Mexico: Altars to Victims of Violence

Daniela Pastrana

HAVANA TIMES, Nov 1 (IPS) — “It’s painful to build an altar of offerings to your dead child,” Abraham Fraijo, one of the leading activists in a citizens’ movement against violence and impunity in Mexico, wrote in his Twitter account while taking part in a series of protests during the celebrations of the Day of the Dead.

The photo of three-year-old Emilia, Fraijo’s daughter, and of 48 other children who died in a Jun. 5, 2009 fire at a day care centre in the northwestern city of Hermosillo formed an unusual altar to the dead Sunday at the Angel de la Independencia column in Mexico City.

Similar offerings were set up in five other states to commemorate the tragedy and support the parents’ demand for justice.

“It’s very sad that Emilia had to be born in a country where the government took everything away from her and where the political class hold so much scorn for the citizens,” her father told IPS, with his gaze fixed on the dozens of people who responded to the call to place a flower on the altar or light a candle for the children killed in the ABC day care centre.

In March, a Mexican Supreme Court commission found that local, state and federal officials failed to ensure the safety of the day care centre.

The Day of the Dead tradition in Mexico has deep roots that can be traced back to the country’s indigenous cultures. The celebrations take place every year in late October and early November, coinciding with the end of the annual corn harvest and with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, respectively, by the Catholic faithful.

During the festive holiday of Day of the Dead, Mexicans remember and honor their deceased loved ones, decorating graves in cemeteries and setting up elaborate altars, with offerings that include the favorite dishes of those who are no longer with them.

But this year, the colorful celebration turned into a day of mourning for many, due to a rash of violent incidents, including four mass shootings of young people and a brutal police crackdown on students at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ) who were protesting the heavy police and military presence in the city and the rest of the area along the U.S. border.

On Oct. 22, 14 young people were killed when gunmen stormed a birthday party in Ciudad Juarez, in an incident similar to one that occurred on Jan. 31 in the same northern border city.

Just two days later, 13 people were gunned down at a drug rehabilitation clinic in Tijuana, another border city.

On Oct. 27, 15 people were killed when gunmen drove up and opened fire on a car wash in Tepic, in the western state of Nayarit.

And on Oct. 28, six young men were killed in a drive-by shooting in Tepito, a tough Mexico City neighborhood.

The week of violence was capped when the police opened fire on the UACJ demonstrators Friday, Oct. 29.

One of the university students, Darío Álvarez, was shot in the back. He is in serious but stable condition. Doctors said he would need to undergo several operations.

In an open letter to conservative President Felipe Calderon, the rector and the university community protested the violence and demanded that those responsible be punished.

The government has not released a statement on the matter.

“What we have seen this week and in the last few months is a ‘juvenicide’, the systematic killing of young people,” Carlos Cruz Santiago, one of the leaders of Cauce Ciudadano, a Mexican NGO dedicated to preventing youth violence, told IPS.

The authorities blamed the massacres on organized crime.

Civil society organizations say the level of violence in which young people are the main targets is “a human catastrophe” and have called on international agencies to help Mexico deal with the problem.

Activists from different NGOs decided Sunday to hold a series of demonstrations demanding a change of course by the government, to curb the violence.

“The idea emerged in the on-line social networking sites,” Alberto Escorcia, one of the activists organizing the “protests against violence and impunity”, who are identifying themselves with the tag LutoxMéxico, told IPS. “The idea is to join forces to say ‘Enough already! This isn’t working’.”

The demonstrations began with the altar to the 49 children who died in the fire in the ABC child care centre, and continued Monday with offerings to immigrants in a ceremony held in the offices of the Human Rights Commission in Mexico City.

A web site,, was also presented at the time, as a “virtual altar” to the undocumented migrants from Central America, Brazil and Ecuador slaughtered on Aug. 23 on a ranch near the U.S.-Mexico border, in the state of Tamaulipas.

The driving force behind the web site is Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist who has written extensively about Latin America for the British and American press.

The initiative has been joined by writers, academics, photographers and reporters, who have provided photos and written brief texts for each of the migrants, including the victims who have not been identified.

One of the texts, by Mexican journalist, translator and poet Myriam Moscona, says “My deceased migrant has fingerprints, but no one claims her. I claim her, she’s my deceased. They tell me she is number 56; don’t kill her twice, there is no reason she should die two times over.”

Visitors to the web site can leave a “virtual rose” or make a donation. The funds collected will go to immigrant rights’ organizations.

An altar was also put up for journalists who have been killed. The community is shaken by the death threats received by Jorge Alejandro Medellin, after he wrote an article on alleged links between an army general and the drug trade.

The demonstrations will end with a night-time march of mourning along Mexico’s City’s Reforma avenue, and the building of an enormous altar on the Angel de la Independencia column, to commemorate all victims of murder in the past six years, who officially number more than 30,000.

Although the response has been positive, participation in the protests has not been massive, partly due to the four-day holiday.

But from his trench on the stairs of the monument to independence, Abraham Fraijo refuses to get discouraged.

“Every time the government does something terrible, the politicians protect each other, but society can’t protect itself, and they take advantage of that,” he said. “But I don’t think all is lost; there are people who are waking up, maybe not as many as we would like, but at least they are showing up here. That gives me hope that things can really change.”

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