Mexico peace tour: How the drug war changed once-calm Cuernavaca

Renowned poet Javier Sicilia has begun a citizen's protest against Mexico's war against drugs that will visit flashpoints across the country. Our correspondent is in the caravan, talking to residents along the way.

Henry Romero/Reuters
Mexican poet Javier Sicilia with about 500 people who started a caravan of 14 buses and 30 cars in Cuernavaca on Saturday, to protest against high levels of crime in the country. The caravan will travel over 1800 miles from Cuernavaca and pass through 12 states of the Mexican Republic to arrive on June 9 in Ciudad Juarez.

On a regular weekday La Comuna café in Cuernavaca's old town is full of journalists discussing the news of the day while sipping cup after cup of organic coffee.

La Comuna belongs to a cooperative of human rights activists and has become the gathering place of Cuernavaca's political left.

The city, traditionally home to poets and artists, used to be a tranquil weekend destination for Mexico City's middle class elites, as the capital city is only one hour away.

But since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón came to power and declared a war on drug traffickers, it, like so many other cities across the country, has been caught in the throes of violence. Murders and disappearances have spiked, giving journalists an extra reason to sip coffee at this centrally-located cafe.

“We help each other out,” says José Martínez Cruz, the café's friendly manager and head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Morelos (state). “We give them information and they spread the word.”

This state was once a middle-class paradise, says Mr. Martínez, but now impunity and violence reign. According to data collected by his organization, 80 extra-judicial killings took place last year, while 3,000 cases of disappearances were recorded in the past six years in the state alone.

As drug traffickers battling each other have moved into this territory, panic has ensued. In April 2010, an e-mail was widely circulated across the city, imposing a curfew on citizens. The e-mail was allegedly signed by one of the city's drug cartels.

Cuernavaca has not garnered worldwide notoriety as have other Mexican cities, such as Ciudad Juarez, one of the world's deadliest.

But that changed in March, when the the body of Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of renowned poet and left-wing intellectual Javier Sicilia, was found asphyxiated and tortured in a car, together with another six.

Cuernavaca quickly became the center of a nationwide movement, led by Mr. Sicilia, demanding the end of Mr. Calderón's anti-drug policies. “We have had it up to here” became the movement's slogan, together with “No More Bloodshed.”

In early May, a march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City culminated in a massive event in Mexico City's Zócalo, or main square.

People across the country started naming their victims, many of whom had gone unnamed all along, often archived by the police as victims of internal settling of scores between rival cartels.

After the success of May's march, Sicilia called for another trek, this time thousands of miles long, all the way from Cuernavaca to Ciudad Juarez at the border with the US, stopping in cities along the way that, like Cuernavaca, that have suddenly become flashpoints in the government's attempt to get rid of organized crime.

Martínez is one of many people who joined the caravan of 13 buses that left Cuernavaca Saturday, with the aim of inspiring other Mexicans to demand change and take back cities, streets, and even cafes that have been utterly transformed.

“Citizen participation is essential,” he says. “Juan Francisco Sicilia's murder finally triggered indignation and pushed people to tell the government that they've had enough."

Although it is unclear how much strength the movement has, and how many people it will attract as it heads northwards this week, it seems that the despair of the middle class in what was considered an oasis of tranquillity has managed to mobilize people, at least in Cuernavaca, in what could be an unprecedented way.

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