Two buses and a string of automobiles, pickup trucks and a police car rolled into south Texas this past Thursday. The Caravan for Peace, a group of the victims of the drug war in Mexico, were traveling from San Diego to Washington, DC. They did us the favor of pausing for a visit, spending an afternoon sharing stories under the blessed shade of mesquite trees, and then an evening in Brownsville in prayer and vigil.
As the visitors piled off the bus, they picked up and then carried forward several large photos of their beloved, as well as some signs and an elegantly woven peace dove.
One fellow, dressed oddly with green mittens and a green head scarf, seemed to be in charge of the ambience. He jumped up and down off of the stage, adjusting a photo here, hanging a sign there. I was told by one of the caravaners that he was “el hombre árbol” (the tree man)–that when his brother had been murdered by drug traffickers, that he had had a vision of a tree split down the middle by a lightening strike.
He felt as broken as that tree, and so, now, he dressed the part.
There were a couple of hundred other people travelling with him, amongst them the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, a man whose poetry and peace were taken from him by the men who gunned down Sicilia’s son, another innocent victim amongst the more than 120,000* people who have died since Mexican President Calderon declared his version of the war on drugs.
Although lovely, and gentle and kind, it was hard to be with these visitors. They were people who had suffered the unimaginable loss of loved ones–sons, daughters, husbands, wives—a loss that occurred, often, in unspeakable ways.
One woman spoke of her interminable search for her daughter, a young woman who had gone off to work one day and then simply never came home. In the end, the woman told us, she had to resort to bribery. After she paid off the police, some local authorities, and then a judge, she was finally shown the headless corpse of a woman. The mother paused at this point of her story, and then noted that her search was not yet over, that she could not rest until she recovered her daughter’s head.
Another spoke of a friend who was a journalist who had reported on the drug violence, and who had been tortured, and then burned alive.
I find it hard to know what to do with myself in these conversations, where to put my hands, how to look at the person telling me of the horror that lives on in their hearts and souls. Inevitably, I am thanked for listening.
It is listening that is being asked of us, those who meet these pilgrims. They and their stories, their photos and their grief were travelling across the United States as a reminder that America’s hands are not clean in this slaughter—the drugs come north, driven by our “recreational” consumption; we send the weapons south, enjoying the easy profits that our American fascination with guns creates; and, twistedly, the profits rest in a banking system, ours, that is “too big to fail,” and therefore, in so many ways, untouchable. It is one thing to read about this and to hear news reports on the violence. It is quite another thing to meet someone who has been damaged by this violence. In that encounter, about all one can do is listen.
After spending the afternoon in Alamo, the Caravan for Peace took their message to Brownsville, where on Thursday, August 23rd, the group paused for prayer at the border. That particular Thursday was the second anniversary of the massacre of 72 immigrants from Central and South America by the Zetas drug gang in San Fernando, a small village just south of Brownsville.
Those 72 were headed for this very wall, in an attempt to cross it, to come to America, in the simple, time-worn hope of creating a better future for their children. According to a witness who survived the massacre, the immigrants were killed when, to a person, they refused to join the drug gang. They were killed for refusing to become killers.
I continue to marvel at that sacrifice.
In the face of such evil, in the face of a situation that seems so entirely bereft of answers, this group of human beings has resorted to liturgy—to a public sharing of their lamentation, of their deepest sadnesses, and of their anger, as well. This is, in my mind, not so much a caravan, as a procession. They have their altar; one maintained by an acolyte dressed in green who wears, so to speak, his hope on his sleeves. They have, as well, their sacred scriptures, in those heartbreaking stories of these victims.
And they have faith, one no less noble than any other religious faith, even if more absurd, for they actually believe that their stories will be heard and that, in some way, things will change.
I don’t yet share their faith, for I haven’t heard a single proposal to end the violence that makes much sense. In any case, my mind is filled with the image of a woman looking for her daughter’s head.
I sit in silence and wonder how to pray about that.
The progress of the Caravan for Peace can be followed here:
*(The US and Mexico press typically cite between 50,000 and 60,000 deaths in Calderon’s war on drugs, but an editorial in last week’s Le Monde plus the well-considered work of other researchers put the toll at OVER 120,000–Mexique, la spirale de la barbarie; LE MONDE 23.08.2012. The Mexican government’s “official” count only includes those deaths certified by the equivalent of a coroner. Missing (in so many ways) from these figures are the disappeared, the unclaimed bodies, or those in mass graves)