Oct 23, 2011

MexicoBlog Editorial: Reflections on the Caravan to the South of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity

A U.S. friend recently wrote in response to seeing the photo album of the Caravan to the South of Mexico organized by the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, led by the poet and social critic, Javier Sicilia. He had a number of questions about the Caravan and its outcomes: Do you think the tour achieved what it wanted to achieve? Do you think the tour had any affect on the Government? Did the Government acknowledge the tour at all? Here is our response: 

Dear Friend,

I thank you for your questions. They give me an opportunity to organize and reflect on my own observations and learnings from my experience with the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and its September Caravan to the South of Mexico.

The primary intent of the Caravan to the South, as I experienced and observed it along the way, was to expand the Movement, making it truly national in scope by connecting it with local organizations throughout the south of Mexico. Together with the prevous Caravan to the North in June, it was weaving a web of connections and activist alliances across all of Mexico, something that I understand to be rare in the country.

The Caravan to the North, which I didn't go on, was more focused on the destruction done by the drug war, since that is more concentrated in the north. It became known as "the Caravan of Consolation," because the testimony of victims, people who had lost family in the drug war, became the central dynamic of its rallies. Also, there are active drug war opposition groups in Ciudad Juarez and there were--and continue to be--differences over goals and strategy between these more militant groups and the Sicilia Movement. The Juarez group, whose city has been most brutally affected by the war and the Mexican army and federal police, want both forces withdrawn, which is now actually happening.

Groups with other agendas attached themselves to the Caravan from its beginning. For example, for over two years, the Mexican Electricans Union in Mexico City has been protesting Calderon's take-over of the government-run electric company in the center of the city, with plans to privatize it. The union had representatives on the northern Caravan and on the southern one. There was a big group present in the Zocalo square when we returned to Mexico City. 

The green and yellow flags are those of the Electricians Union.

A big question for the Movement has been how to balance the focus on the drug war--especially on the victims, including Sicilia himself, who are the major emotional force driving the Movement--while expanding and welcoming other groups protesting other aspects of Mexican government corruption, impunity and abuse of rights. Sicilia places the anti-drug war movement in this larger context of the government's failure to fulfill its responsibility to protect its citizens. For example, the Movement is calling for a citizen focused "public security law" in place of the miltary oriented one that Calderon has presented to Congress and which is currently being debated there.

Sicilia is a poet, Christian mystic and pacifist, influenced by Gandhi, who seeks to confront his opponents with the truth spoken in love. He sees the person and teachings of Jesus as a model, referring often to the words of Jesus about loving one's enemies. He literally embraces and kisses government representatives as well as compañeros in the Movement. Therefore, he has sought and attended a series of "dialogue" meetings with Calderon and other government leaders to address the security law, create a truth commission to investigate drug war deaths (which almost totally go without real investigation), gain compensation and support for victims and other goals .

Javier Sicilia

However, in the last dialogue meeting, Friday. Oct. 14, Calderon basically stonewalled the Movement people, saying that he is sticking to his guns, literally, and rejecting creation of a truth commission. Instead, Calderon recently unilaterally announced the creation of a Social Care Office for Victims of Crime to "unite and structure all the actions currently being taken on behalf of the victims." The Movement questions whether this will be any more effective than the already ineffective government efforts. I don't know, as of now, how the Movement will proceed regarding further dialogues.

As for government awareness of the Caravan, we were accompanied throughout the trip by federal police. State and local police accompanied the Caravan through their respective jurisdictions. However, interestingly, the federales and state police disappeared in Tabasco and Sicilia's car was actually accosted by masked men near Villahermosa. The press was present and began filming them, so they disappeared without incident. Sicilia notified the federal government and the next day, going through Veracruz, there were federales all over the place.

On the Caravan to the South, each stop was organized by local groups. They organized the marches and rallys. They also provided food--lots of tortas (sandwiches of ham and American cheese and mayonaise on rolls), tamales of various kinds--some exceptionally delicious, frijoles (beans) and lots of coffee, fresh fruit and water. They also provided a place to sleep, usually the floor of an auditorium, community center, church or school, with toilet facilities of various levels of serviceabililty.

These local groups have a great variety of political purposes, depending on the local situation. For example, in Acapulco, where there are many deaths from the cartels, there were local "victims," relatives of people killed or missing, who spoke. But there were also indigenous people protesting seizures of their land, a long-standing issue in Mexico.
Indigenous group from the mountains of Guererro State

In Xalapa, Veracruz, there have also been many deaths due to the drug war, so that was the focus.

Pretty much everywhere, there were protests against local and state government corruption, either as part of the drug war or in general, as in Villahermosa, Tabasco State. In Villahermosa, there was also an indigenous group protesting a dam that had caused flooding of their lands. In Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, another indigenous group was protesting a Canadian factory that processes gypsum and pollutes their village with its powder. 
"We are up to the mother (we've had it) with those that inundate us!"

In Oaxaca and Chiapas, where there has been little direct drug war mayhem, indigenous groups were predominant. Sicilia has been carrying on a public exchange of letters with Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas in Chiapas about their differing views of political reform--pacifist vs. militant. So he and other Movement representatives sought and obtained a meeting with the Zapatistas (Subcomandante Marcos did not attend) and with a pacifist group that suppports the Zapatista reforms, called "the Abejas," the Bees, forty-five of whose members had been massacred in Acteal in 1997. 

"The war in Chiapas isn't against the narco, it is against the indigenous Zapatista pueblos"

Near the Guatemala border, migrant support groups were predominant. One in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, led by Father Alejandro Solalinde, is frequently written about in the U.S. press. We spent the night hosted by the shelter there.

Migrant Shelter of Ixtepec

So just about every grassroots issue in southern Mexico was represented. One group, I forget where, was carrying red communist flags with the hammer and sickle. It was quite an education to see all this diversity of political movements. 

Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata live!

Evidently, all of them were attracted to the Caravan because they see it--and the charismatic power of Javier Sicilia's leadership and consequent media attention--as a means to bring visibility to their causes, both in their local press and nationally. There was much coverage in the local press of each state and more than a hundred press on the Caravan buses. 

These journalists were mostly from the "alternative" and "independent" media, twenty-somethings from Mexico, other Latin American countries, the U.S. and Europe. They, as well as many of the younger compañeros, wore long hair, earrings, tatoos and sandals. I actually felt right at home, as if  I were back in the sixties protesting for civil rights or against the Vietnam War. 

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