A City of Violent Deaths Tries to Change Its Image

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CULIACÁN, Mexico -- The shrines have sprouted up virtually everywhere, scores of them, in front of universities, next to churches, on the main avenues -- constant reminders of this city's unenviable distinction as a cradle of narco-trafficking and drug violence.

A six-foot marble cross sits across two parking spaces in the lot in front of City Club, a wholesale store. Locals say Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo -- the most wanted drug lord in Mexico -- had it built for his son, who was shot to death on that spot in 2008.

Across the city, an elaborate gravestone, flanked by plastic flowers and a tarp emblazoned with Miguel Ángel Castro's face, cleaves the median of a busy boulevard. Not too far away, photographs of a murdered relief worker behind an adorned glass case greet paramedics rushing through the main entrance of a hospital.

"When we walk on the street, it looks like we are in a cemetery," said Guadalupe Meza, whose house faces a knee-high, cross-topped shrine erected on a rickety sidewalk corner. Neighbors said it was built a year ago after a man was killed on that spot.

More than 500 of these urban gravestones -- often featuring a cross, a nook for candles and a photograph of the victim -- have been built here over the past five years. As with the impromptu memorials that pop up along Mexican highways, some of Culiacán's shrines honor people who died in car accidents. But many others pay tribute to victims of drug violence, and the sheer number and grandeur of them provide a testament to the sweeping loss visited on Culiacán and its residents.

It is all simply too much for Mayor Aarón Rivas.

The gravestones "don't let us send a positive message," said Mr. Rivas, a member of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, led by President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose continuous emphasis on Mexico's economic health has muffled the attention to violence.

One by one, the city is replacing these shrines -- their technical term, unbeknown to most of their builders, is cenotaph -- with discreet, ground-level marble plaques.

Despite the delicacy of dismantling memorials built by grieving families, the project has received a guarded welcome, with the main concern being that the plaques will get stepped on. At least 45 families have given the city permission to take down their loved ones' shrines since it began the effort in March.

Alicia Machado is one of them. The shrine for her brother, located near the foot of a busy overpass, had been severely damaged by speeding cars and was too expensive to replace. The family agreed to have the plaque installed and plans to take the shrine home, where they will "have a lit candle for him at all times," Ms. Machado said.

For Cristina Soria, whose 20-year-old son, Juan Enrique Ortega, was killed in 2008, the profound pain she carries will not be affected by the change, which she agreed to because she is certain it will improve the city's image.

"It won't hurt less if the cross is not there," she said, "and as a citizen, one has to do her part."

As the years wear on many of the gravestones, visits become less frequent and guilt creeps in.

"It's dusty, the flowers are withered, the photograph is faded," said Karina Núñez, crying as she talked about the shrine for her son, Jesús Alfonso. He was 18 when he was killed four years ago, she said.

Simply knowing that the shrine is there is comforting for Ms. Núñez, but her daily routine no longer takes her near it, and she was considering having it replaced with a plaque.

Still, there are a few holdouts, and project organizers are proceeding carefully because many of the gravestones belong to relatives of violent traffickers. Ramón Osuna, the leader of the project, recalled a phone call in which a man warned his staff members that they "might have an accident" if they touched two specific shrines.

Those off-limits shrines are nestled together against the wall of an abandoned shop, a life-size photograph of a young woman wearing large sunglasses, tiny white shorts and a revealing red tank top filling the space between them.

Isaac Guevara, a psychology professor at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, said Culiacán's shrines were "symptoms of what is known as narco-culture," in which music, clothing, film and "aspects of religiosity and membership in organized crime groups converge."

This is not the first attempt to clean up images of death and violence. In Nuevo Laredo in 2009, officials ordered the destruction of shrines honoring Santa Muerte, whom many Mexicans consider the patron saint of death. On Thursday, the Vatican's culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, called the symbol of a cloaked female skeleton blasphemous. Last year, federal legislators asked the government to step in and stop the circulation of a video in which children portray muggers, corrupt police officers and kidnappers.

Here in Culiacán, the removal process can stir strong emotions among grieving relatives. Ramón Colmenero wept quietly as he watched workers dismantle and clear the shrine to his father last month. He felt lightheaded, just as he had two years ago when he dropped to his knees on that same spot, pulled back the blue sheet covering a lifeless lump and recognized his father's face.

"This area for me is very difficult," said Mr. Colmenero, who felt that driving by it -- which he used to do regularly on his way to and from work -- was like scratching an open wound. His siblings, who felt a strong connection to their father at the shrine, opposed its removal and glared at the workers.

The shift, after all, is not only aesthetic, but cultural and religious, too. Culiacán is known for doting on its dead. Home to what may well be the country's most ostentatious cemetery, it is where slain drug lords rest eternally inside multistory, air-conditioned, aristocratic mausoleums. The people here are accustomed to idolizing those who die violently, like Jesus Malverde, a bandit revered by drug traffickers who has a flower-filled, dollar bill-covered shrine that fits dozens of people at a time.

Many people here believe that the soul lingers forever in the last spot where it was alive. The place becomes so sacred that -- in contrast to the opulent graveyards here -- thieves stay away from these street altars, often filled with beer bottles, balloons and fresh flowers.

An engraved cross on the place of death, some people believe, is a beacon of sorts, and without it, souls are condemned to wander with no direction or refuge.

Still, Mayor Rivas is determined to have all the shrines removed by the end of his term in December. But he is also aware of the thin line he is walking and has ordered project leaders not to touch the gravestones for which they cannot get permission.

"We don't want to put any worker at risk," Mr. Rivas said, "and have to put another cenotaph where they lose their life."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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