Suspended Gazes. The Pictures Of The Disappeared In Jalisco1

Received: August 13, 2019

Acceptance: February 10, 2020


The war on crime has brought, for the past 13 years, a spiral of violence that has left deep scars on Mexican society. Every day, mass media records the expressions of the failed security strategy, although they do it mostly to beautify and spectacularize it. In the middle of the coverage by the major news outlets, war victims have opted for other practices, particularly the families of the disappeared, who use the materiality of images to create search files that help others visualize the absence of their loved ones.

In this paper I will answer the question: what meanings does photography have in the context of the disappearance of people in the middle of the war against crime? To do this, I will base myself on the analysis and display of files collected during my field work in Guadalajara throughout 2018 and 2019. The text includes interviews and vignettes that allow me to better illustrate the relevance of the photo to the event of disappearance, in which the identity of the absent person, who tries to show himself to others through the image, plays a central role.

Keywords: , , ,

Suspended Gazes. The Pictures Of The Disappeared In Jalisco

The war on crime has brought, for the past 13 years, a spiral of violence that has left deep scars on Mexican society. Every day, mass media records the expressions of the failed security strategy, although they do it mostly to beautify and spectacularize it. In the middle of the coverage by the major news outlets, war victims have opted for other practices, particularly the families of the disappeared, who use the materiality of images to create search files that help others visualize the absence of their loved ones.

The present work will answer the question: what meanings does photography have in the context of the disappearance of people in the middle of the war on crime? To do so I will rely on the analysis and display of files gathered during my fieldwork in Guadalajara throughout 2018 and 2019. The text includes interviews and sketches that allow me to illustrate the relevance that photography has in the event of a disappearance in which the identity of who is missing, tried to be displayed to others through this image, plays a central role.

Keywords: violence, disappearance, photography, identity.


The men on the platform are looking at the same point. The man at the microphone focuses his eyes in that same direction. Senora Josefina has left her seat among a rigorously quiet audience in a suit to stand up and hold up her daughter's photograph; meanwhile, the official continues his speech about the growing numbers and the need to train personnel in care programs related to the disappearance of women. When he is silent, she screams: "We want justice!" Some lukewarm applause, like slaps on the back, comes in the moment. He is silent. Looks down. After that slight pause, he continues with his soliloquy. She remains standing, with the photograph held high. "Our commitment is with the victims and their families," he argues as a magisterial closing. The applause rains down. She is still standing with her arms raised. He comes down from the dais. The audience rises. Coffee and snacks have been served in the background. A murmur fills the room.

Illustration 1

The latest known, June 11, 2019 Source: own photograph.

The episode I witnessed of Josefina's protest that time, in a political precinct in the center of Guadalajara, led me to question the centrality of the image in my ethnographic project related to the search for disappeared persons in Jalisco, particularly in three regions ( the downtown area, where the capital, the South Coast and the North Highlands are located). During 2018 and part of 2019 I focused particularly on analyzing the relationship that the families of those who have disappeared forge with the State, as well as their strategies to respond to the silence and lack of justice on the part of state policy.

Thus, by visiting the houses of the families, attending marches and holding interviews, I began to delve into visual anthropology with the aim of having a semiotic approach that would allow me to weave an argument about the constant presence of images in my fieldwork situated in Jalisco, a state that became my study area after having experienced the civil expressions that demanded the return alive of the 43 students of the Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos in the state of Guerrero 2 and to have been as a volunteer in a non-governmental organization dedicated to the accompaniment of families in search of their disappeared in Guadalajara.

Being in the organization for six months, I lived closely stories emanating from the violence of the war against crime launched in 2007 by the then president Felipe Calderón, within a security strategy in which the armed and security forces were deployed. public under the narrative of fighting groups dedicated to drug trafficking; a plan that caused fragmentation and criminal readjustments that through public battles redefined the panorama of the cartels on a national scale, going from five large criminal networks in early 2007 to ten by 2019 (crs, 2019).

In that office of the organization, set up in an old house in the center of the city, during the weekly meetings we constantly updated ourselves about the numbers of the war in the entity and we listened to the voices behind those figures, which showed Jalisco as one of the epicenters of criminal violence. By 2015, the entity began to be a focus of disappearances at the national level, with 2,029 cases reported to the government, thus placing it in fourth place with the most reports in the entire country (Cepad, 2018). However, the escalation of violence has continued to expand to historic levels in the Jalisco territory; An emphatic data is the record of 8,735 victims of disappearance for 2019: thus becoming the state with the most cases in all of Mexico (López, 2020).

