While the notion of “the disappeared” in Latin America has existed since at least the 1960s and 1970s, when military regimes kidnapped, murdered, and hid or destroyed the bodies of alleged “subversives,” victims of authoritarian regimes are not the only “disappeared” in the region, and the problem is not limited to the past (to say nothing of the long-term social effects that are still felt in places like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil today). Indeed, the problem continues to appear in the second decade in the 21st century, albeit in a new guise: that of missing migrants.
Even before the tour bus comes to a stop, the women rise from their seats and wait in the aisle to exit. In their arms rest rolled-up flags of the Central American countries they come from. Large laminated photographs of missing loved ones hang by lanyards from their necks.
They descend the stairs to a gaggle of waiting press photographers. This is their moment of hope, stirring once again the possibility of putting to rest years of uncertainty and desperation.
Maybe someone has seen a missing son or father making his way to the United States in search of work. Maybe someone knows a daughter is OK.
“The goal is to come to look for them,” said Virginia Olcot, 42, of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, who last heard from her husband in September 2009 when he arrived at the U.S. border in Sonora. “This is our intention: to not get tired, to persevere and get the government to help us.”
The group sponsoring the trip estimates that some 70,000 Central American migrants have disappeared in the past six years based on reports from nonprofit groups. Some of them have been found in the most brutal of circumstances: Hundreds of would-be migrants were discovered murdered in the community of San Fernando in the border state of Tamaulipas: first 72, most of them Central Americans, massacred on a farm in 2010, and nearly 200 people, some Mexicans, discovered in clandestine graves about six months later.
The US understanding of immigration and its regional and global processes is certainly limited (and not aided by the fact that, in a presidential debate ostensibly on foreign policy, neither the issue of immigration nor the region of continental Latin America ever came up). Based on US media metanarratives, migration all too often is an issue that begins once people have entered the US. Even the discussion of drug-related violence in Mexico rarely touches on the ways in which said violence affects the lives of migrants. And while there are certainly some differences between the “disappeared” of military regimes in the latter part of the 20th century, in many ways the impacts are all too familiar: uncertainty, the suffering of loved ones, the unknown fate of the victims. And in another familiar theme, it is the mothers who are at the forefront of the struggle to find these new “disappeared,” giving up their past livelihoods and devote themselves to finding their loved ones:
“We know your pain. We speak the same language,” said Irma Leticia Hidalgo, a mother from a Monterrey suburb whose son was kidnapped last year. “Your missing are our missing.”
Hidalgo said her 18-year-old son was taken from their home in the middle of the night by about 10 men, half of them wearing police vests from a nearby town, who went on to steal everything of value in the house. Although she paid a ransom and was told she’d have her son back in a few hours, he never returned.
She ultimately retired from her teaching job to look for him.
Again, the context of the 2010s and migration might superficially be different from that of the 1960s-1980s and military regimes, but the human suffering is painfully familiar and similar. It’s a powerful reminder that the issue of “the Disappeared” never goes away and takes a number of forms even today.
-In the wake of his re-election this past Sunday, Hugo Chávez has named Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro his new vice president. I originally suggested that, in the wake of the election, one of the big questions would be whether Chávez made any attempts to institutionalize his policies and programs in the event he has to leave his office; the selection of Maduro suggests that Chávez himself, whose health is regularly a matter of speculation, may be moving towards institutionalizing his reforms and considering a time where he is no longer able to hold office.
-Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri is under fire after alerting a pro-life group to a rape victim who was seeking an abortion at a hospital. Macri made the move in what is a clear infringement on the woman’s rights in an attempt to pressure her to avoid abortion. Earlier this year, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that rape victims could not be prosecuted for ending a pregnancy that was the result of a rape, though that has not stopped Macri from consistently rejecting women’s reproductive freedoms by vetoing municipal bills that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk.
-Citing tongue cancer and other medical issues, Alberto Fujimori’s family has formally requested a pardon for the imprisoned ex-president and convicted violator of human rights.
-Colombian paramilitary leader Hector German Buitrago (AKA “Martin Llanos”) confessed to the murder of villagers in 1997’s Mapiripan massacre as part of the right-wing paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; AUC).
