The Calidad of the Disappeared: Mexico and Central America


By Elena Salamanca

The original article in Spanish can be found here: La calidad del desaparecido: México y Centroamérica

Translator’s Note: In the context of New Spain between the 16th and 18th centuries, calidad was a sociopolitical, economic, and legal term that identified, differentiated, and placed in order the diverse subjects of the colony. Calidad represented the totality of one’s personhood in relation to society, including skin color, gender, caste, class, place of origin, modalities, limitations, and expectations. Although in English the term “social quality” is a close approximation to the significance of calidad, the English term is far too ambiguous and does not sufficiently represent the multiple dimensions in which a person from Latin America, whether in the colonial period or the present, interacts with their society. As such, calidad will be utilized in its original form in this text.

Every time a clandestine mass grave appears, an abyss opens up beneath our feet. Here, in Mexico or in Central America, the mass grave is filled with bodies that will be either recognized by memory or suppressed in the official story.

These are the clothing that a Salvadoran woman was wearing the day she disappeared. They were found in the interior of a sugarcane field. The image is registered to photographer, Fred Ramos, and belongs to the series  “El último atuendo de los desaparecidos” (The Last Attire of the Disappeared), which won World Press Photo in 2014. You can see the rest of the series here. 


To look at the popular mobilizations in response to the disappearance of the 43 normalista students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, allows us to observe, and hopefully emulate, the mechanisms of solidarity [action] and the demand for justice. But at the same time, it allows to see the speck of sawdust in another’s eye: Central Americans that disappear in Mexico are apathetically forgotten. Yes #AyotzinapaSomosTodos (#WeAreAllAyotzinapa), but when will Mexico say #‎CentroaméricaSomosTodos‬ (#WeAreAllCentralAmerica)?

I write this text to address two questions, two preoccupations: the calidad that the State assigns to disappeared persons in Central America and Mexico; and the calidad that the State and the Mexican imaginary assign to Central American migrants that disappear in Mexico. Although Mexico and its citizenry give us an honorable example of [what] solidarity and [the] demand for justice [looks like] for its own citizens, things change where it concerns foreigners and othered persons. 

Of course, there are exceptions, like the emblematic examples of solidarity demonstrated by Father Alejandro Solalinde, the Patronas movement, and the Nuestra Aparente Rendición movement. But the discussion at hand continues to be about calidad, that colonial term that is ever present in our daily practices.


The Calidad of the Disappeared

Even as the 43 normalista youths have become the unfortunate paradigm for the disappearance of citizenry, all across Latin America, people have come together in a heart-wrenching rally for Ayotzinapa. But the international community did not come together–with the same insistence and impact–to rally for the murdered women of Juarez nor for the massacre of migrants (many whom were Central American) at San Fernando, Tamaulipas. In these particular cases, we have to question the calidad of the disappeared persons: their origin, race, and color. But origin, race, and color are no longer valid categories in our times 1. In fact, we get offended in discussing these issues because they derive from discrimination. But in the collective Central American and Mexican imaginary, the question of [colonial] caste and calidad are not just present, they are perennial.

Mexico and Central America exist in various strata of time that are compacted into what [we understand as] the present. In this sense, in spite of modernity and postmodernity, the region is embedded in the Old Regime of coloniality.

I have always believed–as I have maintained in my own classes–that in El Salvador, and perhaps in Mexico and all of Central America, we live in between the 21st and 18th centuries, in a form of compacted stratus where through our daily practices, we are relocated to a colonial mentality where the past and the present are indistinguishable from one another.

Calidad in these cases is not defined by simply being, but in what others–such as the State and institutions–want us to be. Calidad qualifies while at the same time disqualifies, it excludes, and constructs either a monster or an enemy.

In Mexico, the calidad of the Ayotzinapa students as poor indigenous youths, has served as a turn of the screw for the Mexican imaginary; for that precarious calidad has become humanized, created empathy, and has provoked indignation and massive mobilizations. In Central America however, the calidad assigned to its own disappeared (young people with limited resources) has accomplished the construction of the “the enemy,”–rather than generate empathy, it has served to stigmatize them.

