Jun 16, 2011

Historic peace caravan leaves its mark on Juarez and El Paso border

By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur

Love, Struggle and Memory in Ciudad Juarez

JUAREZ, MEXICO -- Completing an epic journey across Mexico, the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity arrived late last week to a tumultuous welcome in Ciudad Juarez, the beleaguered border city poet and caravan organizer Javier Sicilia calls Mexico’s “epicenter of pain.”

Over the course of two hectic and memorable days, perhaps thousands of Juarenses turned out to different events to remember the dead of the so-called narco war and other forms of violence, to demand justice for victims and, in a sweeping response to social, economic and political
decay, to begin drafting the blueprint of a new nation.

Leobardo Alvarado, organizer for the Juarez Assembly for Peace with Justice and Dignity, told Frontera NorteSur that more than 100 local groups coalesced to support the caravan and its message. “I think the most important thing is that we are together,” Alvarado said. “We have never
seen this before.”

The caravan rolled into Ciudad Juarez at a time when not only violence continued unabated, but when the earth itself was seemingly withering in anguish. As a blistering heat pounded the city, dust rose from a land sucked dry by months of unrelenting drought.

Instead of life-giving water, clumps of trash littered the bed of the Rio Grande; to the northwest a mammoth wildfire drove thousands of people from their homes in Arizona and sent dense smoke over New Mexico, coloring the normally blue skies more like the dull gray of the worst years of smoggy
Los Angeles or Mexico City.

On Friday, June 10, hundreds of people from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and the US gathered at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ) to hack out a national citizens’ pact for peace, justice and social reform. Going into the meeting, six points- guided by a commitment to peace and
non-violence- provided the framework for a more detailed, national pact among civil society organizations.

Activists with Chihuahua City’s new Citizen Movement for Peace and Dignified Life, sisters Alejandra and Ari Rico participated in the meeting.

A day earlier, on Thursday, June 9, thousands of people staged a march in the Chihuahua state capital in support of the caravan. According to Alejandra, the march and rally in front of state government offices was a “marvelous event” that signaled the stirring of grassroots response to
years of spiraling violence.

In 2009 and 2010, the Rico sisters returned to their hometown after years away in the US and other parts of Mexico. Alejandra worked as an educator in the Other Mexico, living in the “New Chihuahua” of the Colorado mountains where Mexican immigrants toiled away in affluent tourist
communities enjoying a then-thriving leisure economy.

But the city the Rico sisters came back to was a far different one they left a decade before. Soon the returning siblings heard first-hand accounts of shoot-outs, robberies, auto thefts and kidnappings. A cousin was injured by shattered glass from a stray bullet fired during a
shoot-out he had nothing to do with. Alejandra’s parents warned her against walking at night.

“This did not go on at all in my Chihuahua of my childhood, of my adolescence, of my youth,” Alejandra reflected.

Conversely, last week’s pro-caravan mobilization indicated that the public is wearying of the violence and demanding genuine solutions, added Ari. “It is the hour that Mexico unites,” she said. “It’s time that we leave behind the north, the south and the center. We are one country.”

Meeting in nine thematically-assigned workshops, different groups at the UACJ discussed tactics and strategies of the six-point citizen pact. Reconvened for a popular assembly, they reviewed the proposals for later possible incorporation into the pact and agreed to them by consensus.

A few of the proposals included holding an international conference against money laundering and arms trafficking; symbolic occupations of banks; expropriating illicitly-obtained businesses for the social good; naming a white-collar prosecutor; establishing a youth television network;
and ensuring that the minimum wage, ground up by inflation, be sufficient to cover basic expenses as guaranteed by the Mexican constitution.

Going beyond violence and justice issues per se, activists voiced strong support for labor and indigenous rights. The caravan participants demanded that Mexico live up to its national and international obligations to indigenous people under the International Labor Organization, the United
Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People and the 1995 San Andres Accords between the Mexican government and Zapatista National Liberation Army.

The Ciudad Juarez meeting protested the criminal burnings of seven indigenous communities in Durango and Chihuahua; backed the struggle of the Purepecha community of Cheran, Michoacan, against illegal logging; supported the right of autonomy for the Nahuatl community of Santa Maria Ostula, Michoacan; and endorsed the opposition of indigenous communities in San Luis Potosi and Guerrero to new mining concessions.

After the university assembly, the caravan rambled over to the Benito Juarez Monument in the city’s downtown for a mass rally and pact signing. Erected in honor of one of Mexico’s most revered historic leaders, the monument was decked out with pictures of the murdered and disappeared, poems, messages and slogans.

A remarkable cross section of Mexican society filed into the monument grounds-former braceros, small farmers, workers, professionals, students and housewives. A contingent from Justice without Borders marched across one of the international bridges from neighboring El Paso and into the
unfolding demonstration.

Holding banners and chanting “Miss Ana, Miss Ana,” one vocal and well-organized group called for the freedom of respected El Paso elementary school teacher Ana Isela Martinez, who was jailed May 27, 2011 in Ciudad Juarez for allegedly possessing marijuana. Supporters contend she was set up to transport a load of dope across the border without her knowledge.

“We are going to continue with the public pressure, because any resident of Ciudad Juarez can be Miss Ana,” said Carlos Barragan, Martinez’s nephew.

Standing out in their pink t-shirts, members of Mothers in Search of Justice milled around the quilt they are patching together that shows the pictures of murdered loved ones and features written remembrances. They call it the Blanket of Love.

Vicky Caraveo, the group coordinator, said the quilt is a work-in-progress that will be taken around the community so people can add photos and stories to the blanket.

“We can display what is happening, but with love and respect,” Caraveo said. “So the world can understand that our kids are not a number.” According to the long-time women’s activist, who along with the late Esther Chavez Cano began protesting gender violence nearly two decades ago, the quilt will even be available for exhibition in the U.S.

