When Javier Sicilia's 24-year-old son, health-administration student Juan Francisco, was brutally killed by drug traffickers in March, it was headline-grabbing news, because Sicilia, 55, is one of Mexico's best-known authors and poets. But the tragedy made Sicilia realize how all too anonymous most of the 50,000 victims of Mexico's bloody drug war have been. Believing that President Felipe Calderón's five-year-long military campaign against Mexico's narcocartels has simply exacerbated the violence, he created the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity — which is informally and popularly called Hasta la Madre! or Fed Up! — to push for a stop to the mafia bloodshed and for new anticrime strategies and reforms. The ranks of its rallies and marches quickly grew from hundreds to hundreds of thousands, culminating in a June caravan through a dozen cities, where families held up pictures of slain relatives. By giving names, faces and voices to Mexico's drug-war dead, Sicilia helped prod Calderón to a conference at Mexico City's Chapúltepec Castle over the summer to discuss the kind of modern judicial institutions and social investment that Mexico's political class has too long ignored — but which may be the only way to end Mexico's narco-nightmare.
Sicilia, a left-leaning, spiritual Roman Catholic (aside from his mystical poetry, he's written a novel about John the Baptist), still looks the owlish, bearded bohemian he was at the outset of his campaign. He talked in Mexico City with TIME's Latin America bureau chief, Tim Padgett, about turning personal horror into national hope:
"I got the awful news about Juan Francisco's murder while I was at a conference in the Philippines. When I got to Cuernavaca [the Mexican town south of Mexico City where his son and six friends had been tortured and killed by gangsters who were angry that two of the young men had reported members of their gang to police] I was in a lot of emotional pain. But when I arrived at the crematorium I had to deal with the media. I asked the reporters to have some respect; I told them I'd meet them the next day in the city plaza. When I got there I found they'd put a table [for a press conference] out for me, and I realized this was going to be bigger than I'd anticipated.
"I had never thought of starting a movement or being a spokesman for anything. I'm a poet, and poets are better known for working with more obscure intuitions. But in those moments I was reminded that the life of the soul can be powerful too. My chief intuition then was that we had to give name and form to this tragedy and somehow put that into action with real citizens as a way to tell the government, 'We need something new, especially new institutions to fight our lawlessness and corruption and impunity, not just that of the drug cartels but the state.'
"Mexico has a long history of mobilizing, from the revolution to the demonstrations of 1968 to the Zapatista uprising [of 1994]. Confronting our security crisis, the murders and the kidnappings and the extortion, was more difficult. But like any mobilization, we had to reach the middle class and place the deaths and disappearances in the national consciousness — make visible the face of our national pain. The drug-war statistics were hiding those faces; the powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches. We had to change that mind-set and put names to the victims for a change. And that meant the criminal dead as well as the innocent dead like Juan Francisco. We also have to focus on the poverty and the lack of economic opportunity that helps breed the criminality.
"So that first Sunday after Juan Francisco's death I issued an open letter to the nation's politicians, and I said, 'Estamos hasta la madre!' ("We've had it up to here!") I was surprised by the reaction it got, but I shouldn't have been. On the one hand, yes, hasta la madre is Mexican slang, but it has a very religious component as well. The mother, like the Virgin of Guadalupe [Mexico's Roman Catholic patroness], is sacred. To say you're hasta la madre means they've insulted our mother protector; they've committed a sacrilege. It's very strong, very Mexican, but very poetic too in its own way. Anyway, it resonated in ways that exceeded my expectations.
"The most memorable day, then, turned out to be the first march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City in May. It seemed we started out with about 200 people and by the time we got to the Zócalo [main plaza] here in the capital we had more than 100,000. I remember coming into Mexico City, near the UNAM [National Autonomous University of Mexico] and hearing them performing Mozart's "Requiem" in one of the university's buildings. But then in the Zócalo you could feel the promise of life again. It felt like the civic miracle we needed.
"Still, the movement's success surprised me quite a bit. My intention at the beginning was just to signal the horror of the crimes being committed as well as the government's faulty reaction to it. I did only what my heart was telling me to do. It was a great surprise to me to see the national response. As a Catholic I think a lot about grace, and this was as surprising as the arrival of God's grace. You don't expect it, but it was like the answer to my pain. It eased the pain of my son's death.
"One of the most gratifying moments occurred [during the conference] at Chapúltepec Castle, when President Calderón met a woman named María Elena Herrera, from Calderón's home state of Michoacán, whose four sons disappeared after being abducted by gangsters. The President hugged her, and I could see he was shaken by her experience. I saw his recognition that the victims are human beings and not statistics. I saw his face of pain, and in that moment the President himself became more humanized to me."
"The most disappointing thing was what happened at the end of the caravan at [the northern border city of] Juárez, [which today has the world's highest murder rate], when leftist groups tried to hijack the movement for their own political agendas. [The groups, for example, tried to get the movement to insist that Calderón remove all troops from Mexico's streets, something even Sicilia knew was an impractical and irresponsible demand.] It threatened to drain the force of the movement. It showed me that a protest can't be overly ideological if it's going to be successful.
"The other disappointing thing was gaining a better appreciation of the cluelessness of Mexico's political class regarding the violence crisis. They did begin to make some reform-legislation movements this past year, but deep down I don't feel as if they've really thought about how to fight the cartels in a more effective and less deadly way. I fear we're going into [general] elections next year without that consciousness, without really acknowledging the magnitude of the problem Mexico faces.
"One of the most memorable persons I got to know was Julian Lebaron, [a Mormon farmer from the border state of Chihuahua whose anticrime-activist brother, Benjamin, was murdered in 2009 by gangsters]. I remember one day during the caravan I was trying to put a plaque with names on a memorial to murder victims, and I was using the screwdriver very clumsily, as you'd expect from a poet. Julian came over and said, 'Javier, get your pen and give me the screwdriver.' His speeches during the caravan rallies were like that: very brief but strong and direct.
"That Mormon became a very important symbol for the movement. There was one dangerous moment in Durango, in the plaza there, when armed and masked men showed up at our demonstration. Lebaron took the microphone and said, 'If there are any killers here among us, please raise your hands.' The masked men left. Julian told the crowd, 'You see, when a country unites it creates less space for criminals.'
"A successful protest movement needs humor too. Once, we were on a dangerous stretch of road near Coatzacoalcos, in Tabasco [state], where narcos were known to abduct people at roadblocks. At one roadblock we thought gangsters were going to board our bus and perhaps kill us. One of our companions said he had a nido [nest] in his throat; I said, 'Don't you mean a nudo [knot]?' He said, 'No, a nido because I'm so scared right now I've got my two huevos de pájaro (bird's eggs, slang for testicles) up there.' No gangsters boarded the bus, fortunately, but our friend's joke relieved the tension. Humor helps to make the weight of death more relative."
"I can't say that other protests this year had a big influence on us. It's obvious there's a civic miracle going on in certain parts of the world, especially the Middle East. But I don't think I and others in this movement were really inspired by anything other than our own pain and suffering. In my case, my heart was simply responding to my son's death more than to anything going on in the Arab Spring.
"I think the greatest change the movement produced was that we made the [drug war's] victims' names and faces visible — we reclaimed the victims, put the photos of them smiling before all this horror hit us into the national consciousness. We made the rest of Mexico recognize that we have a national emergency to confront, and we got the nation and its families together to question how the government was confronting it.
"For me personally, it made my faith even deeper — made it naked for the first time in my life. It made the mediation of religion more real than ever for me. I do think the poetry of Hasta la Madre! helped make the mobilization more possible. It's a bit like the idea of prophecy in the Judeo-Christian tradition, a voice speaking out inside the tribe. But personally, I've given up poetry after Juan Francisco's murder because language no longer consoles me, and in lieu of poetry I now depend on that depth of faith that can't be uttered or verbalized.
"I tell my daughter I feel like Ulysses trying to return, between monsters and moral duties, to the nostalgia of my home, and I know one day eventually I will return to that home. But until then, home is no longer a place for me; it's a much broader concept — a community, a nation. If anything, I think we helped Mexico take a big step toward reclaiming that public space for us and not the criminals."
Epilogue: In the past month, two activists in Sicilia's movement have been murdered. Two others have been abducted and are missing. Another human rights activist was murdered in Juárez.