As the world marks the International Day of the Disappeared, Mexico counts more than 3,000 people who have disappeared since 2006, when President Calderon began his assault on organized crime.
Since 2006, the United Nations estimates that 3,000 people have disappeared in Mexico, a figure which includes at least 32 human rights advocates. Mexican investigative magazine Contralinea reports that there have been 300 percent more disappearances in the last four years than during the entirety of Mexico’s “Guerra Sucia” (dirty war) of the 1960s and 1970s. The country’s foremost human rights body, the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), has counted almost 5,400 cases since the election of President Felipe Calderon and his declaration of war on the country’s drug cartels in 2006.
The situation of disappearances in Mexico provoked Amnesty International (AI) research director, Javier Zuniga, to draw comparisons with Southern Cone military dictatorships of the previous century.
The ranks of the disappeared are filled by several groups. There are those killed in the drug war, either in kidnappings, gang murders, or revenge killings, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many victims of the country’s drug trafficking organizations are dumped in mass graves, and may never be identified. Another vulnerable group are economic migrants from across Central America who disappear as they travel the perilous routes northward towards the U.S. border. There are also the missing women and young people who fall victim to sex trafficking rings, and are kept in Mexican brothels or shipped abroad. In addition, perhaps most disturbingly, Mexico’s armed forces are increasingly facing accusations of carrying out “forced disappearances.”
Amnesty International has cited several cases where the military are suspected of perpetrating what are considered “crimes against humanity” under international law. The most recent case involves the disappearance of 15 people in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas between June 1 and 22, with Mexico’s navy suspected of involvement. According to the CNDH, there is photographic and video evidence proving that state forces has a role in these disappearances. For its part, the navy has admitted that its troops “had contact” with some of the missing, but denies that they were detained. Amnesty International believes that the military is now pursuing a policy, which may not be sanctioned at the highest levels, of attacking organized crime through “the physical removal of suspects.”
Three months before the disappearances in Tamaulipas, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Mexico and conducted meetings with federal and local authorities, human rights watchdogs and relatives of missing persons. In a report of its findings, the working group described the number of disappearances in Mexico as “alarming” and called for an “end to impunity for crimes in general, and in particular forced disappearances.”
The government’s crackdown on drug trafficking has forced the country’s drug cartels to find other methods of supplementing their income. Many are turning to the lucrative prostitution trade, and, as a consequence, increasing numbers of women and teenage girls are going missing. While the majority of the missing are men, some 1,885 of the almost 3,400 cases logged by the CNDH are women. Since the creation of Mexico’s Special Prosecutor for Violent Crimes against Women (Fiscalia Especial para los Delitos de Violencia contra las Mujeres y Trata de Personas – FEVIMTRA) in February 2008, 1,500 women have been reported missing in Mexico, most thought to have fallen into sex trafficking rings. By the time of the report, only 490 of those had been located; the rest remained missing.
With the Mexican government seemingly unable to protect its own citizens, and government forces implicated in enforced disappearances, it is hardly surprising that undocumented migrants travelling through the country receive little protection from the state. Pietro Ameglio, a civil rights and peace activist, has described the situation regarding the disappearance of migrants as “out of control.” The journey through Mexico is a dangerous one for Central American migrants, who face the threat of being abducted by drug cartels. Groups of demonstrators recently travelled en masse from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to Mexico, protesting against the lack of thorough investigation into cases of missing migrants, and imploring the Mexican government to provide greater protection for those traveling through the country.
Since its creation in 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has handed the Mexican government 412 cases of disappearances to investigate. Of these, 58 percent remain unresolved. In recent years disappearances have increased dramatically but the government, with its focus and resources fixed on the drug war, continues to demonstrate little interest in investigating the cases of the disappeared. As Mexico remembers the missing in ceremonies around the country on August 30, there remain almost 8,900 corpses that have not been identified.