The Peace Caravan

Teresa Carmona’s son Joaquin was an architecture student at a public university in Mexico City when in August, 2010, two days before his fifth semester, he was murdered in his apartment. “Someone broke a bottle, then they broke his head and he was strangled,” says Carmona. “And there’s no one held responsible because Mexican authorities do not investigate crimes in my country.”


A native of Mexico City who moved to Cancun 25 years ago, Carmona traveled with the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity led by Javier Sicilia to call for an end to the violence that has taken the lives of more than 60,000 people in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and declared a war on drugs.


Aided by millions of dollars and military aid that has fueled an unprecedented rise in organized crime, the drug war has impacted people on both sides of the border.


A Poet Leads the Effort 


Sicilia, one of Mexico’s most revered and influential poets, writes a bi-monthly column in Proceso, a weekly news magazine published in Mexico CityWhen he learned in March 2011 that his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was murdered along with 6 others by drug traffickers, he was devastated. Swearing he would never write another poem, he turned his talents toward calling for an end to the violence brought on by the war on drugs. After leading two caravans in Mexico, Sicilia brought his Caravan for Peace to the United States, where more than $51 billion a year goes to fight the drug war.


Partnering with Global Exchange, an international human rights organization founded in 1988, the caravan began in San Diego, California on August 12, then traveled through cities along the southern border, and arrived in Chicago for Labor Day.


Speaking inside the National Museum of Mexican Art, Sicilia noted the significance: “Chicago is the symbol of gangsterism and the barbarian results that the ban on alcohol brought to the United States in the twenties.”


Sicilia then called on President Obama to do what President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1933 when he signed the law that repealed prohibition: “We ask the citizens of the United States and the government of Barak Obama to remember President Roosevelt and like him, in a gesture of defending democracy and its freedoms, decree, along with the Mexican government and governments of the world, the end to the war on drugs. So that together we put a stop to the banks that launder money and reduce the real crime: corruption, human trafficking and extortion and to seek together in compassion, justice for the  suffering families of the victims, the orphans, widows and those who have lost our children in this absurd war.”


Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)


LEAP, a non profit which will celebrate its 10th year in 2013, has about 3,000 criminal justice professionals, judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison wardens and parole officers as members.


Jim Gierach, a former Chicago drug prosecutor and current member of LEAP, says the drug war has led to more young people quitting school, joining gangs, getting guns and fighting over who’s going to control the drug business. “We end up with violence that’s epidemic, just like we, at one time, had with Al Capone here in Chicago,” he says. “So we’re on our second round of prohibition, having forgotten the lessons of old. We end up not only with the problems of drugs, but the collateral issues that are caused by the war on drugs.”


Gierach says, “We started out with the war on drugs intending to help our kids, but really we’ve ended up making drugs more available, more dangerous,” Gierach says. “It’s the most effective way to put more drugs, uncontrolled and unregulated, everywhere.”


Chad Padget, former correctional officer for the Indiana Department of Corrections, says the only way to regulate and control drugs is to bring the market above ground.“If it’s on the black market, it’s not going to work,” says Padget, who has been a speaker with LEAP since 2010. “That’s why we say we should legalize drugs.”


Padget also worked with youth services and saw firsthand the results. “Current policy has been horrible for young people,” he says. “It’s locking them up, splitting up families. If they would legalize drugs, families would be back together, people that are in prison are apt to be let out, and they would be a tremendous help in communities and we could just get rid of the whole policy of prohibition.”


Former Deputy Chief Stephen Downing headed the drug enforcement division of the Los Angeles Police Department and was commander of the Bureau of Special Investigations, which oversaw all of the narcotics enforcement operations. Now retired, Downing recalls that when Nixon announced the war on drugs in the 1970s, he was commander and there were only two small gangs in south central LA.


“They were called the Crips and the Bloods,” he says. “We had programs, they were neighborhood gangs, territorial and we had good programs that were calming them down, getting the kids home, targeting the hardcore toward juvenile justice. Then the war on drugs came along and the war on drugs had the effect of fueling the growth of gangs.”


Downing notes that today there are 33,000 gangs across the United States with an estimated membership of 1,500,000. Today, he notes, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that cartels occupy and control the drug traffic through the gangs, using them as enforcers, collectors and distributors.


“Two years ago, they controlled drug traffic in 250 American cities,” says Downing. “This last year the DOJ reported they control the traffic in 1,000 American cities.”


Addicted to the Drug War


Downing says the real problem is that police in America have become as addicted to the war on drugs as the cartels and  street gangs. “The cartels don’t want to end prohibition and the street gangs don’t want to end prohibition,” he says. “Why? Because it’s profitable to them. But the problem is, because it’s a black market, that means the only way they can solve their disputes is by violence. And so they are a violent culture. If you support public safety, which the chief of police should support, there is no way that you can support prohibition in this country.”


Nonviolent drug offenders now account for half of those in federal prison and about one-fourth of all inmates in the United States, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Downing notes that since 1980, California has built 23 prisons, hired 14,000 prison guards, and fired an equivalent number of teachers.


“Just last week in Los Angeles, 500,000 students demonstrated because they can’t get into community colleges and they can’t get classes,” he says. “The budget for prisons has gone from three percent in 1980 to 11.5 percent today. The budget for our schools has decreased by an equivalent amount, so doesn’t that tell you that we’re doing something wrong?”


