democraciaAbierta: Opinion

‘They took them alive. Alive we want them back’: race, class and enforced disappearances in Latin America

"Vivos" is a film about the pain and ongoing struggle of the families of 43 Mexican students who disappeared in 2014 in Ayotzinapa. However, it is also about the role of the State in enforced disappearances in Latin America.

Marilia Heloisa Fraga Arantes
Marilia Arantes
4 December 2020
Uma manifestante com o rosto pintado de vermelho segura uma placa que diz "E se seu filho fosse a vítima 44?" em referência ao caso Ayotzinapa
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Alex Torres/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a member of the jury at an international human rights documentary film festival, I did not get the chance to award “Vivos” for the best prize in its category. But coming from Latin America and having witnessed this social tension up close, I felt the urge to write about “Vivos”.

Directed by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, “Vivos” is a film about the pain and ongoing struggle of the families of 43 Mexican students from Ayotzinapa who disappeared in 2014. However, it is also about the State as a perpetrator of race- and class-based violence and its role in the enforced disappearance of citizens – an open wound in recent Latin American history.

The film's artistic composition highlights the colorful intimacy of Mexican families, balanced with the use of talking heads of the families and friends of the missing students. Ai Weiwei allows the affected families to recount their version of the ‘Case of 43 Ayotzinapa missing students’ or the ‘Iguala mass kidnapping’.

Briefly, this case refers to the disappearance of 43 Mexican students who were on a bus trip to Mexico City to take part of rallies and protests. After investigations, the ‘historical truth’ presented by the Mexican government established that corrupt police officers handed the students to a drug cartel. However, international investigations have debunked this version. And any ‘truth’ – be it historical or not – remains untold.

A vast literature categorizes enforced disappearances as a systemic practice commonly found in dictatorial regimes

But in recalling this case, "Vivos" goes beyond the context of Iguala. While the Ayotzinapa case remains shocking six years later, it reminds us of the problem as a constant recent Latin American history. After all, the region has the world's highest number of enforced disappearances: seven of the ten countries with the most enforced disappearances are in Latin America.

While structural inequalities drive the high violence rates in the region, the urgent dimension of enforced disappearances is made clear when the meaning of the term is taken into account. According to the United Nations: "enforced disappearance" is the deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State. This means that if you are Latin American, you are always at risk of being a victim of enforced disappearance.

In "Vivos", one of the interviewees elaborates on the deeper dimension of this problem: there is no rule of law if the police or military are not held responsible for their actions. A vast literature categorizes enforced disappearances as a systemic practice commonly found in dictatorial regimes, a fact that shows how institutions in Latin America, where most states are considered democratic, fail to promote the right to a life free from fear.

"Vivos" illustrates how those left behind find strength in the struggle for justice and for the end of State-led kidnapping structures

At the same time, the racial dimension of this problem reveals how, in addition to imposing a constant social state of fear, enforced disappearances involve the creation of two castes: those susceptible and those not susceptible to disappearance. Brazil, for example, documented 80.000 disappearances in 2019, an average of 217 a day. Most of the victims were Black, young, and poor. Emblematic cases as that of Amarildo, a poor, Black favela resident who went missing in 2012, have caused strong public commotion at home and abroad. But the truth remains hidden (or ignored) by an unequal justice system, covered up by the hundreds of people who disappear on a daily basis.

in view of the disturbing situation of those affected by the disappearances, "Vivos" illustrates how those left behind find strength in the struggle for justice and for the end of State-led kidnapping structures. Six years after the case, friends and relatives of the 43 of Ayotzinapa continue to take to the streets under the plea ‘They took them alive. We want them back alive’. Inevitably, the plea echoes historical movements in the region, such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who have spent the last four decades fighting for the truth about their children who disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship.

Finally, as a documentary about those who stayed, “Vivos” reminds us that, after decades of democracy, the rule of law in Latin America is still under construction. And that the fight for justice and truth must be our cornerstone.

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Hear from:

Francesc Badia i Dalmases Director, democraciaAbierta – openDemocracy's Latin America project

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy

Further speakers to be announced

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