Mexico has reached the tragic figure of 100,000 disappeared and missing people since records have been kept; that is, today these 100,000 people’s whereabouts remain unknown. What does this moment mean for the country and what are some of the steps authorities should take to achieve truth, justice, and an end to disappearances?
For years now, relatives of Mexico’s disappearance victims – led especially by women – have been walking the streets and scouring the countryside daily in search of the tens of thousands of people who have been disappeared at the hands of private individuals, state agents, or people acting in collusion with authorities.
Families turn to one institution after another and even conduct their own investigations to track down and search for their loved ones alive, devoting time and resources to a search that can be as dangerous as it is difficult and exhausting. Grouped in the many collectives that have sprung up across the country, families have also led the forensic search. Working with picks and shovels, they have discovered clandestine graves and extermination sites, facing risks, lack of resources, and extreme conditions. Groups of Central American families have arrived to search for their missing migrant relatives who have been disappeared in Mexican territory.
Disappearances generate continuous impacts on families, who experience both the pain of absence and the uncertainty of the fate of the disappeared person. Seeking to put an end to this cycle of violence and rupture of everyday life, families and collectives, in addition to going out to search, have not stopped demanding that the Mexican government provide truth, justice, and an end to these crimes. Their demands and participation have led in recent years to the adoption of important norms and the creation of institutions to address disappearances.
Despite the progress made, including hundreds of discoveries and identifications of remains, today the absence of 100,000 people – a number that increases daily – continues to have a devastating impact on Mexican society.
This reality was exhibited, among others, in November 2021, when the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED Committee) visited Mexico. The Committee visited 13 of Mexico’s 32 states (Chihuahua, Mexico City, Coahuila, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, State of Mexico, Morelos, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz), holding 48 meetings with more than 80 authorities and 33 meetings with hundreds of victims and dozens of victims’ collectives and civil society organizations. Based on the information received, the Committee found that “the phenomenon of disappearance continues to be widespread over much of the territory of the State party in the face of which, as we have stated in the past, ‘impunity and revictimization prevail’”.
Following its visit to Mexico in November 2021, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances stated:
During these two weeks, the victims with whom we spoke conveyed the image of a society overwhelmed by the phenomenon of disappearances, the systemic impunity and their powerlessness in the face of the inaction of some authorities. They pointed out that day by day, in their search for answers and justice, they suffer the indifference and lack of progress. They have vehemently expressed to us their pain and that disappeared persons are not numbers, but human beings. The search, the investigation, the establishment of responsibilities, the uncovering of the truth and comprehensive reparation are not always a priority for some of the authorities.
Each of these cases is an indescribable human drama. Their dimensions are such that they are leaving deep and irreparable marks for the victims, but also for society at large.
In the face of this reality, the root causes of disappearances have not been addressed. The security approach that has been adopted is not only insufficient, but also inadequate.
In this context, the fight against impunity cannot wait.
Who are Mexico’s 100,000 disappeared and missing people?
- A quarter are women and girls.
- Approximately 16,000 are minors.
- Among minors, the majority are girls.
- In the case of migrants, there is notable underreporting of these crimes in official databases, despite the high risk they face.
When were Mexico’s 100,000 disappeared and missing people last seen?
- In the longest running case: 1964.
- More than 80 percent: between 2006 and 2022.
- Almost 70 percent: in the last ten years.
- More than one quarter: in the last three years.
- Almost 10,000: in 2021.
What are some of the obstacles in the fight against disappearances in Mexico?
- The impunity that exists in the overwhelming majority of cases contributes to more disappearances. WOLA’s 2021 campaign For Disappearances to End, Justice must Begin highlighted how justice is failing the disappeared in Mexico from the very first step of the process: recognizing and investigating this crime.
- As the CED Committee noted following its visit to Mexico last November: “we received worrying information, both from authorities and victims, about varying patterns in the commission of enforced disappearances in different regions of the country, which operate simultaneously and evidence scenarios of collusion between State agents and organized crime.” (our emphasis)
- The crisis of disappearances is accompanied by a forensic crisis. An August 2021 report by the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico (MNDM) reports more than 52,000 unidentified deceased persons in public cemeteries and other state institutions, according to official data. The Extraordinary Forensic Identification Mechanism (MEIF), proposed by families and civil society and created by the Mexican government, seeks to address the backlog in forensic identification, but its ultimate success will depend on receiving the full cooperation of prosecutors’ offices. At the same time, Mexican institutions must continue improving their forensic identification capacity and the operation and interconnection of their databases.
To overcome the disappearance crisis, Mexican authorities should guarantee:
- The safety of the families and searchers.
- The participation and rights of the relatives of the disappeared.
- That government actions include a differential approach that takes into account the characteristics of groups at heightened risk or who are victims of specific patterns of disappearance, such as women, children, migrants and others.
- The opening of criminal investigations in disappearance cases in accordance with the provisions of the General Law against disappearances. In particular, prosecutors’ offices should:
- Have investigation plans, collect all relevant evidence, and follow logical lines of investigation.
- Investigate patterns of disappearance and avoid fragmentation of cases.
- The interconnection of databases and the creation of the search, investigation, and identification tools mandated by the General Law against disappearances, such as the National Forensic Data Bank.
- That the Extraordinary Forensic Identification Mechanism (MEIF) has the collaboration of the prosecutors’ offices to carry out its important work.
- A focus on prevention, as recommended by the CED Committee, always in dialogue and taking into account the experiences and proposals of the families.
WOLA is a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. We envision a future where public policies protect human rights and recognize human dignity, and where justice overcomes violence. WOLA tackles problems that transcend borders and demand cross-border solutions. We create strategic partnerships with courageous people making social change—advocacy organizations, academics, religious and business leaders, artists, and government officials. Together, we advocate for more just societies in the Americas. www.wola.org