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How Thirteen Buses, One Mystical Poet, and Thousands of Protesters Ended Mexico’s Silence on the Drug War

Mexico City—Roberto Galván lifts his hand from his hip with gravitas, his eyes softening as he removes his square, bifocal glasses. His skin is blotched underneath the lenses, grey patches decorating the space between the wrinkles. His face is tired, his voice full of sorrow. “Should I tell you about my case?” he asks me. He leans forward and takes a deep breath.

In January, Galván’s son disappeared. The 34-year-old, who lived in Monterrey, had taken a brief holiday in General Terán, a tiny town just nearby. One day, while Roberto was sitting in the central plaza, perhaps taking in the warm air and sun after weeks of rain, several armed men began to surround the square. As his father would later learn, these men took young Roberto away. Galván has not heard from his son since.

When he disappeared, Galván Jr. became one of the more than 5,000 people who Mexico’s human rights commission, a non-partisan government body, say have met a similar fate in the country over the six-year assault President Felipe Calderón’s government has waged against the country’s drug cartels. Taken away by criminal gangs looking to induce fear, narco-traffickers seeking new recruits, or rogue security forces with other motives, these people have simply vanished. And disappearances are just one of the many tragedies that have clouded Mexico’s narco wars: Every day, pictures of corpses are plastered on newspaper front pages. Official figures estimate that some 40,000 souls have perished since 2006, and most analysts believe that this figure is a minimum, based only on the deaths that have been reported by the police and in the media. According to the government, most of these people were criminals.

For months, Galván, who insists that his son was never involved in any criminal activity, has been speaking to everyone he can think of about his case—neighbors, policemen, politicians. In early June, however, something changed: Suddenly, he wasn’t alone in speaking about his loss. For the first time, wider Mexican society started having a conversation about how the country—which has the world’s eleventh largest economy and one of the richest political histories in Latin America—has deteriorated into brutality. And it was all thanks to protests, led by a movement dubbed “the Caravan for Peace,” that thousands of people have joined. Many of them, like Galván, are family members of the drug war’s victims.

Back in January, when Galván approached authorities about his son’s disappearance, he was met with blank stares and open admissions that the police couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything. He grew so frustrated with the evasion that he undertook his own investigation. He traveled to General Terán, where everyone knows everyone. He sought out a local priest, who helped him contact restaurant owners and motel managers, with whom he spoke and pieced together his son’s last steps. After talking to witnesses who were in the square the day his son was taken and who saw the attackers, Galván believes that Roberto Jr. was apprehended by the police for unknown reasons. The truth about what happened is unlikely ever to be known. Criminal bands and police often mix, and kidnappers and assassins rarely identify themselves after a crime. “We know where he stayed, what he ate, and who had taken him,” Galván said. What’s missing, of course, is the answer to the most important question of all: where his son is today.

After months of begging authorities for answers to no avail, Galván decided to try something different. He became one of the many Mexicans who, after years of watching fearfully from the sidelines, chose to protest the drug war and the government’s response to it. On June 4, the Caravan for Peace, 13 buses full of activists and victims’ families, began a trek across the length of Mexico, starting in the central city of Cuernavaca and following the path of cities and states most affected by the drug conflict. They moved closer and closer to the U.S. border, eventually ending up at ground zero of the war: Ciudad Juarez. In each city, they stopped and held demonstrations that drew thousands of supporters and curious onlookers. Sisters of the disappeared shared photos of their lost brothers; wives of the dead spoke about their grief. “There was a hidden social reality in Mexico,” explained Pietro Ameglio, one of the leading activists in the Caravan, who has worked for a quarter-century promoting nonviolent change in Mexico. “Forty thousand people have died and ten thousand people have been disappeared in Mexico. Everyone saw [the numbers], but they didn’t know them. Now, they know.”

The Caravan represents the first time that a mass movement of civilians has demonstrated on a national level against the drug violence and the government’s handling of it. Local demonstrations have popped up in the past, but the Caravan has stretched throughout the country. Its members are wealthy and poor, drawn into the fight because they have somehow been touched by the conflict—an increasingly common affliction.

