The following post appears in our Winter/Spring 2012/13 print newsletter. Become a member of Global Exchange and have articles like these delivered to your mailbox!

A Bright Candle in the Darkness

In mid-August 2012 the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity – led by the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of Mexicans murdered and disappeared during the drug war – began its sojourn across the United States. Starting from the Pacific shoreline where the wall dividing the U.S. from Mexico meets the sea, the 120-person Caravan traversed 5,700 miles holding events in 26 cities and generating extensive coverage in most of the major U.S. media markets.

On the U.S. side hundreds of people affiliated with more than 220 Caravan partner organizations – many of whom had never before worked together – joined forces to organize, support, host, feed, house, transport and finance the Caravan. A broad array of religious, police, Latino, labor, African-American, human rights, survivor, parent, artistic, peace, university, and other organizations from the U.S., Canada and Mexico endorsed the message of the Caravan. They worked with NGOs who broke policy ‘silos’ to draw the connections between U.S. drug, immigration, gun, prison, public health, Latin America, criminal justice and the twisted priorities of the drug war that continue to frustrate reform efforts.

Peace Caravan participants sharing their stories

Mexico’s peace movement arose to address a national emergency of criminal violence, institutional corruption and a moribund judicial system all combined to create a maelstrom of death and impunity. The survivors of violence, at the heart of the Caravan, have all borne searing tragedy and personal desolation. Nevertheless they stand up, speak truth and courageously work toward a future of peace, with justice and dignity for their country. By giving names and faces to just a few of the more than 65,000 dead; they’ve broken paralyzing fear and silence – mobilizing a broad movement for peace by bringing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans into the streets while engaging the government at the highest levels.

Javier Sicilia

One of these courageous survivors is the Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, who stepped forward to give voice to the movement. In March 2011, Sicilia’s son Juan Francisco and six companions – who had nothing to do with the drug trade – were asphyxiated by cartel thugs. In response, Sicilia announced he would give up writing poetry to voice his pain and to give space to the voices of tens of thousands of other victims of Mexico’s brutal war.

In the summer of 2011 the new Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) organized two major Caravans from Mexico City, one to the north and another to the southern border of Mexico. They sought to connect with, console, assist and organize victims of the war.

Both Caravans were followed by televised dialogues between President Calderón and the survivors. But it quickly became clear that Calderón was impervious to advice and that that even if he were open to a new direction he would be unable to change course as long as the “Made in USA” drug war ideology held sway in Washington. That’s why Sicilia and his movement called for a third Caravan through the United States to focus on changing the errant U.S. policies on the drug war, arms trafficking, money laundering, military aid and immigration that feed Mexico’s nightmare.

All along the road the Caravan members spoke boldly and used creative non-violent actions to dramatize the issues while seeking common ground on which to build the difficult, bi-national road to peace. In San Diego, CA Mexican mothers who had lost sons or daughters embraced American mothers who had similarly lost children to violence, drugs, or prison. The mothers called out their common humanity in the first of many candle-lit vigils.

Caravan for Peace participants in front of Sheriff Arpaio’s war on drugs tank. Phoenix, AZ 2012

In Phoenix, AZ the Caravan picketed the local jail and later sat down with notorious Sherriff Joe Arpaio to question his humiliation of undocumented Mexicans. In El Paso, TX the mayor met with Caravan leaders and then successfully urged the city council to pass a resolution supporting the Caravan and its goals. This action is a clear sign that the city that shares the border with Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city hardest hit by the drug war, understands military escalation is futile and leads to more deaths and insecurity.

Javier Sicilia holding a gun chopped in half

In Houston, TX a team from the Caravan filmed a purchase of a .357 Magnum pistol with cash and no ID at a gun show. At the same show, Caravan supporters purchased an AK- 47 that survivors later symbolically destroyed: cutting it into pieces which were encased in cement and later delivered as messages to officials in Washington.

Melchor with James Evans, Democractic Rep (MS), in front of Caravan for Peace bus parked by the State Capitol Building in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the south-east, where the Caravan was primarily hosted by African-American organizations, the drug war’s role in the mass incarceration and criminalization of whole communities came to the fore. It is not just that the U.S. has 5% of world’s population yet 25% of the world’s incarcerated or even that the number of drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. It’s worse: African-Americans who comprised just 13.6% of the U.S. population in the 2010 census represented 39.4% of the U.S. prison population in 2009. Michelle Alexander, the brilliant author of The New Jim Crow, who has analyzed these issues at great depth, thanked the Caravan for prying open the debate and furthering her better understanding of the way Mexicans are suffering from the same forces that have damaged the life prospects of so many in African-American communities.

Along the Caravan’s entire path, the “caravaneros” – citizen ambassadors of Mexico’s peace movement – built new friendships and alliances, and left indelible marks in countless thousands of hearts. The collective moral force and creativity of the Caravan generated vast coverage in both Mexican and U.S. media; more than 750 unique electronic and print stories with a combined reader and viewership of more than 500 million.

Hence, even before we reached Washington D.C. and fanned out across the capitol for dozens of meetings with Congress, State Department officials, think tanks, university audiences, and in television studios, thinking about drug war strategy was inexorably pushing its way onto the U.S.- Mexico bilateral agenda at a critically important moment of political transition in both countries.

President Obama’s September 20 replies to Univision’s questions about changing drug war strategy reflect both progress and the distance the movement behind the Caravan still must travel. Obama conceded that U.S. demand for drugs drives violence and corruption in Mexico and the need for public health strategies to treat addiction and reduce demand. Unfortunately, the President went on to praise Calderón’s disastrous military campaign, calling it “courageous” and then making clear that he intends no immediate break with reigning prohibition and drug war orthodoxies.

Candlelight vigil at East Los Angeles Church for Caravan for Peace

But let’s keep in mind something else the President said earlier in the same interview. Change in Washington comes from the outside, not from inside. It is our job to keep the Caravan’s candles burning and organize that change.


Travel the Caravan in pictures: All along the Caravan route, photos were being snapped. You can check them all out on Flickr or on our Facebook page where we have some arranged by region; Southern CA, Southwest, Texas, and Southeast and Chicago