Violence and Death in Contemporary Mexico: Meanings, Mobilizations and Justice from Below


Wednesday, April 13, 2022, 12:00pm to 1:15pm

For a recording of this event, click here.

Speaker: Wil Pansters, Professor of Social Science, Utrecht University
Discussant: Claudio Lomnitz, Campbell Family Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University
Moderated by: Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

This presentation will first chart the diverse forms of violence and death (thanatos) in current Mexico. Against this background the presentation will examine how ordinary people and communities respond to these painful social realities, which cause grief and the desire to know and do justice. During the last two decades tens of thousands of Mexicans have put their questions, claims and demands for truth, accountability and justice to police officers, ministerial agents, army generals, judges, politicians and leading officeholders of government agencies. Always deeply political, they contest the alleged involvement of incompetent, corrupt, complicit or indifferent state agents by demanding truth, accountability and justice through innovative social practices, which will be examined as forms of parresia. The presentation will look at mimetic practices of parresia, in particular the ‘staging’ of citizen-run judicial procedures. Subsequently, the presentation will address the dramatically increased phenomenon of forced disappearances and the moral and political imperatives that empower families and communities to set up search efforts. Facing absent bodies, information and accountability and the risks of state denial, legal ‘forgetting’ and emptiness, this presentation explores the notion of anamnestic solidarity to grasp the ramifications of Mexico’s current security and forensic crisis. How does Mexico cope with the dialectics of forgetting, memory, truth, simulation, and justice?

Wil G. Pansters is Professor of Social and Political Anthropology of Latin America at Utrecht University. Between 2008 and 2018 he held a special chair in Latin American Studies at the University of Groningen and directed its Mexican Studies Center. He has been a research fellow at El Colegio de México, the University of Oxford, and the University of Warwick and held the Friedrich Katz Chair at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. He has done ethnographic and historical field research in Mexico about political culture, caciquismo, state-making, drug trafficking, violence, and the popular search for justice. His most recent publications include Histories of Drug Trafficking in Twentieth-Century Mexico (ed., 2022), and La Santa Muerte in Mexico. History, Devotion, Society (ed., 2019). He frequently comments on Mexican affairs in (inter)national media. In 2011, he received the Orden del Águila Azteca from the Mexican government.

Claudio Lomnitz is an anthropologist, historian and critic who works broadly on Mexican culture and politics. Lomnitz teaches at Columbia University, where he is the Campbell Family Professor of Anthropology, and served for eight years as the founding director of the Center for Mexican Studies. Lomnitz is a member of Mexico's El Colegio Nacional. His books include Death and the Idea of Mexico and The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, among many others. As is a regular columnist in the Mexico City press, and an award-winning dramaturgist. His most recent book Nuestra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation (Other Press, 2021) tells the story of his grandparents' life and movements from Eastern Europe through much of South America, and reflects on the connection between Jewish emancipation and (South) American consciousness. Lomnitz is commited to contributing to bringing the historical social sciences into public debate.

Diane E. Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Trained as a sociologist, Davis’s research interests include the relations between urbanization and national development, comparative urban governance, socio-spatial practice in conflict cities, urban violence, and new territorial manifestations of sovereignty. Her books include Transforming Urban Transport (co-edited, 2018); Cities and Sovereignty: Identity Conflicts in the Urban Realm (2011); Discipline and Development: Middle Classes and Prosperity in East Asia and Latin America (2004); Irregular Armed Forces and their Role in Politics and State Formation (co-edited, 2003); and Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century (1994).

See also: Virtual, Mexico