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  Number 361 | Agosto 2011
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Mexico

The Comfort Caravan’s achievements

The Comfort Caravan, an expression of the movement started by poet Javier Sicilia, has affected public opinion, showing that he’s touched a nerve in Mexican society. The Caravan seeks to give meaning to the build-up of pain and suffering provoked by President Calderón’s drug war. Sicilia’s movement, born of grief, makes the victims visible, unites families destroyed by so many deaths and lets them set fear aside to comfort each other.

Jorge Alonso

The brother of one of thousands of people disappeared in Mexico said the dead, orphans and widows were infinite. He insisted all were good people, killed and disappeared during Calderón’s absurd war against crime, adding that the Comfort Caravan has made them visible.

This caravan, another expression of the peace movement begun by poet Javier Sicilia, has affected Mexican public opinion. According to a June 2011 poll, 52% said that fighting organized crime with police was not the best way to deal with the problem; 56% stated that these police operations increase the number of murders and 58% complained that the actions don’t respect citizens’ rights. While 80% asked that more attention be paid to youth and 84% that money laundering be combated, and a resounding 85% came out for fighting corruption and not allowing crimes to go unpunished, 70% want an end to the war strategy, 71% said the insecurity and violence is affecting family economies, 75% wants the government to talk with those who are marching for peace and 79% wants the murders clarified. People were evenly split on whether dialogue between the government and those participating in peace marches would change the government’s strategy for combating organized crime, with 41% believing it would and 43% skeptical of that possibility.

300 organizations and
thousands of individuals

On June 4 the Comfort Caravan, Sicilia in the lead, left Cuernavaca to travel through the northern states, which have been the most affected by the drug war. The powers-that-be tried to discourage the Caravan by pointing out that they would be traveling through very dangerous areas. Sicilia responded that the government is obliged to take care of its citizens. The Caravan’s first important achievement was thus that the government has to protect citizens who participate in it.

The movement brought together 300 civil society organizations and thousands of individuals. Two days after the caravan set out, artists, academics and journalists in Mexico City showed their solidarity with it in a public act they called “One minute for no more blood.” Sicilia sent them a greeting by telephone. Among the demands of this gathering were that the President of Mexico be tried politically, the army return to its barracks, and the secretary of public security be removed. An organization called Civil Alliance launched a letter campaign to the US President demanding a halt to arms smuggling.

Morelia, San Luis, Zacatecas, Monterrey, Chihuahua...

On its travels the caravan began collecting stories from thousands of relatives of those murdered. It was a dramatic history of death, disappearances and impunity at the hands of criminals and the armed forces. In its travel through Morelia, the caravan embraced the pain of the Cheran indigenous people, who had organized themselves to defend and protect their forests and were now being harassed by loggers and the paramilitary who enjoy protection by the authorities.

In San Luis Potosí, many people came forward to speak out against unemployment, poverty, corruption and impunity. The victims recounted stories of kidnappings, murders of many people and repression of social activists. Even though they had fully identified the murderers, the authorities chose not to arrest them. The government also supported the Canadian mining companies that are contaminating the sacred waters and earth of the Huichol indigenous people.

Sicilia thought about all this carefully during the march. On this issue he invited people to participate in civil disobedience to symbolically close this mine. During the march the national police, with no warrant, broke into the Ciudad Juarez office of a human rights organization participating in the march. Sicilia condemned the break-in and demanded that the President publicly explain it. He made clear that the caravan was not against the President but against his bad war- on-drugs policy. Sicilia emphasized that he was willing to talk with whoever it took. In a large demonstration in San Luis Potosí, when the people booed upon hearing President Calderón’s name, Sicilia asked them to stop feeding on hatred.

In Zacatecas people condemned crime and impunity. They gave testimonies that they want hospitals not military stations. In Durango they asked that the former governor be punished for his connections to drug trafficking.

