In the past five years over 60,000 people have been murdered, over 5,000 have been “disappeared,” and over 160,000 have been forced to leave their homes in the joint Mexico-US “war on drugs.” The number of deaths alone surpasses 20 September 11ths–but why should we in the US care? Those people should not have gotten involved in the drug trade in the first place, right?
This is the kind of false impression that participants in the Caravan For Peace With Justice and Dignity hope to dispel. Led by poet Javier Sicilia, the group of about 130 people representing over 200 organizations from both sides of the US/Mexico border will travel more than 6,000 miles with stops in over 20 US cities before arriving in DC on September 10. Their aim, as Sicilia states in his profile as one of Time Magazine’s “Persons of the Year, 2011” is to:
make visible the face of our national pain. The drug-war statistics were hiding those faces; the powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches. We had to change that mind-set and put names to the victims for a change.
[Note: I want to emphasize, again, that a majority of the people murdered in the so called “drug war” are not involved in the drug trade–at least not by choice. Yes, some are drafted and coerced into participating in the drug trade against their will, but many others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sicilia’s son was murdered because a gangster thought his friends were going to report a camera theft to the police. Margarita Lopez‘s daughter was kidnapped, raped, and tortured before being beheaded because somebody thought she could be ransomed. Olga Reyes lost six family members (and 20 others have had to flee their homes) because she comes from a family of outspoken activists who have objected to unsafe nuclear waste disposal sites and other environmental problems near their home in Michoacan. Lourdes Campos‘s son was killed for being a labor organizer. These people are not criminals; they did not choose to become involved in shady dealings and wound up dead, as the politicians who avoid addressing the problem would have you think.]
The caravan spent last Sunday and Monday (August 26 and 27) in Houston. The first stop was St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, where family members of victims and survivors of the “drug war” from both Mexico and the US shared their stories. I saw a former police officer and current member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) break down in tears expressing regret for the role he played in enforcing drug laws he no longer agrees with. (We have only 5% of the world’s population in the US, but we claim nearly 25% of the world’s prison population–most of which is made up of non-violent drug offenders and two-thirds of which are people of color, according to The Sentencing Project.)
From there, the Caravan went to the Rothko Chapel where Javier Sicilia, who stopped writing poetry after his son’s murder in March 2011, told his story and recited three poems (in Spanish, which were beyond my grasp of the language). His speech was followed by a Q&A session with the audience.
“It is the work of a poet to give back meaning to words,” Sicilia said in response to a question regarding artists’ social responsibility. “We talk and talk, but we’re not saying anything. We are using the degraded language of politicians and businessmen. Art allows us recuperate the meaning of things.”
He compared our current moment to the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.
“Our institutions are outdated,” he said. “They are relics of the 17th century. This is why we are taking our message straight to the people–like Zapatistas, like participants in the ‘Arab Spring,’ like the Occupy Movement. We are interested in dialog with people, not with institutions. The state, the church, the economic institutions–they no longer have the power to change things.”
The next morning, Sicilia joined Baker Institute fellow William Martin, Ph.D. and visiting scholar Tony Payan, Ph.D. for a panel discussion at Rice University [click link for video of the discussion]. The panel explored connections and consequences of this failed policy on both sides of the US/Mexico border: most of the drugs are consumed on the US side, for example, but the “drug war” has done little to curtail demand for drugs; most of the weapons used in Mexican drug crimes come from the US–the corrupt Mexican military and police (which are often indistinguishable from narco-traffickers) are directly armed by US “foreign aid,” and the drug gangs get their weapons from unscrupulous gun dealers on our side of the border; meanwhile, racialized drug laws and their selective enforcement which allows addicts such as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton to walk freely while ruining the lives of poor kids from communities of color provides a huge boon to our private prison industry.
The speakers advocated for a more sensible US drug policy. Payan advocated for drug decriminalization in concert with community development and education for a long-term vision in reducing drug abuse. He compared the current drug war to the more sensible efforts to reduce cigarette smoking–in the 1960s, 60% of the US population smoked cigarettes, but a 40-year, multi-generational campaign has reduced that percentage to where only 18% of the population smokes today.
“We’re not using all the tools we have at our disposal,” he said, “We’re using only law enforcement, which is like going to the gym and exercising only one arm.”
