"The numbers do not say anything," said the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia last Thursday evening, speaking at a New York City vigil for the victims of the drug war in Mexico. "They are abstractions. No one can imagine 70,000 faces."
Sicilia and the Caravan for Peace have traveled over 6,000 miles nationwide, through more than 25 cities — including Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York — to make Americans aware that behind every drug addict, behind every gun that is purchased by organized crime in the United States, and behind the U.S. and Mexican governments' drug policies, is the pain and suffering of thousands of families."That is why we have come here," the poet said, referring to New York, "so that they [Americans] can look at us… and see each of our pains… so that they could see through our faces, and multiply them by 70,000, multiply them by all the families that this war has destroyed."
Addressing a crowd of students, activists, drug war victims, and community leaders from the United States and Mexico, among other people, at Upper Manhattan's Riverside Church—a place steeped with history in the fight for social justice and African American civil rights—Sicilia spoke slowly and deliberately, giving each word a profound meaning. His speech that evening recalled the powerful words of Martin Luther King, who, in the same storied location, also rallied likeminded listeners in 1967 against the destruction of war and its toll on poor families in the United States and Vietnam.
"I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice," King said, calling for an end to the Vietnam War. Like Sicilia, the reverend challenged his audience to speak out against a foreign policy that victimized innocent people. "Silence is betrayal," King quoted from a statement. Sicilia echoed that sentiment 45 years later by reminding listeners that when they fail to denounce unjust government policies that cause the suffering and death of thousands of people, they become complicit.
The victims of drug violence are rarely visible. And in the United States, drug-related crimes and associated health problems are often misrepresented as a foreign issue. But according to a fact sheet compiled by the Drug Policy Alliance, the war on drugs has created a national crisis. While the United States spends more than $51 billion annually on its drug war budget, 32,000 people are still infected every year with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C by sharing contaminated syringes. In 2009, 37,485 people died from legal and illicit drug use.
The drug war also targets minority communities disproportionately. While blacks and Latinos use and sell drugs at similar rates as whites, they account for nearly 67 percent of all people incarcerated in state prisons. Government surveys of high school seniors show that even when blacks and Latinos use drugs like marijuana at lower rates than whites, they still face significantly higher incarceration. While whites, for instance, make up over 46 percent of the population in New York City, they only account for 12 percent of marijuana possession arrests. By comparison, blacks and Latinos together make up nearly 53 percent of the city's population, but they account for 84 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession.