PHOENIX, Arizona—Araceli Rodriguez had prepared herself for her son's death ever since he joined the federal police in Mexico City. But what she didn't plan for was her son's disappearance on Nov. 16th 2009.
"I demanded an investigation," said Araceli, 49. The answer that came a year and six months later brought her to her knees: "Your son is dead you are never going to find his body because they disintegrated it.'" Members of organized crime were identified as the killers.
Araceli arrived in Phoenix, Arizona last week as part of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity denouncing the war on drugs that has cost a death toll depending on the source from 50,000 to 80,000 lives and the disappearance of over 10,000 Mexicans.
This is the third caravan lead by poet Javier Sicilia, since his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was killed on March 2011 with six of his friends.
But this is the first time he takes a journey across the border to ask the government to stop sponsoring a failed war on drugs that he believes is being waged with "Mexican blood, and Mexican pain."
"We come here to say that [the U.S.] has a tremendous responsibility on this," said Sicilia. "The war on drugs is wrong. Drugs are not a national security issue, they are a public health issue."
Sicilia gave a speech in downtown Phoenix to hundreds of people, underscoring that the so-called "war on drugs" strategy was born under Richard Nixon's administration four decades ago. But the poet also recognized that it was president Felipe Calderón who declared a war on drugs, and that corruption in Mexico is one of the biggest challenges for those who want to change the system. He also added that Mexicans have all the right to demand the U.S. government do something about the violence that rages on south of the border.
"Here [in the US] are the addicts, and in order to protect those 23 million addicts we have a war. Here are the weapons that are legally arming the Mexican military through the Merida Plan and illegally through the... sale of weapons of mass murder and assault to organized crime," he said.
Through legislation known as the Merida Initiative, the U.S. sends annually nearly $500 million to support the Mexican military in the drug war.
Sicilia's call for peace in Mexico has galvanized many who have lost their loved ones in the war on drugs, and they decided to join his caravan to the U.S. They are here not only to lay blame on their neighbor to the north but also to plead for solidarity with the American citizenry.
When Araceli first heard about Sicilia, she had no doubt that she would join his caravan. She knew he understood her pains and would give an outlet to her grief and indignation.
"We had to go as mothers and tell them to look or else they wouldn't have done anything," she said.
Luis Angel León Rodriguez, her 23 year-old-son, and 6 other officers plus one civilian disappeared when they were on their way to Ciudad Hidalgo in the state of Michoacán to join federal police. When she heard about her son's disappearance she asked for the federal police to start an investigation, Araceli said, but it took almost a week for them to start doing something.
Over a year later, on Feb. 13th, she was told that her son and those he had traveled with had been kidnapped and executed by the drug cartel. Their remains, she was told, were set on fire and burned to ashes.
"I told them that was their official version, but I wasn't going to stop looking for him," she said.
Araceli demanded to meet face to face with the men involved in her son's killing.
"I asked to know at least were I could find a part of him, a finger, a hand, anything," she said. "Please tell me where you killed him?"
During her journey in the caravan, Araceli met Margarita López Perez, another mother who shares the same disbelief in the Mexican authorities role in investigating her daughter's disappearance.
"So many of us are with the same pain, but a different story," said Margarita, whose 19-year-old daughter disappeared on April 13th, 2011. An armed group in Tlacolula de Matamoros in Oxaca state took Yahaira Guadalupe Bahera López from her home. Her daughter had moved to the town with her husband, a member in the military special forces, but was originally from Michoacán.
"I investigated everything, because they did not do anything," Margarita said. The military and authorities told her that her daughter might have left with another man, and that she needed to wait for her to come back, she recalled.
She hired paid informants with the police to find out about her daughter's whereabouts and even went looking for her in places where young women were being trafficked for sex.
Margarita lost friendships, her personal wealth as the owner of a construction company, and in a way, her reputation -- at times, people would imply that her daughter might have been involved with the cartels.
For her, the accusations are one way in which the government's responsibility is swept under the rug.
"They stigmatize all of us, by suggesting that we have something to do with organized crime," said Margarita.
Eventually, through the help of Sicilia, Margarita reached someone in Mexico City who launched an investigation. As soon as she went to the media to share her story, they found her daughter's beheaded body.
Both Margarita and Araceli said they've received phone-calls with threats against their lives for continuing to ask questions about their son's and daughter's deaths.
"I've been told to keep my mouth shut," said Araceli. "But I'm more afraid of staying silent than speaking out."
The caravan that would end its journey in Washington D.C. on Sep. 12th, was hosted by at least 16 human rights organizations in Arizona, among them The Black Alliance for Just Immigration, PUENTE, and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).
"What's not talked about in the media is the millions of dollars via private 'direct commercial sales' [of weapons] to the Mexican government sponsored by the State Department of the U.S.," said Nick de la Fuente, an activist from the Arizona Worker Rights Center. The private commercial sales are one of many ways in which the Mexican army can purchase weapons in the U.S.
"Politicians in the U.S. are very quick to point out the corruption in the Mexican government," said de la Fuente. "Subsequently, they provide them with as [much] arms as they want," said de la Fuente.
Sicilia knows that his quest to bring awareness and find empathy in the U.S. is challenging, especially in a state like Arizona that passed an a bill like SB 1070 that criminalizes undocumented immigrants.
He recently read this in one of his speeches during the caravan's tour, paraphrasing pastor Martin Niemöller:
"One day they humiliated Colombians/ and I said nothing / because I was not Colombian / Then they tore Mexicans apart / and I said nothing / because I was not Mexican. / One day they came to get the African-Americans / but I said nothing / because I was not African-American. / Then they messed with the immigrants/ and I said nothing / because I was not an immigrant. / And then one day when they came for me / there was no one left either to protest, to stop war or death, or to save democracy."