On Monday morning, a large crowd gathered around the bandstand on the Plaza. In front of the bandstand, fliers and posters were displayed on the ground, many bearing the photographs of people who are missing or dead. Placards calling for an end to the war on drugs were carried by many, and incense wafted from a small altar on the bandstand, decorated with conch shells and feathers.
The gathering on the Plaza was the eighth stop for the Caravan for Peace, which is making a 27-city tour to highlight the tragedies of the war on drugs, according to a news release prepared by ProgressNow New Mexico, a nonprofit that helped handle publicity for the Caravan.
The Caravan for Peace began in Tijuana, Mexico, on Aug. 11 and is scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12 after visits to several Texas border towns, Atlanta, Chicago and New York, among other cities.
At the forefront of the Caravan for Peace is Mexican poet and activist Javier Sicilia. Sicilia’s 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was murdered in March of last year during drug-related violence in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Since then, Sicilia has called for change on both sides of the border. In Mexico, Sicilia leads the organization Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity). His work with the caravan is a U.S. extension of that project: Both advocate for a different approach to drug policy in the U.S., including possible decriminalization. In addition, the Caravan for Peace suggests that the U.S. government cease the importation of assault weapons into Mexico, implement tougher laws for money laundering on both sides of the border and re-examine immigration policy.
“I believe that culture comes through the voice of poetry,” Sicilia said to the Santa Fe crowd in Spanish, followed by an English translation. “We’re living through very dark times that have to do with the war on drugs,” he continued. “Drugs are not an issue of national security, but an issue of public health and freedom. … From the Nixon administration to the Obama administration, we have continued this war. It can’t stop unless the citizens of this country help to stop it.”
“Everything has flowed in a natural way,” Sicilia said in an interview, through a translator. “We’ve found enormous solidarity, especially in Hispanic communities, and we hope this will increase as we reach Washington. … The underlying theme [of the movement] is the same in both countries, but the narrative thread is obviously different. Here, you have the addicts and the guns, which are smuggled to Mexico. There, we have the cartels, victims and endemic state corruption.”
Early this year, the Mexican government reported that nearly 50,000 people had been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Caravan for Peace’s website states that “More than 60,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico in the last few years. 10,000 people have been disappeared and over 160,000 displaced.”
The Caravan for Peace is supported by more than 200 organizations, including the NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Individuals also feature prominently. Family members offer testimony about their dead or missing relatives, and representatives from many of the caravan’s supporting organizations are on hand to speak to the public.
Richard Newton, a speaker with LEAP and a retired U.S. Customs Pilot and Air Interdiction Agent from El Paso joined the caravan for part of its Southwestern leg. LEAP advocates for the legalization and regulation of drugs because it believes that current drug policy and laws are ineffective.
“I had a great time flying a Black Hawk, chasing drug smugglers from the Caribbean to Canada,” Newton said of his work as a federal agent. “But did it make a difference? All we’re doing is a show. … Drug usage hasn’t dropped; it’s increased. We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population. It’s time to try something else.”
“I’m dressed as a tree because I think the violence is like chopping the tree of life,” said Arturo Malvido Conway, a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico who’s traveling with the caravan and was covered in fake leaves and wearing green lipstick. Malvido Conway’s brother was killed 14 years ago by cartels, leaving a widow and two sons in San Antonio. Malvido Conway hopes that the caravan “will show the pain of a nation to the [U.S.] government and president.”
Malvido Conway and other volunteers stayed with Santa Fe residents, including writer Sallie Bingham. “I’ve been involved with the Drug Policy Alliance for years because drugs almost destroyed my youngest son,” Bingham said. “I heard [the caravan] needed beds and I have a guesthouse. It’s been very rewarding; these are wonderful people. … There’s only hope for change when people get out on the street, and we don’t really do that in this country. … We need to begin the conversation about the drug war, particularly those of us who have been affected.”
Malvido Conway wasn’t alone in his artistic presentation. Art is an essential component of the caravan, and one of the main arteries for delivering its message. “Art contains the most profound part of the human condition,” Sicilia said. “It’s our fundamental signifier.”
In keeping with this theme, two women from Ribera, N.M., sat on the ground in front of the bandstand making watercolor paintings of hands, people and abstractions.
“There’s nobody who’s not related to the war on drugs,” said Pilar Pumar as she painted the curve of an upturned palm. “Everyone knows someone who’s overdosed. Everyone’s affected by it.”
Next to Pumar, Jeanette Iskat De Aldana dipped her brush in a blue paint pot. Iskat De Aldana’s husband was born in Los Angeles, but his family is from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Four of his uncles died from heroin overdoses. Iskat De Aldana doesn’t often visit Juárez because “it’s dangerous just to walk down the street.”
“We are all complicit,” Iskat De Aldana said of the drug war. “Arbitrary borders give value to some people over others, but we’re all just normal citizens who want our lives back.”
Contact Adele Melander-Dayton at 986-3091 or firstname.lastname@example.org.