Photo Chronicle of Mexico’s Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity

On June 4, poet Javier Sicilia and farmer Julian LeBaron led a 500-person caravan through some of the most dangerous places in Mexico, and which one major Mexican magazine referred to as the country’s “route of blood.” The caravan ended on June 10 in Ciudad Juarez, which Sicilia dubbed Mexico’s “epicenter of pain” because just over one-fifth of the country’s homicides occurred in that city in 2010.

On June 4, poet Javier Sicilia and farmer Julian LeBaron led a 500-person caravan through what one major Mexican magazine referred to as the country’s “route of blood.” Over the following week, the caravan passed through some of the most dangerous places in Mexico: Michoacan, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Chihuahua. The caravan ended on June 10 in Ciudad Juarez, which Sicilia dubbed Mexico’s “epicenter of pain” because just over one-fifth of the country’s homicides occurred in that city in 2010.

One of the caravan’s principle goals was for drug war victims to network and organize. The caravan collected victims’ stories and contact information in every town it visited.

Dozens of drug war victims from across the country, such as Nepomuceno Moreno Nuñez from Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, travelled with the caravan to meet other victims and share their stories.

Moreno Nuñez (above, right, shown hugging Javier Sicilia) wants to find his son, 18-year-old Jorge Mario Moreno León, who was kidnapped and disappeared along with five friends on July 1, 2010.

Moreno Nuñez spoke with the kidnappers when they answered Jorge Mario’s cell phone. They told him that the young men were kidnapped because they collaborated with the Beltran Leyva criminal organization. “They made a mistake,” laments Moreno Nuñez. “They said that one of the boys [Mario Enrique Diaz Islas] was the son of an accomplice to the Beltran Leyvas. It’s not true.” In reality, Mario Enrique’s father, Mario Diaz Garduño, was the director of the Hermosillo municipal Health Department.

The kidnappers killed Mario Enrique. Two families paid million-peso ransoms for their sons, who were released. Jorge Mario remains disappeared along with his friends José Francisco Mercado Ortega and Geovany Otero.

Moreno Nuñez knows that his son survived the initial kidnapping because the kidnappers put Jorge Mario on the phone. Despite evidence that Jorge Mario and his friends could have still been alive, local authorities refused to act. Moreno Nuñez carried out his own investigation into his son’s disappearance. “I told [the government], ‘Here’s the investigation; here’s the names of who did it and everything.’ I have photos, addresses, everything. I know who it was,” says Moreno Nuñez. “They did nothing.”

Moreno Nuñez is too familiar with Mexico’s version of “justice.” For four years, he was imprisoned without charge for a murder the authorities eventually admitted he did not commit. A judge absolved and released Moreno Nuñez in October 2009, just ten months before his son disappeared.

On June 4 in Morelia, Michoacan, (above) drug war victims took the stage at the exact location where unidentified individuals attacked the 2008 Independence Day celebrations with fragmentation grenades, killing five. During each stop along the route, victims who travelled with the caravan and local victims packed the stage beyond capacity. They all shared their experiences living at the mercy of organized crime, soldiers, militarized federal police, and corrupt local police forces. The victims’ experiences varied, but all of them were hasta la madre (“fed up”) with violence and impunity.

Indigenous residents of Cherán, Michoacan, marched with the caravan in Morelia with their faces covered. Residents have maintained barricades in Cherán since April 15 to keep out kidnappers and illegal loggers who are in league with organized crime.

The Zapatista-allied National Indigenous Congress (CNI) has had significant presence in Cherán for years. The CNI’s influence has likely played a role in Cherán’s organizing style and politics. Plagued for years by corrupt or useless political parties, Cherán made the decision to to put up the barricades in a town assembly. Residents refuse to let political parties participate in their organizing process. They hope to drive out the parties and replace local electoral politics with “uses and customs,” or traditional governance mechanisms.

“In this unjust war, we indigenous peoples are not only victims of organized crime,” Cherán resident Salvador Campanur Sánchez told President Felipe Calderón during a recent dialogue. “We’re also the victims of the Mexican state’s institutional violence.” As a “starting point,” Cherán demands that the Mexican government implement the San Andres Accords, a 1996 indigenous rights agreement between the Zapatistas and the government that the government later betrayed.

Cherán residents accompanied the caravan to Juarez. A caravan had to escort them back home to Cherán because it was too dangerous for them to return alone.

Many of the people who rallied with the caravan in downtown Zacatecas on June 5 were family members of disappeared politicians.

Juan Carlos Guardado Méndez, former mayor of Fresnillo, Zacatecas, was kidnapped along with his driver this past February. At least 17 mayors have been murdered in Mexico since 2010. Guardado’s case isn’t included in that statistic because the government doesn’t keep an official count of disappearances.

While violence against Mexico’s mayors is commonly blamed on organized crime, Guardado’s brother (shown above) believes that the “most probable” scenario is that his brother was kidnapped for political reasons. “We’ve talked to a lot of people, even some that we shouldn’t have,” he says. “They said they don’t have him.”

“We believe he’s alive,” says Guardado’s brother. “We believe they have him holed up somewhere, and they’re waiting for the time to pass, for information that he probably knows to become useless. We believe that someone very important is behind his kidnapping.”

Unfortunately for the Guardado family, it is increasingly easy to sweep political crimes under the carpet amidst rampant corruption, impunity, and violence. The government finds it increasingly easy to blame all of its woes on organized crime, and the truth becomes lost in the chaos that has gripped the country.

As the caravan travelled to Durango, 6-year-old Francisco Fernando Rodriguez Flores flagged it down from the side of the freeway. Francisco showed Javier Sicilia a picture of his father, Fernando Rodriguez Maturiño, whose body was found a few months ago wrapped in a blanket. Authorities told Francisco’s mother to abandon her husband’s murder case, because the blanket was a message that the crime should not be investigated.

Vivien Echavari, whose three sons were gunned down in Durango, is outraged at Calderón’s callous attitude towards victims and their families. She takes offense that the president shrugs off civilian deaths as “collateral damage.” “The President said that sacrifice is necessary,” Echavari told a rally in downtown Durango. “Sir, you made me sacrifice three sons. You destroyed my life and left me with nothing!”

Families United for Freedom and Justice (FULJ) helped organize the caravan’s arrival in Monterrey. The organization includes missing police officers’ families as well as families of civilians disappeared by police. They might seem like strange bedfellows, but they’ve all learned the same tragic lesson: that the government treats disappeared cops with the same distain as it treats disappeared civilians.

The government lied and abandoned San Nicolas municipal police officer Mario Jorge Tovar Martinez’s family when he disappeared following months of threats and harassment. “They told my daughter-in-law that they would pay her his salary and benefits for five years,” says Tovar’s mother Laura. “That lasted ten months and then they forgot about us.” The mayor told her that he would meet with her every fifteen days regarding her son’s case. “I met with him once, and after that they refused to see me,” says Laura. “What’s worse, they told me ‘Don’t get the press involved, ma’am, or we’ll forget all about you.'”

Melchor Flores’ father (pictured above during the March for Peace with Justice and Dignity in May) traveled to Monterrey from Mexico State to demand that the government present his son alive. Melchor Flores was a well-known performance artist better known as the “Galactic Cowboy.” Flores’ character, a flirtatious, silver-plated robotic cowboy, has appeared on television programs and commercials. He was best known as a street performer who moved when passersby deposited coins in his tin can.

The Galactic Cowboy became a working class hero in January 2009 when police arrested him for working on the street without a permit. He’d been arrested for the same offense many times before, but that particular arrest turned into a comedy of the absurd when a TV news crew entered the Monterrey police station where he was held and filmed the Galactic Cowboy performing in police custody. “I told [the police] that if they wanted to arrest me for working, that’s fine,” Flores told Televisa during his detention. “I’ve applied for a permit, but no one wants to give me one.” Police released Flores after he paid a $500 peso fine.

One month later, the Galactic Cowboy disappeared along with two friends. Witnesses saw Monterrey municipal police put the three men in patrol cars, and they wrote down the vehicles’ license plate numbers. The men haven’t been seen since. The Monterrey police department officially denies that it ever had them in custody despite the fact that two police officers testified that their department participated in the kidnapping.

