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The Politics of Mourning

“Acapulco, September 18 [2010]. Two unidentified men, decapitated in the town of Coyuca de Catalán. Heads thrown into a soft-drink bottling plant from two moving vehicles. One has its eyes masked with gray industrial adhesive tape. The bodies have not been identified.” “Juárez, Chihuahua, December 27 [2010]. On Jarudo and Sierra Candelaria streets, in the community of Jarudo, two young students were riddled with holes and charred by Molotov cocktails in the red Silverado pickup in which they were travelling. The first, aged 18, was a student at the Colegio de Bachilleres, and the second a student on the Physical Education course at Chihuahua University; their names as yet unknown.” “Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes.  February 19 [2011]. A man was found dead, his throat slit, on the state’s Highway 77 East.” “Acapulco, Guerrero, March 7 [2011]. Police discover three heads in plastic bags in the tunnel connecting the port with the outskirts of the city. A message was found bearing the announcement that the acts had been perpetrated in reprisal for a murder carried out during an attempted kidnapping.” “Chihuahua, April 26 [2011]. Two young women were shot dead in the Barrio Azul community.  The victims’ names have not been released.”[1]

1.

To begin like that, by laying out a few crimes, recalling a few deaths, might be seen as suspect: an overly sensationalist start, an early bit of emotional blackmail. But this is precisely our subject, men and women murdered in Mexico from December 2006 to date, and what is to be done about it: there’s just no way we can talk about this subject and simultaneously dodge the eschatological and affective aspects that go along with it.  How many deaths are we talking about, exactly? According to official figures released by President Felipe Calderón on January 12, 2011 it’s 34,612—that is, 34,612 homicides related to illegal drug trafficking and the federal government’s fight against organized crime. By today, at the start of June 2011, this figure has already been exceeded and must have surpassed forty thousand homicides—and counting. What do we know about these crimes? What we do know, or at least have known for five months, thanks to the extraordinary investigation carried out by Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo (in his report “Homicides 2008–2009: Death Is Granted Permission,” Nexos, January 2011), is that violence in Mexico has increased dramatically over the last three and a half years. What we do know is that after two decades of a systematic downward trend, the national homicide rate shot up by fifty percent in 2008 and a further fifty percent in 2009. What we do know is that in 2008 there were 5,207 executions, another 6,587 in 2009, and that in the last year alone there were 15,237 homicides recorded that were linked to organized crime. It is also quite clear that violence rose in every state in the republic (excepting only one: Yucatán), and that the greatest increases took place precisely in those zones where the famous “military operations” were implemented. The most brutal example of all this is, of course, Ciudad Juárez: in 2007—the year that saw the start of the military operation in the area—there was a rate of 14.4 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants; three years later this had already reached 108.5 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants, the highest rate of any city in the world. What do we know about those killed? Considerably less, and not all of it reliable. According to the Secretariat of Public Security, 2,076 municipal, federal, and state police were assassinated in Mexico between December 2006 and August of last year[2]. According to the National Commission on Human Rights, between January 2006 and March 2011, 8,898 unidentified bodies were buried in the country and 5,397 people were reported missing[3]. According to one news report, which has by now been superseded, during the Calderón administration 647 dead bodies were discovered in 156 secret graves[4]. According to other figures, sprinkled here and there in newspapers and on Web sites, something like fifty percent of people who are riddled by hails of gunfire, in face-to-face confrontations and settlings of scores, are never identified, and at least twelve thousand bodies that were never identified have been buried in mass graves up and down the country over a period of four and a half years. Though to call them bodies suggests there’s more to them than there often is; rather: heads, trunks, arms, legs, feet, decomposed or charred, bullet-ridden or mutilated, from which is hung a little tag with the initials NN—no name. No name. This is the most visible product of these four and a half years of fighting against organized crime: a vast, shapeless heap of dead bodies in which the corpses of drug barons and soldiers and hit men and policemen lie side by side, all jumbled up together, with mayors and kidnappees and kidnappers and dealers and migrants and coyotes (smugglers of migrants) and peasants and workers and journalists and civilians, thousands of them nameless and buried in mass graves, without any ceremony or any mourning. This is the image that for some time has been occupying and saturating public debate in Mexico: an undefined, unspeakable heap of corpses, so large and heavy that it distorts space and pulls every conversation toward it. It’s at this point that the eyes and the voices of countless public figures have ended up coming together: with all the reasons that provided support to the federal campaign against drug-trafficking now left behind, a growing number of writers and academics and journalists and bloggers and tweeters have ended up focusing their attention on the effects of that campaign—that is, on the dead. How many are there? Who are they? How can they be explained? It is, indeed, no exaggeration to say that today, at the heart of Mexico’s public arena, there’s a heated dispute underway: a dispute over these dead—whether to deny them or to name them, to stigmatize or martyr them, to silence them or give them meaning. The dead are there, in their thousands, mute and powerless, relatively anonymous, and there is no shortage of social actors who are fighting to appropriate them and to integrate them somehow or other into their different ideological discourses.