-This past weekend, Mexico’s military killed Heriberto Lazcano, one of the key figureheads in the Zetas cartel, one of the more powerful and violent cartels in the country, in what the Mexican government is now saying was an “accident.”
-The US Supreme Court has rejected Chevron’s appeal of an Ecuadoran decision that ruled the country owes $18.2 billion in damages for the systematic discharge of toxic waste that led to the destruction of the environment and an increase in diseases, including cancer, related to the pollution in the Ecuadoran Amazonian basin.
-Indigenous peoples and environmental activists in Brazil have again blocked access to a construction site at the controversial Belo Monte dam, protesting against the environmental impact and the destruction of indigenous lands that the dam will cause. At the end of August, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled construction on the dam could proceed, but opposition from indigenous groups and activists, as well as environmentalists, continues.
-Calls for Guatemala to investigate the military have mounted after armed forces shot into a crowd of protesting indigenous peoples, killing eight natives, and the opposition party has begun investigating the possibility of filing charges against officials in President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration. While such charges seem unlikely right now, the murder is not insignificant; military violence in Guatemala is still a highly-sensitive and charged issue since the end of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1990, during which the Guatemalan armed forces regularly targeted indigenous communities in a genocidal campaign.
-In a historic moment for Brazilian politics, Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa was chosen as the first ever black president of the court.
-Finally, in a logic that can at best be described as dubious, Trinidad’s Minister Jack Warner has announced the country will no longer release crime statistics to the public because such data (Warner alleges) encourages people to commit more crimes.
After unconfirmed reports started emerging this past weekend, yesterday Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that the Colombian government will hold peace talks with representatives from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a guerrilla group that has been one of the main engines of a civil war in Colombia that has now lasted nearly 50 years.
While peace talks are certainly no guarantor of success, the move is significant in that it’s the first time since the 1990s that the government has opted to engage in negotiations for peace with the rebels (the administration of Álvaro Uribe took a considerably harder line against the FARC during his presidency from 2002 to 2010). Why now is not totally clear, but certainly, the FARC’s recent string of losses in leadership and general discontent with and weariness from more than four decades of civil conflict among the Colombian population more generally could be another, as recent actions of the Nasa indigenous people against rebels and the government forces alike demonstrate.
Boz has some observations on the potential for the talks, how this round is already different from previous rounds, and what the focus should be (he mentions child-soldiers in particular, a very real humanitarian problem in the decades-long struggle).
One thing I would add that’s not being brought up much is the issue of paramilitary groups. Will they be a part of the negotiations, not necessarily as actors but certainly as a topic that needs to be considered? Will the FARC push for their disbanding, and will the government, which has often had close ties to paramilitaries, listen? Will paramilitary group leaders be given a place at the table in the talks?
It’s certainly too early to answer these questions – as Santos himself said, the government will announce details in the coming week(s), and Boz is right to say the process will likely be slow – but it is a very real issue and concern. But for all of the violence that the FARC and official Colombian military forces have caused, one cannot overlook the role of right-wing paramilitary groups in human rights violations historically as well as in present threats, to say nothing of their connections to drug trafficking. Quite frankly, even if in the best of circumstances the peace talks lead to a truce between the government and FARC but do not include the paramilitary groups, it is hard to see just how solid this peace could be. Put simply, if the peace talks do not at least broach the subject of paramilitary groups, it’s hard to see how much success they can have. I hope it is an issue of discussion, but only the coming months will the path of talks become apparent.
Yesterday, Colombian ex-general Mauricio Santoro, one of former president Álvaro Uribe’s security chiefs, pled guilty to ties with right-wing paramilitary terrorist groups while avoiding facing charges of drug trafficking (in which paramilitary groups are also involved). Given how many top-ranking officials from the Uribe government (and even Uribe himself before he became president) have now been connected to right-wing paramilitary groups, one cannot help but wonder how many more connections are needed before if it’s only a matter of time before an explicit connection between these groups and Uribe’s presidency emerges.
-In a rare bit of good news, it appears the deforestation rate in the Amazon had once again dropped (though 2,049 square kilometers of deforestation is still a significant loss).
