CHIHUAHUA, Mexico (Reuters) - It was well past midnight when Mexicans usually too afraid to venture out after dark streamed into Chihuahua's central square to hear a poet's call for an end to the country's destructive drug war.
Waving Mexican flags and holding photos of missing loved ones, residents who have seen their region ravaged by drug killings flocked to receive Javier Sicilia, who has become a symbol of national protest, as he led a peace caravan of some 500 people across northern Mexico last week.
"No more blood! We have had enough," they shouted. "This is a country of the dead and the disappeared."
Sicilia, an award-winning but little-known poet until gunmen killed his 24-year-old son in March, has given a voice to thousands of Mexicans suffering the chaos of the drugs war.
The death of Juan Francisco Sicilia with six of his friends in the city of Cuernavaca near Mexico City inspired the poet to start the most significant protest movement against a war that has exploded since President Felipe Calderon sent army troops into the fight when he took office in late 2006.
The groundswell has increased pressure on the government ahead of next year's elections at a time when Calderon wants to convince voters and investors that his strategy is working.
"We have to unite for our country. We have to give the violence a face because 40,000 victims is terrible," Sicilia said of the drug war death toll after being mobbed by supporters on arriving in Ciudad Juarez, the conflict's worst flashpoint, during his peace march.
While previous anti-violence movements in Mexico quickly lost steam, Sicilia now plans a second protest across southern Mexico, according to organizers of the last caravan across the north.
In his signature fishing vest and a sun hat, Sicilia, 56, led a procession that grew to 17 buses and 35 private vehicles after he left his home of Cuernavaca on June 4 to denounce the violence and the impunity and corruption that fuels it.
The caravan followed a huge demonstration he led in Mexico City on May 8. Although his call for Calderon's police chief to quit has not been heeded, the president has been unable to ignore Sicilia, and the two met for talks in April.
Sicilia's campaign has tapped into deep public anger at Mexican politicians who try to play down the drug war, painting the dead as criminals who deserved their fate.
Experts on the conflict say that kidnapped migrant workers are among the victims, and scores of families are still waiting for news of loved ones who disappeared in northern Mexico where several mass graves filled with unidentified corpses have been found.
The poet's protests give victims' families a chance to speak and are a kind of collective catharsis for mothers still looking for their disappeared sons and daughters or who feel stigmatized and ignored by the authorities.
"He is giving people hope that something can be done about this," said Pedro Enriquez, a doctor in Monterrey near Texas, who went to listen to Sicilia when he passed through the city on his way to Ciudad Juarez, where the peace caravan ended.
The bespectacled Sicilia was hugged and kissed by people in towns and cities along the route.
Despite calls from more radical supporters who want him to push for a complete withdrawal of Calderon's troops, the poet insists he is a realist, seeking to forge a pact with political leaders and ordinary Mexicans to form a new drug war strategy.
For Sicilia, an end to the mayhem means properly investigating drug war deaths, dealing with the thousands of disappeared, rebuilding Mexico's rotten justice system and providing support for young people who are too often sucked into killing for the cartels.
Such initiatives have been sidelined over the past four years, overshadowed by soldiers going after hitmen who are armed with automatic weapons, rocket launchers and grenades.
"I am an anarchist living in a republic. Whether we like it or not, there is an authority," Sicilia said in Ciudad Juarez. "But we've also come to show corrupt authorities that we are not afraid, and that there are more of us than them."