How to Find Mexico’s Disappeared

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Skepticism is the mother’s milk of Mexican politics, but under pressure from human rights groups and victims’ relatives, the government may at last be ready to search for the more than 26,000 people missing in the gangland wars.

The promises are coming from various levels of government. Senior officials in the new administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto have vowed that they will look for all of those who have disappeared. State governments in Coahuila and Nuevo Leon — both of which share the Rio Grande with Texas, and both ruled by Peña’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — have set up task forces to look for the vanished.

The public pronouncements have given rights advocates and relatives of victims a very cautious optimism that the official promises may actually lead to some closure for thousands of families.

“As the Mexican government, they have the responsibility. This is a crime that continues, a national emergency,” said Diana Iris, 56, whose 23-year-old son Daniel disappeared along with two other men five years ago outside Saltillo, the industrial capital of Coahuila, where rights groups say at least 1,800 people have vanished. “We don’t care about searching for just one of the missing. This an issue that confronts the whole country.”

Most think nothing will happen without international pressure, which is coming in waves these days. On March 5, Amnesty International blasted the Peña Nieto government’s efforts on human rights, saying that they “simply do not match the gravity of the situation that Mexico is experiencing.”

Calling for “a radical change in public security policy” to end serious abuses such as torture, abuse and forced disappearances and bring their authors to justice, Amnesty said that “the many thousands of victims of crime and human rights violations over the last six years, including the 1000s of people disappeared and missing, still remain without access to justice and reparations.”

Human Rights Watch charges, in a report released in late February, that many of the disappearances have been carried out by federal, state and local security forces, often in collusion with gangsters who are targeting rivals. The report’s year-long investigation documented 149 such “enforced disappearances,” many of them in Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and other border states, among the 249 cases it presented.

“This is a major problem that falls on the shoulders of the new government,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said in presenting the report. “This is the result of a war without controls.”

Under former President Felipe Calderon, who launched the military-led campaign against entrenched criminal groups soon upon taking office, and whose six year term ended December 1, 2012, Mexican officials too often dismissed the missing as gangsters, or as somehow culpable in their fate. Most media attention has focused on the close to 70,000 people thought to have been executed or massacred gangland-style in the past six years. The missing make the news most often when a clandestine mass grave is discovered, or when an abduction is carried out in the public view.

That official attitude and the lack of media attention has set the tone for society’s nonchalance about the issue, advocates and victims’ relatives say.

“Neighbors, members of your own family, they make judgments,” said Iris, one of the more active members of FUUNDEC, a Catholic Church-supported organization of relatives of the disappeared that has spearheaded pressure on the state and federal governments. “Society doesn’t listen.

“People continue living as if nothing is happening.” she said. “They don’t realize the level of violence we are living, the tragedy we are living.”

But Vivanco and others have pointed to limited government efforts in Coahuila and Nuevo Leon as hopeful indications that things can and will improve, if enough pressure is applied by the federal government.

In Nuevo Leon, where a local human rights group, CADHAC, has recorded more than 1,050 disappearances in little more than three years, state officials have begun meeting regularly with families and advocates, and selected 50 cases thought to involve the security forces for extra investigation. Officials in neighboring Coahuila have appointed a deputy attorney general to investigate what they call “un-located persons.”

Both state governments are moving in the right direction, some advocates hope, but the advances are fragile.

“These are very small steps we are achieving,” said Consuelo Morales, the Roman Catholic nun who serves as director of CADHAC. “We can’t be satisfied. The problem is not going to disappear.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Peña Nieto administration officials have a lot riding on efforts to both pacify Mexico’s violence-battered regions and to achieve a measure of justice for those who have suffered most in the six years of heightened gangland wars. Federal and state officials have taken some positive actions and have said the right things.

But Calderon and top officials in his security cabinet made many of the same public promises when pressed on abuses by the army by a 2011 Human Rights Watch report; and the Calderon government did not act on a single one of the more than 200 cases of abuse by soldiers — torture, disappearances, killings or extra-judicial executions — documented by the rights group in the report, Vivanco said last month.

He and other human rights advocates are hoping that the Peña Nieto government will be different, and obviously aim to nudge it along with condemnation of Calderon’s record and kind words of expectation for the newly arrived officials. Amnesty International’s Mexico branch has taken a different approach, bashing both old and new governments for inaction at the same time.

Neither strategy is likely to produce significant results, at least in the short and medium term. The task is simply beyond the abilities of the local, state and federal governments, even assuming officials are serious in their desire to resolve the disappearances.

Achieving better investigations into disappearances rests with local prosecutors — many of them overworked, under threat, or both — in the most crime-plagued areas. Investigators will have to be better trained in criminal forensics, and will have to be forced to cooperate more across municipal and state lines, all tall orders for a public security apparatus riddled with incompetence, indifference and fierce institutional rivalries.

In addition, many relatives of the disappeared still fail to report the crime, either out of shame due to the general belief that their loved ones somehow deserved their fate, or fear of retribution by those who took them away. A lack of public pressure, beyond that of the rights groups and family members, could make it easy for officials to put the issue on the back burner, regardless of what they profess.

Still, Peña Nieto has vowed to calm Mexico, and has said he’ll do so by concentrating on the killings, kidnappings and shakedowns that most affect ordinary citizens. As Calderon did, he has promised to professionalize the police at every level and eventually return the soldiers and marines to their barracks.

His plans are still on the drawing board, only vaguely penciled in, at least publicly. But if they are at all effective in the coming months and years, and Mexico indeed calms significantly, the disappearances should lessen as well. The strategies might not bring back those already taken or punish their predators. But they may save untold thousands of other people and their families from suffering the same torment.

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