Carrying the weight of his murdered son’s memory, a Mexican poet is leading a national caravan — with stops in Austin and several other Texas cities — to publicly condemn American drug policies.
Javier Sicilia and his Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity, a group whose members have been affected by drug-related violence in Mexico — including several who have lost loved ones — will descend on the state Capitol on Aug. 25. The group aims to raise awareness of how it says U.S. drug policy, particularly the war on drugs, has affected Mexico.
“In order to protect the 23 million drug consumers in the United States, this nation initiated this war that has destroyed Colombia and which now in turn is destroying Mexico, Central America, and is also menacing to destroy in the medium term the United States itself,” Sicilia wrote on the movement’s website. “The burden we bear upon us contains the weight of our dead, of our missing ones, of those displaced, of our criminalized and humiliated immigrants.”
Sicilia’s son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, was murdered in Mexico last March. The poet has since said there was no reason for the murder, as his son was not involved with drugs or gangs. The poet counts his son’s death as a byproduct of what he has called Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s “stupid” approach to fighting cartel violence.
Supporters of America’s strategy say the current method is essential to curb addiction and violence. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy also recently announced it has committed more than $10 billion for drug-education and treatment programs, and Gil Kerlikowske, the White House “drug czar” has said repeatedly that “legalization” is not the answer.
The focus of the caravan's demonstrations will be on Sicilia’s pacifist strategy and message, though groups that want to change drug policy at the state level and advocate for immigration reform have joined the movement. It’s part of a larger effort, organizers say, to illustrate the drug war from a global perspective and reinforce the notion that violence in Latin America has origins in places farther north.
Sponsors of the caravan’s Austin stop include the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Yo Soy 132 Texas, the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, Texas NORML, Fellowship Of Reconciliation, St. Hildegard’s Community, the Drug Policy Alliance and Global Exchange, a human rights organization.
“We’ve had a pretty open-tent philosophy in running this thing; people are interested in helping broaden the conversation, which I think is what needs to happen, so they are welcome,” said Craig Adair, an Austin event coordinator and member of the Austin Immigrants Rights Coalition’s steering committee. “One of the things that I feel needs to change in the immigration debate is looking at push factors that are behind immigration and this is certainly one of them, it’s not the only one.”
Maribel Zardaine, Sicilia’s cousin and a Williamson County resident, told The Texas Tribune it was inevitable that various groups with specific agendas would latch on, but she said her cousin is not political and not seeking any financial gain. Instead he was spurred to action by the death of his son.
“Like he said, ‘I will put down my pen and lift up my voice,’” she quoted her cousin as saying. “Javier is apolitical completely. He is a complete pacifist. He is humble, peaceful.”
But Sicilia’s apolitical stance — he even encouraged voters to leave their ballots unmarked during last month’s Mexican election — hasn’t deterred others from advocating for their own agendas while supporting Sicilia’s efforts.
“The war on drugs has a totally devastating impact on the United States as well, from millions of people who have loved ones who are incarcerated … to prohibition violence in the U.S.,” said Tony Newman, the media director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a think tank that promotes alternatives to the war on drugs. “There is something very powerful about people in the U.S. and people in Mexico coming together to say 'no more drug war.' We want healthy communities and healthy families and not an unwinnable war on people.”
Though any U.S. policy change is unlikely to come soon, Newman said the attention that drug policy is commanding across the globe had led to results elsewhere.
“We see more and more leaders in Colombia and Guatemala starting to say, ‘We need to have an open debate and talk about the failure of the war on drugs,’” he said.
Ana Yáñez Correa, the executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the organization is always advocating for alternatives for detention, smart-on-crime approaches to criminal justice and more substance abuse treatment. But it will be mindful of Sicilia’s goal and not make the march about what the different factions want.
“We wanted to make sure that Austin created a space for these victims to speak to what they’ve been going through and to advocate for what they feel,” she said. “We felt like these people have gone through too much, and bureaucracy and governments have done very little to bring peace to what’s happening, so we just really wanted to help them.”