Mexico peace tour: heading into Zetas 'territory'

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.

Tomas Bravo
A man looks at the buses of the peace caravan led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia on the road to Torreon on June 8, 2011. Hundreds of Mexicans began a week-long procession through Mexico on Saturday to protest the country's bloody drug war, led by Mr. Sicilia, a crusading poet whose son was murdered by suspected cartel hitmen.

The Caravan for Peace heads into Monterrey – en route to its final destination, Ciudad Juárez – and the streets are deserted.

It is late at night and Monterrey empties out around 7p.m., now that crime has spiked.

You can’t fault residents for shuttering their windows and closing doors, since the city, the industrial hub of the country, has become another flashpoint in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels.

But Julian LeBaron, who is a leader in this antiviolence march, tells a small crowd that it is indifference that is keeping people away.

“Every day it seems more clear to me that Mexicans are deeply ignorant and very poor,” he says. “That is why there are not 100 million people in this square, holding hands, to speak up against the death of another 40,000 people.”

The movement, represented by the slogan “We have had it up to here,” is calling on Mexican President Felipe Calderón to end his so-called war on drugs, which has claimed over 35,000 lives since December of 2006.

“Where is everyone else?” asks Mr. LeBaron. “Working? In school? In front of their TV sets?”

“All those who are not here [must] have something that matters to them more than life,” he adds.

Yet the few residents who did show up to march say it is fear, not a lack of care, that keep so many from speaking out. “There is no more normality in Monterrey,” says one man, who prefers not to give his name. “In Monterrey we can't even hold private parties, because suddenly the bad guys can show up and attack us. I say 'the bad guys' because we don't want to name names to avoid problems.”

“Not everyone dares to take to the streets. People are incredibly afraid to come out and show their disgust toward what's happening,” he adds. “This is a society broken by fear, not by indifference.”

This kind of fear is not exaggerated.

Each place the caravan stops seems to be the site of horrible violence. As it leaves Monterrey on Wednesday morning, a teenager is found dangling from an overpass – still alive – with a shotgun wound. Two other people are found dead around him.

At least 21 bodies are found strewn in the streets outside of Morelia, one of the first stops of the caravan. And its next stop is Torreón, where a day earlier gangs attack a rehabilitation center, four hours away, leaving 13 dead.

Worried journalists ask Javier Sicilia, the renowned poet who is the leader of the caravan, whether it would be safer to avoid stopping there. “We're not going to suspend the march, it is the state that has to show that it can protect its citizens,” says Mr. Sicilia.

It often does not feel that way, though, especially here in the north. On the way to Torreón, the caravan drives past a large Z carved on the side of a mountain, a sign that this territory belongs to the powerful Zeta drug cartel.

But Sicilia, who launched the trek over the weekend in Cuernavaca, where his son was killed in March, says it should belong to Mexico. This is one of the main messages he would like to impart to the country as his caravan heads toward Ciudad Juarez, the nation's most dangerous city. “This is a way to tell citizens, authorities, and criminals that this is our territory,” he says.

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