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Massacre in Mexico

In my 26 years as a journalist, I have investigated and documented hundreds of cases of corruption, abuse of power and grave violations of human rights in Mexico. My findings have resulted in the sacking of public officials and the opening of investigations by the Mexican authorities and international bodies, contributing to the bringing about of greater transparency and accountability. Mexico is rated by Unesco one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. As a result of my work, I have received death threats, and my family and I have been targeted by armed assailants.

In the LRB of 4 April, Rachel Nolan discusses my book A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story behind the Missing 43 Students, the product of a two-year investigation into the case of the students who disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero state, on 26 September 2014. According to her account, I claim that

the attack was ordered by the governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre Rivero, and … by the president himself, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. ‘For the government of Guerrero … as well as for the federal government’, the students had ‘turned from a perpetual headache into a public enemy …’

But Hernández has a source problem. She has sources, of course – but she is not always as clear as she might be about who or what they are, even bearing in mind her duty to protect their identities. The book has no footnotes or endnotes.

My book does not contain a single line, accusation or insinuation to the effect that Aguirre Rivero or Peña Nieto ordered the attack. What Nolan states is false. What I do say, directly and categorically, is that Aguirre Rivero and Peña Nieto, along with various officials in their administrations, covered up for the perpetrators of the attack. And those perpetrators were members of the Mexican army and of the federal, state and municipal police forces. The story of this cover-up and the identity of the attackers are the central matter of my investigation. On this there are indeed no footnotes or endnotes. Throughout the text, in every chapter, I refer to dozens of numbered, dated documents of which I managed to obtain copies despite the Mexican government’s efforts to keep them secret. I detail the content of public prosecutors’ and forensic pathologists’ reports, autopsies and ballistic analyses, as well as court affidavits signed by victims and witnesses and by members of the armed forces and of the federal, state and local police. Among other documents, I cite a report from the Bureau of Internal Affairs attached to the Attorney General’s Office. And I clearly reference the content of the letters, exclusive interviews and unreleased videos to which I also obtained access.

In 2018 the United Nations issued reports and Mexican courts handed down rulings that corroborated many of the facts brought to light in my book and in articles I had published earlier. Also last year, two federal judges in Mexico remarked on the amount of information I had uncovered in my investigation.

The disappearance of the 43 students is an emblematic event that has caused deep pain to the survivors of the attack, the relatives of those murdered that night, the parents of the students, and those who suffered torture in its aftermath. I firmly believe that every one of them has a right to the truth, and that is why I have made this clarification.

Anabel Hernández
c/o Verso, London W1


Brexit Blues

Ben Bradley’s objection to David Runciman’s description of Brexit as ‘the choice of the people’ can be expanded (Letters, 21 March). Only those on the electoral registers of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar were entitled to vote, and not all of these, as citizens of other European Union member states (except Ireland, Malta and Cyprus) are barred from voting in referendums. Many British citizens entitled to be registered were not registered, typically young people on the move. British citizens resident in crown dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) or in overseas territories (Bermuda and Anguilla, for example) weren’t entitled to register, nor were British citizens long resident in other parts of the European Union. The number of British residents and British citizens barred from voting in the referendum was at a conservative estimate close to four million. All such people are liable to be deprived by Brexit of the right to travel, to work and (in some circumstances) to marry.

C.J. Woods
Celbridge, Co. Kildare

Ben Bradley and John Dewey are a little off the mark when they say that Australia has a compulsory voting system. There is no compulsion to cast a formal vote, as the term ‘compulsory’ implies. It is pretty easy to have your name removed from the electoral roll if you are a conscientious objector. But 96.8 per cent of eligible people are enrolled, and most people who turn up to the polls do lodge a valid vote. It helps, no doubt, that elections are held on Saturdays, often in public schools, which take the opportunity to raise funds by holding sausage sizzles and cake stalls.

Peter Henderson
Wingello, New South Wales


Vaguely Pinkish

As Daniel Trilling makes clear, it is a fallacy that white identities and the policies associated with them have nothing to do with racism (LRB, 18 April). Trilling highlights the enormous emotional power of the term ‘white’. But ‘whites’ are not in any way white, so why do we go along with a term so dichotomous and so thoroughly imbued with notions of purity and perfection? As Trilling points out, even the seemingly innocuous term ‘Caucasian’ is shot through with such notions, so why do we not propagate some other term – ‘vaguely pinkish’, perhaps. This wouldn’t in itself remove the prejudice. People may still believe in a vaguely pinkish supremacy, or want to retain a vaguely pinkish majority society. But it might take some of the emotional force out of such ideas.

John Hendry
Girton College, Cambridge


Isn’t that what it’s about?

Once a soixante-huitard, I read Jonathan Rée’s article on Sartre with great interest (LRB, 18 April). Dan Franck has written about the reception of L’Etre et le Néant by Parisians. Sales were slow at first, but they soon picked up. At a time when brass was in short supply, the book weighed a whole kilo, and merchants and homemakers were buying up copies to balance their scales.

Alberto Balestrieri
Montreal


At the Rinfresco

Andrew O’Hagan writes that the orders of service for the recently departed are often penned by a ‘committee of the sad’ (LRB, 18 April). That brought to mind the service held recently for a cousin of mine, who died aged 82 in Rome, having lived there for the best part of sixty years. At the rinfresco – a curious Italian term for a wake, which roughly translates as ‘a freshening up’ – in her Rome apartment there was a lively speech and some Ella Fitzgerald (‘Someone to Watch over Me’), Louis Armstrong (‘St James Infirmary Blues’), Erroll Garner (‘Caravan’) and Erik Satie (‘Gymnopédie 1’) on the gramophone, as well as a local version of ‘Volare’. But the culmination, likely reflecting my cousin’s unsatiated yearning to return to Bondi Beach in her waning years, had the attendees variously shocked and delighted: Connie Francis’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’. No sad committee for that order of service.

Gerard Noonan
Sydney


Off the Christmas Card List

Susan Pedersen ends her review of Richard Evans’s biography of Eric Hobsbawm with a recollection of his enduring enthusiasm for the study of history (LRB, 18 April). I was a student at Birkbeck College in the 1970s, pursuing an MA in social and economic history. As part of this, I attended weekly seminars with Hobsbawm. I’m not sure what he made of his students but my memory now is that we sat mostly tongue-tied, somewhat in awe, wary of saying anything that might expose our lack of knowledge. In consequence, the seminars usually developed into an off-the-cuff lecture by Hobsbawm in which he talked, in absorbing detail, about whatever themes came to him.

On one occasion the reading for the seminar included Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (1956) by George Ewart Evans. We kicked this around in a hesitant way before Hobsbawm, using Evans’s oral history as a starting point, took over to give us his insights into 19th and early 20th-century rural life, in England and probably other parts of the world as well. At one point, he paused. ‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay,’ he said, with a large grin. ‘What a great title for a book!’

Frank Edwards
London N2


One Ball Syndrome

As a urologist, I am appalled by your persistent use of the word ‘ball’ to refer to the testicle. Perhaps the gutter term used by Colm Tóibín in his essay is deemed quaint coming from a well-spoken literary writer, but now it has infiltrated your letters as well (Letters, 9 May and LRB, 18 April). Testicle, gentlemen and ladies. Testicle.

José Sotolongo
Accord, New York


Gulbenkian’s Legacy

It’s upsetting to learn from Daniel O’Neil that law students all over the Commonwealth are required to learn, or at least to study, the wording of Calouste Gulbenkian’s testamentary provision for his son Nubar (Letters, 9 May). This is apparently because the law lords’ decision – namely, that the wording of the trust set up by the will was not too imprecise to be workable – constitutes ‘a leading precedent’.

The Gulbenkian will trust was to be in favour of Nubar ‘and any wife and his children or remoter issue for the time being in existence … and any person or persons in whose house or apartments or in whose company or under whose care or control or by or with whom the said Nubar Sarkis Gulbenkian may from time to time be employed or residing’. The law lords said that it was not necessary to delineate in advance the universe of potential beneficiaries of this Byzantine set-up; simply to decide whether an eventual claimant qualified or not.

The decision accords the particular words no significance that makes them worth memorising, much less that requires ‘strangers combing through … family affairs lest they turn up in an exam’. What law students do need to learn is that deducing the meaning of one set of words from the meaning of a similar but unrelated set of words is a legal death-trap. ‘The only result of referring to authorities for that purpose,’ said the Victorian judge Sir George Jessel, ‘is confusion and error.’

The real significance of the Gulbenkian case and most other testamentary decisions of the courts has been to confirm that the first duty of testators and their lawyers is to provide the legal profession with work. (The second is to leave enough money in the estate to pay all the fees.) There have been plenty of instances, but perhaps the most telling is that the author of what has since 1844 been the leading textbook on wills, Thomas Jarman, died intestate. His relations, who in consequence looked forward to a handsome royalty income, forbade the editor of the next two editions to mention this awkward fact.

Stephen Sedley
Oxford


Subscription Rebellion

All UK subscriber copies of the LRB will be in potato-based biodegradable wrapping from this issue forward. Overseas wrapping will take longer as every country’s postal service has different guidelines, but the hope is that eventually all LRBs across the world will travel in non-plastic wrapping.

Chris Larkin
LRB, London WC1