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Mexico peace tour: In Calderón's Michoacán, drug groups still in control

Javier Sicilia's caravan stops in Morelia, capital of the state of Michoacán, where Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his 'war on drugs.' Our correspondent is in the caravan, talking to residents along the way.

By Irene CaselliCorrespondent / June 6, 2011

People rally near the cathedral in Morelia, Mexico as part of a campaign against violence called 'Peace Caravan.' About 500 people started the caravan of 14 buses and 30 cars in Cuernavaca on June 4, to protest against high levels of crime in the country.

Leovigildo Gonzalez/Reuters

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Morelia, Mexico

As the Peace Caravan with Justice and Dignity pulls over in Morelia over the weekend, the city's colonial center is lit by a beautiful red sunset.

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People are in the streets enjoying ice cream by the city's main square, and some stop to take pictures next to girls dressed up in historical costumes.

The caravan, led by poet Javier Sicilia, is crossing Mexico on its way north to Ciudad Juarez, passing through the cities along the way that have been most affected by drug violence.

Given the festive atmosphere in Morelia, in the state of Michoacán, it is hard to imagine that only three years ago, grenades exploded in the middle of a crowd just next to the city's stunning baroque cathedral. The attack, which was attributed to Los Zetas drug cartel, left eight dead and more than 100 injured.

Michoacán has had a history as a strategic narco state since the 1980s, when it was a key marijuana-growing area. It later became a production center for methamphetamine. Drug traffickers have long controlled swaths of the state, and most recently la Familia Michoacana, a group that emerged to protect citizens but quickly turned into a drug gang in its own right, has ruled the land.

When Felipe Calderón was elected as president in 2006, it was Michoacán, his home state, which was chosen as the launching pad for his anti-narco military operation, which has taken more than 35,000 lives since then. Despite government arrests of top members of the group, fighting in the state continues.

The government maintains that the far majority of the victims – some 90 percent – are rival drug traffickers. But many innocent people have also been victims of the mayhem, including Mr. Sicilia's son, who was killed in March. His death is the impetus for the caravan.

Sicilia's march, which he has renamed the "Caravan of Solace," is meant to gather families of the victims, saying that only by sharing pain can families stop feeling alone.

That came as a welcome message in Morelia for Maria Herrera Magdalena, an elderly woman who comes on stage, her voice cracking. She says that four of her sons have disappeared since 2008, and that the caravan has given her the space to speak out about her pain.

“You have given me the chance to speak, you have given me the chance to shout what I feel,” she says. “Today I have realized we are not alone, that there are many people feeling the same pain as we are.”

“I am a mother ruined by pain, but I will keep fighting until I find my sons," she says.

She is not alone. According to local human rights organizations, at least 200 people have disappeared in the state in the past couple of years, and many innocents have been caught up in the violence between the government and drug traffickers. The shocking grenade attacks in this very plaza three years ago may have been the most public display of intimidation to date, but drug groups still wield tremendous control. Recently whole towns left their villages to escape gun battles between rival groups.

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