'We are all Ayotzinapa': the role of digital media in the shaping of transnational memories on disappearance

Enforced disappearance is a transnational technology of repression, which was implemented during the 1970s and 1980s across Latin America. To denounce this repression, civil society actors have developed particular images, strategies and practices, creating a mnemonic repertoire. While this repression technique was also used in Mexico during the “Dirty War”, Mexico is conspicuously absent in the history – and the memory – of disappearances in the Hispanic World. At the same time, since 2007 over 30,000 persons have disappeared in the context of the “war on drugs”, but it was not until the abduction of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa that the issue of ‘enforced disappearances’ in Mexico gained global attention, triggering protests and actions of solidarity all over the world. The underlying thesis of the project is that this case, which was effectively framed as an ‘enforced disappearance’, activated the broader transnational memory of disappearance in the Hispanic World, which provided content and meaning to the neglected phenomenon in Mexico.The role of the new media in getting citizens’ attention and in marking a “turning point” was crucial to the upsurge of a counter-movement against the Mexican government and qualifies the event as significant for the transnational arena.


Considering digital technologies, transnational actors and the human rights discourse as crucial elements of the transnationalization of memory, the project addresses the following questions: How does digital media foster new forms of political agency? How can we assess the role of new media in the construction of new types of mnemonic objects without subscribing to the thesis of digital memory as a completely fluid and free floating entity? How do global actors make use of transnational strategies to intervene in a local/national context? Can disappearance, as a technology of repression that blurs the boundaries between life and death, present and past, materiality and immateriality, become a model to interrogate the dynamics of digital memory?


An interdisciplinary team, constituted by cultural studies, media and memory studies, art history and law experts will study the role of digital media in the formation of transnational memories of disappearance by approaching three key dimensions:


Media and Memory

Theoretical level on the interrelation between media and memory, beyond the specific case study. The aim is to study how personal and collective memories are reconfigured under the impact of digital media. These research questions will be tested in the analysis of the mnemonic objects on disappearance developed in the global sphere (Social Network Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube) in Mexico´s case compared to those of other Hispanic countries (social performances, literature, photography, cinema, TV).


Socio-political dimension

This section focuses on the socio-political dimension of the conflict. It will do so by following two lines of inquiry: the socio-political contexts in which disappearances took place (relationship between democracy and impunity, totalitarian structures underlying democratic states, debates around “failed states” vs “security failed”, transnational threats) and the networked social movements that aroused in the different contexts to denounce disappearances as human rights violations.


Legal dimension

The third dimension of the project concerns the relationship between mnemonic practices and the legal instruments to fight against enforced disappearances. This dimension will focus on how the legal definition of “disappearance” is used in Mexico, particularly when it is applied to cases of difficult framing, as those involving “involuntary” disappearance or disappearance carried out by criminal organizations. How does the legal dimension intersect and help shape mnemonic practices?

Financed by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council, the Host Institution of this research project (2016-2021) is the KU Leuven.

Main Picture’s reference: Flickr