Violence in Jalisco is usually associated mostly with the exponential growth of the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (cjng). From a separation from the Sinaloa Cartel, it is argued, Nueva Generación was born, a criminal network that rose to prominence between 2013 and 2015 in the Tierra Caliente area (Michoacán), before the fall of its main adversary, the Knights Templar. The cjng It is rated by the Congressional Research Service (2019) as the most prolific and violent criminal network today. The group is responsible for distributing cocaine and methamphetamine throughout the Pacific route, to the United States and Canada. The cartel has its networks in 22 of 32 states in the country. And seaports have become the areas of greatest interest for the cartel, because there is the possibility of consolidating its chain of dominance through the global supply of narcotics. The ports of Manzanillo, Lázaro Cárdenas and Veracruz, in that order, are the ones with a strong New Generation presence. Finally, it should be noted that the cartel has one of its nerve centers in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara, where the importance of the intertwining of two
territories for the power of the cartel: physical space and corporeal (the


“Look at her, she's pretty, isn't she? Although she needed to put on more makeup; I'm going to tell her when I see her to blush because later she looks very pale; he went out to his dad ”. Berenice shows me the photograph of her daughter, the one she carries around in her bag. When he asks me about Silvia's beauty, he takes his eyes off the image to direct it towards me. I nod my head, while Berenice continues talking about what she will do when she is reunited with her daughter, who is just over four years old. The photo that he carries every time he leaves the house he uses as a testimony of Silvia's existence to visualize the search that he is going through before others.

“There are days when I don't even want to go out. I have good times and bad times, but she is always present here: in my heart, ”says Romina when we are in her living room surrounded by family photos in which her daughter Carolina appears with a huge smile. With brown eyes and wavy black hair, she gazes at us from her portrait on the landing of the stairs. An image taken the day he graduated from college. "I asked my husband to put it here to see it every day." Due to the disappearance of Carolina, her portrait is configured into an artifact that invokes the absent in times of uncertainty.

An argument that can be extrapolated to this case is in the analysis made by Moreno (2018) about the family photos of the victims of the Franco regime; The author talks about the surface of the image, the one that is visualized before everyone, but makes an emphasis on the readings that each viewer gives it from placing it in a specific context of experiences. In the case of Romina, for example, we witness the daily evocation that she gives about that face hanging on the wall of the home that serves as the materialization of an affection covered by the despair of not knowing where "her child" is, as she calls it. with love.

In Lucid camera, Barthes (1982) reflects on the image and its relationship with death. The ability of a photo to store a subject. The impact that seeing it can cause, because for a moment it resurrects the person embodied in it. Looks found between life and death, although Barthes argues that this connection does not occur with all photographs, but with those that, due to their particularities, surround us with a greater nostalgia. We listen to the person. We feel it. We go back in time as he does with the photo of his mother in the greenhouse, the one that he does not show, because it indicates, in that experience of brief resurrection there also arises a pain that he wishes to keep for himself. In my case, there is an image that for me fully represents my mother. When I look at her, I see her as I feel her, with that half-way smile and her curls ruffled by the wind. Before leaving home to become independent, I stole that photo from a family album that I keep in a book at home. I believe, as Barthes says, that when my mother dies that will be the image that will transport me back in time: to feel her, to meet her gaze. Relive her, even for a moment to hold her in my thoughts.

But in Romina and Berenice the images of their daughters take on dimensions that are out of phase with use post mortem; in her case, the photo becomes relevant due to the pain and noise in life caused by the disappearance. That is, the photographs, through their materiality, subsume in small doses the lack of a space for mourning, as well as the break caused by not having the body of the loved one that allows closing the cycle of life. Seeing Carolina and Silvia allows to invoke them. In the photo the family members condense the memories, the hope, and the discourse on injustice is indexed; the photographs captured by the mundane ritual of taking an image (Strassler, 2010) or a more extraordinary event such as immortalizing Carolina's graduation, are in turn testimony to the physical existence of people who are absent today.

Illustration 2

The woman with the tousled curls. My mother, s / f, Source: own photograph.

