OPINION

Opinion: On Day of the Dead, Mexico is living in purgatory because of missing students

Parents of missing students, some holding pictures of the missing, attend the press conference after a meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico, City, Wednesday Oct. 29, 2014. President Enrique Pena Nieto met with parents of 43 teachers college students Wednesday for the first time since they disappeared over a month ago, when investigators say police detained the students and handed them over to a drug gang. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Parents of missing students, some holding pictures of the missing, attend the press conference after a meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico, City, Wednesday Oct. 29, 2014. President Enrique Pena Nieto met with parents of 43 teachers college students Wednesday for the first time since they disappeared over a month ago, when investigators say police detained the students and handed them over to a drug gang. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

In Mexico, on el Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, relatives clean the graves of the departed and decorate them with favorite foods like a plate of chicken mole and favorite drinks like tequila. They also buy a special bread for the occasion, pan de muertos, and place bouquets of orange-colored Cempasúchil, a type of Mexican marigold on the graves.

The muertos holiday celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, a fusion of Catholic and indigenous traditions, is a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

But this year many Mexicans cannot celebrate death as a natural part of life.

How many more dead does Mexico need for the government and the international community to act?

- Teresa Puente

They are living in a sort of purgatory searching for answers to what happened to 43 students who disappeared in late September in Guerrero.

For a culture that honors death at this time of year, there is mounting anger and frustration as the students have not been found.

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In recent weeks at least 11 mass graves have been identified but government officials say the missing students are not among the dead. They are now searching an area near a garbage dump for bodies.

Who are these unidentified dead? Mass graves have been found in recent years from northern to southern Mexico.

And two weeks ago, three U.S. citizens from Texas and a friend from Mexico went missing while visiting relatives near Matamoros, Mexico. The bodies of four people were discovered this week near where they were seen abducted by police security forces and have now been identified as them.

How many more dead does Mexico need for the government and the international community to act?

This is not just about the missing students from Guerrero or the Americans dead in Matamaros.

This is not just a Mexican problem either. The violence is fueled by illegal guns smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico and by the drug appetite of people in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

A U.N. Human Rights Council report found that from 2006 to 2012 there were more than 102,000 homicides in Mexico and 70 percent of them were tied to the drug war. But in only 1 to 2 percent of the cases were there any convictions.

Few Mexicans trust the police. A 2012 poll found that 71 percent don’t trust the local police and 64 percent don’t trust the federal police or the army.

In the Guerrero case, more than 50 people have been arrested, including police officers and cartel members.

Government officials allege the attack against the students  was orchestrated by a local mayor and his wife who feared the students from a teaching college were going to protest a speech. The mayor and his wife are now on the run.

The governor of Guerrero state has resigned and the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto who usually avoids talking about death and the drug war, has been forced to address the missing students with the nation. He also met with parents of the missing students.

Even if there are convictions in this case, what about all the other dead? And when will the parents of the 43 students be able to grieve their children?

There are powerful symbols of death within the Mexican culture.

Artist José Guadalupe Posada more than a century ago first illustrated La Catrina, a female skeleton wearing a hat of the upper class. La Santa Muerte is a dark folk saint known as the Goddess of Death.

There are many sayings about death.

The late Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote, “The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Contemporary poet, Javier Sicilia, whose son was a victim of the drug war, stopped writing after his son was killed in 2011.

“The world is no longer dignified enough for words,” he wrote, according to the state-run Notimex news agency.

He also wrote an open letter to politicians and criminals  in the Mexican magazine Proceso.

“We do not want one more man, one of our sons, killed," he wrote, calling for "a national movement that we must keep alive to destroy the fear and isolation put in our minds and souls by your incompetence, politicians and your cruelty, criminals."

Mexicans have engaged is mass protests in Mexico City and Guerrero in support of the missing students.

But this year for many Mexicans there is too much pain. And they cannot grieve until there is justice.

Teresa Puente is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and a fellowship facilitator with The OpEd Project. She also writes the Chicanísimablog.

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