Over the past six years more than 26 thousand people have disappeared in Mexico. A crime that is ignored and downplayed
Forced disappearances are not new in Mexico. The was a huge number of desaparecidos, Spanish for “the disappeared,” during the 1968-1971 repression. What is happening now, however, is beyond limits and is raising concern among the people and humanitarian organizations. Forced or involuntary disappearances are defined a “humanitarian crisis.” Thousands of desaparecidos and their relatives are victims of this little known crime. This crisis has worsened in recent years as violence surged and the country’s government cracked down on drug cartels and criminal organizations, a war with more than 70,000 victims. This tragedy is often officially downplayed. According to Lia Limón, Mexico’s deputy secretary for human rights at the Interior Department, 26,121 people have gone missing in Mexico over the past six years. Ms. Limón noted that authorities don’t have data on how many of these are connected with organized crime.
Desaparecidos: a tragedy ignored
According to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, entitled “Mexico’s Disappeared. The Enduring Cost of a Crisis ignored,” Mexico has been Latin America’s hot spot for “forced disappearances” over the past decade. José Miguel Vivanco, America’s Director of HRW, has specifically called upon the country’s administration to put the forced disappearances issue on the political agenda and to open a public debate on the problem. This phenomenon, according to HRW’s Director, affects thousands of families and is often hidden from public opinion and ignored. The 212 page report highlights the origin of the problem, accusing former Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs.” Calderón, a member of PAN – the conservative National Action Party – served as President of Mexico from 2006 to 2012.
The HRW report lambasts Calderón’s administration for carrying out a six-year “war on drugs” that produced “disastrous results.” Not only did it fail to achieve its principal goal of weakening the drug cartels, but there was also a corresponding increase in human rights abuses committed by the security forces charged with confronting the organizations. “Felipe Calderón’s policy has resulted in a dramatic increase in violence, human rights violations, and abuses. This made the climate of lawlessness and fear only worse,” stated the report.The text focuses on a limited but well-documented selection of disappearance cases. According to HRW, when the relatives of the abducted report the disappearance of their loved ones, police try to play down the matter, “Do not worry,” they say, “he probably got himself into trouble, he will be back soon.” Over time, the disappearance becomes a fact that is impossible to deny.
When families contact Mexican authorities to register and submit a request to trace a missing person, they have to face tremendous bureaucracy, in addition to anguish. Even the simplest procedures often become stressful: a real ordeal. HRW documented 249 disappearances during Calderón’s administration. In 149 of these, there is evidence that security forces were involved. These belonged to all forces: army, Navy, federal, state, and local police. Sometimes acting on their own to detain victims, and others handing over their victims to criminal groups after the illegal detention.
The HRW report outlines systematic institutional investigative failings: police causing lengthy delays in requesting data on victims, prosecutors routinely failing to open preliminary investigations immediately following disappearance reports. The dismissive attitude of officials toward disappearance cases is likely to be due, at least in part, to a “blaming the victim” attitude, where it is assumed that the victim was targeted for belonging to a criminal organization. HRW reports that families regularly get this reaction from authorities.
In most cases, therefore, relatives decide to investigate on their own. This has enormous impact on the families of the desaparecidos. Overwhelming anguish and despair often result in depression. Relatives are entirely committed to searching for their beloved, fearing, at the same time, being abducted themselves. Their life is focused only on this tragedy, with painful consequences. Josè Miguel Vivanco addressed Mexican Attorney General Murillo Karam, urging him to set up a comprehensive plan to solve this serious problem. According to HRW’s Director, implementing a state policy is required in order to prevent and prosecute torture and forced disappearances. He also urged that all alleged human rights violations committed by soldiers against civilians be investigated and promptly prosecuted. Mexico’s forced disappearances are just one tragedy among the many that plague the country, a consequence of the poverty and violence that have grown exponentially.
Jorge García Castillo