2.

It is often said that the federal government does not have a strategy—a clear, robust, sustainable strategy—for fighting organized crime. Only very occasionally does anyone add that they do make use of a handful of very obvious communications tactics in order to try and minimize the consequences of this fight. At first, when the facts about the increase in violence had not yet managed to sneak their way into public opinion, the maneuver consisted simply in denying the increase, attributing it to an alleged media illusion. Calderón himself, along with the heads of the different government ministries and those in charge of the security services, insisted that the number of crimes had not increased, that the only thing that had increased was the amount of attention the media were paying them, and they even reprimanded the press and television for publicizing crimes that were not more regular but merely more spectacular than they had previously been. Later on, when evidence had begun to demonstrate that homicides were indeed increasing, and even now, when we have confirmation that they have skyrocketed, the government insisted, and insists, on localizing the problem: they accept that violence has flared up, but—they add—only in certain places. For example, Alejandro Poiré, the sinister technical secretary of the Council of National Security, stated: “70 percent of homicides took place in 85 of the country’s municipalities.”[5] He gives itemized detail: 36 percent of them occurred in only four municipalities—figures with which he wants to demonstrate that “the violence that embodies this conflict is not widespread across the whole country,” and that it would appear to be a little local issue: something to do with local councils and municipal representatives and unions. Since it’s also not all that easy to hide violence, the government chooses less and less to deny it or localize it, and more and more to ascribe it almost exclusively to the drug cartels. In the official rhetoric, violence does exist: it’s a violence perpetrated by gangs of drug traffickers on other gangs of drug traffickers. A cause exists, too: the realigning of power between these gangs. The confrontations and executions have multiplied, so the argument goes, because the government campaign has been effective, and that with the capture or elimination of certain drug barons, power vacuums have been created within the cartels which the hit men are using bullets to fill. That is to say, the increase in crime is a demonstration that the government is winning the war against criminal gangs. That is not the only absurdity: logic is also twisted to indicate the culpability of drug traffickers without any recognition of the culpability of the State itself. Or to put it another way: they hide the fact that the number of homicides—which are doubtless committed, unjustifiably and inexcusably, by the criminal gangs—only soared when the State undertook a disorganized, improvised crusade against them, and most of all in those places where it was most in operation. At this point it hardly even matters any more whether or not the crusade was necessary. Four and a half years after the start of this campaign it’s obvious that the government is directly responsible for the escalation in violence, and that it is also their responsibility to put a stop to it and return things to the way they used to be. The federal government’s policy concerning the approximately forty thousand dead is no less irresponsible. They state, almost mechanically: the victims are not victims but murderers, the dead were members of criminal gangs and they have been executed by other criminal gangs. The National Security Council specifies: eighty-nine of every hundred deaths were linked to drug trafficking. Only very occasionally do they specify what sort of drug traffickers they were: whether they were drug barons and hit men or peasants growing marijuana or migrants who were “picked up” and forced to carry a package from one place to another. Only very occasionally do they offer proof to demonstrate the murder victim’s links to drug trafficking: apparently the mere fact of the crime having taken place within an “execution context” is proof enough that the victim “was a member of organized crime” (the sinister Poiré, again). There are thousands of occasions when the dead are not altogether convincingly identified—sometimes because the bodies are so decomposed and dismembered that there is no way to identify them, sometimes because it’s easier to brand as a narco a dead man who doesn’t have so much as a name with which to defend himself.  One by one, the government’s strategies have been losing credibility and effectiveness.  The theory of media illusion? Nowadays there’s a lot of information to hand that demonstrates that the increase in homicides is no fiction, it’s no sham. The argument that violence is contained within a small number of places? It’s unsustainable, now that the conflict has spilled beyond the north of the country and infected zones which had previously been so peaceful, such as Colima and cities that, in spite of everything, had managed to retain something of the standing of a holiday oasis—Cuernavaca and Acapulco. The idea that practically all the violence is a product of the rivalry between criminal gangs?  Though this is partly correct, it is inadequate to explain the complexity of violence in Mexico (there is more than just narco-violence—social violence, economic violence, racial violence, gender violence), nor to understand the brutal collective massacres carried out against civilians. May 2010, Taxco, Guerrero: 55 bodies in the ventilation shaft of a mine. August 2010, San Fernando, Tamaulipas: 72 corpses in a hidden burial pit, all of them Latin American migrants, all of them executed with “kill shots.” November 2010, Acapulco, Guerrero: 20 tourists from Michoacán state, previously reported missing, all of them with signs of having been tortured. March 2011, San Fernando, Tamaulipas: another hidden burial pit, 183 bodies, almost all of them badly beaten, passengers on commercial buses kidnapped on their way from one city to another. April 2011, Durango, Durango: dozens of hidden burial pits, bodies found almost daily, 228 bodies to date. How is it possible to explain this, all this, by means of the propositions that the government is offering? These crimes and many others, perhaps less grotesque but nonetheless perpetrated against men and women on the very fringes of the drugs trade, have ended up delegitimizing the final official argument: that almost ninety percent of the victims were members of criminal gangs.