And precisely here, in that hinge anchored between the colonial period and state-based society, is where we find ourselves when we look at the calidad of the disappeared.

Two months ago, we witnessed the Mexican State’s late response to the disappearance of the 43 normalista students of Ayotzinapa, in Iguala, Guerrero–a state which exists in the periphery of Mexico. Its capital, Chilpancingo, doesn’t even appear in any tourism posters nor is it notable for any regional history–unlike Acapulco, of course. We now know that Guerrero’s governor ordered the capture of 43 youths, between the ages of 16 and 19, to have them murdered and their bodies disappeared. Easily. The official story (and a rather inconclusive one) from the attorney general of the republic stated that the captured students were given to cartel gunmen who then proceeded to murder them and set their bodies on fire. During the press conference delivered with a frigid tone, prosecutor Jesús Murillo Karam presented images of charred bones. And we watched in terror as Karam seemingly narrated a horror movie from the golden age of Mexican cinema, stating, “Please, do not stop looking at the images.”

Although the State had lowered itself to the same depths as Mexican newspapers such as “El gráfico” (which specializes in showing dead bodies next to women in bikinis on its front page), this was not what was alarming. The alarms went off when the state official declared that “Iguala is not the Mexican State.” This pushes forth the post pertinent discussion for these times: What is the Mexico? What is the Mexican State? Who are Mexicans? Who are the legitimate Mexicans? The perspective of Murillo Karam subjects the Mexican citizen to a question of calidad, almost to its usage in the colonial concept.

The problem with calidad is not exclusive to Mexico. The disqualifying declarations of Murillo Karam immediately reminded me of a response by Manuel Melgar when he served as Security Minister of El Salvador in 2010. Back then, in a statement about the disappearances and murders of Salvadoran students, he said “If [mothers] don’t want their children murdered, then they should pay for private colleges.”

Devastating and cynical. But the declaration–which I saw on Noticiero Hechos on channel 12–left very clear what the calidad of the disappeared and murdered students was: they were not citizens because they were underage (they didn’t even have national IDs); but they were also not valuable or foreseen as future citizens because they were poor and in public education.

In Honduras, the journalist Daniel Valencia found the same indolence. In fact, he encountered the following euphemism from the State which he included in his chronicle: “The disappeared are individuals which the State deems as extinct, and so do not matter.” You read that right: extinct.

The three declarations in these three countries are political: not all of us are important to the State, our lives are not valued the same. The disappearances, whether by criminal organizations or by the State itself, represent for these governments a form of social cleansing. The model of youth presented by the State are that of workers and middle-class, students and entrepreneurs. Never poor. Never at their limits. Social mobility is no longer of concern for the State; in fact, social stagnation justifies the disappearances and public apathy.


Central America in Mexico

Image shared by the private secretary to Mexican president which mocks the Honduran national soccer team and compares them to Honduran migrants crossing through Mexico on a train known as “The Beast.”


#AyotzinapaTodosSomos (#WeAreAlllAyotzinapa) has been one of the most utilized hashtags in the last few months. We are indeed Ayotzinapa for different reasons, among them, because we are not “the Mexican State” of Murillo Karam, because we are othered, those others of the symbolic Ayotzinapa. Although Central Americans (mostly Hondurans) disappear daily in Mexico, I have yet to hear #TodosSomosCentroamérica (#WeAreAllCentralAmerica). And while Mexican solidarity is commendable as it looks toward Ayotzinapa, it does not look outward, nor does it look at its closest outward, toward the Central American tragedy. Who will want to beCentral American in Mexico? Not even in hashtag form.

In August of 2010, 72 migrants were found murdered in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. They were classified as disappeared until their deaths had been confirmed. They had fled from Ecuador and Central America, crossing through Mexico to get to the United States. They were murdered by the Zetas cartel.

There was no apology by the Mexican State, nor from the countries of origin. In an interview with Channel 33 of El Salvador, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugo Martímez, summarized the case as such: “Salvadoran brother, do not migrate. You can be happy here.” What horror. His statement, which according to him called for solidarity, in reality unmasked the cynicism of it all. A country that was producing 15 deaths per day was supposed to be a place to be happy. A State that did not guarantee the most basic rights was discussing well-being; the discourse was proclaiming brotherhood to those the State had expelled and spat on.

