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Memory Activism and Mexico’s “War on Drugs”: Countermonuments, Resistance, and the Politics of Time

The widespread violence in Mexico by state and non-state actors since the government launched a military strategy against drug cartels in 2006 has generated demands for justice, including spaces of mourning and commemoration that recognize hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals and migrants from other countries who have been killed or disappeared. Creating memorial spaces for ongoing forms of violence whose perpetrators and victims are hard to define has proven difficult from a bureaucratic, political, and aesthetic perspective. We show that in this context, lacking a clear transition and access to justice, memory activists respond to the state in a playing field that is not simply concerned with a politics of memory—who gets to decide how to remember the past—but with delineating the past from both the present and the future in the first place: a politics of time. We examine and contrast three commemorative and transformative memorial interventions: The Memorial to the Victims of Violence, a disputed government-led project in Mexico City and the organization Comité 68’s intervention to resignify the space by enlarging the historical trajectory brought into focus and by questioning the hierarchy of victims implied in this memorial; the New’s Divine Memorial, focused on rebuilding the social fabric of a community in the outskirts of Mexico City; and the project to reclaim the Maclovio Rojas plot in Tijuana —a space that was used by drug cartels to dissolve human remains— as a memorial and a community project.

(Co-authored with Benjamin Nienass, Latin American Research Review, vol. 56, No. 2, 2021 open access).

Latin American Studies Podcast, Villanova University, May 24, 2021. 

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Mexico’s Memorial to the Victims of Violence and the Facade of Participation

In response to the demands of families of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the narco-violence and the “War on Drugs” in Mexico, the outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderón built the Memorial to the Victims of Violence in Mexico City in 2012. While the memorial was designed by the architects Julio Gaeta and Luby Springall with a participatory audience in mind, its genealogy suggests a façade of participation that is not so much intended to bring more democratic legitimacy or open debate to the space, but to simply relieve decision-makers of accountability. In light of these shortcomings, some memory activists have decided to refuse any engagement with the memorial, while others have chosen to radically resignify the space. In this chapter, we suggest reading the struggle over the site of the memorial, in part, as a struggle over different notions of meaningful democratic participation in the public contestation of the past. We suggest that when mnemonic actors engage in struggles over sites of memory, they not only make claims about events in the past; they also, implicitly or explicitly, make claims about the functions of memorials as sites of persuasion and, specifically, about their relationship to democratic ideals and practices.

(Co-authored with Benjamin Nienass, in Joyce Apsel and Amy Sodaro (eds.), Museums and Sites of Persuasion: Poltics, Memory and Human Rights, Routledge, 2019; translated into Spanish in Juan Espíndola y Mónica Serrano, eds. Verdad, justicia y memoria en contextos de violencia criminal, México, El Colegio de México, forthcoming).