One case in particular, which was decisive in public debate, put a dent in this argument forever: the episode in which Calderón hurried to classify as pandilleros—gang members—fifteen adolescents murdered on January 31, 2010, in Villas de Salvárcar, Juárez. When it was discovered that the young people were students and had absolutely no connection to any gang, it became clear that the category of pandillero—just like those ideas of narco, complicity, execution and settling of scores are just that: categories that the federal government assigns to actions and bodies, sometimes rigorously and sometimes irresponsibly. In other words, it showed that government practice consists less of identifying the dead than attributing a certain category to them, and that this attribution is, it can be, doubtful or simply erroneous. Which brings us, then, back to the beginning: to this shapeless, muddled heap of forty thousand barely identified dead bodies.

3.

It’s quite clear that the federal government could have acted differently. Rather than turning their noses up at the dead, and stigmatizing them, they could have appropriated thousands of them and taken advantage of them for use in their campaign against the drug trade. Appropriating and taking advantage are not happy phrases to apply to the dead, it’s true, but what they describe are in fact fairly common practice and outside the country. Governments often use the dead, turning them into martyrs for a cause, laying the blame for them on the enemy, employing them as a “free pass” and a banner for certain policies. In this case, the Calderón administration could have made an effort to identify the innocent victims of the conflict and recognize them as martyrs of the campaign against the narcos. But in order to do this, to integrate the victims into a story, they first need to have a story and the federal government has no such thing. Four and a half years after it started up, the crusade against the drug cartels is still not attached to a convincing narrative; forty thousand deaths later, the authorities still haven’t completely dispelled the suspicion that they launched the campaign without any prior planning, anxious about economic expectations and the shadow of illegitimacy hovering over them, without having supplied themselves in advance with any screenplay, without anticipating the motivations for the action, the roles played by each of the characters, the unfolding of the whole enterprise. Not that long ago, Calderón was still pondering whether the military offensive he had ordered was or was not a war: he said it wasn’t, and the following day a number of journalists pointed out to him that he himself had said that it was. It’s a question of the federal government not only having refused to recognize and keep vigil for the victims: they have also obstructed the mourning of others. Rather like the character of Creon whose edict to the city enjoins “that none shall entomb him or mourn, but leave unwept, unsepulchred,” Calderón has pledged to dispel any possibility for collective mourning. It isn’t only that he has not (as has happened so often elsewhere) declared a day of national mourning; it’s that for some time now—as evidenced by his first reaction to the marches that followed the killing of Juan Francisco Sicilia—he takes any public displays of mourning to be a betrayal of the State, as proof of a moral complicity with the drug trade.  In order to discourage such practices, to obstruct the marking of a public mourning, the government operates as has been described: they disqualify the dead a priori. At the same time it gives an account of these dead mechanically, in technical, heavily bureaucratic language, as though by doing so they might neutralize the political and affective charge of these dead bodies and discourage their citizens’ feelings of empathy toward them. What could be a better example of this than the ill-fated “Database of homicides presumed to be linked to organized crime,” which the federal government launched in January 2011 and which a month later had its name changed to “Database of deaths resulting from presumed criminal rivalries.” There, in that cybernetic mass grave, the dead are not registered by name, nor even with a tag to suggest that they were once human beings; the dead are lodged in one of three categories: “violent executions,” “confrontations,” or “acts of aggression against authority.”