As we will see below, the photographs, due to the lack of justice, break with the private sphere: they come off the wall, from the album kept in a drawer or in the memory of the cell phone, to enter the public space as cards with the intention to be present in the streets as a sign that allows to shed light on the path of knowing where the disappeared person is. Thus, outside of the images presented in the audiovisual media to narrate the war, the collective action of the families of the disappeared tries to create audiences through the network of spectators who walk through the streets of the city.

The disappearance tokens

During the first half of 2019 alone, I found thirteen search files while walking through Guadalajara, on which I will focus on these pages. In them, along with the printed photo of the disappeared person, are added contact information, characteristics of the person, a brief narrative of the last time he was seen alive or a caption that appeals to the viewer: “Son, I am searching. Please come back ”(Illustration 9). In a metropolis with ignorance of the exact figure of how many of its inhabitants have disappeared in recent years, the files remind us of how complex the problem becomes, although activists and some officials estimate that there are close to four thousand cases. Governor Enrique Alfaro, during the presentation of the Comprehensive Victim Care Strategy at Hospicio Cabañas in March 2019, acknowledged not fully knowing the exact amount due to the black figure in the entity, the fifth with the highest number of unreported crimes, according to the 2018 Mexico Global Impunity Index.

Amid the uncertainty that disappearance sows and the ineffectiveness of the state apparatus to respond to the demands of justice, the families that become seekers make the absences visible in different ways. As reported by the Public Ministry agency of the event to the authorities, the files that are placed on fences, poles and telephone booths are the way to notify the population of the event, and thus encourage the presentation of any data that contributes on location.

The cards are also present in large format, as an instrument of protest, during the marches carried out by those who await the return of their close ones. On posters or banners that they hold in their hands or hang around their neck, a moving panorama is displayed, which is made up of dozens of photos that serve as a centerpiece within the symbolic-affective repertoire of mobilizations that seek to attract the eyes of others. The enlarged images, although they blur the details, “are shocked by the horror of imagining the number of people disappeared simultaneously” (Johnson, 2018: 116). Through its visuality, it is about stirring up social indignation, as well as demanding the actions of the authorities, who have disdained the massiveness of the phenomenon of disappearance in Mexico since its increase as a result of the war on crime (illustrations 3 and 4 ).

Illustration 3

Those who are absent take to the streets. Author: Carlos Lebrato. cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Illustration 4

Those who are absent take to the streets. Author: Carlos Lebrato. cc by-nc-sa 2.0

In Latin American countries, analyzes have been written on the image in contexts of massive violence, for example in the case of the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the 20th century. xx. Works by authors such as Del Castillo (2017) or Da Silva (2011) present us reflections regarding the use of photographs of the disappeared to claim their return alive. The texts emphasize the multiple paths that these photos take from their circulation due to the reproducibility of the images, a characteristic that emerges as one of their main powers to face horror through the use and appropriation that they make different civil sectors (Del Castillo, 2017), both inside and outside the territories where violence is experienced.

A common feature in the work carried out in the Southern Cone and other latitudes has to do with the appropriation and use of identity photos in the protests as well as in the disseminated files. According to Strassler (2010) from his experience in Indonesia, it is about the way in which the objects of the State are appropriated and recontextualized. In the words of this author, "the history of identity photography is linked to the expansion of the modern bureaucratic state and the global diffusion of a semiotic ideology in which the photo serves as both legal and scientific evidence" (Strassler, 2010: 129) . Thus, with those “child-size” photos that have been taken of us since we entered school, or when we sit in front of a bench and a serious photographer portrays our face to be reflected in the voter's credential, a documentation system is amassed that visualizes at the same time that it materializes the population to be classified, “managed”, in terms of Foucault (1977).

The files I found in Guadalajara break, except for two of them, with the appropriation of the identity photo to notify society of the disappearance. The file in which its use is most evident is in illustration 5, which complies with the standards indicated in the previous paragraph; but I want to emphasize that the file was prepared by Amber Alert, an institutional tool to locate children and adolescents. We are then before the State making use of the images that have been created under its own parameters. The other case in which an identity photo stands out is in Miguel's file (illustration 6); in it he is presented in the foreground with a serious, rigid attitude. In the adjoining photo, taken in medium shot, he is holding a mug in his hand while smiling. He wears a shirt full of logos. The countenance certainly changes.

