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Activists connect drug wars in U.S., Mexico

This news story was published on September 4, 2012.
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Ellen Jean Hirst and Antonio Olivo, Chicago Tribune –

Chicago: Sunday morning. One man dead after taking three bullets — one to the head, two to the chest. Cocaine clasped in hand, and more found near his body, police said.

Mexico City: Last year. Six found bound and choked or suffocated to death. Bags over their heads. The murderers were likely drug traffickers, police said.

Murders and shootings are up in Chicago. They are up in Mexico.

Gun laws and the war on drugs are pivotal to those deaths, said a group of Mexican activists, almost all of whom have lost family members to drug violence, who are traveling 6,000 miles across the U.S. to heighten awareness of the problem. On Sunday evening, the activists’ Caravan for Peace arrived in Chicago.

Javier Sicilia, a renowned Mexican poet and writer, said it’s easy to forget the deaths represent people. The man who died Sunday was Jeffrey Smith, 38, who lived in the 5100 block of South Marshfield Avenue, authorities said. One man who died in Mexico City was Javier Sicilia’s son, Juan Francisco, 24.

Sicilia organized the 20-city Caravan of Peace tour across the U.S. in response to his son’s death. The tour began Aug. 12 at the Tijuana-San Diego border and is scheduled to end in Washington Sept. 12. The caravaners talk about relatives who have been kidnapped and later found dead or who have never been found.

In March 2011, Sicilia got a call about his son’s death while on a poetry tour in the Philippines.

“I felt such an immense pain, I can’t even explain,” Sicilia said in Spanish. “It’s the biggest pain one can feel — when one loses a child.”

His son’s friends had visited a bar they hadn’t known was operated by people involved with organized crime, Sicilia said. Valuable work equipment had been stolen from the car of a friend of his son. When his son, “the pacifier” of the group, approached the bar owners, he and his friends were kidnapped and murdered, Sicilia said.

His son, three months from graduating from university, had been offered a job as a cardiologist in Mexico before he died, his father said.

An estimated 70,000 people in Mexico have been murdered or disappeared after outgoing President Felipe Calderon ramped up law enforcement efforts six years ago.

“The drug war. It’s a war that can’t be classified as anything but stupid,” Sicilia said

The United States has been the source of nearly 70 percent of guns recovered by Mexican authorities and submitted for tracing in the past three years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. For this reason, Sicilia said, the U.S. has a joint responsibility for the deaths.

“Behind each weapon sold illegally are deaths,” Sicilia said.

The tour’s intent is to lay the blame for those deaths on the demand for drugs in the U.S., with Sicilia and others arguing that the multibillion-dollar war on drugs on both sides of the border should be reassessed or dumped.

Daniel Robelo, a research coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance who travels with the caravan, said legalizing drugs such as cocaine and marijuana would help eliminate murders caused by organized crime, even if problems like increased drug consumption arose.

“With Prohibition, people didn’t stop drinking, and people haven’t stopped using drugs,” Robelo said. “The way things are puts power in the hands of criminals who use violence.”

The group also stresses that the violence and success of Mexican drug cartels directly affects communities in the U.S. — from the thousands of people fleeing across the border and, eventually, into cities such as Chicago to the gun violence between gangs that is often connected to illegal drug sales.

“People tend to think: ‘Oh, that’s Mexico’s problem. They should deal with it,'” said Cristina Garcia, who helped coordinate the caravan’s appearance in Chicago. “It’s not just their problem; it’s our problem too.”

Many who flee the violence end up in cities like Chicago, while drugs that can be traced back to the Mexican cartels are often at the center of gang-related violence in neighborhoods such as Little Village, North Lawndale and Englewood. Additionally, 500,000 people in the United States are behind bars due to drug-related crimes, Sicilia said.

“It’s all murky, because it’s the criminal underworld,” Robelo said. “But we know it’s all interconnected.”

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