One of the main reasons the Caravan has struck a chord with Mexicans is that its arguments are radically different from much of the official discussion of the drug war. Calderón’s government has long argued that those killed in the war are almost always involved in organized crime and narco-trafficking. (The vast majority of those killed—as many as 90 percent—are criminals, Calderón said in April 2010.) The few remaining deaths are military or police, or an unfortunate few civilians caught up in the fighting.

The Caravan, however, disagrees. As families of victims took the podium at protests, the stories of the dead were attached to names, not just the stigma that, if they had died, they must have been caught up in drugs and crime. “What the Caravan has found is that the vast majority of victims are civilians,” Ameglio argues. There are no statistics to support his case, because official numbers are collected by government sources. And, to be sure, a portion—possibly a substantial one—of the war’s casualties are indeed from the cartels. But the idea that civilians with no involvement in criminal activity also make up a significant proportion of those killed is shared by numerous human rights organizations. Silvano Cantú, a researcher at the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), says that as many as half the deaths are likely innocents. For example, he points to the approximately 1,000 children who UNICEF says have died in the crisis.

Who killed these people? That answer is murky. Certainly, many of the murders are committed by criminal organizations fighting with every means possible to control Mexico’s lucrative trafficking territory, but, as in Galván’s case, many victims’ families believe security forces have been at least complicit in, if not responsible for, disappearances. Young men could be taken by police because they fit a certain profile, or because a criminal group wants them as foot soldiers—and local police earn a handsome reward for facilitating (or turning a blind eye to) their capture. “The problem with understanding [who is killing whom] is that the levels of corruption and infiltration in the security forces—especially at the operational level in places such as Cuidad Juarez—are so thorough that local people operate on the assumption that certain police forces are with one criminal band or another,” says Ted Lewis, director of the human rights program at Global Exchange.

Sorting out who’s responsible is also next to impossible because the vast majority of cases are never investigated (an incredible 97 percent of all crimes in Mexico go unpunished, according to the CMDPDH) and because the government holds such a tight line when explaining who’s dying in the drug war. “There are bad guys killing bad guys; there are good guys killing bad guys; there are bad guys killing good guys. … Mexico doesn’t have investigative capacity, so we’ll just never know,” says Walter McKay, a former Canadian police officer who has worked for the last three years as a consultant on security issues in Mexico.

As the Caravan shows, there is a growing sense that what’s going on has become less a war on drugs and more a war within Mexico. “What we see is a nation of victims, and we hope that the president will hear their stories,” Javier Sicilia, a well-known poet and the Caravan’s figurehead, told the crowd in Ciudad Juarez on June 10. (On March 28, the poet’s son, Juan Francisco, was found dead in a Honda CRV with eight other people—more victims of the conflict, believed to have been killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.*)

Calderón’s government does seem to be hearing the movement, at least to some extent. During the week of the Caravan’s protests, it made nearly every newspaper and magazine front page in Mexico. And, on June 23, Calderón sat down with members of the group, including Sicilia. Five families of disappeared and murdered victims shared their stories with tearful eyes. Sicilia challenged Calderón himself to apologize to the victims. “I agree that we must apologize for not protecting the lives of victims,” Calderón replied, “but not for having acted against the criminals.”

Indeed, the Caravan still has a long way to go in convincing the government of its position—and its next steps may be particularly challenging. “What the movement has done is open a period in which the victims have had the opportunity to recount their stories, transcending their anonymity by speaking,” argues Edgar Cortez, an investigator at the Mexican Institute of Human Rights. “[But] the crucial point is, what do you do with that?” Toward the end of the march, disagreements had already arisen over whether the Caravan should be entirely about supporting victims’ families or about promoting political change as well.

Yet its first step has been a huge one: breaking the public’s silence over the drug war. That alone is magnetic for the countless people in Mexico who have suffered in recent years. “What I know is that this movement has to continue and it has to be pacifistic,” said Galván while observing a recent Caravan meeting. “Because, when we fight violence with more violence, everything simply falls apart.”

*CORRECTION: The piece originally stated that this crime remained unsolved. In fact, suspects have been detained. We regret the error.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist.