In the kiva-shaped sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church, Tucson's long-running center for progressive causes and rallying center for immigrants' rights, a gray-haired visitor stood solemnly at the podium and leaned into the microphone.
With the speaking skills of a preacher, Javier Sicilia spoke in a subdued voice about the incessant and deafening violence in his native Mexico. There, some 50,000 people have died since Mexican President Felipe Calderón, at the blunt insistence of the United States, unleashed that country's military against the Mexican drug mafia nearly six years ago.
The result has been disastrous, said Sicilia without any preacher's bluster. He didn't need it; the bloodshed is enough.
Sicilia brought the Caravan for Peace With Justice and Dignity to Tucson August 16 as part of its 20-city U.S. pilgrimage. It was his second visit to Tucson this year.
Along with Sicilia came family members and victims of the cross-border drug war who have lost husbands, brothers, daughters and sons in the violence. They came here to ask for our help, for our understanding.
Sicilia launched the grass-roots, anti-drug-war movement in Mexico last year after he lost a son. He has called out Mexico's corrupt politicians and imperial drug lords and their allies - international banks that launder drug profits.
But the nascent peace movement knows there can be no peace or justice in Mexico without the cooperation of American politicians and public. After all, we sell the majority of the weapons used in the Mexican killing fields, and we buy most of the drugs.
Many Tucsonans turn a deaf ear to what the caravan participants have to say, judged from the deafening silence from political leaders and law enforcement officials on this side of the border. It's Mexico's problem and its responsibility, chirp the naysayers.
But the "caravanistas" strongly disagree. The drug violence is a binational problem that requires a binational solution, they say.
Their message resonates beyond the Mexican states.
The drug war waged by the Mexican and U.S. governments has humiliated his country and ours, Sicilia told an overflowing audience at the church, near West 22nd Street and South 10th Avenue. The weapons of extermination used indiscriminately in Mexico are irresponsibly sold and flow easily southward, as drugs ooze northward, he intoned.
The drug war and its victims are the collateral damage of misguided binational policies that have not stemmed the flow of drugs and arms, he said.
The drug war, directed from D.C. and the D.F. (the seat of Mexican federal government), has "humiliated the dignity" of both societies, said the crusading Sicilia.
Tucsonans do not not have to look across the international line to see the destructive effects of the drug war.
Jails and prisons bulge with nonviolent individuals convicted for drug abuse under strict mandatory sentencing requirements.
Undocumented migrants, fleeing the drug-related insecurity and joblessness created by crushing global economics that favor the 1 percent, are declared criminals and incarcerated in privately run prisons, enriched with public funds.
Supposedly incorruptible border inspection agents and green-clad "boots on the ground" are corrupted with the abundance of drug dollars.
Implicit in the caravan's pleas for peace and justice is the rethinking of our drug enforcement policies and laws. Should we continue to criminalize drug users? Migrants? And if we do, should we restrict the arms merchants and incarcerate the money launderers?
Those are the hard questions the caravanistas ask us to ponder.
Sicilia and the caravan are taking their case east across the country, through New Mexico and Texas, up the Midwest and to the East Coast, with a final stop in Washington, D.C.
They wonder: Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?
Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 1-520-573-4187 or at email@example.com