Javier Sicilia’s Poetry in Motion Against the U.S.-Mexico Drug Wars

After losing his son to drug violence, a renowned Mexican artist set out on a cross-country trek to dramatize the death that our failed, militaristic response to narcotics has spawned.

By Debbie Nathan Jun 14, 2011

Javier Sicilia, a quiet, middle-aged man from Mexico City, is not a politician or policeman. He is a renowned poet whose 24-year-old son, Juan, was murdered in March. Juan and some friends were vacationing in Cuernavaca, which used to be a peaceful, artsy town. But the group was kidnapped by thugs and never released. Instead, they were tortured and murdered.

What happened to Juan and his friends is nothing special nowadays in Mexico. Forty thousand people have been killed in the past three years in drug-related violence, and many victims had nothing to do with narcotrafficking. A mother in Chihuahua City was gunned down after she appeared outside a government building to protest that her daughter’s murderer had just been acquitted by a court, despite clear evidence he was guilty. In Gómez Palacio, another northern city, a prison warden regularly let inmates out at night to roam the city and murder people in a narcotrafficking scheme–afterwards, they would return to their cells, sleep, then venture out the next evening. Elsewhere, cartel thugs regularly dump victims into vats of acid. Once they murdered a man, cut off his face, stitched it to a soccer ball, and left the ball on the street for public viewing.

All this barbarism and terror has occurred since late 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon deployed federal troops in a so-called "war" against narcotrafficking cartels. But instead of eliminating the cartels, Calderon’s war has fueled more fighting among them, unleashing horrific violence. Mexicans feel profound fear and shame. They wonder how their society could possibly sink to such lows. They ask what they can do to protest, when protesting leads so often to death. The country has seemed paralyzed.

Political parties and social scientists on the left think they know why Mexico has taken on many attributes of a failed state. The privatization of agriculture following NAFTA’s passage, in the 1990s, decimated rural agriculture and filled cities with jobless, uneducated youths–easy pickings for narcotraffickers looking to recruit drug mules and hit men. Politicos and police are corrupted by narco money, and the public complains that federal troops regularly violate peoples’ rights–beating, kidnapping, even killing them.

The U.S. is also to blame. Because of our government’s "Merida Initiative," which has given Mexico over $1 billion for its military, the Mexican army is awash in arms despite a dicey human rights record. Meanwhile, smuggled arms bought at U.S. gun shops supply cartels with ample, murderous weaponry. Dollars from illicit drug sales in the U.S. wash over Mexico, and American banks and cash transfer agencies, such as Wachovia and Western Union, have been implicated in huge drug-money laundering schemes. Yet these institutions have received only a slap on the wrist from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Javier Sicilia may not be a politician, but for years he has been steeped in the philosophy of Ghandi and non-violent resistance to injustice. In May, he announced he would travel through Mexico in a "Caravan of Solace." He would go from city to city and hold rallies. People would grieve their dead with him. Mexico would cry, but also scream and demand justice.

In early June, Sicilia’s caravan set out from Cuernavaca. Day by day, it passed through cities wracked by narco-violence: San Luis Potosi, Monterrey, Saltillo, Torreon, Durango, Chihuahua. Slated as its final Mexican stop was Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S.-Mexico border. More people than anywhere else–over 8,000–have been murdered in Juárez, in the usual, bloodcurdling ways.

"The epicenter of violence," Sicilia calls the big, border city. His plan was not just to stop there, but to cross into the United States at El Paso, Texas. He arrived in Juarez last week, on June 9, and El Paso two days later. These photographs chronicle his sojourn, and the activities people in the United States undertook to support his movement.

On June 9 as the sun set in Juarez, hundreds converged on a highway where Javier Sicilia’s caravan was set to enter their city. One attendee was Ernestina Alvarado Castillo. Her granddaughter, Cynthia Jocabeth Castañeda, disappeared in 2008; she was 13 years old when she dropped off the face of the Earth. Her family says the authorities have done nothing to find her.

Dozens of Juarez girls and women besides Cynthia have disappeared since the 1990s, joining hundreds more who’ve been murdered, and often raped and dumped in fields or trash pits. Many killings appear to be the work of narcotraffickers, and very few have been solved or prosecuted. Family members and activists greeted the caravan’s arrival with victims’ names and portraits.

Teenagers came to greet Sicilia, too, including these members of the Organización Popular Independiente, a church-based group that works with kids from Juárez’s impoverished west side, teaching them art and silkscreen. "Why are we here?" OPI member Gustavo Martinez asked rhetorically. "Because it’s so hard for us! We can’t go outside after 8:00 at night. Everything is locked down. We’re scared of gangs–a couple of months ago they killed two of our friends. We’re poor and have no jobs or schools. The government says we have no futures, but they say it like we don’t deserve futures. We disagree!" Asked why the group’s members wore scarves over their faces, he replied, "I’m not sure. I guess to feel safe."

A year before the Sicilia’s son was murdered in Cuernavaca, Luz María Dávila’s two sons were shot to death in Juarez, along with nearly two dozen other teenagers gunned down while celebrating a birthday party. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon speculated that the boys deserved their fate; they must have been drug dealers, he said. Dávila was infuriated, and when Calderon later visited Juárez, she walked up to him at an official event and told him he was not welcome in her city.

Davila told Sicilia that he, however, is welcome in her city. The two parents embraced, grieving for their dead sons.

The next day, four dozen El Pasoans marched over an international bridge to attend a mass rally in a Juarez park. Many have stopped visiting their sister city and feel terrible about that fact. One marcher waved a sign with a "Peace" logo. He was Xavier Miranda, en route to the Sicilia rally to help "give people a voice, including in El Paso, and also because I’m afraid to go to Juárez. I used to go all the time: to bars, on bicycle rides, shopping, to see my family. I haven’t been in two years. This is a scouting trip for me. To see how safe it is to reconnect."

Crossing into Juárez, visitors saw both beauty and desolation. A woman marcher looked at a store that for generations specialized in outfitting young, Latina women from both sides of the border for their quinceañeras–debutante parties at age 15–and for their bridal gowns. Such stores barely survive now in Juarez. U.S. clients have quit coming, and business has shrunk to almost nil.

Sicilia was introduced in the park to a crowd of 1,500. Chants broke out. "Juárez is not a military base! Get the army out of our face!" A place of holocaust, Sicilia called the city. Mexico’s open wound. Plaques should be nailed to the walls of every town, naming the names of the dead. Monuments ought to be built.

A small, spent-looking woman took the microphone and wept that her son, a high school student, had been killed in April. Another raged that her husband disappeared and she’s still searching for the corpse. "I’m not afraid, I’m furious!" she screamed. She screamed again, piteously. "You are not alone!" the audience called in Spanish. Other kin of other dead bore witness.

Sicilia excoriated the Mexican government for its corruption, and for cynically humiliating its own citizenry by encouraging violence against them, then belittling their plaints of death and destruction. He lambasted the U.S. for giving a corrupt, violent government and military the Merida Initiative.

Given this criticism, should peace and justice activists engage in dialogue with their horribly flawed state? Sicilia has said yes, but others–particularly in Juarez–disagree, and some complain that the poet is a sell-out or a naïf. In answer, Sicilia called for yet more discussion with the community and with critics–and for deep patience in the face of deeper suffering. To make his point, he read a poem by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. It was about Ulysses’ ancient and seemingly endless odyssey back to his beloved home. "When you begin your journey to Ithaca," Sicilia intoned in Spanish to the rapt crowd, "then pray that your road will be long. Full of adventure, full of instruction. The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops, angry Poseidon–do not fear them."

A family displayed a poster lamenting that, "In Juarez you don’t live, you survive." And they listened to Sicilia finish reciting. "Always think of Ithaca. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But don’t hurry the voyage at all. Better it last for long years, so that reaching the island you are aged, and enriched with all you have gained on the way."

Walking in a group back to the U.S., the El Pasoans were dismayed to see that downtown Juarez, once a glimmering beehive on Friday nights, was darkened and shuttered. The tourist drag used to boast restaurants full of mariachi musicians who earned tips playing throaty songs of love and life. Now the restaurants are dead. But not the mariachis. A combo waited on the street for cars to drive up. Passengers hesitated to get out, but they still asked for songs. The mariachis obliged.

On his third day on the border, Sicilia crossed into El Paso after unveiling a citizens’ pact demanding that some of the most heinous killings be investigated and solved within three months. The pact also demands that military policing of civilians be replaced with humane and professional policing; that drug-money laundering be combated; and that poor youths’ need for health care, education, and jobs be addressed. Hundreds of U.S. residents converged on downtown El Paso to support Sicilia and the pact.

Not all were satisfied. The pact fails to propose legalizing drugs as a way to destroy the black market, which would quickly eradicate the cartels and their terrible violence. (Some Juarez organizers said they omitted drug legalization from the pact because El Paso co-organizers felt that call would be too controversial.) Holding up an anti-prohibition poster, housewife Debbie Kelly commented that the Sicilia organizers were "leaving out the most important part of the problem." She is affiliated with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of ordinary citizens and current and former Border Patrol agents, police officers, judges, prosecutors and other officials who believe the U.S. government’s 40-year war against drugs is not working–north of the border or south.

El Paso city council member Susie Byrd attended the rally and agreed with Kelly. "We need to realize our drug policies are impacting Mexico," she said. "On this side of the border we need to advocate for the end of the drug war, and to start by legalizing marijuana."

Middle-school teacher Griselda Rodriguez was at the rally, and she posed with her grandson, John, near the big, fiberglass alligators that grace El Paso’s downtown plaza. Thirty years ago, Rodriguez lived in a small town near Juarez; she still crosses to Mexico to see family. But the town’s population has largely been killed by narcotraffickers, or has fled. "My family wants to leave," Rodriguez says. "But for where? They have no place to go."

Six-year-old John couldn’t identify Javier Sicilia, but he seemed to understand about not being afraid of the Cyclops. "When we cross to visit my relatives, we see soldiers," John said. "They ask if I have a toy gun or a real gun, and they say if I have a real gun they won’t let us go. The soldiers have big machine guns. They look dangerous but they remind me of my uncle’s video game where we get rid of all the zombies, and that is fun."

Debbie Nathan is a New York based writer who often covers the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as sexual politics internationally. Her book "Sybil Exposed," about the making of the psychiatric diagnosis Multiple Personality Disorder, will be released in October by Free Press.