Guadalupe Ivonne Estrada is one of the people on the Blanket of Love. Found murdered in Chamizal Park in 1993, the 16-year-old was one of the first publicized victims of the Ciudad Juarez femicides. Estrada left behind an infant daughter who is now turning 19. The young woman stood at the edge of the quilt but declined to talk about a mother she never really knew.

“All this is very difficult for her,” said Victoria Salas, the grandmother of the young woman and Estrada’s mother. According to the Ciudad Juarez resident, her teenage daughter disappeared from the Philips plant where
she worked. A company professional was among the possible suspects, Salas said.

“We don’t have justice in Ciudad Juarez. There is none, and no explanation why (Guadalupe) disappeared,” Salas said. “We are in a lawless land.” In 2011 young girls keep disappearing, including three from her own neighborhood, she added.

As the event kicked into high gear, spokespersons for the movement gathered on the stage-Javier Sicilia; Olga Reyes, member of the exiled Juarez Valley family devastated by homicides and violence; and Julian Lebaron, brother of slain anti-kidnapping activist and Chihuahua Mormon community
leader Benjamin Lebaron; and Luz Maria Davila, mother of two young men shot down in the infamous Villas de Salvarcar house party massacre last year.

They were joined by other victims’ relatives from across Mexico. A speaker reminded the crowd that this day, June 10, was chosen for the signing of the citizen pact to honor the students who were massacred by government paramilitary squads on the same date in Mexico City in 1971.

Magdalena Garcia, widow of architect Ricardo Gatica, told how her husband disappeared and was then found murdered in 2009. Garcia recounted how she conducted her own investigation, tracing the car in which Garcia vanished.
Despite informing the authorities of the lead, no justice has been achieved in the case, she said.

“I want justice!” Garcia shouted. “It’s not fair that they left my children without their father. I will continue until the end!”
“You are not alone!” the crowd roared back.
Buckets of tears, pent-up emotions and oodles of anger burst and flowed from the stage and from the large crowd-almost as a cancerous bubble of violence, corruption and impunity that had been building up for 20 years suddenly popped just like Wall Street did in 2008.

“We are fed up!” shouted the crowd. More chants followed: “Up with Juarez!” “Long Live Mexico!”, “Long Live Spain!”, “Long Live Egypt!” “The People United Will Never be Defeated!” Beaming from the stage, the portraits of Mexican army officer Orlando Munoz Guzman, disappeared in Ciudad Juarez in 1993, and a more recent group of men from Guerrero
rounded out the scene.

Looking visibly exhausted, Javier Sicilia stood on the stage with a Mexican flag. The poet, whose trademark floppy hat has some comparing him to Indiana Jones and who could easily pass for a botanist or a fly fisherman, is the anti-thesis of the traditional macho leader. Arguably, however, he is Mexico’s man of the moment.

Sicilia’s uncompromising stance in protesting the murder of his son Juan Francisco in Cuernavaca, Morelos state earlier this year, inspired tens of thousands of Mexicans to join a still young but growing movement against violence and for deep-seated change.

In a subdued but firm voice, Sicilia said the caravan’s laying of a plaque in memory of Marisela Escobedo, the Ciudad Juarez activist mother brazenly murdered in Chihuahua City last December, is an example of how Mexicans need to recover the memories of violence victims.

“We have to fill the country with the names of the dead, so that the authorities remember the obligation they have,” Sicilia declared. He then read Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy’s “Ithaca.”

“In the history of tragedy and pain that this country is going through, the Mexican government did not count on the strength and the consistency of a poet,” observed Ciudad Juarez writer and activist Juan Carlos Martinez.

On one side of the stage, a man with sad, protruding eyes held up a large poster of a young girl with big and happy eyes. The man was Jose Rayas, father of Marcela Viviana “Bibis” Rayas, a 16-year-old girl murdered in
Chihuahua City in 2003.

In comments to Frontera Sur, Rayas told how Chihuahua state law enforcement authorities tried to get him to go along with pushing “an absurd story” that pinned the murder on two former Chihuahua City residents, U.S. citizen Cynthia Kiecker and her Mexican husband Ulises Perzabal.

Tortured into making a false confession, Kiecker and Perzabal were later acquitted by a judge after an international campaign for their freedom made the case a diplomatic issue between Mexico and the US in 2004.

More than eight years after his daughter’s slaying, Rayas said there has been no movement in the halls of justice. Different justice officials come and go, he said, promising to reopen the murder investigation but always producing the same null results.

Rayas added that he’s lost faith in the justice system, but found inspiration with Javier Sicilia’s movement. The caravan, he said, gave birth to a nationwide “unity of victims.”

On his poster, Rayas introduces the public to his slain daughter. Biographical tid-bits reveal a Chihuahua City teen who liked the color green and dreamed of becoming a psychologist. A lover of rock and trova music, she also liked to eat spare ribs.

As the caravan wound through Mexico, Rayas said he added a few more words to the poster of the girl he calls “his little swallow,” the beautiful youth who abruptly left the world "without even a kiss:"


Although you are not with us now,
You will always be in our hearts
We miss that look, that smile you gave us
We miss all of you
We miss you a lot
Remember that we love you a lot
Don’t forget it.

In Ciudad Juarez and Mexico, even as violence continues to rage away, many question what impact if any the caravan and the citizen pact will have on the course of history. While future developments are increasingly difficult to predict in an age of social, environmental and economic upheaval, it’s probably a safe bet to conclude that Javier Sicilia and the
Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity have added a new, unforeseen force in the political and social landscape of the country.

“We are going to continue with this,” Jose Rayas vowed. “I think it is time to stop this violence.”