In Monterey people spoke about their feelings of anguish, abandonment, and fear. They said that organized crime rules in Monterrey and that any citizen could be attacked, kidnapped, disappeared and murdered. Because of high unemployment, organized crime recruits young people and the government says nothing. While there, Sicilia proposed another act of civil disobedience: a march to the state attorney’s office to demand that he deal with the cases brought to him by the authorities. They did march and were promised results within a month.

In Torreon there were complaints because the State refused to look for the disappeared, arguing without evidence that they were criminals. When the caravan passed through the city of Chihuahua there was another act of civil resistance. Sicilia placed a nameplate honoring human rights defender Marisela Escobedo, who had been gunned down with impunity in front of the government palace in mid-December of last year simply for demanding an explanation for why the confessed killer of her own 16-year-old daughter was still at large. On June 10 the Huichol regional indigenous council decided to agree to the caravan’s points in the fight against impunity, corruption and mining companies that want to destroy their sacred sites.

Nine discussion tables
in Ciudad Juarez

After seven days and thousands of kilometers the caravan reached the most affected city, Ciudad Juarez. There were so many charges of deaths without arrests and so many years of femicide there that they put up work tables by theme. The first one discussed the theme of “Truth and Justice for the Victims.” The demands that grew out of this discussion included a law to protect the victims and their families, efficient police and an end to corruption and impunity. Among the resistance actions agreed upon were demonstrations, monitoring and demands for media ethics.

The second table demanded an end to the war strategy, demilitarization of the police and the return of military personnel to their barracks. They also opposed passage of the security law the government is proposing. They supported the Michoacan communards movement from Cheran and proposed holding a national forum favoring demilitarization and engaging bi-national actions in Mexico and the United States to denounce militaristic strategies.

The third table dealt with corruption and impunity. They agreed on a demand for judicial reform and citizen oversight. They proposed a tax boycott if the government failed to respond to and implement the pact’s demands.

The fourth table analyzed the economic root of organized crime, posed the urgent need for government accountability and insisted that the government act fairly and effectively. They proposed forums to discuss the ideas of decriminalizing drugs and eliminating secret bank accounts in order to attack money laundering.

The fifth table examined alternatives for youth and ways to repair and rebuild the social fabric. They demanded that welfare policies be replaced by ones that promote social organization-building and proposed increasing college enrollments and salary raises based on the inflation rate.

The sixth table dealt with the issues of participatory and representative democracy. From there came demands to institute a national consultation, referendum, plebiscite and revocation of mandate, as well as restitute civic organizations such as the Federal Electoral Institute and human rights organizations, and promote community radio stations.

The seventh table dealt with networking and the movement’s internal workings. It defended the idea that this is a civic movement independent of parties that seeks a horizontal structure. Among the proposals were to organize another caravan to go to the southern part of the country, promote civil resistance actions around the 2012 elections and create a database of victims.

The eighth table discussed labor reform, unemployment and economic alternatives. It opposed the criminalization of labor protests, rejected the labor reform the government is pushing and proposed restoring labor rights. The ninth table analyzed indigenous rights and culture, migration and alternatives in the countryside. From this table came the demands that the Mexican government fulfill all agreements signed internationally concerning indigenous rights and culture, recognize indigenous possession rights to their ancestral lands, cancel the mining concessions that affect indigenous lands, respect the autonomy of the Michoacan community of Santa María Ostula and create a national emergency food program. The document ended by saying that the citizens and organizations that sign the pact would bring it to a broad national consultation for signature.

In a closing plenary assembly a document called the Citizen Pact for Justice and Dignity was indeed passed around for approval and everyone’s signature. The document emphasizes that the war on drugs is a war against people that has left 10,000 disappeared and cost the lives of 40,000 people, mainly youths. It sets forth the idea that this is a citizen’s movement of resistance and proposals by diverse groups organized horizontally around the problems of violence that are hurting the nation. It puts forth charges, demands and social proposals to both the formal powers and the de facto ones, not because they are trustworthy or legitimate, but because they are obliged to respond to this ethical statement.