Illustration 5

Juan Jesús, February 7, 2019, own photograph.

Illustration 6

Miguel Salvador, February 8, 2019, own photograph.

I am interested in rescuing the contrast of Miguel's file because precisely the images that make up the series that I collected are files whose protagonists are sometimes shown in color, smiling, with full-length poses. A snapshot of his daily life in which the rigid system of representation that Strassler (2010) detects in identity photos is fragmented. Of course, it is undeniable that technological changes in recent decades have opened the possibility of removing the images of identity created by official institutions. Under the vein opened by the image in digital format, it is therefore relevant to investigate the background of the choice of specific photographs used by the families of the disappeared. As Azul mentioned in one of our talks, it's actually about feeling the whole person: “I look at her and it's her, that's her smile, that's right, you never really see her angry. It's her ”(illustration 7).

Illustration 7

Alondra, March 28, 2019, own photograph.

Illustration 8

Alexis, March 25, 2019, own photograph.

When Azul says “it's her”, she talks about seeing her daughter in her entirety in that selfie. Something is captured on the surface that allows her to feel the identity that she reads in Alondra. Like Barthes with his mother's photo. Strassler will say that it is a gradation of what the State has established as the possibility of representing individual identity in photographic signs (2010: 147). I agree in part with the postulate of the author; However, I argue that the images used by the families to create the cards break in principle with the standardization of the subjects in those black and white portraits established in the credentials. Loved ones are represented through visual excerpts from their daily life: a captured moment in which the missing person is reflected as they remember him. With this, in addition, a possible vein is opened to feel the viewers most identified with photographs that present a more human side compared to the classic rigidity and impersonality of the identity photo created under uniformity parameters: fixed gaze, not smiling, without accessories or objects, no pose that leaves a trace of personality or a feeling.

“I want them to see him as he is, as I know him. That you look at it and know how to recognize it ”, Amelia tells in a march when I ask her why she chose that photo to make the banner. Raúl appears standing with his arms crossed, leaning on his recently bought car. "She always liked to show it off," says her mother. An element shared by several of the photographs in the cards presented here is that they have a social life behind them. They are portraits that have been in the family for a while, or, more often, they can be images circulated on social media. In the era of digitization, the last photos that exist of the disappeared person on the Internet are recovered as recent evidence of their appearance, broken down into the files with descriptive captions of the physical and other particular features of the person. Chips, as we will see below, that try to take over the city.

Illustration 9

Miguel Ángel, May 10, 2019, own photograph.

Suspended gazes in public space

One morning, as I was passing by the esplanade of the Expiatory Temple, I saw Angel's file (illustration 10). Due to the haste to get to my destination on time, I did not take a picture; I thought about doing it when I got back a few hours later. At around five in the afternoon I passed by the esplanade again, but Angel was gone. Only the marks of the paper torn from the surface remained on the tourist information module in which it had been placed. I reproached myself for not having given myself the time to capture the image. However, the next morning he was there. Someone had pasted the card back in the same place; with the latent risk that it would be torn off again.

Illustration 10

Ángel de Jesús, February 20, 2019, own photograph.

After the experience with the Angel file, I went to the places where I had found the others in days or weeks ago. My surprise was that most of them were gone. They had been removed from a public space full of rules not always written. The very act of pulling them out reveals that the furniture, along with the fences, poles and telephone booths, has owners who claim their property. I witnessed when the booths were cleaned by the subjects hired by the telephone companies. In other cases, especially the posts, they had been almost covered by flyers of all kinds, such as those that advertise jobs for young people between 17 and 30 without experience and are assured of "immediate hiring." One evening, I observed an employee of the Guadalajara City Council picking up the trash from the cans while pulling all traces of propaganda from the posts. "It's the orders, young man," he answered my question as to why he removed a token.

"They are the orders" of a government concerned with maintaining a good image, especially in the downtown area where tourists converge. Guadalajara, inserted in the field of brand cities, tries to offer its visitor a face that complies with the marketing created to promote the metropolis as an avant-garde city, in which the disappeared and the visual noise of their chips are over. For its part, the reception in society is mixed. I saw from the woman who stared at one of them for a considerable time, to two friends who, while they were waiting to cross an avenue, talked about the girl in the photo on that sheet attached to the fence. One of them mentioned that she was afraid of disappearing. I lost the thread of the conversation as we took opposite directions. Sometimes I sat nearby to appreciate people's reactions, but the chips were generally unnoticed amid the dense urban scenery. Reception was best achieved when they were handed out on the sidewalks in the form of flyers.

