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NEW YORK TIMES

These walls speak, recalling victims of violence

By Damien Cave
New York Times

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 23, 2013

MEXICO CITY » The memorial to Mexico's victims of violence looks like it has been dropped from the sky by an angry God. Welcoming it is not, with its rusted slabs the size of movie screens standing next to a busy intersection.

Nor is its mission clear. Even before it was inaugurated in April, the monument had set off debate over whether it should be a tribute to all the drug war's killed, missing, kidnapped and extorted - or just those subjected to human rights abuses by the Mexican authorities.

But then, you walk a little closer and the slabs begin to speak.

"Pinta lo que sientes … expresa lo que piensas."

The graffiti scribbled in white paint across the hunk of steel introducing the memorial — "Paint what you feel … express what you think" — is not vandalism. It's a request: Share. Remember. Grieve.

By design, the metal panels are blank pages. Quotations chosen by the architects, from Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and others, appear in the corners, cut out like stencils. The rest is open to public expression.

"Don't Kill Our Dreams."

Some of the messages, like those calling for protecting dreams or legalizing drugs, are in English. All but a few inscriptions are drawn and scratched by Mexican relatives or friends of those lost to violence. The police officers guarding the memorial say people come from all over Mexico, but cities where the back alleys have seen more blood are better represented. Ciudad Juarez. Torresn. Tijuana.

Usually, it is just one person or two who visit with something to add. Many, the guards say, sob as they write or carve a message into the metal with their keys.

"Cuantos muertos?"

The question — How many dead? — hangs above a large portrait of a crying heart with hands drawn on its sides as if waving for help. Spartan and direct, it is a question that haunts all of Mexico.

An honest answer is hard to find. The most recent government report, released in January, showed that 47,515 had died in drug war violence between Dec. 1, 2006, and Sept. 11, 2011, but that does not include the thousands who are missing. And the definition of "drug-related" has also never been clear.

This year The submitted public records requests with the attorney general's office, the Interior Ministry and 10 states with the highest murder rates in an effort to review case files with basic data on the dead: age, gender, place and cause of death. The goal was to explore details of cases that were and were not defined as drug-related.

Only one state delivered information. Every other entity refused, mostly citing privacy exemptions, though one state admitted it was "not competent on the matter." Now even the federal government has decided to broaden its tally: On Aug. 9, officials announced that all murders would be included, whether drug-related or not.

"Alfonso Arqui Medina te extraqamos!"

The memorial's reddish walls include a handful of names, but their stories are nowhere to be found. The message to Medina — "We miss you" — could refer to the death of an architect named Alfonso Medina who was killed in his Ford pickup five years ago, just a few blocks from the home of Tijuana's mayor. Or it could not.

The stories of most victims will never be known. State and local authorities increasingly keep information about violence to themselves, saying they must protect their communities' image from sensationalism, even though many Mexican news media outlets have become so intimidated by organized crime that they no longer cover the murders corroding their own communities. Even the families that come to write on the memorial seem scared to share; there are far more first names than full names.

An exception is Marcela Geovana Mendoza. A steel slab in the middle of monument has been turned over to a message of love for her, and more discreet iterations of "te amo Marcela" appear elsewhere in white, like soft whispers heard from behind. But that is all there is. She cannot be found in the databases of Mexican newspapers. A Google search for her full name turns up nothing.

Another for just Marcela and Mendoza leads to a single lead: Fanny Marcela Mendoza Rodrmguez, 19, a college student in Honduras who was shot in the head at home last September.

"Menos monumentos, menos minutos de silencio. Mas accisn."

Many of the memorial's messages are not for individuals, but for Mexico as a whole, for "fewer monuments, fewer moments of silence. More action." They plead for and demand more justice in a country with so much going for it: resources, history, culture. Those who visit say the memorial has a lot of potential.

"The messages surprised me," said Salvador Enriquez, 43, a visitor Saturday. "It's a beautiful idea."

But even here on the walls, it is a struggle to keep the focus where it belongs. One recent afternoon, on the panel farthest from the entrance, a man in gray quietly drew a face with white chalk, suggesting a lost brother. Then he added a mane of hair, a guitar and a long tongue. It was Gene Simmons, from Kiss.

"I work in maintenance here," the man said, nodding toward a broom near his celebrity portrait. "When I get bored, I draw."

Over a fence, a giant Mexican flag hung, as limp as a broken arm, at the military base next door — a jarring juxtaposition in a country where the military has been implicated in many cases of death and disappearance.

To the right, one of the memorial guards could be seen using chalk to outline the ears of a rabbit in what appeared to be a child's version of heaven. To the left, car horns wailed in clogged traffic along Paseo de la Reforma — Boulevard of Reform — as a mime with a cherry-red nose performed for laughs and change from drivers.

Closest to the entrance, the first panel held more messages than all the rest, from "shalsm" to "quiza la reina mala nos protiga" — maybe the bad queen protects us. There were also names here (Lupita y Jerry) that could represent love or loss.

Hidden among them all was a simple phrase in small handwriting. As confounding or clear as the memorial itself, it exhorted Mexicans to look inward for a way out, and to acknowledge that all of society plays a role in both violence and peace.

"Si sabes lo que vales. Ve y busca la que mereces."

"If you know what you're worth," it said, "go find what you deserve."

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