,000 and 200,000 people when it reached the capital of the nation of around 113 million people.

In its wake, the drug war has led to at least 50,000 dead, more than 10,000 persons disappeared and unaccounted for, some 160,000 individuals displaced, and thousands more tortured, kidnapped and wounded. No accurate numbers are available for these victims of violence and forced homelessness, but these figures are most likely on the low side.

Sicilia Spoke at the Historic Hull House, Which Helped Immigrants to the United States and Championed Peace Across Borders

On a tour of the United States to awaken Americans to their nation’s role in the devastation in Mexico, Sicilia spoke at the original Jane Addam’s Hull House (now a museum) in Chicago on April 17th. He explained his five hours of hope with a parable about Jesus, whom he called a poet. Jesus was planting a tree in a garden, Sicilia imagined, when a man approached Jesus and asked if he would still plant the tree if the world were to end in five hours. Yes, Jesus responded, according to Sicilia’s allegory. “Why would you do that if the world were going to end in five hours?” the man inquired. “Because it would be five hours of hope,” Jesus responded.

Sicilia’s liberal Catholic commitment to help create a positive impact in Mexico persists amidst a deep pessimism about the near future of his nation, where – in some areas – fewer than 1 percent of murders are resolved and very few are even investigated. When asked after his remarks at Hull House if the upcoming presidential election would change things for the better, Sicilia responded: “I think it will get worse.”

And though Sicilia’s movement has had recent success in getting the Mexican legislature to pass laws that recognize the rights of victims, human rights violations and the federal investigation of journalist deaths (more than 50 have been killed in recent years, with few even cursory efforts to identify the murderers), there remains a pessimism that the laws will not be effectively implemented due to widespread corruption in law enforcement and government – particularly at the local, state and military levels.

Is the Mexican Government Targeting the Anti-Drug-War Peace Movement?

Sicilia told Truthout that he fears the Mexican government is spying on the growing Movement for Peace, a concern that seemed realized when personal information and phone numbers of the leadership, including Sicilia, were leaked to the media. Sicilia also warns – reflecting concerns of many Americans regarding the Patriot Act and increasing warrantless surveillance powers and the suspension of habeas corpus rights in certain circumstances – that the war on drug cartels will be used to expand national security powers to allow more extensive spying on groups concerned about civil rights and peace. “In Mexico,” he said, “no one needs to read Kafka, because that is the reality in my country.”

Calderón Government Charged With Multiple Violations of Human Rights

After all, the president of the nation, Calderón, has been personally charged with violations of human rights through the use of a military and federal police force that acts with relative impunity.

According to Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program:

The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), HRW [Human Rights Watch], and local and state human rights groups report major increases in forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions, many allegedly perpetrated by Mexican security forces. There has been a 70 percent increase in complaints of human rights violations between 2010-2011 compared to the previous level, the majority of which were filed registered against security forces, especially the Federal Police and Army. The top categories are arbitrary arrest, torture, and extortion. On an official visit to Mexico, the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed grave concern over the militarization and expanded use of pre-trial house arrest; five U.N. bodies have recommended elimination of the practice as a violation of presumed innocence….

Mexico ratified the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Rome Statute on October 28, 2005. The ICC can accept cases if the State accused of crimes against humanity is deemed inactive, unwilling or unable to prosecute. On November 25, 2011, a case against the Calderón administration claiming crimes against humanity under the current security policy was presented with more than 23,000 signatures – a record-breaking number for the ICC. The case documents 470 instances of “crimes against humanity” including assassination, forced disappearance, torture and recruitment of minors.

One of the Leading Cartels Was Started by Mexican Ex-Soldiers

Some reformist advocates have criticized Sicilia for taking part in two high-profile meetings with Calderón, which critics say gave the president of Mexico an opportunity to look sympathetic to the movement for peace and the call for an end to state corruption. But Sicilia has said that he saw the meetings as necessary because the state controls the current crisis, particularly the deployment of the military and the federal police, as well as the integral flaws within and ongoing collapse of the legal system.

In a recent interview with Fred Rosen of the North American Congress on Latin America, Sicilia didn’t mince words about Calderón:

The main point of conflict has been that Felipe Calderón refuses to change, and continues to follow his strategy of war, a strategy that is producing all these victims that the proposed law of victims and the new prosecutor’s office will have to attend to. And this war strategy is now creating a dynamic in support of a law of national security, which this war perspective requires and which would be terrible for the nation….

The Zetas [one of the major cartels] exist because of the tacit approval of the government. I have always requested during the meetings and talks we have had with Felipe Calderón, that he review what’s happening to his army: How is the army being trained? I can understand how someone might desert from the army. What I can’t understand is how so many troops could become criminals, Kaibiles [the Guatemalan military’s special operations forces, which committed many of the human rights abuses during that country’s civil war]. The truth is that the Zetas come from the army. So there is something serious being constructed. The army is not building human beings. It is building assassins. So we have to know, how is the army being trained?

Is the US Government an Enabler of the Corruption and Death Toll in Mexico?

Sicilia doesn’t go easy on Obama, either. In response to a question by Truthout, he told the audience at Hull House that the US president has done nothing about the shattered system and the drug war that leaves no recourse for victims in Mexico: “I have heard President Obama has said that he couldn’t do anything about it [the lawlessness and judicial breakdown in Mexico]. But it’s just that he doesn’t want to do anything about it.”

Perhaps that is why, this autumn, Sicilia and the Movement for Peace is going to conduct a caravan across the United States. In its letter of invitation to US citizens to join the San Diego to Washington DC, trek, Sicilia writes: “This initiative seeks to promote dialogue with American civil society and its government regarding the following themes: the need to stop gun trafficking; the need to debate alternatives to drug prohibition; the need for better tools to combat money laundering; and the need to promote bilateral cooperation in human rights and human security in two priority areas: promotion of civil society and safety, as well as protection and safety for migrants.”

Can the Mexican Movement for Peace curtain the destructive US policies toward drug trafficking in Mexico, which are ripping the nation apart? Sicilia is counting on righteousness triumphing over political cynicism, perhaps, at the current moment, as monumental a task in Washington as in Mexico City.

Sicilia’s Poetry Lapses Into Silence Until There Is Justice

And to Sicilia, a nation that has been torn asunder is one that forgets even the names of its dead and its disappeared. Death is the killing of a person and the person’s name. It is a violation of life and language. That is why he told those listening to him at Hull House in Chicago that his poetry, for now, has been silenced. “The word lapses into silence until there is justice,” he says.

On The Movement for Peace web site, Sicilia writes:

Frente al dolor hemos caminado, hemos abrazado y llorado, ello con la dignidad que nos habita, que nos hace buscar, que nos hace luchar y que nos hace convertir el dolor en amor. Las cifras de esta guerra tienen rostro en cada una de nosotras y nosotros. Pedimos paz, pedimos justicia y dignidad.”

Translation: Confronting pain we have walked, we have embraced and cried – with the dignity that lives within us that makes us seek out, that makes us struggle and that makes us convert our pain into love. The toll of this war is carried within each one of us. We ask for peace, we ask for justice and dignity.

Sicilia is now silent as a poet, but he still believes that poetry is a faith, and he would like to believe in it again. But in a society where language is corrupt and the dead and disappeared are forgotten, that desire must wait for a reformed nation – without the pressure of US interests – that values life and language. For now, his work is with The Movement for Peace. It is akin to his planting a tree, even with only five hours of hope left on his watch.

The next installment of Truthout on the Border will appear on May 20.

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