What is the killer laughing at?
There is a heavy bond that, through wrongful acquittal or impunity, unites perpetrators of femicide and their victims. Because not all justice is punitive, Mexican law considers truth and memory as acts of restitution
In May 2021, only a few days after the publication of El invencible verano de Liliana – the book, available in English on February 28, in which I explore the femicide that claimed the life of Liliana Rivera Garza, my younger sister, on July 16, 1990 in Mexico City – I announced that I had created a Gmail account (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the intention of collecting any information on Ángel González Ramos, my sister’s ex-boyfriend at the time of her death, who still had (and still has) an arrest warrant out as her alleged murderer. I knew that Ángel González Ramos had evaded justice, but I had no idea how he had done it. In August of that same year, an email appeared in the inbox stating, plainly and succinctly, that Ángel González Ramos had been living in southern California under the name Mitchell Angelo Giovanni and had died on May 2, 2020 after drowning in Marina del Rey. Could this be true? Wasn’t it too much a coincidence that after 30 years, and just as the case had finally been brought to light, the alleged murderer would die under such strange circumstances? Was it possible he had faked his own death to evade justice?
The message came with a link to access his digital wake (it was 2020, and we were beginning to witness how the pandemic would affect our funeral rites) that included, in addition to condolences written from Mexico by people with the surname González Ramos, a series of photographs that documented the life of Mitchell Angelo Giovanni, from his birth on April 18, 1967 (the same birthdate as Ángel González Ramos) to the present. In the photographs was the boy with light eyes and blonde hair; the teenager in his leather jacket; the grown man with his thick neck and thinning hair, who, in different poses and among different company, never once stopped laughing. In all of the images of Mitchell Angelo Giovanni as an adult, he is smiling indiscriminately. Over and over again, as if it were a tic. He would peel back his lips and show his teeth, big and blindingly white. He would laugh at long-haired little girls, alongside young women, in the middle of family gatherings. He would smile next to Christmas trees and smile looking out at the ocean. Was he smiling at justice, knowing he had outwitted the law once again? Was he laughing at Liliana, telling her how after all these years he had come out on top – that he was still alive, while she lay, forever silenced, in a grave? Was he laughing at me, for failing to track him down? Was he laughing out of shame?
Was he laughing at you?
Ofrenda para #LilianaRiveraGarza en el Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Querétaro durante todo noviembre. Las piezas son de Elaine Grenier. #JusticiaParaLiliana #JusticiaParaTodas Gracias, MACQ! pic.twitter.com/F1hQtHnq3V— Cristina Rivera Garza (@criveragarza) November 8, 2022
In Hydra Medusa, the forthcoming book by Japanese-American poet Brandon Shimoda (Nightboat Books, 2023), there is a haunting reflection on the heavy bond that, through impunity or wrongful acquittal, unites murderers and their victims. Exploring the concept of cruentation (the theory that a corpse will begin to bleed again in the presence of its murderer), Shimoda asks: “What if the expression of blood from a corpse was the genesis of a curse in which a murderer inherited the blood of the corpse they produced? The murderer would become the corpse’s descendant, while the dead would become the murderer’s ancestor.” As in Shimoda’s other books exploring the experience of his ancestors in the internment camps created by Franklin D. Roosevelt to contain Japanese people in the United States from 1942 to 1948, here, he again considers our relationship to our ancestors: what we inherit from them, the ways they survive in us, the bonds of responsibility that connect us, and how we must preserve them. After all, as Shimoda writes, the fundamental principle of descent – of having and being a descendant – is care. Thus, “if a murderer is going to draw and spill the blood of another person, they will have to bear the responsibility of tending to it.” Now and forever, unto the ages of ages. And the same holds true for those who, through action or omission, helped the murderer perpetrate his crime and hide or escape afterwards, thus mocking justice. Laughing at it.
But this curse is a double-edged sword, and one edge strikes the dead with equal intensity as the living. Or does it? Could the victim and the victimizer, bound by the blood of the crime and the persistence of impunity, become separated through the curse? “The dead,” Shimoda writes, “inherit, against their will, an association with the murderer that, for being undying, requires an act of severance.” A line from the book In the Presence of Absence, by Mahmoud Darwish, offers a way out of this dilemma. In Darwish’s poem, a prisoner says to his guard: “You will never be free of me unless my freedom is generous to a fault.” Then, relieving the prisoner (but not the guard) of his burden, Darwish writes: “He who lives on depriving others of light drowns in the darkness of his own shadow.” Thus, while the “burden of the curse will not fall on the dead,” murderers drown in the turbid waters of their own darkness. “Ancestors are not burdened, any more than light or memory is burdened.”
Contrary to the murderer’s desire, the life and words of Liliana Rivera Garza continue to open new paths. If he is dead, the murderer, like so many other criminals, will no longer receive his punishment. But as the attorney in charge of Mexico City’s special prosecutor’s office for the crime of femicide, Sayuri Herrera, has argued, not all justice is punitive, and Mexico’s victims’ law (Ley General de Víctimas) considers truth and memory as acts of restitution. Every time I see the way readers embrace Liliana, I tell myself that all of us, together, are participating in a more expansive, perhaps even cosmic, justice: that of having her here, by force of a shared and combative memory, in the present. And I tell myself that from this present, which is the future, those young readers, through an act of retrospection, are becoming my sister’s ancestors and she their descendant in the past. And vice versa. Like Shimoda in Hydra Medusa, I too have come to believe that “life is preparation for the possibility of becoming an ancestor,” and that this possibility “materializes through vigilance, responsibility, love.”
Perhaps the killer was laughing so much – with such hideous confidence and discipline, in photograph after photograph during the 30 years that he survived my sister, repeating a gesture out of incompetence more than joy, out of fear more than freedom – because he knew that Liliana had never left.
And that she never would.
I shared all of this information, including the photographs and more, with Mexico City’s Deputy District Attorney Alicia Rosas Rubí. Her team agreed to contact Interpol and to use all available resources to confirm the information with their counterparts in the United States. That was a year and a half ago. I have not received any news about the case. Only silence. The bleak, one might say eternal, silence of impunity.