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Kroc School Professor Helps Inaugurate Memorial to the Disappeared in Baja California

Thursday, September 6, 2018TOPICS: Faculty and StaffFieldworkGlobal ImpactResearchUS-Mexico BorderHuman Rights and SecurityStudy Abroad

Archbishop Francisco Moreno Barrón Memorial for the disappeared in Ejido Maclovio Rojas
begin quoteThey say it’s worse than death. When a child or spouse is forcibly disappeared, their loved ones are left in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

On Aug. 30, the State of Baja California inaugurated the first official memorial to the disappeared of Baja California. On a sun-bleached hill in Ejido Maclovio Rojas, one of the most remote and least developed parts of Tijuana, the family members of more than 150 of the disappeared have transformed the site of a grisly mass grave into a solemn memorial. Kroc School Professor Ev Meade participated in the event as part of an applied research project in support of victims’ family members.

They say it’s worse than death. When a child or spouse is forcibly disappeared, their loved ones are left in a perpetual state of uncertainty. They don’t know whom to trust. The only real solidarity they feel comes from other victims’ family members. They’re not sure if they should use the past or the present tense in referring to the missing, much less how to properly memorialize them without conceding to their death or giving up the struggle for truth and justice.

The new memorial is geographically challenged, to say the least. It’s located at the top of a steep, dusty hill, half-an-hour’s drive southeast of downtown Tijuana, in a community that has been struggling for more than a decade to get potable water, sewer connections, and other basic services. Violence is chronic, and the only public security officers stationed there work out of a trailer in the parking lot of a local grocery store. In the summer of 2017, the remains of more than 300 people were discovered in a vacant lot next to a chicken ranch there in Ejido Maclovio Rojas. This macabre discovery was but the latest in a series of mass graves identified by Santiago Meza, an assassin for the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels, famous for dissolving his victims’ bodies in vats of acid who was arrested in 2009. 

The government kept the information Meza provided to investigators under wraps until 2012, when state police investigators exhumed remains from several sites. But, the politics of showcasing Tijuana’s dramatic economic and cultural turnaround thwarted further investigation.  In 2009 kidnappings, shootings sprees, and gory displays of bodies in public places ground tourism to a halt in Tijuana. Since then Tijuana has made an incredible rebound – manufacturing has boomed, and the Baja food, wine, and arts scenes have gained international renown.  As a result, public officials are loathe to re-open a torrid history of mass killing. It was the constant pressure from victims’ family members that finally forced the government to push the investigation forward in 2017, resulting in the discovery of multiple new grave sites and the remains of hundreds of individuals.

Despite the remote location, the recognition of the memorial from the highest offices in the state was a significant success for the victims’ family members. At the inauguration, the Archbishop of Tijuana, Francisco Moreno Barrón offered sympathy and solace to the victims’ family members and then gave an official blessing inside the new chapel installed at the back of the property. Secretary of Government Francisco Rueda Gómez reiterated the Governor’s support for the families of the disappeared, to which some of the family members retorted: “We want actions, not words!” Melba Olvera, President of the State Human Rights Commission of Baja California, and a frequent collaborator with the Kroc Trans-Border Institute (Kroc TBI), spoke eloquently on the crisis of apathy in Mexico, and the growing disconnect between the vulnerability and isolation of victims and their families and the mobility and connectedness of Mexico’s political and economic elite. Our team feels this acutely — we can leave our office, pop down to the border, take an Uber to Maclovio Rojas, and shake hands with the Archbishop, while the victims’ families feel trapped and ignored. Fernando Ocegueda, the event organizer and president of the main association of victims’ family members, read the names of all of the victims who have been identified at the site, including that of his own son, who disappeared in 2007. There was no fluff.

Professor Meade attended the event at the invitation of the United Association for the Disappeared of Baja California, an organization made up almost entirely of the parents of the disappeared. As part of an ongoing research project on the substantive practices that define impunity in contemporary Mexico, Professor Meade and his team have interviewed the family members of more than 100 victims of violence in eight different Mexican states. The forcibly disappeared make up the largest subset of victims, especially in Tijuana. The project aims to map the logic behind the decade-long wave of violence commonly referred to as the “drug war” — defining who is targeted and how — with a particular emphasis on how ordinary civilians, uninvolved in criminal activities get pulled into the vortex.  

The purpose of the research is twofold. On the one hand, a better understanding of the logic of violence should help us to design better solutions, and to move from reactive to preventive measures. On the other hand, by working directly with victims and the community most affected by violence, we should be able to identify opportunities to apply proven redemptive practices from the field of peacebuilding to a conflict that has been assessed largely through law enforcement and military paradigms (without much success). As applied researchers, of course, we are also flexible and always willing to adapt in order to take advantage of opportunities to use our knowledge and resources to serve our partners in the field. In this particular project, we have been able to help our partners with research, political and law enforcement connections, and other kinds of problem solving that have literally helped to locate and resolve disappearance cases. In our most recent meeting with the leadership of the movement to bring truth and justice to the disappeared, they identified apathy and anonymity as the biggest challenges they face going forward. This is a challenge we can help them to meet.

What’s next?

Kroc TBI staff and Kroc School students are organizing an evening event on Oct. 26 at Mamut Brewery in downtown Tijuana to raise awareness, build public support, recruit volunteers, and raise money for the families of the disappeared. The format will be a spoken-word session where several of the family members of the disappeared will give personal testimonials about their experiences, followed by the reading of several other testimonials from victims who wish to remain anonymous. Kroc School students and other emerging leaders from Tijuana who have been working with Kroc TBI will redact these testimonials and read them in first-person, as a way of humanizing and embodying their experiences. The event will be free and open to the public. Prospective sponsors should contact Kroc TBI as soon as possible. Stay tuned for further details!

How can I get involved?

Come to the Oct. 26 event in Tijuana — we welcome outside guests and new collaborators. We are also happy to share and replicate our research and methodologies in other places and for other audiences — please contact for more information. And we depend upon grants and donations to make this work possible. Please consider supporting us.


Ev Meade
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Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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