Mexico memorial to drug war victims inspires debate

MEXICO CITY — It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: a memorial to the thousands of victims of the drug violence that has convulsed Mexico for most of the last decade.

Washington, after all, has its Vietnam War memorial. New York has its monument at the site of the World Trade Center.

But even as the winning design was being announced, Mexico's tribute was stricken by the conflicting visions and bitter disputes that have driven wedges into Mexican society.

Innocent civilians, police officers on duty and soldiers fighting drug cartels are among the more than 50,000 dead in the government's crackdown on the cartels. But there are also huge numbers of bad guys: traffickers, their thuggish gunmen, their corrupt politician accomplices. Does the memorial speak for all of them? And if not, how do you winnow the memorialized?

And how do you pay homage to the unknown? Most of the drug war's dead are nameless, bodies unidentified, survivors in hiding.

Then there's the issue of who's footing the $2-million bill: the same government that many peace activists blame, at least in part, for the violence.

The selected design, by architect Ricardo Lopez, is a stand of 15 steel walls arrayed around a reflecting pool off Mexico City's iconic Reforma Boulevard. According to artists' renderings, the walls resemble rust-colored billboards, some with mirrors that will reflect the trees in the surrounding park.

The idea of erecting a memorial came from activists protesting the violence, which has also left 10,000 missing and thousands more survivors of kidnappings and rapes. Chief among the activists is Isabel Miranda de Wallace, an upper-middle-class matron who became involved when her son was kidnapped and killed.

"This is to have a space where we all can pass by … to remember the pain we have lived, the people we have lost," Miranda de Wallace, who was the unsuccessful mayoral candidate in Mexico City this year for the ruling conservative National Action Party, said in an interview.

But another prominent activist, poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed by presumed drug traffickers when he was out one night with friends, is having none of it.

"This is not a memorial; it is an insult … a barbarity," said Sicilia, whose followers lean mostly to the left.

"A true memorial must be part of a process, a process of identifying the dead, of acknowledging the truth, of reconciliation," he said.

Angering some activists, the government announced that the memorial would be situated alongside a military field near the presidential compound, not inside the universally admired historic Chapultepec Park as originally proposed. The army and navy have been the bulwarks of the fight against the cartels, but they have also been increasingly mired in human rights abuses, including torture and murder.

The erection of memorials is often controversial. Citizens, survivors and families of the dead argued passionately over the design, scope and placement of the memorials marking the Vietnam War and the Sept. 11 attacks. But in those cases, the commemorations came long after the bloodshed was over.

Mexico, by contrast, remains gripped by the violence that this monument will mark. It is an achingly inconclusive phenomenon.

Alvaro Vazquez Mantecon, who produced one of Mexico's most important memorials, one paying homage to students massacred by government troops in 1968, said the drug war monument could play the important role of "giving dignity to victims who were often criminalized by authorities." (Because so many dead were not identified, the authorities often lumped them all together as villains.)

But Vazquez added in comments to the Reforma newspaper that he wasn't sure the memorial furthered the kind of understanding that was needed.

Miranda de Wallace said discussions of whether the monument would be engraved with names — and how to choose them — would be held this month by a 10-member committee from citizen organizations. "That is the most complicated part," she said, acknowledging that she would not want her son's name alongside that of a cartel hit man.

Mauricio Rivero Borrell, an architect who headed the committee that selected the winning design, said loved ones would be allowed to place candles and flowers to honor specific victims but that listing names seemed unrealistic. "Who is the jury that decides that?" he said by telephone. "Who decides who deserves to be included and who doesn't deserve?"

The government of President Felipe Calderon also came under criticism for appearing to rush the design process, which played out in record time. Critics said it seemed more important to the government to build the monument before Calderon leaves office Dec. 1 than to construct the proper tribute.

Some warned against another fiasco like the monument saluting Mexico's bicentennial. The Pillar of Light was finished nearly a year and a half after the anniversary, with a price tag three times the original projected cost. It is now a widely lampooned tower of quartz plates, a lightning rod for criticism of the Calderon administration.

Calderon was also attacked by Sicilia and others for approving the war-victims memorial at the same time he was vetoing a law that would have provided economic, legal and medical assistance to the same community. The administration said the law failed to spell out the responsibilities of local governments; a challenge to the veto has been lodged in the Supreme Court.

The government said it was standing by its plan to build the memorial alongside the military field, Campo Marte, squeezed up against a busy highway. It said the selection process involved many civil-society groups (though it didn't mention the dissenters).

"In a democracy, we respect the opinions of various actors," Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire said at a news conference last week.

Sicilia, at his own news conference, said a memorial that did not incorporate the necessary soul-searching would end up hiding "this national tragedy … as in so many mass graves."

He and his followers said they would build their own monument.

"The memorial," Sicilia said, "is a process of examining what happened, how they died and why … a process that has not even begun."

wilkinson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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