The Mexico-based Caravan for Peace and Justice and its American allies are now more than halfway through their 6,000-mile, 27-city journey to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. After beginning two weeks ago in San Diego, the caravan has now traversed California, Arizona, New Mexico, and miles and miles of Texas, and on Wednesday, was set to join with African-American and other activists to march over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is an enduring symbol of the civil right struggles of the 1960s and was the scene of the Bloody Sunday of March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capitol in Montgomery.
While on Wednesday, the theme of the day's events was to be "the new Jim Crow" and the mass criminalization and incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans through the war on drugs, that is only one of the themes the caravan is emphasizing in its bid to put the harms of the drug war on full view for the American public and its politicians.
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, the caravan said it wants put faces on Mexico's drug war dead — who are too often assumed to have been "bad" by virtue of having been killed.
"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war — and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."
But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:
"Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.
"Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.
"Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the "prepaid/stored value cards" loophole.
"US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.
"Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life."
The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.
In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.
"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."
In Texas last week, the caravan traveled the breadth of the state, stopping in El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston before heading into the final half of the tour. In Austin, groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and local NORML affiliates joined the travelers.
"I think what is important is the binational nature of this caravan," said Roberto Lovato, the founder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization. "The drug war has been a fantastic failure here in the United States, if you look at more than 2 million people being incarcerated, families destroyed by that incarceration, a trillion of our tax dollars utterly wasted. So we have law enforcement officers who lost their brothers and their sisters in the law enforcement world, and people who have lost family members in Mexico."
"The drug problem isn’t just an American problem, and the harm that prohibition of drugs causes in the world is phenomenal," said LEAP member and Texas resident Terry Nelson, who spent more than three decades in federal law enforcement. "Hundreds of thousands are dying in the Western Hemisphere alone, it’s got to stop," he said. "The drug war is a war on people, it's not a war on drugs."
In Houston, state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) presented Sicilia with a non-binding resolution praising his efforts and criticizing the drug war.
"Although our nation spends in excess of $40 billion a year combating the drug trade, the United States remains the principal destination for drugs produced in and transported through Mexico," the resolution said. "Moreover, many of the firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico have been traced to sources in the United States; interdiction initiatives have not resulted in the decline of drug abuse."
Along the way, the caravan has touched on a number of intersecting issues. Javier Sicilia himself told Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to treat his prisoners better, and the caravan has visited immigrant detention centers to criticize US policies toward undocumented immigrants. Similarly, in Houston, group members purchased a pistol and an AK-47 at gunshow, then dismantled the rifle, transforming into a peace symbol in line with its calls on the US government to crack down on the flow of firearms south of the border. And above all, the call for the respect for human rights has been a constant on the caravan.
The caravan is set to arrive in Washington, DC, on September 10 for events scheduled the following day. So far, it is succeeding in its aim of bringing attention to the harms of the drug war on both sides of the border — a Google news search for "caravan for peace" now shows 2,660 results. That number was at 145 when last we wrote about the caravan two weeks ago.
Many more photos are available on the Caravan's Flickr page.