Mexico's 'Caravan of Solace': Activists March Against Drug War

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Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

A baby painted with a bullet wound is held aloft as the Caravan of Solace arrives in Durango, Mexico, on June 6, 2011

It was the moment everyone on the "Caravan of Solace" had been waiting for. Lined up along the sides of a bridge on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, hundreds of locals had gathered on Friday, June 10, to welcome the convoy as it made its way into "the world's most dangerous city." As the long trail of buses and cars edged past hordes of people, supporters in this town on the U.S.-Mexican border screamed out, "Justice!" and held banners calling for an end to the war on drugs, which is estimated to have killed more than 34,000 civilians since 2006 when President Felipe Calderón deployed more than 10,000 soldiers countrywide to battle cartels. Relatives of family members who have been killed or simply disappeared held photos of their lost ones and cried hysterically as they told their stories.

For the human-rights activists crammed in the buses, it was an emotional moment. Over the course of six days, the caravan had made its way across the baking desert, through dangerous cartel-controlled territory, and had finally arrived safely in the city most affected by drug-related violence. The colorful group — including students, activists, clowns and anarchists — had held rallies in several cities across the country. Night after night, relatives of victims stood on stages, many for the first time, to tell their stories of pain and suffering. To tearful crowds, they spoke of getting little assistance from officials and repeatedly asked questions few can answer: Why was my husband murdered? Why did my daughter disappear? Why won't authorities help us?

The caravan headed for Ciudad Juárez's Villas de Salvarcar stadium, which was built in honor of 15 teenagers who were murdered when gunmen stormed a birthday party in 2010. That tragedy has become another symbol for a movement trying to gain acknowledgement from the government that thousands of innocent people have been killed during the war on drugs. Following those killings, Calderón came under fire for publicly calling the victims "gangsters." The mothers of the dead refused to meet him, and he was criticized by the media. The President later built the stadium to make up for his quick remarks. A young man named Edwin, the single survivor of the shootings (despite taking 11 shots), was in the crowd, holding a banner with photos of his friends who had died. "I am happy to see many people come together to end the violence," he said, listening to the testimony of a mother whose son had been killed.

On June 10, the caravan's final evening, hundreds of people gathered at a square in downtown Juárez to hear the organizers read the points of a national agreement made between civil-society groups from around the country. Javier Sicilia, one of the movement's leaders, whose son was allegedly killed by drug-cartel members in March, had set out to initiate direct dialogue with the government by the time the caravan arrived in Juárez, in the hopes of changing the national-security law and demilitarizing the drug issue. But because of activists' lack of trust in authorities, his effort was overhauled. In the end, a long list of requests to the government was read to the crowd, appeasing many different groups but, according to some observers, diluting the movement's mission. "No one is really happy with the pace," says Julian LeBaron, whose brother and brother-in-law were executed by the cartels in 2009 for speaking out against violence after the kidnapping of another relative. "But we did it for national unity so we can work together to reduce violence," he explains.

Throughout the crowd were haunting reminders of why many people had taken such risks to attend the event in a country where people are killed for speaking out against violence. The motto of the movement, "We've had enough," which was used in a four-day march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, where up to 100,000 marched through the streets, appeared on banners throughout the scene. At the rear, an elderly man walked among the crowd handing out leaflets for his missing daughter. Near the front, a woman in a Mexican-football shirt teared up as Sicilia spoke. Both her brothers had been murdered recently, though, she said, they had nothing to do with the cartels. "Here," she said, "we are all united by pain."

Sicilia doesn't think Mexico alone is to blame for this ongoing tragedy. He says the U.S. government is also accountable. The next day, at an event over the border, in El Paso, Texas, America's second safest city, Sicilia asked American citizens to pressure their government to put an end to the Merida Initiative, which has provided more than $1.5 billion to the Mexican government to fight the cartels. But Sicilia and his colleagues argue that by providing money to a corrupt army and police forces, the initiative has only increased the violence. They also asked for the U.S. to illegalize guns, which they claim are flowing over the border into the hands of the cartels. "If U.S. citizens don't pressure their government ... they will become accomplices to a crime against humanity," Sicilia told the El Paso crowd.

Mexican media have tried to label the caravan as the beginning of a civil-resistance movement; it has even been called Mexico's version of the Arab Spring. That would be premature. The numbers at most of the rallies have been small compared with the populations of the cities involved, and the movement is far from united, with many different elements trying to get their causes on the agenda. Nevertheless, last week, for the first time, the relatives of those killed were empowered to go onstage and tell their stories. With elections coming up next year and Calderón having already said an end to the war on drugs is completely out of the question, policy change is unlikely. But the movement has taken the first steps of what activists say will be a long-term struggle to end the violence and the impunity that propagates it. Says LeBaron: "The seeds have been planted in a desert. It's not sure if they'll grow, but if they do, it will be a beautiful thing."