Javier Sicilia: Grief, Poetry and Passion

Ever since his son, Juan Francisco, was murdered along with five friends by members of a drug cartel, award-winning Mexican poet and debout Catholic Javier Sicilia has said, “Poetry doesn’t exist in me anymore.” Fortunately for everyone, it seems to have stuck around long enough to get him through the funeral, where he recited these verses:

The world is not worthy of words

they have been suffocated from the inside

as they suffocated you, as they tore apart your lungs …

the pain does not leave me

all that remains is a world

through the silence of the righteous,

only through your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

Replacing poetry in Mr. Sicilia seems to be a zeal to reform his country’s government, whose ineffectual war on organized crime he holds indirectly responsible for his son’s murder:

Since his unlikely tragedy, he has led two marches with the slogan “¡Hasta la madre!” — which roughly translates as “We have had it!” — and has issued a series of public denunciations, providing an exclamation point to this country’s campaign against drug cartel violence, which has left nearly 40,000 people dead in the four years since President Felipe Calderón began a crackdown on organized crime.

“What my son did was give a name and a face to the 40,000 dead,” Mr. Sicilia said. “My pain gave a face to the pain of other families. I think a country is like a house, and the destruction of someone is the destruction of our families.”

Previous mass demonstrations here claiming to be the vanguard of a new movement against violence eventually petered out, with mixed results. Mr. Sicilia’s own call for the resignation of Mr. Calderón’s public safety director went nowhere.

But Mr. Sicilia, not a household name here but well known in political and media circles through his literature and regular columns in Proceso magazine, has achieved what others have failed to do: he has provoked serial public responses from the Calderón administration.

Mr. Calderón appeared on national television a couple of days before the most recent march, on Sunday, both to defend his policies and express sympathy for the victims, including the more than 300 whose bodies have been dug up from mass graves in two states in recent weeks.

As he left Monday on a trip to New York and Washington, Mr. Calderón issued five messages on Twitter expressing solidarity with the marchers.

“I celebrate the March for Peace, and its legitimate and just intentions to put an end to the problem of insecurity,” said one. Others called for a national dialogue to find solutions to the crisis.

Mr. Calderón also met privately with Mr. Sicilia more than a week ago, and Mr. Sicilia said he had extracted a confession of sorts from the president.

“He said, ‘I agree I made a mistake but I can’t go back now,’ ” Mr. Sicilia said in an interview.

He said Mr. Calderón agreed that he should have focused more on rebuilding the nation’s social and judicial institutions than on battering the cartels with the military and federal police. A spokesman for Mr. Calderón gave a different account, though, saying he might have critiqued a policy point or two but had never expressed regret over his strategy and remained committed to it.

WHATEVER the case, Mr. Sicilia has kept up his campaign, which seeks a “pact” between citizens and political leaders to thoroughly investigate the drug war deaths, de-emphasize combat with cartels in favor of fighting corruption and impunity, and put more attention on youth and social services.

Mr. Sicilia believes the only way to defeat the cartels is legalizing drugs. My knowledge of Mexican affairs is too shaky for my opinion to count for much, but I’m not sure I agree. But even if he’s wrong, so what? If a poet isn’t allowed to be explosive and quixotic, who is? If, for the moment, Mr. Sicilia can only write sestinas in slogans, I’m not going to stand in his way.

In any case, people seem to be listening. Last month “Thousands of Mexicans in more then 30 cities throughout the country” turned out to join Sicilia’s crusade.

Here’s a translation of his open letter to Mexican politicians:

We have had it up to here with you, politicians – and when I say politicians I do not refer to any in particular, but, rather, a good part of you, including those who make up the political parties – because in your fight for power you have shamed the fabric of the nation. Because in middle of this badly proposed, badly made, badly led war, of this war that has put the country in a state of emergency, you have been incapable – due to your cruelties, your fights, your miserable screaming, your struggle for power – of creating the consensus that the nation needs to find the unity without which this country will not be able to escape. We have had it up to here because the corruption of the judicial institutions generates the complicity with crime and the impunity to commit it, because in the middle of that corruption that demonstrates the failure of the State, each citizen of this country has been reduced to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben called, using a Greek word, “zoe”: an unprotected life, the life of an animal, of a being that can be violated, kidnapped, molested and assassinated with impunity. We have had it up to here because you only have imagination for violence, for weapons, for insults and, with that, a profound scorn for education, culture, and opportunities for honorable work, which is what good nations do. We have had it up to here because your short imagination is permitting that our kids, our children, are not only assassinated, but, later, criminalized, made falsely guilty to satisfy that imagination. We have had it up to here because others of our children, due to the absence of a good government plan, do not have opportunities to educate themselves, to find dignified work and spit out onto the sidelines become possible recruits for organized crime and violence. We have had it up to here because the citizenry has lost confidence in its governors, its police, its Army, and is afraid and in pain. We have had it up to here because the only thing that matters to you, beyond an impotent power that only serves to administrate disgrace, is money, the fomentation of rivalry, of your damn “competition,” and of unmeasured consumption which are other names of the violence.

  • Chrys

    Hon, the ‘war on drugs’ is a farce.

    Everyone makes more money when drugs are illegal and you need to hire more police and/or soldiers to fight them with guns, knives, or fists. The criminals have better weapons than either, and far more money. Since the wealthy class has an underbelly that makes $ running guns, getting their kids jobs in the police/military, building more prisons, etc., those methods are preferred in the world of men – especially those who adovcate a rabidly individualistic capitalism.

    The true problem is of political corruption. Always has been, always will be.

    Those in power and/or their police or armies can make more money working for the criminals directly (bribes) or allowing the situation to continue (gun-running, construction, etc.). Frightened people will pay anything to keep their children from being murdered, so if military solutions are used and the military/police are corrupt it is a self-perpetuating cycle that just gets more vicious the more years it continues.

  • dry valleys

    I arrived, some time ago, at the same view as this Javier Sicilia on drugs and the failure of the “war on drugs”.

    You would be surprised at how many senior law enforcement people consider the so-called war to be a failure which is based on politics rather than sound judgment of what will benefit society.

    I think it is important to notice that very few people go round glibly saying that drugs are jusst great and it doesn’t matter who takes them, there will be no health consequences.

    Rather, we think that if they were legal and subject to the same regulations and restrictions as alcohol, tobacco etc, the harm that is caused by the taking and distribution of drugs would be reduced because prohibition is a costly failure.

    Have a look at http://www.leap.cc/cms/index.php (and others that I can’t go trawling for so soon after a heavy dining experience :) )

    A lot of right-wing people have in fact reached this view, and not only “libertarians”, but conservatives too, as they have realised the essentially political nature of prohibition.

  • Bender

    Yes, and we could also eliminate the suffering caused by evil simply by decreeing that sins are virtues.

    Of course, de jure lawlessness never really does solve the problems brought about from de facto lawlessness. Such problems are not caused by law, and they do not disappear when law disappears.

    Then again, such a move would eliminate the blame-shifting. The killing in Mexico is caused, not by the killers, but by the politicians . . . or the United States. Everyone except the true culprits are to be blamed. And it is this blame-shifting that has led to problems like the drug trade exploding into the terror trade. No one willing to step-up and take responsibility for themselves. Better to run away and point fingers.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I have come to believe that the immigration from Mexico to the US is more detrimental to Mexico. If disgruntled people leave Mexico, who will fight to change it? Why shouldn’t Mexico thrive? My fear was always that it would only change through violence. But if Mexicans are already living with violence, what do they have left to fear? What is going to stop them finally forcing changes? When they see their children killed, what is left to hold over their heads?