MEXICO CITY — People are marching over the high mountain into the capital behind a sign that reads “Stop the War!” The war they are talking about is tearing Mexico apart.
At the front of the March for Peace is the chain-smoking, left-leaning, well-to-do, mystical Catholic poet Javier Sicilia, steering a movement of ordinary Mexicans who believe President Felipe Calderon’s military-led, U.S.-backed war against organized crime is failing.
The marchers, who walk in silence, left Thursday from the old colonial city of Cuernavaca, where Sicilia’s 24-year-old son was among seven people seized by gunmen in March and later found dead, their mouths taped shut and their bodies stuffed into a compact car.
The poet’s public agony at the killing of his son, who authorities say was an innocent, touched a raw nerve here, as Mexicans every day face new atrocities: mass graves filled with victims bludgeoned to death; the targeting of children by assassins; women taken from a beauty salon in Acapulco and beheaded.
The marchers, only a few hundred, crossed the southern mountains and entered Mexico City on Friday night. On Sunday, they hope their numbers will swell at a rally at the capital’s main plaza, the Zocalo.
“Our message is that all of us, all the citizens, are outraged, and we want to say we are here, listen to us, there is too much death and so much corruption,” said Oscar Enriquez Perez, a priest who runs a human rights group in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, one of the deadliets places in the world.
Like nothing else in the past four years of sensational drug violence, which have left more than 35,000 civilians dead as well as 2,300 police and soldiers, this movement has captured the eye of the news media and has begun to rattle the political class.
“The state controls nothing,” Sicilia has said. “Felipe Calderon wants to listen, but the country is no longer in his hands. He has no vision. He cannot imagine a better world. He does not see that the cruelty and impunity — and the killing — can also be blamed on our failing institutions.”
Sicilia, a darling of the Mexican press, “is a great leader maybe because he really isn’t much of a leader,” said John Ackerman, a researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico. “He’s not running for anything.”
But because of who he is, “Sicilia might be the guy who can bring together the political spectrum, the upper class worried about security, the rowdy left, the progressive wing of the Catholic church, and everyone who is just frustrated with the current state of affairs,” Ackerman said.
Sicilia’s frustrations are boundless. He derides all political parties; he opposes the use of military on the streets; he believes the state should form a pact with the cartels; he wants Calderon declared incompetent; he asserts that the U.S. government talks much but delivers little; he says the narcotics traffickers should return to old codes that kept civilians and children out of the cross hairs.
“It is a protest against everything,” said Eduardo Gallo, the former president of the citizen group Mexicans United Against Crime and one of the movement’s leaders. “It is not only against the president, but the governors, all the lawmakers and political parties, all the citizens who have done bad things, everyone who has contributed to our corruption.”
In the past few days, Calderon has repeatedly responded to Sicilia and his movement, alternatively trying to refute their message or co-opt it.
At a military celebration on Cinco de Mayo commemorating the Battle of Puebla in 1862, Calderon vowed no surrender from his troops. He said that if the government heeds the call of those who criticize the use of the military, “we are going to let bands of criminals go into the streets across Mexico with impunity, attacking people and with no one to stop them.”
The Mexican military remains one of the most respected institutions, but its officers and troops are not trained to do law enforcement work — and so many arrests lead nowhere in Mexico’s dysfunctional legal system, and the human rights complaints against the army soar. Only a small percent of killings committed in the country are successfully prosecuted.
This weekend’s march comes at the beginning of the political season, with a major governor’s race this summer, leading up to the presidential election in 2012. Calderon’s National Action Party is behind in the polls, and it looks likely that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which held power here for 72 years in a kind of consensus dictatorship, will return to power.
Surveys by the Mitofsky polling firm found that for the first time in the firm’s history, respondents ranked public safety above the economy as Mexico’s most pressing problem.
“My question, when watching all of the violence in Mexico, has been, ‘Where is the outrage?’ ” said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “We see it here. This march is channeling the outrage.”
Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.