The Galactic Cowboy’s numerous arrests and subsequent disappearance has drawn the ire of many Mexicans who question the government’s priorities during one of the worst unemployment crises in Mexico’s history. The government’s own census bureau admitted this month that Mexico’s informal sector employs more people than the formal sector. As more Mexicans fall into poverty, work in organized crime becomes a tempting or necessary alternative.

The Galactic Cowboy’s father wants to know why police in one of the country’s most dangerous cities arrested and disappeared his son, an entertainer. “The Nuevo Leon government stole my son from me because he was making an honest living!”

Masked residents of Torreon’s marginalized neighborhoods risked their lives to tell the caravan about how militarization has turned their city into a living hell. In addition to the deployment of militarized Federal Police and soldiers to their city, the State Police are now commanded by a retired military general who trains his cops to shoot first and ask questions later. Interviewed by La Jornada about his policing style in Torreon, General Carlos Bibiano Villa Castillo said, “I like the adrenaline when I am on patrol. When I catch a Zeta or a Chapo I kill him. Why interrogate him? Let him tell Saint Peter what he did.”

The problem with Torreon’s public security strategy, say local residents, is that they’re all treated as criminals in their own neighborhoods. Teenagers complain that soldiers use pat-downs as an excuse to rob and sexually abuse them. Families say that the soldiers use warrantless house searches to steal and break the few things they own. A mother complains that her son refuses to go to school because he’s afraid of running into soldiers or police on his way there. A fourteen-year-old boy points to his colostomy bag. He says soldiers beat and stabbed him because he was standing on a street corner.

The residents are terrified that soldiers might see them in the news and retaliate, but they’re tired of living with fear and violence. They said the recent mobilizations against the drug war have inspired them to organize. “I saw Javier Sicilia on television,” says a mother who wishes to remain anonymous. “We had a meeting, and together we decided to come out today [to protest]. We’re various neighborhoods. We’re not just a couple of people. We’re talking about what we’re going to do about this, because they [the police and soldiers] don’t help us, they just hurt us.”

Chihuahua was one of the few states that didn’t draw many new people out to the protests because many stayed home out of fear. Marta Garcia (shown above) carried a picture of her neighbor’s husband to the march in Chihuahua City because her neighbor was too afraid to participate herself. The man in her photo, Oscar Zavala, was murdered on July 25, 2009, when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a group of men waiting outside of his sister-in-law’s baby shower in Chihuahua City.

On June 9, Federal Police sent protesters a message when they rounded up fifty people for the crime of being “suspicious” in an operation in Ciudad Juarez just before the caravan arrived there. Amongst the detainees was Laurencio Barranza, a seasoned Juarez activist who helped organize the caravan’s activities in Chihuahua state. Barranza (shown above), a community organizer in Juarez’s poorest neighborhoods, was detained for two hours and released without charge.

Most of the local participants in the caravan’s activities were seasoned activists who have protested publicly for years, and they’ve suffered threats, attacks, murders, and arrests.

The anti-femicide contingent was one of the largest that participated in the caravan’s activities in Chihuahua. They’ve denounced impunity and corruption in Chihuahua since 1993, when they warned that leaving young women’s kidnappers and murderers unpunished would encourage more violence against them. Eighteen years later, it is painfully obvious that they were right. Murders of both women and men have risen sharply in Ciudad Juarez since Calderón deployed the military in the war on drugs. As the military’s deployment set off a wave of violence, the very civilian institutions that the anti-femicide groups had criticized for over a decade–namely, the prosecutor’s office and the police–found themselves too constrained by incompetence and corruption to punish violent offenders. The result is a situation of lawlessness in which anyone–police, soldier, criminal, civilian–can kidnap and kill with impunity.

Following the caravan, Javier Sicilia and other drug war victims met with President Calderón. They presented him with 25 unsolved cases of murders, disappearances, kidnappings, and massacres and have demanded that the government find and punish those responsible. Likewise, they presented the Attorney General of Nuevo Leon with 41 unsolved cases. Sicilia and Calderón agreed to create a commission to follow-up on the 25 cases that the victims’ families presented to the federal government.

Sicilia says that he wants to hold a national conference for drug war victims and their families. In the meantime, Julian LeBaron says that drug war victims will organize another caravan, this time to the Mexico-Guatemala border to see how the drug war has affected Mexico’s southern residents.