Austin, TX, March 2015*[i]
To Rossana, a glimmering light in the darkness of night.
1. A Nation at the Brink of Its Own Narrative
The night of November 20, 2014, hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered peacefully in central Mexico City in order to claim justice for the enforced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa rural student teachers near Iguala, in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero.[ii] This was one of the many protests held worldwide as part of the Fourth Global Day of Action for Ayotzinapa, which was made to deliberately coincide with the 114th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. At some point during the night, a massive bonfire occurred in center of Mexico City’s Zócalo.
Invoking the Catholic tradition of the Burning of Judas—a ritual celebrated across Mexico as a symbol of the destruction of evil—a group of students burned a huge carton-made figure of the country’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The burning president embodied the anger of a nation weary of decades of the government’s fabricated discourse on social and political advancement, a nation tired of permanently inhabiting the defenselessness brought about by the narcomachine.[iii] It was at once a cathartic and expiatory gesture: the government and civilians had been searching for the 43 students for almost two months. 11 mass graves containing the human remains of 28 people were found in just 17 days near Iguala. But these were not the 43 students. Whose bodies then, were those? On November 7, Mexico’s Attorney General said that the ongoing investigations suggested that the 43 students had been burned alive and their bodies thrown off into a river. In a country like Mexico, still unable to explain the drama that began with the female homicides of Ciudad Juárez in the nineties and the Drug Wars of 2006, the burning figure of Peña Nieto momentarily embodied something that is otherwise impossible of being fully represented.[iv]
The tragedy of Ayotzinapa condenses, or reminds us, rather, of Mexico’s living hell. No other calamity had had similar consequences in the country’s recent history.[v] The 43 students case seems to signal a breaking point for Mexican society. Ayotzinapa is a distinctive case because it is students we are talking about, the unfulfilled promises of a nation. It was also notable for the tremendous role that social media and independent news sources played in creating civic consciousness and in propagating the news internationally, particularly because this crime evidenced the gruesome necropolitcs of fear that affects bodies south of the U.S. border.[vi] In Mexico, the staging of democratic functions coexists with the legal suppression of individual freedoms and the growing rise of forms of social and civic engagement outside official circuits.[vii] The text-image of Ayotzinapa, the posters with the names and faces of the students, or the hashtags #AyotzinapaSomosTodos [#WeAreAllAyotzinapa], #FueElEstado [#ItWasTheState] and #YaMeCansé [#IamTired] are only some of the symbols Mexico has used to try to name the unnamable, to figure the unfigurable.[viii]
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* Luis Vargas Santiago. Austin-based curator and art historian, Luis specializes in modern and contemporary art of the Americas from a transnational perspective. He is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at UT Austin, and got his M.A. in art history from UNAM. The Smithsonian Institution, the Terra Foundation in American Art, and the Fulbright-García Robles Program, among others, have supported his work. He has published peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and catalog essays in Europe, Latin America, and the U.S., and his anthology History’s Bodies: A Nineteenth-Century Latin American Art Reader, co-edited with Andrea Giunta, is forthcoming from Duke University Press (2016). Some of his curatorial projects include: Images of the Mexican (Palais des Beaux-Arts-BOZAR, Belgium, 2010), and El éxodo mexicano: los héroes en la mira del arte (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: @lavx
[i] To be published in Tatiana Reinoza and Luis Vargas-Santiago, Counter-Archives to the Narco-City. Adriana Corral and Alma Leiva, exhibit catalogue (Notre Dame, IN: Counterarchives.org, Copilot Press, 2015).
