Mexico peace tour: a cathartic turnout against drug violence in San Luis Potosí

Javier Sicilia's caravan attracts only a small crowd in San Luis Potosí, near the territory of the notorious Zeta drug cartel. But for some of the victims who attended, it was their first time speaking out.

Leovigildo Gonzalez/Reuters
People from civil organizations take part during a rally outside cathedral in Morelia, Mexico, on June 4, 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.

As Javier Sicilia's caravan reaches the main square of San Luis Potosí, in Mexico's northern central highlands, the town's central Plaza del Carmen seems pretty empty. The caravan, which is headed to Ciudad Juárez on the US-Mexico border, is made up by dozens of cars and 13 buses – three of which are reserved for the media.

In the square, it is mainly the journalists that can be seen, surrounding and interviewing every possible local around, and only a bunch of Potosinos sit on the steps surrounding the square, observing quietly.

Mr. Sicilia, a poet, proposed to drive 1,500 miles to visit those cities and states in Mexico that have been most affected by narco-related violence. Sicilia organized a very successful march in early May that he called for after the death of his son.

But it is the second day since the new caravan left Cuernavaca, and a question has emerged: Given the relatively low local participation, is the caravan flop?

On the edge of cartel territory

An important mining town, San Luis was named after the rich mining town of Potosí in Bolivia, which the Spaniards hoped it would be able to rival in its silver production. The town's colonial center remains impressive and the city, which was traditionally quiet, has seen a rise in violence in the past year – like many other cities in the country – because of its vicinity with neighboring Tamaulipas state, which has come to be associated with the reign of the notorious Zeta drug cartel.

In February, two US immigration agents were shot in the state of San Luis Potosí, one of them fatally. It is believed that they were ambushed at a so-called narco-blockade, a fake checkpoint set up by drug gangs, while driving from Mexico City to Monterrey, Mexico's richest city.

The growing violence is felt by the city's population. For some of the victims coming on stage during Sunday's event, it was their first time speaking out. They had not dared to before out of fear.

An important catharsis

Interviews with Potosinos and testimonies from the families of drug-violence victims indicate that the low turnout does not matter – the caravan is still playing an important role. It is not about how many people have gathered, but why they have done so.

The organizers read out the name of Manolo, who was kidnapped in 2009. His parents paid a ransom, but never saw their son again. The organizers say during the event that Manolo's parents are sitting among the crowd on the plaza's steps, but that they prefer to remain anonymous. Parents of other victims come on stage to share their stories, though they sometimes omit their full names.

“There is fear, a justified fear, because of reprisals,” says one of the organizers from the stage. “Oftentimes victims prefer not to talk and we can't blame them for it.”

Ignacio Castillo, a security guard who hadn't heard about the Peace Caravan before, agrees.

“People are killed here all the time. We hide, we close our eyes, we don't look ahead – this is our reaction,” he says.

He adds that his employer at a fitness store has told him and his fellow guards that if anyone wants to steal from the shop, they should avoid getting in the way.

“The most important thing is to protect ourselves,” says Mr. Castillo.

Given the city's climate of fear, it seems that even the presence and testimonies of a few families are enough of a success for this caravan.

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