Broken Borders exhibit explores the effects of Mexico's drug war
// Mike Conway

“Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s decision in 2006 to put military troops on the streets in order to fight against drug trafficking, Mexico has been living in a state of emergency. This government policy has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths and a dramatic increase in violence,” writes Adriana Estrada-Centelles, curator of Broken Borders, a Vancouver exhibit that analyzes the artistic production of four Mexican artists in the context of the Mexican Drug War. “The resulting violence and collateral damage to society have shifted the everyday lives of Mexicans into a permanent state of alert, uncertainty, and horror.”

This sets the tone, and theme, for Broken Borders. The relevance of the exhibit, Estrada-Centelles believes, is that it “reflects on the sociopolitical situation that has affected Mexico and more recently other countries, such as Canada and the United States for the past six years – the drug war.”

The Mexican Drug War, according the United States Justice Department, is an armed conflict between eight rival drug cartels, or gangs, throughout Mexico in an attempt to gain the most control over drug trafficking routes, as well as the Mexican government, which is attempting to stop drug trafficking.

Mexico and the United States have been actively countering the drug cartels since Operation Man (1991), a cooperative anti-drug funding effort between the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexican Federal Investigations Agency (AFI), and world financial institutions in an attempt to suspend monetary assets of various drug cartels. However, violence has peaked in the last ten years as a result of military operations undertaken by successive Mexican presidents Vincente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderon (2006-Present).

The violence has been heightened by corruption scandals throughout Mexican law enforcement, including the AFI, INTERPOL, and the Mexican military. For example, the Attorney General (PGR) reported in Dec. 2005 that nearly 1,500 of the AFI’s 7,000 agents were under investigation for suspected criminal activity and 457 were facing charges.

The war is further complicated by the fact that 90 per cent of the weapons used by the cartels come from the United States, and the drugs being traded are primarily going northward to markets in the United States and Canada.

Broken Borders is strategically located and split between the Satellite Gallery, located on 560 Seymour St., and the Access Gallery, located on 222 East Georgia St., just off Main. In regards to the strategy behind the split location, Estrada-Centelles says that it gives the public an “opportunity to engage differently with the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.”

These locations represent to Estrada-Centelles an area of Vancouver where “drug trafficking and consumption is a constant and evident problem.” However, she explains that the exhibit is “without any prejudice against illegal drug consumption.”

“[The idea is that the] exhibition opens up spaces of reflection on the public’s (in)direct participation that feeds violence and strengthens the expansion of the war on drugs,” she concludes.

The Satellite Gallery is on the second floor above Club 560, a nightclub in the centre of downtown Vancouver. A large television with two headphones is immediately visible upon entrance, the work of Rosa Maria Robles, a Culiacan-based artist (a state on Mexico’s west coast).

Robles’ work is themed around the subculture created by the violence, impunity, and power, surrounding the drug war; what she calls “narcoculture”. The exhibit she presents is a documentary which pieces together news, film, and interviews from people, and reports around the Americas in an attempt to connect the nations involved with the conflict.

After Robles piece comes Teresa Margolles Irrigation, a 30-minute video projected on a wall (15 x 10 feet), of a truck driving along a highway with water pouring out of a 5,000 gallon tank. In the gallery, there are three rugs that lead to a bench that you can sit on to watch the video.

On a tiny piece of paper scotch-taped to a dark wall is an explanation of what the video is about. Margolles, a mortician for Mexico’s Medical Forensic Service, placed pieces of blankets – similar to the blankets used in Mexico to collect the dead mutilated bodies of the victims of the war, and similar to the blankets placed before the bench on the gallery floor – in the locations of 500 murder sites in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez. The remains of these fabrics were then soaked in 5,000 gallons of water, which was then dumped on Texas Highway 90 in an attempt to connect the two places; a connection irrigated with death and blood.

Estrada-Centelles explains, “Due to Mexico’s state of emergency, it has become essential to analyze the global impact of the war on drugs in contemporary societies.” Through the artwork of these artists, she continues, “[it] is possible to unveil the structure of the drug war as a well-organized and complex global structure of illegal activities that involves robbery, extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, and money laundering, as well as weapon and human trafficking.”

The effects of the drug war extend well beyond one isolated incident. While often referred to as Mexico’s drug war, the war on drugs exists everywhere.

//Mike Conway, writer
//Graphics by Tiare Jung

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