In a story that delves deeply into the shocking state-sponsored violence in towns just south of the US border across the Rio Grande from Texas, Arteaga teases out the disturbing facts beyond the headlines from the frontlines of Donald Trump’s populist MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement and its fantasy of a wall paid for by Mexico to keep desperate refugees out of the fabled land of milk and honey.
It is a credit to the dignity of a film that weaves images of abandoned belongings with the unbearably painful stories of those who have thrown themselves on the scant and hardly tender mercies of American immigration and asylum policies, that Trump’s name is not mentioned once, nor his callous policies alluded to.
«Seeking asylum is not a fad or a luxury, it is a human being’s last ticket for life – and to keep fighting»
The carefully arranged discarded family photos, clothing, suitcases and children’s toys are used to choreograph a story of searing loss.
Arteaga pivots her story around a pioneering Mexican-American lawyer, Carlos Spector, who has dedicated his life to representing those fleeing murder, extortion and the ‘disappearance’ of sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and other family members, arguing that they are entitled to political asylum in the US.
«Seeking asylum is not a fad or a luxury, it is a human being’s last ticket for life – and to keep fighting,» says one of Spector’s clients, a Mexican town councillor who fled the systematic murder of his fellow local representatives.
Spector, who with his wife Sandra established a foundation, Mexicans in Exile, to support Mexican seeking political asylum in the US and to fight for justice for them north of the border, asserts that complicity between the two countries supports corruption and allows for violence to flourish unhindered in Mexico and for the human rights of asylum seekers to be trampled on in the US.
Mexican drug cartels are sub-contractors of an unspoken state policy to cleanse Mexican border towns of their populations
«Impunity is not the result of violence,» Spector says. «It is the policy of violence.»
Mexican drug cartels are sub-contractors of an unspoken state policy to cleanse Mexican border towns of their populations to clear the area for economic exploitation for the powerful and politically well-connected. By using drug gangs to murder and intimidate, and federal security services to arrest and ‘disappear’ those who raise a voice against the violence, the Mexican government can pretend its hands are clean.
The Americans in the meanwhile use a narrow interpretation of political asylum that excludes those fleeing «mere» criminal violence – and immigration judges largely drawn from the ranks of former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers – to reject the vast majority of asylum cases.
«In Mexico they are rookies when it comes to corruption,» says Spector. «They violate human rights by ignoring the law. In the US they violate human rights by implementing the law. The law is a tool of oppression.»
There is, he adds, «a conspiracy between the two countries as both benefit from hiding violence.»
A sheer scale of violence and brutality
The human stories told in The Guardian of Memory takes your breath away.
A mother – whose two sons and their two friends, were seized by federal cops, only to be eventually found, identified by their footwear, in shallow graves in the desert – tells the story, from beginning to end, without losing her composure until the moment she recounts coming across the feet sticking out of the gritty soil.
«Now I have no fear left, as the only thing I feared was that they would kill my mother»
There’s the young man who walks the desert dunes at dusk, recalling the day his outspoken mother was murdered. «That day they killed my fear,» he remarks. «Now I have no fear left, as the only thing I feared was that they would kill my mother.»
The sheer scale of the violence – Spector calls it a genocide – and its brutality (the stories of a young man shot down in a cemetery watering plants on the grave of his uncle killed by the cartel just days earlier; the clinical execution of two men in a bar, dismissed as a violent robbery by the authorities; the decapitated human heads lying by a roadside) is the film’s gut-wrenching punch.
With stunning cinematography – the scenes of gathering desert storm clouds like a rising mushroom cloud, or the Milky Way at night, iridescent in its brilliance – The Guardian of Memory is a haunting account as its final credits state: of the «crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Mexico with impunity.»