Caravan for Peace, cities of death

Mexican poet and activist Javier Sicilia, right, greets a supporter Sunday in Santa Fe. Sicilia is leading the Caravan for Peace across the United States. (Photo courtesy of Caravan4Peace)

Caravan in El Paso Monday, Tuesday

Editor’s note: The Caravan for Peace will be in El Paso on Monday and Tuesday. See events planned. See the group’s website here.

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur 

If the Caravan for Peace and Justice with Dignity now crossing the U.S. had to pick a  city where all the issues it is raising

Javier Sicilia in Los Angeles. (Photo Courtesy of Caravan4Peace)

come together, perhaps no place would be better than Albuquerque.

A crossroads of cultures, conflict and commerce of all kinds, the Duke City is traversed by interstates and railways that move people and goods in all directions. Creeping toward a million people in the metro area, it is a place that grapples with high rates of drug abuse, gang and drug-related violence, governmental corruption and impunity in the justice system.

New Mexico’s largest city also hosts a large population of immigrants living in the shadows. So when the Mexican travelers led by poet Javier Sicilia arrived in the Duke City for a visit and public event Aug. 17-18, they were treading on familiar turf.

In helping to welcome the Caravan to the grounds of the Holy Family Church in the semi-rural South Valley, veteran community activist and poet Jaime Chavez reminded listeners that the site was historically part of the Atrisco land grant, founded in Spanish colonial times but part of an indigenous heritage. Centuries later, Chavez said, heroin addiction, violence and disappearances like the 11 women later found murdered and secretly buried together on Albuquerque’s West Mesa in 2009, form part of the contemporary, local reality.

“We have to clean our acequias (irrigation ditches) and our society,” Chavez urged. “Welcome to Atrisco, the place of the water.”

Briefly addressing the crowd of Albuquerque supporters, Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity leader Javier Sicilia told how his son Juan Francisco and six of his friends, all murdered in Morelos, Mexico, one evening in 2011, were upstanding young men who did not drink or smoke.

Budding athletes, entrepreneurs and professionals who were “beginning to contribute to the country,” they then fell victims to President Felipe Calderon’s war, which unleashed  criminal violence, Sicilia charged.

The prominent Mexican activist reiterated his stance that massive U.S. drug consumption and robust arms exports, which include smuggled contraband as well as the legal shipments that go the Mexican government as part of the anti-drug Merida Initiative, fuel the violence south of the border.

“The other part of the problem is here in the U.S. It’s your addicts who have fanned this war,” Sicilia contended. “We ask U.S. citizens to accept responsibility for this war.”

On its historic journey, the Caravan is promoting a more inclusive, binational dialogue on issues of mutual concern. Calling for an end to drug war militarization, the Caravan is also demanding curbs on arms trafficking, combating money laundering, stopping the criminalization of immigrants and revisiting drug prohibition laws.

The Caravan hit Albuquerque at an opportune moment. Only days earlier the state’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, published a four-part series on heroin addiction and drug abuse in the Land of Enchantment. And the news was bleak.

The Journal reported that an estimated 25,000 needle addicts inhabit the state, with heroin the most commonly intravenously used drug. Now purer in quality, the price for a gram of heroin is $100- the same amount as in 1977, according to the newspaper.

Readers of the series learned that New Mexico ranked number one nationwide in overdose deaths from heroin and prescription drugs in 2008; at least 1,463 New Mexicans died of drug overdoses from 2008 to 2010.

And if the drug abuse problem among older people wasn’t enough, the rate of recent, illegal drug use among teenagers was double or triple the national average, depending on the substance.  More than half of the inmates in New Mexico’s state and local lock-ups are incarcerated on drug-related charges, the Journal reported.

Meanwhile, Mexican opium poppy production soared from 8,154 acres in 2005 to 48,185 in 2009, according to the daily. The production boom coincided with the uptick in narco-related violence and the deployment of the Mexican military ostensibly to combat drug trafficking and organized crime.

In Albuquerque and other parts of New Mexico, the heroin traffickers found a hot market, valued at $300,000 in daily sales just in the Duke City, according to some estimates.

In an interview with FNS, longtime land grant activist Jaime Chavez said a “depressed economy” and a “depressed people” now disconnected from an old land base and lacking control over their lives are elements underlining a cross-generational heroin problem afflicting the state. Chavez also pointed to Big Pharma’s solution for pain relief, the drug  Oxycontin, as another avenue that led to addiction since pill addicts soon discovered that they can get high on heroin for a cheaper price.

Chavez said heroin use has persisted for generations in poorer communities of color but became a recent public issue when stories of teenage heroin addicts in the more affluent (and whiter) Northeast Heights section of Albuquerque got publicized.

Indeed, the late daughter or a prominent local restaurateur, Haley Paternoster, has become the poster child of the latest heroin epidemic.

Dead at age 16 from a 2010 overdose, Paternoster is memorialized in a mural painted on a wall at the city’s Media Arts Collaborative Charter School. Across the street from the school and facing Central Avenue stands a large billboard with Haley’s picture that reads: “Haley we miss you. Heroin kills. Saynotoheroin.org.

A group of Media Arts students composed a song, “Haley We Miss You,” which became the anthem of the local, emerging anti-heroin abuse movement.

In Mexico, meanwhile,  plenty of people who were consumed in the cataclysm of drugs, crime and violence are missed. Coming to Albuquerque, the Caravan brought two busloads of victims’ relatives to share their personal stories and pain with locals, some of whom also had their own horrors and traumas to convey.

Strung across Holy Family’s band shell, a large banner with the pictures of four women demanded “Return My Family to Me.” The graphic message was put up Carlos Castro, a  civil engineer from Xalapa, Veracruz, who told FNS that the women were his wife, two daughters and a domestic helper. All four were whisked away by armed men who stormed the home in 2011. No ransom demand was ever made, the professional said. “I have no idea who it could have been, and the police have no leads until now,” Castro insisted.

The mass kidnapping case is now in the hands of the federal government’s elite SIEDO anti-organized crime squad, Castro said, adding that he hoped his participation in the Caravan might lead to information on his family members’ whereabouts, especially if they are on this side of the border.

Spilling tears, two women from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, sat down with FNS to  tell the stories of their daughters, 24-year-old Judith Ceja Aguirre and 26-year-old  Coral Perez Triana, who vanished together with four other young women in July 2011 while apparently driving in Judith’s truck from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, to Monterrey. All the women except one left behind small children.

“We are all desperate,” Judith’s mom said. “It changed our lives.”

Retracing the women’s trip, Coral’s mother, Rosa Elena Perez Triana, said the group of six friends traveled to Reynosa for a weekend outing in a disco. Perez said her daughter called home at approximately 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning to say that she was headed back to Monterrey.  According to Perez, it was the last time she heard from her daughter.

The mother later filed a pair of missing person’s complaints, in her hometown of Monterrey and in Reynosa, but more than one year later there is no information on the fate of Coral or the five other young women. After assuming that a camera at a government highway booth might have captured the time of the passage of Judith’s truck,  Perez was later told by state police that the device was inoperative. She said she suspected the young women might have been abducted for prostitution purposes.

Back in Monterrey, Perez cares for Coral’s two young children, a 9-year-old girl and a 20-month-old boy. The ordeal has sorely tested Perez’s physical and psychological health, she said, but the two children and a faith in God keep her going day-to-day.

“It’s like they take a piece of you,” is how Perez described her feelings.

According to the struggling grandmother, life in Mexico’s third biggest city has seriously deteriorated since 2009, with shoot-outs audible on a daily basis and extortions and shake-downs common practices by criminals pressured to replace former drug income clipped by government operations. Murder victims, whether hanged in public or stuffed in barrels, appear all the time, Perez added. “It is out of control,” she asserted.

Now an activist, Perez said the Caravan has an important message to send the U.S. people, President Obama and President Calderon.