One afternoon I accompanied Susana's mother as she delivered flyers outside a light rail station. The first reaction of some passers-by was evasive, with a "no, thank you." But they soon realized that it was not propaganda. We were then accepted by notices about the disappearance. “Please call in case you know anything. We need to know where it is. " Once notified, the pedestrians continued their walk. “I always carry a fist to distribute everywhere. One does not know when someone could give us information; to know something". Upon returning home, Gabriela handed me a block of flyers to locate her daughter, with the hope that its circulation would spread to other areas.

Thus, the photographs as technological tools that make up the files emerge from a political, symbolic and affective repertoire that tries to notify us of the horror, of the lack of justice, together with the little dissemination of the cases in the hegemonic local media. The cards, I expose, are testimonies by themselves, but silenced due to the banishment in the public space of the suspended gazes, which are torn or covered by all kinds of propaganda that aims to attract the attention of the citizen-consumer in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. However, to counteract disputes in public space and increase dissemination, another space has been taken: digital. In recent years, Facebook and Twitter pages have proliferated that share information about missing persons. One of the most popular is La Alameda, created in Oaxaca, but which today extends to 25 profiles throughout the Republic. The purpose is to consolidate a collaborative support movement that helps families to become visible to other audiences.

Illustration 11

Karla, March 8, 2019, own photograph.

If anyone has seen them, please call. Final reflection

According to González Flores in his work on the photographs of the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, the images are effective within the framework of the complaint because they have the function of questioning the viewer (2018: 499-500). I agree with the author, although I add, as I have already pointed out, that the relevance of the photo (with emphasis on the digital one) as a testimony is based on being sustained in the daily life of the absent person. These elements present in the photographic sign keep suspended glances on the surface that are there trying to make visual contact with those who pass through the streets of the city. Specify a process of identification of the disappeared in the city (Peirano, 2011). See them. See. Reflecting as equals: people with stories and dreams. His presence in a way tells us: "you could be next." But as we have seen, the formation of publics in front of which to denounce and that, in turn, they become denouncers, is not an easy task. There is indifference, sometimes astonishment and fear in the context of the disappearances that occurred in the war on crime, as well as a rude contest on the part of the tokens to attract the attention of passersby among the objects and events that occur in the urban .

I propose that the photographs that make up the cards placed in the so-called public space are traversed by a resignification that postulates another language of war, one that humanizes the figures released by the State. The tokens represent precisely the traces left by the violence of war, and the images chosen by the families are intended to show the person to the public in the most faithful way possible, before the wake of violence touches the door of their home.

Finally, the files are tests that measure in fragments the violence that we go through as a nation. The families of the absent take the image to give it a dimension that holds deep meanings, because it tries to confront us as a society and challenge the State apparatus itself that is built, in theory, on democratic foundations, questioned by those suspended gazes. The chips likewise lay the foundation, despite being ripped and just by that action, for a future memory of a war on crime that may not be named, but persists. It is the reminder of the increase in the number of missing persons that the official discourse and other social groups draw from their narratives. Documenting the search processes of the families thus becomes a necessary task in order to leave a trace of the victims' agency and not be left in the future with a single version of our past.

Illustration 12

Victor, June 11, 2019, own photograph.

Illustration 13

Erika, April 22, 2019, own photograph.

Illustration 14

Ángel, April 23, 2019, own photograph.

Illustration 15

Saulo, March 24, 2019, own photograph.

Illustration 16

Unnamed, July 15, 2019, own photograph.


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Isaac vargas is research fellow of the Drug Policy Program of the Central Region cide, where he carries out an investigation on forced disappearance and militarization. He is a teacher in Social Anthropology from El Colegio de Michoacán; his thesis deals with the search for missing persons in Jalisco. His academic interests stem from the anthropology of violence and the State. Previously, she was a research assistant at El Colegio de Jalisco and part of the team of researchers at the Migrant Care Center - mf4 Free way. orcid: 0000-0001-6553-7923

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EncartesVol. 5, No. 10, September 2022-February 2023, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 22, 2022.