[ii] On September 26, municipal police forces in the city of Iguala attacked a group of 100 students from the Escuela Rural Normal de Ayotzinapa (Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers School). Six people died in the assault, including three student teachers. 43 were arrested and handed over to a criminal mob with links to Guerreros Unidos, a criminal ring with significant ties to the drug trafficking business. According to the office of the Attorney General, the students were killed and incinerated. A detailed account up to January 2015 can be found in: “Ayotzinapa: A Timeline of the Mass Disappearance That Has Shaken Mexico,” VICE News (U.S.), December 9, 2014, Americas. Accessed: March 20, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/ayotzinapa-a-timeline-of-the-mass-disappearance-that-has-shaken-mexico; and Daniel Hernández “Mexico Says Missing Students Case Is Solved, Despite No New Evidence,” VICE. News (U.S.), January 27, 2015, Americas. Accessed: March 20, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/mexico-says-missing-students-case-is-solved-despite-no-new-evidence.
[iii] The narco-machine is what anthropologist Rossana Reguillo has termed as “the paralegal power that configures and operates an analogous political, social, and economic order dictated by organized crime.” See her full article in Magis (Dec 1, 2014): http://magis.iteso.mx/content/rostros-en-escenas-ayotzinapa-y-la-imposibilidad-del-desentendimiento. Accessed: March 20, 2015.
[iv] Since 2006, the Mexican government has waged an extensive battle against drug cartels, employing the military and police forces at all levels. When president Felipe Calderón left office in 2012, the death toll due to the conflict was estimated to be nearly 60,000. However, the presence of the army only worsened the situation, particularly with regards to human rights near the U.S. border, and in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, and Veracruz. The 2012 elections saw the comeback of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the autocratic party that ruled the country between 1929 and 2000. Peña Nieto’s tenure has thus far shifted the approach in lieu of structural reforms (education, energy, fiscal, and telecommunications and the media) that have done little to alleviate the country’s problems. The conflict has received less media attention and federal resources, but violence, impunity, and human rights violations remain widespread. In particular, enforced disappearances, the Ayotzinapa conflict, numerous corruption scandals, and the clear links between organized crime and government officials have all resulted in a serious governance crisis for Mexico, some say among the worst in its history. See Human Rights Watch World Report (U.S.: Human Rights Watch, 2014), Mexico Chapter 265–72: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/wr2014_web_0.pdf; and the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s Report for Mexico: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15642&LangID=E. Accessed: March 20, 2015.
[v] Some of the most significant examples of state violence and narco-terror of the past 20 years include: the hundreds of female murders in Ciudad Juárez; the death of 17 farmers in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero in 1995 at the hands of local police offers; the killing of 45 members of the Tzotzil indigenous community (including children and pregnant women) in Acteal, Chiapas by paramilitaries; urban clashes in broad daylight; the murder of 15 teenagers in the neighborhood of Villas de Salvárcar, Ciudad Juárez, in 2010; the massacre of 73 Central American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2011; the mass disappearance of 300 people in Allende, Coahuila, also in 2011; the abduction and subsequent murder of 13 young men and women at a Mexico City bar in 2013 (Heaven); the hundreds of mass graves scattered across the country; entire communities taken over by drug crime; severed bodies in regions controlled by traffickers; murdered journalists; an extra-judicial killing of 22 people in the town of Tlataya, State of Mexico that involved the army in 2014; the hundreds of enforced disappearances, kidnappings, and murders that happen every day.
[vi] Rossana Reguillo, “Condensaciones y desplazamientos: Las políticas del miedo en los cuerpos contemporáneos,” e-misférica, no. 42 (November 2007). Accessed: March 20, 2015, http://www.hemi.nyu.edu/journal/4.2/eng/en42_pg_reguillo.html.
[vii] In keeping with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Ma. Concepción Delgado Parra already described Mexico as a state of exception in 2011. When thinking about Tlataya and Ayotzinapa, this reading becomes even more enlightening because of the repressive nature of security forces in Mexico whenever ordinary citizens have wanted to protest peacefully. See: Ma. Concepción Delgado Parra, “Estado de excepción y gobernabilidad en México,” Reflexiones 90, no. 2 (2011): 165–76. Accessed: March 20, 2015, http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=72922586012.
[viii] Following Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “faciality,”,” Rossana Reguillo reflects on the power of Ayotzinapa and the faces of the 43 students in Mexico’s social scene. Reguillo, “Rostros en escenas: Ayotzinapa.”