Can This Poet Save Mexico?


SOMETHING amazing is happening in Mexico. A few weeks ago, a 14-bus caravan, which had been traveling under the leadership of Javier Sicilia, a poet and the founder of the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, arrived here after a 10-day trek around the country. Its every move was followed by the national media, and thousands showed up to greet its return.

The caravan was organized in protest against the onslaught of drug-related violence that has cost my country 40,000 dead and at least 9,000 unsolved “disappearances” since 2006 — a few weeks ago, 35 bodies were left on a busy highway in Veracruz. It was just one part of a larger awakening of civil society here, which can be seen in the strengthened investigative efforts of the press, a more aggressive application of anticorruption laws, and the formation of voluntary associations, focused on everything from the environment to poverty.

But it is the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity that has captured the most attention. In just five months, it has staged peaceful marches throughout Mexico, bringing together tens of thousands of people who might otherwise never have dared to speak out. It is made up of everyday citizens, united by the anguish of losing sons, brothers and fathers to the violence. Mr. Sicilia is one such person: a poet who gave up writing verse after the murder of his 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco, in Cuernavaca on the night of March 27, allegedly by members of the South Pacific cartel.

He is offering more than emotional solidarity, though. Mr. Sicilia and his colleagues have concrete ideas about how the government, which so far has been unable to contain the horrors of these five years of savagery, must change. They have already held two unprecedented meetings with President Felipe Calderón and high-level members of the Senate and House of Deputies.

The movement is significant both for its symbolic value and because, historically, conflict-stricken societies can make meaningful steps toward peace only when their people — not their politicians, but average people — come together in an active movement against the violence. That is what Mexico is seeing today.

In modern Mexico, citizens have traditionally been relatively quiet, and legislators have represented no one, functioning more as the private dispensers of public appointments, jobs and resources. What little protest we saw during most of the 71 years of one-party hegemony under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, was usually organized and paid for by the party itself.

The student movement in the summer of 1968 tried to change that pattern. Tens of thousands of citizens went into the streets to support student demands for a “dialogue” with President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Their other, immediate demands were limited, the most important being the removal of the Mexico City chief of police, who had unleashed police truncheons against a group of demonstrating students; freedom for political prisoners; and the repeal of laws used to repress demonstrations. The government, seeing a Communist conspiracy, massacred hundreds of students in the Plaza of Tlatelolco that Oct. 2, a few days before the opening of the Mexico City Olympics.

Various civil movements — and political pressures for reform — also arose after the government’s utterly inadequate response to the great Mexico City earthquake of 1985.

Multiparty democracy finally arrived in 2000, but only now, more than four decades after the “Olympic massacre,” has true protest returned. The government is not involved, and the people are not afraid of the government. The movement is political, but it exists outside politics. Indeed, one of the reasons for Mr. Sicilia’s popularity is that he is not seeking power or political office for himself, but is asking that those in power be rendered accountable. Acting from within civil society, he is trying to strengthen our still fragile Mexican democracy. And he is making headway.

In June, the movement brought together relatives of some of the victims with representatives of the government for a meeting in Chapultepec Castle, the former seat of government, set in a park that was once the pleasure ground of Aztec emperors. The relatives came from the middle class and from the poor. Among them were Indians, often the poorest of the poor. All of them were enraged at the government’s failure to bring their loved ones’ killers to justice.

There, around a huge square table, they detailed their suffering: a mother from the state of Guerrero, after two of her four sons disappeared, described how the remaining two, who had set out to find their brothers, likewise disappeared without a trace. A Purépecha Indian, from the village of Cherán in the state of Michoacán, told the story of how he and his neighbors, despairing of government protection, had resorted to ancient methods of self-defense with rudimentary weapons to withstand criminal attacks on themselves and their timber resources. Each relative had placed a photograph of the dead family member on the table, to make them participants in the dialogue.

THERE is a quasi-religious atmosphere to the movement, and Mr. Sicilia’s message has direct religious foundations. He is a left-wing Catholic, formed by the social Catholicism that crystallized in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He was a disciple of Ivan Illich, the Austrian Jesuit priest and philosopher who, during the postwar decades, wrote and preached a kind of Christian (and highly socially conscious) anarchism, close to that of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas K. Gandhi. Illich spent years in Cuernavaca, where he and Mr. Sicilia met.

But while the movement is suffused with religion, its proposals are very much of this world. They call for Mr. Calderón to change his strategy against the drug cartels, one that goes beyond police and military power to include, for instance, a thorough investigation into the connections between politicians and criminals.

The movement has likewise asked Congress to modify the proposed National Security Law, which offers stronger tools against the cartels but which the movement considers inadequate on human rights. It also calls for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to the one in Colombia that has helped identify victims and uncover police corruption; a National Registry of the Disappeared and Detained; a program to halt the abuse of Central American migrants; and an independent auditor for the federal police, which it believes cannot be adequately monitored from within the government.

On a broader scale, the movement emphasizes the need for the eventual legalization of some drugs and the reconstruction of the social fabric in places damaged by the “narco war.”

Mr. Calderón has listened attentively, but he has yet to change his positions; he believes his strategy is working and points to the arrest of some major capos and relative drops in crime in cities like Tijuana or states like Michoacán (though it should be noted that, partly in response to Mr. Sicilia’s pressure, he has recently created a special agency to help those affected by drug violence).

Mexico’s congressional leaders have been more positive, affirming their commitment to nearly all these proposals. That’s in part because national elections will be held next year, and while the movement has no plans to enter electoral politics, Mr. Sicilia and others make no secret of their intentions to influence voters. Mr. Sicilia is a man of the left but is highly independent, and no one can be sure which candidates he will favor.

This sort of civic pressure is a promising sign of maturity in our young democracy, and absolutely necessary if we want to move beyond our crippling levels of violence. That, after all, is what has been required in so many other countries, from Colombia to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia. Spain managed to stem the violence of the Basque terrorists only after it achieved a vast national consensus: multitudes marched in the streets to demonstrate their rejection of terrorism.

The critical point, and one Mr. Sicilia must not lose sight of, is that his movement cannot be wholly against the state. It must bring its popular ideas and attitudes in line with the elemental needs of the state, to help it regain its monopoly on necessary force. There is no alternative to the state in this situation; the criminal gangs that torment the northern states of Mexico will not be moved by Mr. Sicilia’s message alone.

This is a fact Mr. Sicilia has struggled with. A Gandhian pacifist by nature, the poet used to say that he would like to speak face to face with his son’s murderers. But one day, an official with the government told him about the atrocious images found on the cellphone of their leader, who was proudly brandishing the severed heads of previous victims. Mr. Sicilia decided that a meeting with him made no sense. “They’re no longer human,” he told me. This man of literature, who has long contemplated the problem of evil with his imagination, must now, despite his admirable Christian inclination toward forgiveness, confront a tangible evil through his actions.

Can This Poet Save Mexico? –

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