9. Dezember 2022

Memorials against Impunity

09.12.2022 — Basel, Switzerland

As part of her Mercator Fellowship, Aline Wani is creating a virtual memorial for the victims of disappearances in Mexico. In a conversation with her team members, forensic architect Sergio Beltrán-García and film maker Maevia Griffiths, she examines creative approaches to justice in contexts of impunity and lack of political will.

Over 108’000 people disappeared and are missing in Mexico, most of them since 2006. As with most crimes in Mexico, disappearances remain largely unresolved. By the end of 2021, just a tiny fraction of cases had been prosecuted, and only 36 judgments issued at the national level. This is while an average of almost two clandestine graves with unidentified bodies are discovered every day in Mexico. The federal government openly acknowledged that the country is facing a humanitarian crisis when the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances visited Mexico last year. Yet, at the same time, it promotes narratives that criminalise the victims of disappearances.

Our project aims to put the victims of these unresolved crimes at the center of attention. The plan is to build a “forest of hope” — El Bosque de la Esperanza — to provide alternative avenues for access to the right to memory across Mexico. We propose a low-cost, modular, decentralised, self-constructing and self-managed memorial, building on interdisciplinary aesthetic approaches. Immersive technologies will be used to contribute to the rehumanization of victims.

If we succeed, the memorial will not only create a dignified space for the relatives of disappeared persons to remember their loved ones, but also work against the stigmatisation of victims within their communities.

Árbol de la esperanza (Tree of Hope) in Silao, Guanajuato, 2022, taken by Bibiana Mendoza (Hasta Encontrarte Kollektiv)

Aline: Sergio, you work at Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group that uses architectural techniques and technologies to investigate cases of state violence and human rights violations. How do you assess the link between memory and justice?

Sergio: I started my training as an architect in mid-2007, when the so-called “War on Drugs” began in Mexico. The question of how architects, with their spatial thinking and representational skills, could accompany victims of human rights violations interested me. This is what initially led me to researching memory and memorials. I believe they can be essential tools to expose the truth and bring about judicial processes, which may lead to accountability.

In which ways do you see memorials contributing to justice?

Sergio: To me, memory without truth is a lie. Memory without justice is impunity. Memory without reparation is damage, and memory without guarantees of non-repetition is oblivion. This is the standard I work with when I’m called upon by victims to assist in memorial design.

One of my more successful projects is the memorial for the tragedy that occurred at the New’s Divine nightclub in Mexico City in 2008, when police forces closed the only exit and caused a bottleneck that suffocated 12 people, mostly underage. Together with victims and civil society organisations, we built conditions to allow for the memorial to be discussed twice a week for nine months. We progressively built a space to not only remember the past tragedy, but to help young people better confront structural violence.

I believe memorials have great potential to promote such alternative forms of justice, which are restorative and not punitive.

Maevia, you have worked on film projects that expose human rights violations and invisible injustice. Can storytelling promote alternative forms of justice?

Maevia: Filmmaking is a powerful tool to position testimonies. Voicing one’s needs in front of a camera is very strong. It can support individuals and groups in publicly articulating and conceptualising their struggles. The process of filmmaking and the final visual output can create a space to connect and organise victims’ commemorative needs.

For instance, one of my latest documentaries, Elles les (in)visibles, explores the lived realities of four ‘undocumented’ women domestic workers in Geneva. In many ways, this project brought these women’s stories to a wider audience, enabling a new gaze and shifting the perceptions of these ‘undocumented’ migrant women’s humanity. So yes, filmmaking can provide a platform for people to voice their struggles and reclaim power in self-representation.

Sergio, in certain cases, civil society-led commemoration activities have been the catalyst for states to assume their duties. How has the Mexican government reacted?

Sergio: The memory landscape in Mexico is changing fast. Ten years ago, public commemoration activities in the form of protest were often effective in pressuring government officials to listen to victims. With the current administration, I observe that the federal government is putting great effort into controlling memory discourse. I see this as a form of violence.

I am concerned with the proposed “memory law” that will soon be discussed in the Mexican Congress, as it is written in such a way that government institutions will have the discretion to choose which memories are recognised as “heritage” and thus protected. This process risks filtering out dissident memory. Beyond Mexico, this is a worldwide phenomenon deeply linked to the popularisation of memory discourse and the digital era. The UN Special Rapporteur on truth, justice and reconciliation, Fabián Salvioli, has written a report on this and called it the “weaponization” of memory.

What does this mean concretely?

Sergio: In my experience, governments have an almost irresistible urge to institutionalise memory. I often saw how this created a context where different victims would begin competing against each other to gain access to political and economic capital, which is intentionally made scarce by governments. Governments are raising barriers to prevent victims from realising their right to memory.

Maevia, in our common project El Bosque de la Esperanza, how do you plan to use film in the translation process between victims’ lived realities and their commemorative needs?

Maevia: The visual process can create crucial spaces for memory and reparation. I aim to use filmmaking as a tool for research, recording testimonies in the context of mourning. The visual material will be used as a way to share our research with family collectives and for further commemorative projects. The film itself is not the only outcome. I consider the process of recording victim’s needs, memories and stories as an important tool for healing.

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