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The Search for Mexico’s Disappeared: Activating Citizenship & Pathways to Voice

Thu, August 29, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Kalorama


Since 2006, more than 36,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. These disappearances remain largely unsolved: the Mexican state rarely investigates or prosecutes perpetrators, especially in cases where state agents themselves are accused as perpetrators. Despite this, people not only continue to report crimes – but many mobilize, publicly demand accountability, and risk their lives demanding to know “where are they?” Why, despite the risks and institutional barriers, do people mobilize for justice? What does this mobilization consist of, and how does it affect the institutional outcomes and the lives of individuals involved? And what do these movements and outcomes teach us about what it will take to disrupt entrenched patterns of impunity?

Family members of people who have been disappeared or murdered nearly universally demand “justice.” While victims’ importance in compelling the state to act is widely acknowledged, their political participation is often regarded as fairly one-dimensional, and limited only to the visible aspects of their work (i.e. protests, marches, memorials). A pre-condition for the emergence of activists and advocates are for victims of violence to feel that they can speak about what happened to their loved one and demand a different outcome from the state and society. The ability to assert one’s voice is conditioned by both personal and political factors (Hirschman 1970; Kruks-Wisner 2017), and must entail having both a sense of entitlement and efficacy. While part of this sense is conditioned by governmental responsiveness, we also know that political behavior has deep roots in our own lives. The way we respond to a crime or violation does not arise at the moment that the crime is committed, but rather is the result of a lifelong process of building expectations about the state and oneself.

Drawing from in-depth ethnography, conversations and interviews with family members of disappeared people, in this paper I trace how early experiences with state institutions, family structures, class, and education influenced the ways in which they reacted to the disappearance of their loved one. I explore how and why victims became involved with civil society organizations, and find that movements provide victims with hope that will find their loved one; companionship; access to and recognition by powerful actors; and a sense of agency. While a comprehensive analysis of who mobilizes, and who doesn’t, is beyond the scope of this study, this paper shows the diverse pathways that those most directly affected by disappearances took on their way to becoming activists and advocates. Further, it reveals the multi-dimensional and evolving nature of their understanding of themselves as political subjects, the state as a complex and often inconsistent actor, and their capacity to affect the investigations into the disappearances of their loved one.