-In Chile, a crackdown on Mapuche activists left at least five children injured after state forces again used harsh measures against Chile’s largest (and regularly-repressed) indigenous group.
-In a step backwards for women’s rights, deadlock in Uruguay’s Congress has postponed the legalization of abortion up to the twelfth week. Meanwhile, in Chile, a study finds that women continue to have a difficult time speaking out against unfair wage practices that reward men more than women for the same work.
-Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, who pushed gender stereotypes and irked the Catholic Church, passed away at 93.
-In a major, if temporary, victory for indigenous rights, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered the military forces to leave indigenous lands in the Southeastern part of the country, a ruling the government plans to appeal.
-In a novel solution that other countries could learn from, Honduras has banned guns in the Carribean region of Colón.
-In Argentina, popular outrage erupted after a video of police tortured two prisoners became public. Argentines say the video is more evidence that torture within state forces continues nearly thirty years after the brutal dictatorship that used widespread torture fell from power.
-Meanwhile, in a step forward for prisoners’ rights in Brazil, the government is shutting down illegal, police-constructed makeshift prisons where due process and rule of law were often absent.
-Brazil is set to spend $9.6 billion reais (roughly $4.75 billion US dollars) to project hydroelectric dams, including the controversial Belo Monte dam, from invasions and strikes. The move comes just a few weeks after indigenous peoples whose lands will be flooded had occupied the dam’s construction site in protest.
-It’s not just major dams that cause problems for peasants in Latin America; in Mexico, communities have intensified their struggles against state-sponsored “small dams.”
-Brazil and Uruguay recently signed a new round of agreements that will intensify the economic ties between the two countries.
-Finally, in a tragic if unsurprising conclusion, the increased violence in Mexico in the past several years has led to a rise in PTSD among Mexico’s population.
The New York Times ran an excellent piece recently on the indigenous community of Cherán in the Mexican state of Michoacán. There, the cartels’ use of illegal logging has devastated not only the environment but the livelihood of the community, and in the absence of state protection, the community members have taken matters into their own hands.
On the morning of April 15, 2011, using rocks and fireworks, a group of women attacked a busload of AK-47-armed illegal loggers as they drove through Cherán, residents said. The loggers, who local residents say are protected by one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations and given a virtual free pass by the country’s authorities, had terrorized the community at will for years.
Cherán’s residents said they had been subjected to multiple episodes of rape, kidnapping, extortion and murder by the paramilitary loggers, who have devastated an estimated 70 percent of the surrounding oak forests that sustained the town’s economy and indigenous culture for centuries.
[H]ere in Cherán, a group of townspeople took loggers hostage, expelled the town’s entire police force and representatives of established political parties, and forcibly closed the roads.
It’s a remarkable story that gets into a lot of the complexities of community-state-cartel relations and the local impact of the historical absence of the state in rural Mexico. Erik over at Lawyers, Guns & Money has some excellent observations as well, including the decreasing adequacy of understanding the violence in Mexico only in terms of the drug trade:
While legalizing marijuana in the United States would rob the Mexican criminal gangs of a major source of income, the idea that it would somehow resolve the violence in Mexico is absurd. Maybe at one time such a thing might have made a major difference but not now. The gangs have moved into any number of other activities, including kidnapping, extortion, the illegal wildlife trade, and logging, as well as of course smuggling hard drugs. Of course, the U.S. could shut the flow of guns to Mexico but that would violate my rights to have a personal arsenal the size of the Honduran army or something.
Indeed. He also has excellent observations on the complexities of the struggle and on the impact of deforestation, and both his comments and the original article are well worth taking a look at.
As Greg Weeks points out, the 2009 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya “blew open the door to more drug trafficking. How deeply has Honduras been brought into the drug-transportation network since the coup? According to the New York Times, plenty deep; just look at how many drug flights have flown into Honduras:
That’s a remarkable shift, and it would be interesting to see an in-depth study that analyzes the post-coup governments and the conditions that led to Honduras becoming an increasingly important stopover point for flights carrying drugs northward.