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Mexico peace tour: Visit spurs Durango residents to venture outside

Hundreds of people stayed out past an unofficial curfew to meet Javier Sicilia's caravan in the city square and share their stories of friends and relatives lost to the drug violence plaguing the state.

By Irene CaselliCorrespondent / June 8, 2011

Mexican poet Javier Sicilia (c.) arrives to a peaceful demonstration in Monterrey on June 7. Hundreds of Mexicans began a week-long procession through Mexico on Saturday to protest the country's bloody drug war.

Tomas Bravo/Reuters

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Durango, Mexico

Despite arriving two hours late, the Peace Caravan receives a surprisingly busy welcome in Durango.

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The week-long caravan, led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, reached the city at 9 p.m. on Monday, the third day of its trek across northern Mexico to the US-Mexican border. But the streets are full of people – something extraordinary for this city, where in the past couple of years an unofficial curfew usually starts at around this time.

Hundreds of people are out, cheering the caravan on in a touching welcome. The central Plaza de Armas is even more impressive. It is dark out, but people have stayed out listening to the music coming from the stage that has been set up.

“This is something we haven't seen in a while,” says Ángel Gutiérrez Félix commenting on the crowd. “At this time there are only a couple of cars around the town square.”

The caravan was scheduled to arrive earlier in Durango, the day's final destination, but it stopped on the road to Durango, the day's final destination, so that Mr. Sicilia could talk to the people who set up welcome committees along the way to share their stories.

Like Sicilia, whose son was murdered in late March, those on the way had painful stories to share. A six-year-old boy lost his father. A group of school teachers reported a male colleague they accuse of sexual abuse against girls at school.

Not only have they been victims of violence, but they feel they have not been heard by the authorities, who have not investigated their cases.

In the shadow of drug violence

A beautiful sunset lies at the horizon over the desert, but the caravan organizers are nervous. The caravan, made up by 13 buses and dozens of private vehicles, needs to reach Durango before nightfall. Despite a convoy of police cars guarding the group, security remains a concern, especially in this state, one of the most violent in Mexico at the moment. It has the second highest rate of kidnappings.

Durango has become infamous for its mass graves, the largest found in the country. So far, about 230 bodies have been exhumed and only one person has been identified. The mass graves are only 10 to 15 minutes away from the plaza where the rally is being held.

It is unclear who the bodies might belong to. Some could be victims of wars between rival drug factions, while others are thought to be people who were kidnapped.

And the violence continues in the region. On Tuesday, two gunmen stormed a drug rehabilitation center in the nearby city of Torreón, killing 13 people and wounding two, according to local media.

A warm welcome

But when the peace caravan arrives in Durango, the square is full of people of all ages – among them, grandmothers with their grandchildren, students, and housewives – who are defying their fear. There are families of victims who want to tell their stories, but there is not time for everyone. Some hold signs of their lost ones, and many cry openly.

Some locals have set up a string between two trees on one side of the plaza and hung shoes on them. The shoes symbolise those who have disappeared or have been murdered recently. There are tags on the shoes with people's names, and families come close to add more names to them.

“Over the past three years, things started getting worse and worse,” says Bridget Zavala, an archaeologist from Mexico City who has lived here for eight years. “What originally seemed a scary movie is now a gore film.”

Ms. Zavala, like others in the square, thinks that the caravan will help change Durango.

“It is wonderful to have all of the eyes of the world finally be placed on Durango,” says Zavala. “It's wonderful to have so many people participate locally who are fed up and want to change.”

While it is clear that this one night has been an important moment of catharsis, the trick will be to make these public meetings possible in the future.

“We need to keep getting together,” says Zavala.

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