In recent years Mexico’s armed forces have been widely criticized for a series of drug war-related rights scandals ranging from torture to forced disappearances. But little has been said about the heroic men and women who have died in the line of duty, which in Mexico is more like "killed in action" in a drug war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
A Mexico City-based plastic artist is trying to help raise awareness about fallen police officers and the pain endured by the loved ones who are left behind.
In 2011 Emiliano Gironella began a series of art workshops to bring together the surviving family members of fallen officers of the federal police— a law enforcement agency tasked with fighting narcos along with the army and the marines.
Gironella says his art project, "Heroes and Scars," and his foundation, “Hands Covered in Paint,” is about giving kids closure, allowing them to mourn, and letting them know that they can feel proud about what their parents did.
“In Mexico there is little recognition for those who die on the line of duty. Anywhere else in the world they would automatically become heroes,” Gironella told me.
The artist says the unpopular nature of the drug war and Mexicans' mistrust of police has made many heroic feats to go unnoticed. He claims media coverage has also played a big role, often focusing on scandalous headlines and framing the country’s armed forces in the same vein as the criminals they are fighting.
He says all this has made the process of losing a father or mother in the line of duty even more painful for a child.
“Instead of being proud of their parents who sacrificed their lives for this country, they become confused,” Gironella explained. “My foundation is trying to change some perceptions so that they can feel their parents are heroes.”
Gironella’s art workshops have kids paint big Jackson Pollock-style murals, some of which are now being exhibited at a local museum. He says art not only allows these kids to express their pain and angst, but creates a community in which they meet people who are going through similar experiences.
“Mourning together is easier that mourning alone,” he says.
The kids get to paint portraits of their families, a fallen parent, and experiment with different colors and styles.
“It’s all a playful exercise. There’s a lot of joy in art. If you wake up everyday and play some music and you dance it's a powerful way of battling sadness,” he said. “Recognition is also important. It means a lot to these kids to go to a museum and see their work hanging in a public space.”
Gironella says Mexico’s Federal Police Commissioner and the National Security Commissioner have both visited the workshops. “It’s very important for these people to look at these kids in the eye and tell them ‘Your father is a hero.’”
But he says his project and foundation try to remain apolitical. “I don’t talk to the children about the drug war because some are traumatized. There are some who found out about their father’s death because a severed head arrived at their door.”
Even after the death of a parent, the surviving families can remain in danger. This was big news in 2009, when the loved ones of a marine who died in the famous operation that killed drug lord Arturo Beltran-Leyva were targeted by cartel hitmen, who broke into the family's house and killed the mother, two siblings and an aunt.
Gironella ultimately hopes his workshops can show cops in a different light unlike the generalized bribe-taking caricatures political pundits love to slam on TV.
“This is about humanizing cops and having kids reconcile with the death of a loved one. My job is to reconcile, not judge, and to heal the scar that exists between society and the police.”