Dr. Martin built on Sicilia’s statement that prohibition benefits only gangsters and warlords in his country by drawing a parallel to the USA’s failed experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
“The most dangerous and destructive drug is alcohol,” he said, “but you don’t see Anheuser-Busch and Jack Daniels shooting at each other on street corners.”
From there we went to Talento Bilingue de Houston, where a press conference included speeches by the local head of the NAACP, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and survivors/victims who shared personal testimony–they included Lourdes Campo, whose son Guillermo was killed on June 19, 2010; Olga Reyes, who has lost six members of her family and 20 additional family members have had to flee their homes; Sacario Hernandez, who was jailed for five years and 51 days on false weapons charges; Araceli Magdalena Rodriguez, whose son Luis Angel was murdered; and Margarita Lopez Perez, whose 19-year-old daughter was kidnapped, tortured, raped, and beheaded. Other survivors, such as Maria Trujillo Herrera, held up signs bearing the names and faces of their lost loved ones.
Then Javier Sicilia sawed a legally-bought (too-easily bought at a local gun show) AK-47 into three pieces as part of a three-part ritual/direct action. A .357 Magnum pistol, which had been purchased by a caravan member with a foreign accent without anybody even checking her ID at the same gun show in less that five minutes was also destroyed. [Click here for undercover videos of those gun purchases.]
Survivors of the gun violence then ritualistically pounded the guns’ fragments with sledgehammers:
The most moving part of the ceremony was perhaps the burial of the gun fragments in cement. Remember, most of these survivors never recovered the bodies of their loved-ones–they have “disappeared”–so this is the closest facsimile of a burial for their deceased that these people will probably ever get.
From TBH, the Caravan was supposed to go to a Carter’s Country gun dealership, because two of their four locations are on the list of top-twelve arms dealers who sold weapons that wound up being used in violent crimes in Mexico. These statistics were compiled by The Washington Post over a year-long investigation, despite the fact that the US Congress passed a law in 2003 that prohibits the ATF from tracking a gun’s point of origination. As a result, a mere 1% of unscrupulous US gun dealers are selling 57% of the weapons seized at Mexican crime scenes–and many of these parasites have set up shop right at the border.
Unfortunately, as Hurricane Isaac had set its sites on the Caravan’s next stop–New Orleans–organizers felt the need to hurry along. Survivors did not get their chance to confront the notorious arms dealer Bill Carter with photographs of their slain family members.
REAL QUICK–Another highlight from the Caravan was their stop in Arizona’s Maricopa County for a chance to dialog with their infamous sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Below is a photograph by journalist and caravan participant, Roberto Lovato of Berkeley, California, showing a demonstration outside of Arpaio’s inhumane “tent-city” jail with a tank parked out front. Read Lovato’s account of Sicilia’s meeting with Arpaio on the Latino Rebels blog, “‘America’s Toughest Sheriff’ has the softest hands of any lawman in the West.”
According to participants, Arpaio began the meeting by objecting to the presence of an interpreter in the room.
“You’re in America,” he spat at the revered, humble poet Sicilia, the aggrieved father of a slain 24-year-old, “Speak English.”
Yours truly once went undercover as “Uncle Scam” with a contingent of Minute Men when Arpaio visited Houston back in 2009. Check out this hilarious video and read more about it on our old site.
Finally, can you imagine a US social movement led by a poet? I know such a thing is relatively common in other countries, but it is unheard of in the US. Why are we so anti-intellectual? (I would argue that even our “political” poets who are working in the “poetry slam” tradition and even our “activist scenes” are anti-intellectual.)
My friend, Houston-based poet/translator/interpreter John Pluecker, whose project Antena donated equipment and interpretation services to the caravan, had the pleasure of interpreting the conversation between Tom Hayden and Javier Sicilia which was just published at The Nation magazine. I encourage you to check it out–it’s much deeper than the statistics and polling data we’re usually fed by our Fourth Estate.
You can support the caravan by petitioning President Obama by texting “PEACE” to 225568.
For more information on the Caravan and its goals, here is a bevy of links:
[Credit for all photos in the article goes to Liana Lopez, except for the photo of Arpaio’s tank, which goes to Roberto Lovato.]