Poet Meets President, Sicilia Tests Calderón on Mexican Drug War

Poet Meets President, Sicilia Tests Calderón on Mexican Drug War

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Photo: Poet Javier Sicilia, left, met last week with Mexico's President Felipe Calderón, right.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Chih. Mex. -- Few expected much, and many preferred to wait and see when it was announced that Mexico's President Felipe Calderón would meet with Javier Sicilia, a poet who has gained worldwide attention for his protests against the drug wars in Mexico, following the murder of his son.

But on Thursday, when Calderón and several members of his cabinet members entered
Chapultepec castle, overlooking the capitol, the nation paused and watched the unfolding
of a meeting that would yield uncertain results.

To be fair, Calderón’s decision to accept an invitation to a town hall meeting with an unfriendly crowd could be called anything but cowardly. Yet, his unforgiving critics insisted he had no choice. The tally of victims from the drug war expands every day.

The Mexican government's campaign against organized crime has netted more than the arrests
of a handful of Mexican “mafia” leaders, who are quickly replaced by splintering and ever-expanding drug operations.

Even as the president met with his famous critic, there were reports from Mexico of 50 drug-related killings. Here in Ciudad Juarez--ground zero for the national blood-letting-- the chief of police survived an ambush thanks to the armed entourage the travels with him. Two days earlier, a journalist, his wife and his son were killed as they slept in their apartment in the state of Veracruz.

In response to this epidemic of violence, citizen complaints--demands for protection-- have increased. But innocent bystanders have become fodder in the drug wars. Bit by bit,violence is eating up the social fabric of the country and leaving Mexico threadbare.

A Plea for Change

Sicilia began the round with a call for a moment of silence, “for all the victims of this senseless war.” Broadcast live on national television, the meeting proceeded with Sicilia accusing Calderón’s government of starting “a senseless war,” while ignoring more pressing needs like job creation, education and public health.

“We had come here to demand justice,” said Sicilia to a somber Calderón, who was flanked by his wife and several cabinet-level officials. Later in the meeting, Sicilia blamed Calderón for the huge number of victims and demanded the president seek forgiveness from the their families and the whole of Mexico.

“You are responsible for 40,000 deaths,’’ said Sicilia in his closing remarks. While the entire encounter was filled with emotionally charged moments, this was a climax no Mexican president had ever faced so publicly.

Whether or not this meeting results in meaningful changes, Calderón’s policies have eroded the most mystical figure in civic life--El Presidente, Mexico's father of fathers.

It was the second time in a month that Calderón had faced criticism for his strategy. On June 12, as he was delivering the commencement address at Stanford University, an airplane flew over Stanford Stadium with a massive banner reading, "40,000 DEAD! HOW MANY MORE?"

Nobody claimed direct responsibility for the prank, but a rumor leaked through social networks that the San Francisco-based Global Exchange was involved. The incident was barely covered by the U.S. media, but in Mexico the story got big headlines.

Not even Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox--also from the right-centrist Partido Acción Nacional, or National Action Party--had been publicly scolded so openly. Mexico may now be seeing a new kind of politics, more candid, less reverential, just at the moment when a presidential campaign is in the offing.

This trend was apparent in February of last year, less than two weeks after the Villas de Salvarcar massacre of young people in Ciudad Juarez, when Calderón visited that neighborhood of mayhem. A mother of two of the victims loudly told him he was not welcome and blamed him for all the violence in this city and the country. The televised video of that moment circulated throughout Mexico within minutes. Since then, Calderón has carefully avoided public appearances unless his staff could screen the audience and make sure he would face a friendly crowd.

Calderón Not Budging

Nevertheless, Calderón made clear this week that he would not change course and saidpleas to remove the army and federal police from the streets--one of the six main points presented by Sicilia’s committee -- was not negotiable.

“If there is something I must apologize to the families of the victims for, it is the fact that I didn’t send those forces early enough to protect them,” said a visibly angered Calderón. Later, he insisted that the violence in the country wasn’t being sparked by the presence of the army or the federal police but, “much to the contrary, the army and the federal police are there because of the violence of the organized crime.”

For most Mexican political observers, the meeting between Sicilia and Calderón won’t change the climate of violence in the country.

Calderón was invited by members of Sicilia's public pilgrimage to join the caravan in its next phase--a tour of Mexico’s southern states--so he could see and hear directly the pleas of the people. Although El Presidente didn’t decline the invitation, he noted that he was not sure he would be welcome.

Calderón, an experienced politician, is aware that like all of his predecessors, he has reached the “lame duck” stage of his presidency. Just as past presidents, he sees his focus now as picking his party’s candidate to succeed him.

But unlike his predecessors, Calderón is facing members of his cabinet, who are jockeying to fill his shoes without waiting for a presidential blessing. That’s a violation of the golden rule of Mexican politics.

The power of Calderón and of the office of the presidency may be failing, even at the moment when Mexico's president is asking the country and his own party to trust his steely resolve.