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Who is a victim in Mexico's drug war violence?

A new, controversial memorial to victims of Mexico's drug war may prompt deeper wrestling with what has become a controversial topic.

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Critics like Mr. Sicilia, whose son was killed by suspected cartel members, contend Calderón rushed the memorial without gaining consensus. In a dialogue with the administration a year ago, Sicilia proposed the government fund a trust so that civil society, victims, academics, and artists could envision a monument that would help heal the country’s wounds. Calderón initially agreed but then moved ahead with the monument that now stands, incorporating what some advocates say was limited public input.

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“It was an opportunity to name the victims,” says Eduardo Vazquez, a spokesman for the movement. “We proposed a memorial that would be a place where people could bring their pain and share and pray. We wanted to involve society in order to raise consciousness.”

Defining victimhood

Part of the issue surrounding a memorial to victims is that Mexican society has yet to reach a consensus about what defines victimhood. 

There are the civilians who have been killed in crossfire and activists who have been gunned down for speaking up. Others have died or disappeared at the hand of government forces. Dozens of journalists have been killed for their work. Many of the dead were likely killed in retribution for their work for one cartel or another. But given that the Mexican justice system can handle roughly 4,350 homicide investigations per year, according to research firm México Evalúa, and annual homicides top 20,000, it's next to impossible to assign or even absolve the dead of guilt.

And then there are the victims left behind. México Evalúa has developed a methodology to estimate the “invisible,” or indirect, victims of homicide in Mexico. For every homicide victim in Mexico, there are 3.4 indirect victims, such as a spouse, sibling, or child – 344,230 in the past six years alone.

President Peña Nieto has promised to attend to victims’ demands. He recently cleared the way for a proposed victims’ law to take effect after the legislation hit a wall with the Calderón government. The law would, among other things, provide reparations to families of victims of the drug war. Calderón noted the legislation doesn't establish where the money will come from to pay for those reparations; there are questions, too, about how "victim" should be defined. 

Drug-related violence has recently stabilized in some regions and fallen in others, especially Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana south of the Texas border, due to a combination of effective law enforcement, crime prevention and social programs, and other factors. But even if that positive trend continues, it’s unlikely that survivors – the “invisible” victims of the drug war – will forget their pain, or quiet their pleas for justice.

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