None of the Mexican presidential regimes nor those of the Central American countries have taken responsibility for the deaths of Central Americans. The former, criminalized migration, and the latter, sent its own citizens to their deaths. In Mexico, Central Americans die or are disappeared daily. Clandestine graves in Chiapas or Veracruz are their last resting place.

In 2013, the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, visited Honduras, the country with the highest number of migrants crossing through Mexico on their way to the United States. The media coverage made no mention of migration. In June 2014, Peña Nieto’s private secretary mocked the Honduran soccer team that was participating in the World Cup. In his Twitter account, he posted an image of Hondurans sitting on top of an airplane: wetbacks, illegals. The image was taken down after a backlash, but the official did not apologize, citing that his “account had been hacked.”

In the 20th century, Mexico was characterized as a nation receptive to exiles fleeing crises and political dictatorships: in the 1930s, it received republicans who were victims of the Spanish Civil War; during the 1970s and 1980s, it received South and Central Americans who were fleeing military dictatorships and State terrorism. Mexico received them, socially integrated them, granted them the calidad of asylees and refugees, respected and dignified them. But today, Mexico is both a nation of refuge and a mass grave nation.

This week, a caravan of Central American mothers arrived at Juchitán, Oaxaca, in search of their children’s remains at a local common grave. When they arrived, they found a garbage dump and a sign indicating “NN,” no identifiable bodies.

It is not the same for a Mexican to disappear in Mexico as it is for a Central American to disappear there. The calidad that the Mexican system grants Central American migrants does not approach any guarantee of human rights. And to disappear in the country of origin doesn’t even grant the dignity of a disappearance, that is to say, it does not activate a mechanism of search for missing persons.

From Mexico to Central America, the disappeared person simply ceases to exist, and that disappearance from the social and legal system implies two outcomes: to search or to forget; and almost always, the easiest road is to forget.



Altar for the dead in memory of the murdered students in Ayotzinapa, and for other cases of impunity. Image extracted from CNN report which can be viewed here.


Limbo–that in-between state for the unbaptized who have no possibility of redemption in spite of having just one sin, the original one–was suppressed by the Catholic Church in 2007. But the figurative and symbolic place that appears in literature still remains. It is in limbo where we can precisely situate disappeared persons: they are citizens, but have lost their civil rights; they are not yet dead, and even if they were dead, if they have not been recognized as such by the law and by their families, they will never be dead; there will be no burial. There is no mourning.

Limbo for the disappeared is the allegory for an inefficient system that cannot even guarantee the lives of those who, through a social contract, are under its protection.

The disappearance, within and without the countries of origin, is an abyss within the justice system. At the Institute of Forensic Medicine of El Salvador, for example, many people place photocopies with information and pictures of their disappeared family members. Families hope to at least be able to recognize them at the morgue, but not all bodies get to the morgue. Mass graves surface in a terrible metaphor of death in El Salvador, Mexico, and the rest of Central America.

Every day, in many Mexican universities, the list of the 43 disappeared normalistas is passed around for each name to be called out. They are 43 youths that represent more than 20,000 disappeared (or as many as 42,000) during the last two Mexican presidential terms. I ask myself two things: If in Central America we passed around a list of those that disappeared during the war and postwar periods, how many days would we spend repeating the word “missing?” If Mexicans passed around an ever-growing list of all the migrants that disappear in their territory, how many Mexican voices would join in calling out each Central American name?

What is named, what is pronounced, exists. When will the governments name their own disappeared? To name, is symbolically to make new again, to bring back.


That clandestine mass grave is an abyss so big that it no longer opens up beneath our feet; simply put, we are living in it.

Translated by Víctor Interiano

  1. Translator’s Note: I asked the author if the invalidation of race as a factor in the discourse of the disappearances in Mexico and Central America was in the same vein as the use of post-racialism in the United States. She indicated that, “la raza no es una categoría social. La gente que apela a los derechos humanos es ultrapolíticamente correcta. La raza para ellos es una mala palabra.” (“…race is not a social category. People who appeal for human rights are ultra politically correct. They view race as a bad word.” 
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