According to Judith Butler, “What follows […] from prohibitions on avowing grief in public is an effective mandate in favor of a generalized melancholia”[6]. It is fair to suppose that Freud—or at least the Freud of Mourning and Melancholia—would have agreed with her. In this paper of 1915 Freud found that both states, mourning and melancholia, have a common origin, the loss of someone or something loved, and that in principle they share the same symptoms: a “loss of interest in the outside world, […] loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love […], turning away from any activity that is not connected with thoughts of [the deceased].” The difference, he pointed out, is that the person in a state of mourning knows what he has lost, whereas someone experiencing melancholia “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost” and suffers “an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale.” In melancholia the suffering is diffuse, pathological, and only undermines the subject’s self-esteem; in mourning, in contrast, what is suffered is a concrete loss and the suffering fulfills a function: “each single of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object [the love object—the person who has died] is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it.” That is, “when the work of mourning is completed, the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.”[7]

And yet: is it possible to talk about the Mexican case as a state of generalized melancholia? Is it possible to say that this huge, imprecise heap of dead bodies and the lack of public mourning has ended up plunging the country’s citizenry into a state of melancholic rumination? Is it possible to back up this argument with the repeated op-eds that refer to the pessimism of Mexican society, and with those statistical studies that detect—or think they detect—high rates of depression and listlessness among Mexicans? I don’t know whether it’s possible to speak in these terms (“citizenry,” “Mexicans”) and I’m afraid that using this sort of psychological category, melancholia, ends up rarefying a problem that is eminently social and political. On the other hand I am quite sure that it is possible and reasonable to speak of trauma. It is possible to follow Roland Barthes in pointing out that “trauma is a suspension of language, a blocking of meaning”: a shock-image-experience “about which there is nothing to say”[8]. It is easy to discern the role of trauma in the suffering of Mexican civil society since the end of 2006: as a traumatic experience, as a fact that stuns into a state of astonishment and strikes dumb, which evades the usual narratives of signification, resistant both to the official victorious discourse and to the victimist accounts of its citizens. It’s relatively easy to see this feeling of stunned astonishment here and there, on blogs and in the papers, in the repeated jeremiads of the one or the desperate metaphors used by the other to try to understand the scale of what has occurred. That if all the dead bodies were lined up end to end the chain would stretch from Zócalo Square in Mexico City to the city of Toluca. That if a minute’s silence were to be held for each of the dead it would be necessary to keep quiet for twenty-seven days. That if the bodies were piled up by the Angel de la Independencia victory column, that if forty thousand letters were sent to the presidential residence at Los Pinos, that if, etc. Such a feeling of alarm, the same disturbance that follows trauma, was visible until recently in the Mexican intellectual arena. To begin with, the escalation in violence did not come accompanied by an escalation in public debate. Rather the contrary: as the conflict intensified and the numbers of the dead began to accumulate, cultural production surrounding the drug trade seemed to maintain the same old inertia—little novels on the drug trade, reportage on the drug barons, more or less precise criticism of this or that detail of the government offensive. Even now, four and a half years on, there is no essay that tries to explain the conflict altogether, there is no novel that seeks to represent “the violence,” no speech that risks assimilating those disparate forty thousand unclassifiable corpses to its heart. And that’s fine: stories, great stories, tend to appease—and it isn’t a matter of that here. It’s a matter of overcoming the trauma without concealing the wound. It’s a matter of passing from melancholia over to mourning, not in order to allow the people to get through it, to throw earth over the dead, but to abandon that state of stunned astonishment and retrieve the agency that has been lost: to leave the state of shock, to adopt a critical posture. This impossible mourning that Derrida wrote about, which helps us to carry the dead within ourselves while at the same time being reminded that the dead person was always someone else, is always someone else. This lucid, tense mourning experienced and described, again, by Barthes: “Mourning: not a crushing oppression, a blockage (which would suppose a ‘filling’), but a painful availability: I am vigilant, expectant, awaiting the onset of a ‘sense of life’.”[9]

“And then”—writes Judith Butler—“there is something else that one cannot ‘get over’, one cannot ‘work through’, which is the deliberate act of violence against a collectivity, humans who have been rendered anonymous for violence and whose death recapitulates an anonymity for memory. Such violence cannot be ‘thought’, constitutes an assault on thinking, negates thinking in the mode of recollection and recovery. But what then emerges in the place of thought? Or what new thought emerges? It is not as if thinking ceases, but after such an internal break, it continues, and that continuation is founded and structured by that break, carries the break with it as the signature of its history. We might say, in Benjaminian fashion, that thought emerges from the ruins, as the ruins, of this decimation. It does not constitute its reversal or recuperation, its animated afterlife. [. . .] What results is a melancholic agency who cannot know its history as the past, cannot capture its history through chronology, and does not know who it is except as the survival, the persistence of a certain unavowability that haunts the present.”[10]

4.

It might be possible to track, in more or less detail, the growing cracks in this state of astonishment, the progressive overcoming of this trauma in the Mexican literary arena. In order to do this, it would be necessary to go, sooner or later, beyond conventional media—books, newspapers, magazines—and deal with the growing critical activity carried out by writers on blogs, Twitter and social networking sites, support mechanisms that (unlike the others) make it possible to follow events in real time and establish immediate positions, without the mediation of a publisher or the burden of “literary” production. It would be necessary, too, to go beyond the obvious intellectual groups and find emerging writers from both within and outside Mexico (Lolita Bosch and Jorge Harmodio, for example) who have been promoting initiatives that have tended to dispel the astonishment of the literary arena. Consider at least three projects set up on the Internet, all three of them launched or carried out during 2010, all three supported by writers and journalists. The first, which in some respects was the catalyst for the other two, is the group blog Our Apparent Surrender—a platform created and animated by the Catalan-Mexican writer Lolita Bosch, where a number of literary texts on violence (essays, poems, stories, articles) are reproduced that have been published in various other places, an archive in a permanent state of construction which, as it creates a critical corpus, generates debate within it and launches new texts.

The second is the Web site 72 Migrants—a “virtual altar” to the 72 Latin American migrants murdered in Tamaulipas in August 2010—devised by the Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto and made up of funerary texts by 72 writers, one for each of those killed. The third is the collective blog Fewer Days Here—a daily inventory of the victims of violence in Mexico, an archive which from the time of its establishment, on September 12, 2010, to date, contains more than ten thousand entries like this: “The charred remains of a man were reported found shortly after ten in the morning this past Monday, when a scavenger stumbled across them in the Moctezuma community of the Xalapa Territorial Reservation.” It’s clear that these projects—and the last two especially—are implementing a strategy that is precisely the opposite of the government’s. Faced with an imprecise heap of dead bodies: clarifying, recognizing, naming. Faced with victims: mourning. Nowadays it’s no longer necessary to gather evidence to demonstrate that the trauma is beginning to dissipate. Nowadays the sense of stunned astonishment has been definitively overcome in the Mexican literary arena.

Just one event, the killing of Juan Francisco Sicilia, the son of poet Javier Sicilia, and of six others on March 28, 2011, in Cuernavaca, Morelos, managed to shake up the literary world and put right in its center, once and for all, the subject of the war against the drug trade. The death of young Sicilia was followed by statements signed by a number of writers, all of them more or less questioning the state campaign against the drug trade, and the most intense debates within the Mexican intellectual arena since the 2006 presidential elections, whether on the legalization of drug use, or on the effectiveness of the marches, among those who still support the official strategy and those who demand a rethinking or even a complete cessation of the offensive. One way or another, the dilemma that for two or three years silenced the large part of Mexican intelligentsia—is it Calderón or is it the traffickers?—has been dismantled and what seems to have been established in its place is another formulation, which is obviously more suited to critical debate: it is the fault of the traffickers, it is the responsibility of the government. More important still: the death of Juan Francisco Sicilia inspired the most numerous displays of public mourning since the conflict began. On Wednesday, April 6 more than thirty-five thousand people marched in Cuernavaca, with Javier Sicilia at their head, and tens of thousands of others were protesting simultaneously in thirty-eight cities around the country and a few abroad. The Cuernavaca march, half funeral procession, half political protest, which involved both people with candles and people with placards, set out from a place that is more or less neutral, the Monument of the Dove of Peace, and paused at two obviously political sites—a military zone and the Legislative Congress—before ending up at the city’s central square, opposite the Government Palace. At each of the three stops, Sicilia—a devout Catholic and self-confessed leftist, a combination that makes each group as uncomfortable as the other—read different texts, all three of them quite singular hybrids of a funeral oration and a political pamphlet. It all culminated that same night, and in a decidedly combative fashion, when Sicilia issued the  governor an ultimatum—either solve his son’s murder  before April 13, or resign—and announced that he and others would camp out in the main square of Cuernavaca until one or the other had happened. It might seem imprecise to use the word mourning to describe such a public, political demonstration as this was, or as that which took place in early May, a march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City and a massive rally in the capital’s Zócalo Square. That is the view of those who, prior to April 6, demanded that the marches should not be politicized and who, from that day on, lamented the fact that mourning—which for them was a private and religious matter—should have degenerated into politics. But mourning does not degenerate into politics: mourning is politics. How to recall the dead? Which dead? Who is to recall them? In what space is this to happen? When? Finding answers to any of these questions implies the adoption of a polemical position, most especially in times of war or generalized violence. Institutions, bureaucracies, hierarchies, laws, codes: all these are set in motion when someone mourns for a person who has died. The mere fact of recalling is already a political act: the person recalling resists the passing of the past, reconstructing in a biased way what has happened and bringing into a present a ghost that is ready to be given meaning. The idea that it is impossible to mourn and simultaneously be politically active is therefore just a trap: another invitation to melancholia.

Maybe it is because the origin of these demonstrations was the killing of seven people, or perhaps because at their head marched a father who had just lost his son, but only very few people have ventured openly to censure the movement, and many others have been obliged to hide their reservations, or their outright hostility, behind a couple of feeble moral criticisms. First, that the movement does not adequately condemn drug trafficking, and instead of railing against the cartels, it pins responsibility on the government. Second, that in lamenting the deaths of forty thousand people the movement is ignoring the fact that in doing so it is crying not only for the victims but also for the thousands of murderers  who have been executed. The first criticism scarcely needs to be refuted: do you really want the demonstrators to choose as their interlocutors the cartels rather than the elected authorities? Do you really think citizens should be demanding public safety from criminals rather than from those who govern them? As far as I’m aware Calderón is president of the country, and it’s up to his government to ensure a peaceful, secure civil life. As long as this remains the case, and violence continues to devastate the land, there is nothing more sensible and democratic than going out onto the streets to shout and criticize and jeer and condemn and make demands of Calderón’s government.

It is true, on the other hand, that nowadays it isn’t possible to mourn for all the victims of violence in Mexico, identified and unidentified without, in the process, ending up sitting vigil for thousands of murderers. Yes, in an ideal situation it would be best to know the identities and stories of those who have died, to distinguish between victims and murderers and then proceed accordingly. But this, evidently, is not an ideal situation, and here the victims and the murderers lie side by side in the same graves. In this situation a citizen, unable to retrieve the bodies and identify them for himself, ultimately has two options: either he does nothing and allows the trauma to become normalized, or he performs a general, collective mourning of the dead, accepting that in the process he will be including thousands of criminals. At one extreme, there is that sense of astonishment: waiting and watching as they pile up the dead—how many of them? And on the other,  the decision to act—an action that is polemical but is after all an action, at least: running the risk of including murderers in his mourning on condition that he can recover his power of agency and go out into the streets and voice his complaints to the government and bewail the destiny of thousands of beings who have been tortured, disappeared, murdered. Isn’t it evident that one option leads to melancholia and that the other, while morally disputable, fires up whoever chooses it and contributes toward activating a civic life that is being depressed, almost destroyed, by the climate of violence?

Ultimately it’s this that is the most beneficial about the movement led by Javier Sicilia: and a movement is exactly what it is. At this precise moment, as I write, a column of hundreds of people, with Sicilia at their head, the Convoy for Peace, is making its way along a Durango highway, heading toward Saltillo, having just left Cuernavaca and stopped at five of the country’s cities. We should hope that on its way the convoy will grow and receive the support of different groups—then it will be possible to criticize them, its contradictory makeup, the Pancho Villas, the perredistas, too (these are the militants from Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution). There is no doubt that, as the days go by and the procession approaches its final destination, Ciudad Juárez, the movement will fire off new statements, new texts—then there will be things to say about them: about the poetic tone, as well as the ambiguity of the imagery, as well as Sicilia’s Messianism. It’s fine like that: we must pay attention to whatever happens along the way, and criticize it, if we want; rather this than to go on pretending that this movement is a purely spiritual one, and therefore scarcely possible to criticize, and that it does not damage interests or create new ones or contribute toward reconfiguring public debate. In any case, what is most important is not what happens along the journey, but the journey itself: the fact that right now hundreds of people are making their way along a Durango highway and that just by doing this they are widening the horizons of public life and breaking the oppressive dichotomy of our times (either it’s Calderón or it’s the traffickers) to introduce new social actors onto the scene—next of kin, poets, the fathers of the disappeared, citizens prepared to give the dead some meaning.

A march might not seem much, and some people must be fed up with them by now. But what is undoubtedly true is that the marches called by Sicilia have brought something new, a breath of oxygen, into the country’s political life, and have had major consequences. Three or four months ago, nobody was marching to question the official campaign against the drug trade and these highways were things to be rushed across, fearfully. Three or four months ago, Mexican intellectuals—with a few isolated exceptions—sat petrified in their cubicles and their libraries, and now a poet is marching at the head of a multitude—does poetry embody something now? Three or four months ago, a feeling of generalized unease and disturbance was depressing almost all of civil society, and now this same feeling is propelling tens of thousands of people out onto the streets and organizing groups of citizens. This isn’t all that much? Of course, containing the violence requires more than just a march, and no demonstration will be able, alone, to provoke what this country most needs: profound structural changes, a radical redistribution of resources. But it’s important to be candid: there is something important happening right now—and it’s thanks to a father who refuses to allow his son to be dragged into nothingness.

—April 2011

An earlier version of this text was read (in Spanish) on April 29, 2011, at a symposium held at the Graduate Center of the  City University of New York.


[1] All these have been taken from the website: menosdiasaqui.blogspot.com

[2] “Five presumed members of ‘La Linea’ held” – El Economista, 13th August 2010.

[3] “Missing, more than 5000 people since 2006: CNDH” – El Economista, 2nd April, 2011.

[4] “156 Graves Found in Five Years” – Reforma, 19th April, 2011.

[5] “Homicides and the violence of organized crime,” Nexos, February 2011.

[6] Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence, London and New York, Verso, 2004, p. 37.

[7] Sigmund Freud, from vol. XIV of the Standard Edition, The Hogarth Press, tr. James Strachey, 1957.

[8] Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” tr. Stephen Heath – in Image-Music-Text, Fontana, 1977.

[9] Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary; tr. Richard Howard; Notting Hill Editions, 2011, p.80.

[10] “Afterword: After loss, what then?,” in Loss: the politics of mourning, eds. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003, p. 468.