The Disappeared in Mexico – A National Crisis

Human Rights Watch issued its report on the Disappeared in Mexico, and the findings are grim.  The report documents 249 disappearances in just the last six years; that’s more than half of the official number of disappeared or murdered (475) during Brazil’s entire 21-year dictatorship. Additionally, the report finds that the Mexican state, through its security forces, is responsible for 60% (149) of those disappearances. And in over 60 cases, state security agents worked directly with organized crime in “disappearing” victims and extorting their families.

Typically, uniformed officials took the victims into custody themselves; when families inquired about the fates of their loved ones, the police denied that detentions occurred, in spite of eyewitness accounts. This latter fact is particularly alarming; although Mexico is a functioning democracy, the tactic of denying an arrest ever happened chillingly echoes what took place in military regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay during the 1950s-1980s. Authorities have failed to act on requests from the families of the disappeared to investigate their cases, creating a climate of impunity even while such disappearances continue, and even when such investigations occur, the police usually simply say the individual was involved in illegal activities, prompting the prosecutors not to investigate further and putting the burden of investigating the disappearance on the victims’ families.

And perhaps most damning of all? As the report itself puts it:

The nearly 250 cases documented in this report by no means represent all the disappearances that occurred in Mexico during the Calderón administration. Quite the opposite, there is no question that there are thousands more. Officials in Coahuila, for example, told Human Rights Watch that 1,835 people had disappeared in that state alone from December 2006 to April 2012. More alarming still, a provisional list compiled by the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office—which was leaked in November 2012—contains the names of more than 25,000 people who were disappeared or went missing during the Calderón years, and whose fates remain unknown. While the list’s information is incomplete and its methodology flawed, the number leaves little doubt as to the unprecedented scale of the current wave of disappearances.

Of course, as historical and human rights studies on the disappeared in other parts of Latin America have amply demonstrated, this has a devastating impact on the relatives of the families and friends of the disappeared, leaving them with the uncertainty of their loved ones’ remains or fates and disrupting their lives at the most basic level. I’ve mentioned before that this is a major crisis facing Mexico; the new report helps us further understand just how endemic the problem has become since Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. That such a crisis still exists in a civilian-led republic in the 21st century is as shameful as it is disturbing, and human rights should and must be a top issue for new president Enrique Peña Nieto.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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