From a distance, Mexico City’s “Memorial to the Victims of the Violence” isn’t much to look at. Comprised of 70 slabs of steel, surrounded by a forested park, the monument to the victims of Mexico’s drug wars calls to mind the rusty ruins of an abandoned factory. But each of these slabs tells a story, which collectively testify to a tragedy of immeasurable scale.
Rough estimates suggest more than 100,000 dead in the past decade alone. To the casual follower of the news, these are faceless numbers. But each victim has a story, and the memorial — designed by Gaeta Springall Arquitectos — is meant to let people tell it. A message written on one of the slabs reads, “Pinta lo que sientes….expresa lo que piensas,” (Paint what you feel…express what you think) and people do exactly that.
Their messages and drawings sit alongside quotes by Mahatma Gandhi, Carlos Fuentes Octavio Paz, and Martin Luther King. Many of the messages remember loved ones who have been killed; the most violent areas of the country, such as Ciudad Juarez, Tamaulipas, and Guerrero, are well-represented. Other messages are directed towards Mexico as a nation, calling for a solution to the violence and justice for the victims.
The blank space on the slabs is a testament to the uncertainty that surrounds most of Mexico’s dead, an uncertainty that would make a Vietnam War Memorial-style scroll of names problematic. Given that the overwhelming majority of cases go uninvestigated and unsolved by Mexico’s deeply corrupt and inept security and judicial bodies, there is no way of knowing who the victims are, or why they died. Certainly some were combatants, soldiers, police officers, or members of Mexico’s infamous drug cartels. But many were civilians, killed or kidnapped for a variety of criminal reasons.
The 2013 construction of the memorial caused considerable controversy in Mexico, opening a rift between various activists and organizations representing the families of victims. The most prominent activists on both sides of this debate have themselves lost loved ones to the conflict.
Sporting-goods magnate Alejandro Marti is a prominent supporter of the monument. In June 2008, Marti’s son Fernando was kidnapped on his way to school, along with a driver and bodyguard. Although a considerable ransom was paid (reportedly $6 million) for Fernando’s release, in August of that year his decomposing body was found in the trunk of an abandoned car. While the driver was tortured to death — all his teeth were pulled out — the bodyguard survived. He reported that the kidnappers were dressed in the uniform of Mexico’s now-defunct Federal Investigation Agency.
Another prominent supporter was Isabel Miranda de Wallace, a former mayoral candidate and the head of the “Stop the Kidnappings” organization. In 2005, her 36-year-old son Hugo Alberto was kidnapped leaving a movie theatre. Frustrated with the investigation’s lack of progress, de Wallace personally tracked down the responsible gang members. When one of them (a former police officer) pointed a gun at her, she bluffed and told him the house was surrounded. While the kidnappers were eventually arrested, Hugo was never found and is believed to be dead. “This is to have a space where we can all pass by…to remember the pain we have lived, and the people we have lost,” she told the Los Angeles times.
Some activists, however, scoffed at the memorial, which, controversially, is built on government land and stands next to a military base. Many Mexicans consider the military to be complicit in many of the killings of recent years; ample evidence has implicated the armed forces in disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings countrywide.
Among those opposed to the construction was poet Javier Sicilia, the head of “The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity.” Like Marti and de Wallace, Sicilia lost a child to the violence. In March 2011, his 24-year old son Juan Francisco and six friends were killed in the city of Cuernavaca, and some of their bodies showed signs of torture. Though an arrest was made in the case, it remains unclear who committed the murders or why.
Sicilia, who declined to take part in the 2013 opening ceremony, has said that the memorial is “not a memorial, it is an insult…a barbarity…A true memorial must be part of a process, a process of identifying the dead, of acknowledging the truth, of reconciliation.”
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, such a process is nowhere in sight.