MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Hundreds of Mexicans began a weeklong caravan on Saturday to protest the country's bloody drug war, led by a crusading poet whose son was murdered by suspected cartel hitmen.
Human rights activists and families of victims of violence piled into 13 buses and more than two dozen cars to set out on a 12-state tour that will end in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent drug war city on the U.S. border.
"We hope the authorities realize this is a national emergency and if they don't (listen), the situation will become even more painful," said poet-turned-activist Javier Sicilia.
Police found the bodies of Sicilia's 24-year-old son and several of his friends in March along with a menacing drug cartel message in Cuernavaca, a city south of the capital once known as a peaceful colonial-era tourist retreat.
Sicilia channeled his grief into a national protest movement against the drug violence that has killed more than 38,000 in Mexico since late 2006 when President Felipe Calderon sent the army to the streets to crack down on powerful cartels.
The government says most of the deaths are drug traffickers killed in turf battles over lucrative smuggling routes to the United States and security forces fighting them, although bystanders have also lost their lives.
Grizzly decapitations, the discovery of mass graves and daytime shootouts in some cities have led many in Mexico to question whether Calderon's strategy is working and could hurt his conservative party's chances of holding the presidency in an election next year.
At a rally in the center of Mexico City on Saturday, part of the kickoff for the more than 1,000-mile journey, Sicilia read poetry and hugged fellow activists. Signs read "We are fed up" and bore photos of missing relatives.
"We are starting this march with a lot of pain but with the consolation that we are not walking alone," he told reporters.
The United States has pledged more than $1 billion to support Mexico's security forces and dozens of drug kingpins have been killed or captured during Calderon's term.
(Reporting by Lisset Romero; Additional reporting and writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Peter Cooney)