Sterile radicalism?

Most of the participants felt they had drafted and signed a collective pact. The next day, however, Sicilia pointed out that it was only a preliminary document of demands and would have to be refined.

Some of Sicilia’s spokespeople complained that people with extreme political views had “assaulted” the discussion tables and a journalist wrote that the Pact’s content had grown in Juarez due to demands of radical groups that had taken control of the tables. According to this journalist, the radicals had made the demands excessive and Sicilia and his group had not endorsed the pact.

The magazine Milenio Semanal strongly stated that the Sicilia-led march had been in danger of losing what it had won and limiting its achievements, due not to the government’s closed-mindedness but to “sterile radicalism.” The article went on to say, however, that the top leaders had retaken the reins and returned to the six demands put forth at the end of the first march on May 8.

While the poet disagreed with the notion that the process had been hijacked by anybody, he did critique the document for having too many points, explaining that it needed to be reduced to viable demands. Among his objections was that it would be irresponsible to withdraw the army all at once since many people in places like Tamaulipas were demanding its presence. Stressing that the original purpose of the caravan had been to give the victims’ families a place to be heard, he said the most important aspect had been the great solidarity that it had brought about

The controversy over
“the return to the barracks”

One of the participants in the Juárez tables answered that the criticisms of the discussion process were baseless, recalling that the pact had been ratified by the whole assembly and signed by hundreds more people at the Monument to Benito Juárez, with Sicilia the first to do so.

What caused the most controversy was the first demand by the second table, which literally said, “We demand the immediate end to the war strategy, demilitarization of the police and the return of the army to its barracks.” This demand received the most applause both in the plenary and in the reading of the pact. Although the table had not reached consensus about the immediacy of the military’s withdrawal, there had definitely been a unanimous response to ending the war strategy, demilitarization and the soldiers’ withdrawal to their barracks. Even though they had not given the withdrawal a timetable, the statement of immediacy of the withdrawal was what provoked the controversy.

“Among equals and from below”

Faced with the accusation that radicals had taken over the Juárez tables, the workers’ pastoral organization of the Juárez diocese issued a clarifying statement that the organization in Juárez had worked hard to put together the Pact, that everyone had listened fraternally to each other and that those in charge of each report from all parts of the country had tried their best to summarize. They described the pact as a covenant among equals from below, without professional event organizers.

The Plural Civic Front and the Worker Pastoral Center in Ciudad Juárez later disseminated another document with similar content to those in Juárez who had signed the Pact and to both the Mexican and international community. It stated that “there was neither intended or simulated disturbances at the tables” and asked that the absurd, deceptive talk about tables being manipulated cease as there were many witnesses to the discussions and agreements. The document invited a continuation of the dialogue begun at the tables for groups in rural communities and in the cities to come up with coordinated agendas and proposals based on the agreements. It ended with these words: “To those who would impose decisions from the few above on the many below, we say that we prefer other horizontal and democratic ways of deciding.”

Bishop Paul Vera speaks up

On June 19 Raul Vera, bishop of Saltillo, declared Calderón’s war on drugs a farce that is seeking to create a security perimeter for the US that includes controlling migrants. On July 14 he again denounced the forced disappearance of hundreds in Coahuila, the recruiting of children by drug traffickers who pay them 1,500 pesos a week to be “informers,” the continuation of extrajudicial murders and the lack of solutions because the authorities not only do nothing but obstruct and discourage anything the people try to do. The bishop called the official institutions ineffectual and expressed his support for the movement promoted by Sicilia, which is accompanied by a specialist in civil disobedience who values Mexican society’s moral reserve.

Calderón says “I have no regrets”

The peace movement and the government agreed to meet on June 23 to dialogue with President Calderón. Sicilia insisted on the importance of giving voice to the victims of the war on organized crime and of bringing to this meeting only the six points voiced in Zócalo Square in Mexico City and not the seventy of the Juárez document.

