Process Should Be Accompanied by Justice and Search for Victims
November 12, 2013

Important as it is to create an accurate national registry, the government can’t forget that this is only one part of fulfilling its fundamental obligation to investigate disappearances, search for the missing, sanction those responsible, and ensure that families of the disappeared are given the economic and psychological support they’ve long been denied.

José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

(Washington, DC) ­­­– The Mexican government should ensure that the process of developing a national database of the disappeared is thorough, efficient, and transparent, Human Rights Watch said today. Development of the database should be coupled with serious investigations to determine the fate of thousands of people who remain unaccounted for.

The government announced in February 2013 that it was revising a database of more than 26,000 people reported disappeared or missing (extraviadas) that had been compiled by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (PGR). The government has said that many of the names in the database are likely to be removed. There are substantial problems with the original list, including inconsistencies and incomplete data, and it lacks the names of many people reported disappeared.

“The Peña Nieto government took an important step toward acknowledging the scale of the disappearance crisis when it released its provisional list of disappeared and missing people,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the government needs to live up to its promise to develop a reliable, comprehensive registry, accompanied by serious investigations to search for the disappeared and bring those responsible to justice.”

On February 20,  Human Rights Watch released a report, “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” which found that Mexican security forces had participated in widespread enforced disappearances in the context of former president Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs,” from December 2006 to December 2012.

Investigations into these cases were inept or completely absent, Human Rights Watch found. Officials often wasted crucial time by instructing families to wait for days after a disappearance before filing a report, told relatives to search for evidence themselves, and groundlessly accused the victims of being involved in organized crime. If the authorities opened investigations, they often failed to take basic steps such as interviewing witnesses. Human Rights Watch documented 249 disappearances during the Calderón administration, finding compelling evidence of enforced disappearance in 149 of those cases. Enforced disappearances occur when a person is deprived of liberty, with the involvement of state agents, followed by a refusal to disclose their fate and whereabouts. The government has the responsibility to investigate even those cases where there is no evidence that state agents were involved.

Human Rights Watch found that one of the factors impeding efforts to search for the disappeared and identify those responsible was the lack of coordination between various state and federal authorities. Mexico has no national system that allows states to share and search for information on missing persons – or to alert police and check hospitals, prisons, and other institutions when someone has disappeared. The lack of such a registry has also made it difficult to determine the scale of disappearances nationwide.

Human Rights Watch called on Mexican authorities to put in place a series of measures to address the issue, including establishing a comprehensive, accurate national database of the disappeared, with information on their physical characteristics and genetic data from relatives, accompanied by a database of unidentified human remains. This would allow officials across the country to access data on the disappeared, facilitating searches and investigation, and would indicate the scale of the problem, helping the authorities to identify patterns and develop preventive measures.

On February 20, the day Human Rights Watch released its report, the government acknowledged for the first time the existence of a database of thousands of people reported disappeared or missing under the previous administration. Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong confirmed on February 21 that the government had found a database developed by the previous administration with more than 27,000 names of missing people, and that it was working to develop a unified national registry.

The same day, the Interior Ministry’s sub-secretary for human rights, Lía Limón, said that a list of 27,523 cases would be made public the following week after the data had been moved over to the Interior Ministry. “This is the first step that is going to help us to start to work on the creation of a solid database,” Limón said.

On February 26, Limón announced in a news conference that the database contained information on the cases of 26,121 people, and published a version online. She said the database, compiled by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office from reports provided by state prosecutors’ offices, was a “starting point” for the construction of a “definitive” national registry. Limón said that the federal government would work with state prosecutors’ offices to “purge” (depurar) the database.

She said the government would identify the people on the list who had been taken against their will, and distinguish these from cases in which the person had chosen to leave home or had been the victim of a natural disaster, as well as those in which the person had been located. Limón said she would work with other groups monitoring the issue to create a “useful instrument, which provides certainty.” In May, the government announced the establishment of a unit within the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, dedicated to the search for the disappeared.

The Peña Nieto administration has repeatedly said that many names will be removed from its original list. On May 24, Osorio Chong said that, once the “purging” process had been carried out, the size of the list would “decrease by a very large amount,” citing the example of a state in the north of the country which he said had registered 900 people in the database, but removed 700 of them after “finding” these individuals during a review of the cases. It was not clear from Osorio Chong’s comments how the review was conducted, upon what evidence the government determined the people had been found, or which state he was referring to. On October 30, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam stated that most of those reported as disappeared are found, and that the number of those who remain unaccounted for is “much less – but much less – than the figures that are being cited.”

“In revising the database, the Peña Nieto government needs to avoid repeating the mistakes of the first effort to compile this list, which was riddled with errors, omissions, and inconsistencies,” Vivanco said. “Only by setting out systematic, transparent guidelines for reviewing cases and ensuring that critical information is added will the government be able to build trust and create the credible registry of disappearances that it has promised, and that Mexico needs.”

Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the published database and of previous versions it obtained has identified serious concerns about its accuracy and thoroughness. Failing to distinguish those who have been taken against their will from other types of missing person cases means that the list cannot provide an accurate picture of the scale of the disappearance problem, and reduces the effectiveness of the database in searches and investigations. This flaw is attributable in part to the overly broad and imprecise definition of “disappeared” in the Law of the National Registry of Missing or Disappeared Persons, signed into law by Calderón in April 2012, which mandated the creation of the national registry.

Human Rights Watch’s review of the registry reveals that state authorities – which compiled the cases – followed varying criteria in collecting and submitting information, and that many categories are incomplete (genetic data is scarce) or poorly organized. Many cases lack basic data such as nationality and age of the victim, as well as a record of whether an investigation has been opened.

Among other problems identified with the original database, it lacks some cases documented by Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, and reported to the authorities, raising questions about the method of gathering information for the list. On March 19, Murillo Karam acknowledged in public comments that there were “many” cases missing from the registry.

The government has not publicly revealed its methodology for “purging” the list, or the steps it is taking to ensure that missing data and cases are added. Osorio Chong made a commitment to carry out the process with “transparency,” but has not specified what criteria state prosecutors’ offices are following to distinguish cases in which evidence suggests that people were subject to enforced or other disappearances from those believed to be missing for other reasons.

It is not clear what standard of proof local authorities will require removing a person from the original registry, whether these conclusions will be independently verified by federal authorities, or what role the specialized search unit within the Federal Prosecutor’s Office will play in this process. Nor is it clear what steps, if any, authorities will take to inform families of conclusions reached in the cases of their relatives, or whether they will have the chance to challenge the determination that a person has been found, Human Rights Watch said.

The revised database should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy to address the disappearance crisis, together with searches for the missing and thorough investigations to bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

“Important as it is to create an accurate national registry, the government can’t forget that this is only one part of fulfilling its fundamental obligation to investigate disappearances, search for the missing, sanction those responsible, and ensure that families of the disappeared are given the economic and psychological support they’ve long been denied,” Vivanco said. 

More reporting on: