MEXICO CITY — Reeling from a drug war that has killed tens of thousands and a boom in violent crime in general, Mexico has built a memorial to victims of violence. But like a crime scene still under investigation, it sits off limits behind white tarp, wrapped in questions and uncertainty.
A series of rusted metal slabs amid reflecting pools in a corner of Mexico City’s biggest park, the memorial now stands as an accidental metaphor for the fog and doubts that swirl around the country’s layered debates on violence and victimhood.
Rushed to completion by President Felipe Calderón, whose six-year term was overwhelmed by the explosion of violence, the site has not yet publicly opened. On Nov. 30, in Mr. Calderón’s last 90 minutes in office, his administration sent a short e-mail to reporters announcing that the memorial was complete and in the hands of the civic groups that had called for it.
But in fact the transfer of the military-owned site has been mired in bureaucratic delays, and there remains disagreement over who the victims are — particularly in the bloody war against drug cartels and other organized crime that has consumed the country.
“We are fighting a war against an enemy we don’t know,” said Viridiana Rios, a Mexican researcher at Harvard University and former adviser to the Interior Ministry who is studying drug war deaths. “We need to answer to the public. There are claims many of the victims are innocent. I would like to know if that is the case.”
Few debates in the country are as divisive or politically charged as that over the storm of violence in recent years, with mass shootings and bodies hung from bridges, evidently the work of cartels, but also other killings, violent robberies, kidnappings and extortion that may or may not be the work of organized crime.
A year ago, Mr. Calderón’s government released its last count of presumed drug-war dead — 47,515 since the end of 2006 — and then refused to release any further data, with his aides saying later that the count, dependent in part on reporting from state agencies, was not precise.
Mexican newspapers and academics have done their own counts and believe the figure surpasses 60,000. Most recently, the government released statistics for all homicides, drug-related or not, putting the figure at 102,705 in the past six years, just under half committed with guns.
What is certain is that violent crime often goes unpunished. Nearly 60 percent of the homicides remain unsolved, the Mexican census bureau said recently.
Mr. Calderón’s aides had long asserted that most drug war victims were involved in the trade or other criminal enterprises, judging by the earmarks of heavy weapons used or crime-ridden areas where they were found.
But victims’ advocates note that many bodies, some dug up from common graves after perhaps years, remain unclaimed and unidentified, leaving the circumstances of their deaths a mystery. In addition to the known killings, some 25,000 people have been reported missing in the past six years. How many fell victim to violence is unknown.
A new law, stalled during Mr. Calderón’s term but enacted a little more than a month after Mr. Peña Nieto took office on Dec. 1, aims to compile a more precise registry of crime victims and provide financial relief for their survivors, though critics contend the law does not clearly address who exactly a victim is or how the fund will be paid for.
The law and the memorial grew out of the emerging victims’ rights movement, but reflect also the uncertainties of assigning guilt and innocence.
In this case, said Luis Vázquez, a scholar at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Mexico City, the split is between the middle and upper classes, which are concerned about crimes like kidnapping and extortion, and human rights groups, which are focused on abuses of the military and the police in the warlike attack on cartels.
“There are two groups and two discussions going on related to victims of crime,” he said.
It follows that those two sides disagree on whom the memorial should honor. They even dispute who came up with the idea for it.
Javier Sicilia, a poet embraced by the left whose son was murdered by a drug gang in the south-central city of Cuernavaca in 2011, said he first proposed a memorial for drug-war victims at a security forum in November 2011 with Mr. Calderón.
But another advocate for the memorial offers a different account. Isabel Miranda de Wallace, whose son was kidnapped for ransom in Mexico City in 2005 and never seen again, said she had long pushed for a memorial to all victims of violence and mentioned it to Mr. Calderón a year earlier. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Mexico City last year as the candidate of Mr. Calderón’s right-leaning National Action Party, but says she is not a member of any party.
“I told him we have a lot of people in pain,” said Ms. Wallace, now the memorial’s biggest champion.
In the end, the administration agreed to provide nearly $2 million for the project and helped organize a monthlong contest among architects, who submitted 68 designs to a panel of judges from architectural schools and civic groups.
The designated site was a military parcel next to a parade ground in the city’s enormous Chapultepec Park. That angered Mr. Sicilia and others who view the military’s heavy-handed actions as abusive. “As you can imagine, we see that as an insult to the dead, the suffering of victims, the pain of the country and historical memory,” he said.
The winning design was led by Ricardo López Martín and two other architects. Just off one of the city’s main boulevards, its several dozen rusted slabs, set in a shady garden, evoke the passage of time and at night are illuminated from within. Some showcase quotations from the likes of Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez and Anne Frank. Visitors can leave messages, too.
Ms. Wallace concedes the project got fast-tracked with the goal of dedicating it before Mr. Calderón left office. Planned for a week before he stepped down, the ceremony failed to come to pass. However, two weeks before leaving office, Mr. Calderón publicly dedicated a nearby memorial to fallen soldiers.
Now, Ms. Wallace said, the opening of the victims’ memorial must wait until the paperwork transferring the property from military to civilian use is completed, possibly in February.
Mr. Calderón, who begins teaching at Harvard this month and has been the subject of protests there, declined to comment through a spokeswoman. The office of his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, would not say if he would attend a dedication, acknowledging no date was set.
Some passers-by have no idea what is behind the white tarp in the park, and some who do frown on it as an unwelcome reminder of their country’s troubles.
“I won’t be bringing my daughter to see a monument to victims of violence,” said Gabriel Ruiz, a publicist who passes the shrouded construction every day and believes most of the victims were involved in crime themselves.
Anibel Renteria, a secretary having lunch in the park, said, “If this gives comfort to people who lost somebody, it seems fine to do, but I never would have had this idea.”
January 23, 2013
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
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Honoring Drug War Dead, and Spurring a Debate