First it was agreed that the meeting would be in the Anthropology Museum but at the last minute the government changed it to the Chapultepec Castle. Sicilia gave in but opposed not letting in the media. At the meeting there was one minute of silence for those who had died in the drug war. Sicilia asked Calderón to seek forgiveness for the 40,000 victims of the drug war and asked if he considered them collateral damage.

Sicilia questioned the gains from Calderón’s strategy and demanded that he recognize it had been counterproductive. Calderón vehemently responded that Sicilia was wrong and that he had nothing to regret in ordering the army into the streets, although he did accept that the State is responsible for not having protected the victims. Sicilia asked for immediate attention to the most emblematic cases and reparations for the damages caused.

Five more people also spoke. They told the President they wanted no more deceit. Three gave their testimony, charging that both military and police federal forces had taken part in murders and disappearances. It was agreed that they would hold another meeting in three months.

The dialogue was an achievement

After the meeting the President said the encounter had been enriching, but again emphatically defended his actions. His viewpoint is that most of the deaths are connected with drug production and distribution. He did say, however, that the dialogue showed that when there’s a will, the search for solutions can be shared. For all that he insisted that his strategy isn’t a war but rather a fight against crime.

The dialogue organizers considered it an achievement to have sat down with the authorities to hear victims’ testimonies, to have confronted those in power with their complicity in organized crime and to have pointed out their inability to provide justice and security. They lamented that the government emphasized the embrace between Calderon and Sicilia.

The victims’ main demands were to adopt a model of citizen security; to immediately produce the disappeared; to create a national victims law; to establish specialized prosecuting attorneys for femicides and forced disappearances; to deal with the paradigmatic cases of both civilian and murdered police; to form a national bank of genetic information for the victims’ families; to obey the international resolutions on human rights; to show a video (which they provided) of the victims’ testimonies in all public schools; to protect the Cheran communards, their forests and the Huichols’ sacred places from the Canadian mining company; to stop the harassment of the Ostulas and the Zapatista communities; to guarantee the water rights of the Morelos people and to dismantle the paramilitaries in the San Juan Copala area.

Other caravans

Sicilia declared that the victims had won governmental acceptance and recognition and that the government had promised to deal with 25 emblematic cases and come up with a victims law. In the next meeting, experts would speak about and show the failures of the war against criminals. In spite of this, Sicilia saw the President’s stubbornness in pursuing his strategy as very serious. The movement decided that the next step should be to make sure the government followed through on these demands, to work in the commissions and to conduct new mobilizations. A new caravan would go to the southern part of the country to listen to and learn from the experiences of the southern indigenous communities.

The Sunday after the meeting with Calderón, a peace caravan, without Sicilia’s presence, arrived at the Michoacan community of Cheran, which had spent several weeks defending its own forests given the government’s inaction. The caravan was received by 3,000 communards and it was decided that this place would be the seat of the first national community self-defense encounter.

At the end of June the peace movement met with several indigenous communities in Santa María Ostula to prepare for the first encounter to exchange experiences and ideas concerning community expressions on the topic of security.

Who won the dialogue?

The majority of commentators assessed the dialogue with the government as a mixture of dark and light. Those who are pro-government praised the President for his ability to listen to his detractors. They pointed out that every struggle that is not insurrectionist must negotiate its demands for justice, reparation and policy changes with the government. They insisted that the movements have to talk with those able to resolve their demands. They described the victims as commendable for speaking the truth and calling for justice. According to them, the encounter strengthened Calderón.

Who won the dialogue? Calderón kept his strategy and gained many acceptance points for having organized the encounter. According to one poll, 85% thought the encounter went well and 77% said their opinion of the President had changed after the dialogue. The great majority thought the head of State was the winner.

Pro-movement commentators saw the heightened visibility of the victims and their families to both government and society as a major achievement. Others emphasized the movement’s achievement in opening a door that the government would find difficult to close again, in that the families of victims were able to lodge a claim with the government without being criminalized, as usually happens. Thus collapsed a de facto state of exception that had allowed the government a free hand. They also stressed the importance of victims and the powers-that-be meeting face to face for the first time. They saw it as another achievement that during its walk the movement had met up with indigenous peoples and their demands. Yet another was that Sicilia had opted for dialogue as a way to humanize government officials.

Some, however, lamented that the movement had run into an authoritarian ideology that did not care whether or not the people trusted them to govern. The Mexican Human Rights and Democracy Institute interpreted the immovability of the public security policy in these dialogues as clear evidence of the executive branch’s commitment to the army rather than to the citizens. The Mexican Academy of Human Rights regretted that the President, thinking only about the security of institutions and not of citizens, had not in fact listened.

Everything still the same?

As some of the journalists wrote, Calderón had shown himself an authoritarian President and had handled the session according to his interests. Thus the peacemaking theses did not move forward. Other journalists criticized the President’s obstinacy for deepening the rift between him and those who pay the cost of his badly designed strategy. Critics pointed out that there had only been one emotional meeting. They recalled other major meetings with the complete executive, judicial and legislative branches present for the signing of never-implemented agreements. In this meeting no agreements had even been signed. While citizens were awaiting firm decisions about demilitarization, they had only been given the hope of another meeting.

Internally the movement also took differing positions in evaluating the dialogue. While those close to Sicilia saw it as an important step in the face of the government’s closed-mindedness in that Calderón had been forced to listen to the victims’ voice, others expressed discouragement and sharply criticized the government’s use of the media in the dialogue. Was this nothing more than a failed attempt to stop the violence?

The demand to demilitarize was growing from Chihuahua, where the government remains silent despite proof that the army has disappeared people. This specific point was crucial inside the movement. In Ciudad Juárez they had seen the Mexican State fail in its responsibility to respond to the corruption and the impunity surrounding the thousands of deaths. Many consider it dangerous to bring charges because it means risking their lives with the armed forces. The economy is also suffering because the peasant farmers are directly harassed by both drug traffickers and the armed forces.

Lamenting that the June 23rd meeting had been decided without everyone’s input, other caravans invited Sicilia and his group to return to the movement’s grass roots so they could establish a form of participation that was really democratic, where everyone took part in the decision-making.

It’s already genocide

The solidarity network against repression, while showing its support for the victims’ movement, emphasized that the majority of crimes had been committed by military, police and paramilitary personnel. While the armed forces have had 700 casualties in this war, the dead and disappeared from the ranks of the general population are in the thousands. Young people are harassed, persecuted, criminalized and annihilated. The majority of the dead in this war are from the lower classes and it can already be called genocide.

The network insisted on the need to demilitarize and end the harassment of people. It expressed its lack of confidence in those at the top who commit crimes against humanity, and proposed autonomy as a way out for those at the bottom. Several organizations asked the International Criminal Court to try the President for these crimes against humanity committed by security forces under his command.

Sicilia’s appraisal

Despite everything, Sicilia defended his action and his search for dialogue, calling attention to the fact that the country is “broken.” He warned that the political infighting around the presidential election will soon be added to the violence Mexico is now suffering. To end a dialogue with an embrace is not a sign of failure. Sicilia said he wasn’t sorry for this embrace because it didn’t indicate any ceding of his principles. To change the language of war to one of pain by seeking comfort, demanding justice, wanting to reestablish the country on the logic of nonviolence and changing people’s hearts was a great achievement.

Sicilia said the fact that the movement had succeeded in breaking the President’s monologue was a first step in a long process. Refusing to dialogue only feeds the violence. He complained that Calderón had hit the table, which he saw as a major sign of disrespect. He clarified that he had opposed including the other agendas put forward by groups in Juárez because they put at risk the victims’ claims, insisting that the foundation of this movement is the pain of the victims. Those in Juárez could ask for the army to be withdrawn if that’s what they wanted, but it’s not an appropriate demand for the whole country. He reported that the Zapatistas recommended that he go to the dialogue so the government couldn’t later claim that he hadn’t sought it out.