Once he saw the effects of the drug war, Downing changed his mind and joined LEAP, where he now serves on the Board of Directors. He joined the Caravan for Peace when they crossed the border in Mexico, spent three days with them, and then rejoined them in Atlanta, Georgia with a vehicle specially painted to look like a police vehicle. Downing continued with the caravan and went on to Cleveland, New York, and Baltimore before arriving in Washington, DC on September 12.


“We do not advocate drug use. We advocate regulation and control of the drugs,” says Downing. “We are on the Caravan for Peace because Javier Sicilia’s philosophy is exactly our philosophy. If you support prohibition, you support violence and crime.”


LEAP member Dean Becker—a former security police officer for the U.S. Air Force and a specialist in guarding nuclear weapons—now produces nine radio shows a week for the Drug Truth Network based at the Pacifica outlet, KPFT in Houston.


Becker says his goal is to return things to as they were before prohibition, when adults were trusted to do the right thing. He says he is in favor of locking up anyone who dares sell drugs to children, but that to lock up adults for doing what they want to do in the sanctity of their own homes is “just un-American.”


More than Drugs


The caravan also raises issues of environmental degradation—from mining, migrants rights, and the estimated 5,300 disappeared since the rise of organized crime created by the drug war. “The war against drugs is not a war Mexicans asked for,” says Rafael Trujillo, whose mother and brother were also on the caravan.


Trujillo says his family lived a quiet life in Michoacan, Mexico, where they made their living buying and selling gold. When two of his brothers disappeared on their way back from Guererro four years ago, everything changed.


Raul Trujillo Herrera, 21, and Jesus Salvador Trujillo, 27, father of two, disappeared, along with their car, never to be seen again. When two of his other brothers went to Vera Cruz to trade gold for money to support the families two years ago, they were also disappeared.


Carmona notes that only three percent of these crimes are investigated. “Yes, it’s terrible,” she says. “I mean the violence is terrible, but the impunity is just as bad.”


Trujillo says until the caravan went to the School of the Americas (SOA), at Fort Benning, Georgia, he did not know that many of the top leaders of the government had been trained there. “It was a real shock to discover that, because the drug problems were not even put on the table because we didn’t think they were our problem,” says Trujillo. “Now we are realizing they are our problem.”


U.S. Complicity


At the August Veterans for Peace Convention in Miami, Charles Goff explained the history behind the violence in a workshop called “Blood on our Hands: exposing U.S. complicity in the war on drugs in Mexico.” 


Goff explained how after President Calderón “won” the election by less than 1 percent, the first thing he did was raise the pay of military personnel 40 percent, because, Calderón said, he needed the armed forces to fight the war on drugs. The U.S. spends about $6.5 billion annually on drugs exported from Mexico, even as the U.S. government spends billions to support the war against the drug trade.


SOA Watch reported in 2011 that Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar, a captured leader of the Zetas, the most violent of the cartels, helped recruit the original Mexican special forces that were trained at the SOA at Fort Benning, Geogia.


The tactics taught there helped the Zetas to become the most dangerous criminal organization in Mexico. Rejón Aguilar also revealed that, “Los Zetas have operatives in the U.S. who have purchased (at least in the past) firearms and other weapons from different suppliers including from the ‘U.S. Government itself.’”


Goff reports that Sicilia’s talk at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore offered an analysis of the drug war, noting that it’s not an ideological war, but a war declared against things that in many cultures have been considered sacred.  He also noted how the privatization of prisons demands an ever increasing number of prisoners. The result threatens democracy when a huge portion of the population is denied the right to vote for having been arrested for a felony, such as the 13 percent of African-American men who have been disenfranchised in the U.S.


Goff reported in his “Charlie’s Digs” column for the News, Mexico’s only English language newspaper, that members of the Caravan met with members of both houses of Congress, with Maria Otero, the Undersecretary of State for Human Rights, and with leaders of various churches in Washington, DC.


It was a long journey, but the struggle to stop the war on drugs continues.


Trujillo says he feels that in all the towns they have been through, the families of the victims have told their stories and felt that at all levels they were understood. Not only the words, but the heart. That is very significant, he says, to know that people are feeling and understanding what is going on. “All the places we have been through, we have put the seeds in order that peace comes for our children,” says Trujillo, who adds he was shocked to learn how jails in the U.S. were transformed into businesses.“It’s a terrible thing.”


In a 2011 interview with Marta Molina of the Narco News Bulletin, an online magazine reporting on the drug war, Carmona called for a Mexico without corruption, starvation or child killers. Instead she wants to see honest and efficient law enforcement and an ethical mass media.


“We want to live without fear that someone will hurt our kids,” said Carmona. “We want respect for diversity and a new and more human way of living together. We want to live in peace with justice and dignity.” 


Gloria Williams is a freelance journalist and peace and justice activist. Photos are by Williams. Photo 1: Teresa Carmona with a photo of her murdered son. Photo 2: Javier Sicilia calling on Obama and others to stop the war on drugs. Photo 3: Former drug prosecutor now calls on people to end the drug war, stop the killing, and save "our kids." Photo 4: March through Little Village in Chicago. Photo 5: Marchers calling for an end to the war on drugs. Photo 6: The march through Little Village.