“We have to do something because this is a cancer that’s submerging everyone” she said. “Mexicans, New Mexicans, Central Americans.”

Like the 2011 protest caravans organized by Sicilia and others in Mexico, the 2012 edition has witnessed local residents going public their own stories of violence. And Albuquerque was no exception. A woman who preferred to identify herself only as Aurora, said two relatives were kidnapped and disappeared in Durango, Mexico, after refusing to sell drugs at their small fruit business. In comments to FNS, Aurora expressed frustration that her immigration status prevented a return to Mexico so she could help the family make it through a difficult time.

Many people are in her shoes, she said. Compounding the helplessness, Aurora added, is the fact that many immigrants are unable to vote in either Mexico or the United States, effectively depriving them of a voice in either country.

Dolores Gonzalez recounted how a 26-year-old cousin who worked as a bank security guard in Nuevo Leon was kidnapped and disappeared in May 2010, leaving behind three children.

“We’re still looking for him,” Gonzalez said. “Even if he is dead, I want to see him and pray for him.”  A ten-year resident of Albuquerque, Gonzalez said she personally knew  five other local residents who have had relatives murdered or abducted in Mexico in recent times.

The young woman contended that young men are gang-pressed into service as killers for organized criminal gangs under threat of violence against their families. A “narco-draft,”  if you will.

At the Holy Family parish, numerous photos and names of missing or murdered persons- men and women from across Mexico greeted onlookers. A woman paraded around the grounds with a portrait of her son, Jose Luis Arana, disappeared in Guadalajara in 2011.

On hand was a group of creative activists, Embroideries for Peace, who are patiently  compiling the stories of the 60,000-plus murder victims since 2006.

Based on information contained in press clippings, the activists embroider victims’ stories on handkerchiefs that will eventually be exhibited in a mass display somewhere in Mexico, possibly the Zocalo, or historic downtown plaza, in Mexico City.

Some of the embroidered stories were shown in Albuquerque:

“Felipe Pantela Miguel, Oaxaca. Leader of Citizens Defense Committee beaten to death.”

“Raul Robles, leader of Citizens Front against Corruption in Rio Verde, San Luis Potosi,
Beaten to death by municipal police on January 21, 2010.”

Or simply: “A man was found dead inside his bedroom with various bullet wounds on his body. Ciudad Juarez, January 22, 2010.

Fatima Montserrat Lopez, embroidery activist, said the project’s objective was to take the time to necessary to humanize victims who were people and not numbers.

“If we’re taking time to review each case, so should the government,” Lopez said. The embroidery movement is another example how the Mexican diaspora is becoming increasingly politicized in the broadest sense of the term. Nina Lluhi, embroidery activist, said people from Japan to Europe are now pitching in to help document victims’ stories for the public.

As if to underscore the urgency of the Caravan’s message, the past weekend was an especially bloody one in Mexico. The initial press dispatches reported dozens of gangland-style murders, including at least 15 killings in multiple incidents in Acapulco alone.

The Albuquerque visit was the Caravan’s seventh stop-over on a long journey that kicked off in Tijuana August 11 and will culminate September 10-12 in Washington, D.C. After an August 20 departure from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Caravan will head to El Paso before plunging into Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley and onward to other cities

A complete itinerary of the trip is available at caravanforpeace.org.

Nationally, the Caravan is coordinated by Global Exchange in partnership with other organizations. Albuquerque groups hosting or endorsing the Caravan’s visit included the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Southwest Organizing Project, New Mexico office of the Drug Policy Alliance, NAACP, Los Jardines, and the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, among others.

For Caravan activists and supporters, the burning issues of the day link  Mexico and the United States. Speaking at the Albuquerque event, the Rev. Darnell Smith, president of the Albuquerque branch of the NAACP, drew a comparison between the Caravan and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s words on the Promised Land. “We encourage you to continue your movement and your fight,” Rev. Smith said. “We are all one.”

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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