Why have a dialogue?

When Sicilia was in Guadalajara to receive a university award, he stated that the movement had kept the country from falling apart and had gotten people who were hurting to start joining together and demanding what was due them. The country’s moral reserve had emerged with the movement. But the dialogue would not be able to go forward unless accompanied by mobilizations and international pressure.

While there Sicilia talked with human rights groups, with defenders of their peoples threatened with being flooded out by a dam, and with Christian base communities. These groups all told him the government was using him as an escape valve and the President had increased in popularity at his expense. In the case of the village of Temacapulin, the government was determined to submerge it in the waters held back by the dam, and while people had held talks with the government, it was paying no attention to them. They needed to use grassroots assemblies to see what actions to take.

Sicilia answered that, while he was on the side of the indigenous communities’ proposals, he had been driven to this movement because of the pain caused by his son’s murder. Together with others in pain he had seen that if they wanted reparations and to see those who had killed their family members go to jail they had to talk with those responsible. That’s where the idea of dialogue comes in: the desire to touch everyone’s heart. The movement, born of pain, made the victims visible and connected destroyed families, letting them leave their fear behind and comfort each other. Sicilia told them that no one has a monopoly on pain or ethics.

The President had told Sicilia that the dialogue had led him to critically evaluate many aspects of his strategy. Sicilia’s vision relies on the fact that Calderón may have called on the governors to respond to the call by the victims of violence, in that after the meeting the National Public Security Convention agreed to open a fund of the national governors’ convention to ensure scholarships for youth between the ages of 15 and 20 to incorporate them into the education system and into a job bank. Another positive sign was that the group that killed Sicilia’s son and his friends was arrested. The poet demanded that the other cases be treated similarly and that the effectiveness and speed with which they had handled his case be used for all citizens suffering the same realities.

The movement also demanded a dialogue with the legislative and judicial branches. The legislative branch accepted, but procrastinated. Sicilia warned that if it didn’t show signs of willingness to talk, he would call for a national mobilization to make them sit and listen to citizens’ demands for a political reform that would give people instruments to put limits on the formal powers.

How to characterize this movement?

There are academics who point out that the peace movement is somewhere between consolidation and evaporation and, although nothing is definite, it will probably be able to survive. Others note that if the President was strengthened by the meetings, so was the movement. Both the government and the movement have been recognized as interlocutors.

Sicilia has touched a nerve in a society trying to find meaning in an amalgam of sorrows and grievances. Even in its incipient phase, his movement is the most important in Mexico so far in this new century.

It’s a different type of movement from the usual ones. Thus it shouldn’t be asked to do something it can’t. It’s a movement of victims who are appealing to human decency and ethical conscience. Lorenzo Meyer pithily summarized what he saw in it. It was born of a Catholic poet whose son was one more victim in the growing violence and has brought together many civil organizations and individuals who are fed up with the lack of security. Without resources and amidst internal tensions, it has organized two caravans, pulled together hundreds of testimonies of victims of violence, made demands and put forth proposals. According to journalist Luis Hernández, it’s not a social movement but a mobilization of victims accompanied by the phenomenon of collective solidarity.

There are two tendencies in the movement. One advocates talking to the government as a necessary way for the victims to find justice. The other argues that there must be searches from below and outside the state structures. One wants the poet to become its leader. The other resists being led and demands horizontal decision-making.

It’s understandable that the movement Sicilia started would raise expectations among other movements that their agendas might be included. But this new movement can’t carry other agendas. Each movement, while seeking to come together with others, must mobilize based on its own agenda. Even with these tensions, the movement against Calderón’s war has succeeded in bursting on the scene. A careful examination shows that it’s one of these new types of movements that are beginning to erode the prevailing system...

Jorge Alonso is a Researcher for ciesas West and Envío correspondent in Mexico

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