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Vanished: The Disappeared of Mexico's Drug War

In 2011, Israel Arenas Durán disappeared in northern Mexico. Why can't the government find him -- and the thousands of others who've gone missing in the country's drug war?

Published in: Foreign Policy

BENITO JUÁREZ, Mexico — The day that 17-year-old Israel Arenas Durán disappeared began, like most, with his mother making him breakfast. He ate with his father and 15-year-old brother, Irving, at a small wooden table outside the family's single-room home, overlooking the plant nursery they run in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León.

When Israel finished eating, he and three young men who worked at the nursery loaded a set of fledgling palm trees into the back of his pickup and set out for a neighboring town to spend the day landscaping a private residence. Around 10 p.m. that night -- June 17, 2011 -- Irving's cell phone rang. It was Israel, calling from a nearby cantina where he and the young men had stopped for a drink. He was short for the tab and asked Irving to bring him some cash. Irving hopped into his father's truck and set out for the bar.

Five minutes after turning onto the main road, Irving saw flashing lights ahead. He spotted his brother's car stopped on the shoulder, a police car behind it. Irving pulled over, got out, and began walking toward the scene.

He was about 15 feet away when he saw an officer loading Israel, hands cuffed, into the police car. The cop turned and, noticing Irving, approached him. "What's going on?" Irving asked, tilting his head in the direction of the patrol car, which he noticed was marked with the number 131. "You know that guy?" the cop asked. There was a long pause. "No," Irving said.

"Then get lost."

Irving walked back to his car, pulled a U-turn, and, as soon as the flashing lights blurred in his rearview mirror, sped home to tell his parents what had happened. He never saw his brother again.

* * *

On Dec. 1, 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated as Mexico's 57th president in the midst of a horrific wave of drug violence. More than100,000 people had been killed in the six years since his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had declared a "war on drugs" and deployed the Mexican Army to tackle the country's powerful drug cartels.

Peña Nieto's victory marked the return of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed uninterrupted for over 70 years until it was unseated in 2000. During its reign, the PRI had perfected a model for controlling virtually every aspect of Mexican life, including drug trafficking. Peña Nieto -- young, polished, and Ken-doll handsome -- pledged to end Calderón's war without returning to the PRI's old "pact," which had allowed Mexico's cartels to operate as long as they played by certain rules and gave the government its cut. Yet Peña Nieto offered few details, during his campaign and his first months in office, as to how his approach to the cartels would be different.

Nor did Peña Nieto offer a plan for dealing with one of the most nefarious aspects of Mexico's drug war: disappearances. This omission was particularly troubling given that, on Nov. 29, 2012 -- two days before Peña Nieto was sworn in -- a government list had been exposed showing that more than 25,000 people had been disappeared or had otherwise gone missing during Calderón's term. (The list was leaked to theWashington Post by a government analyst who suspected that neither Calderón's nor Peña Nieto's administration would ever release the staggering number.)

"Disappearing" people, which involves abducting them and then concealing their whereabouts, was one of the most sinister tactics used by governments in Latin America's "dirty wars," beginning in the 1960s. At that time, disappearances were aimed at eradicating guerrilla movements and their suspected sympathizers -- leftist intellectuals, trade unionists, student leaders. Augusto Pinochet's government in Chile disappeared more than 3,000 people; Argentina's military junta disappeared 10,000, by official count. During Mexico's dirty war from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the PRI government disappeared an estimated 500 people -- some of whom were thrown alive from Air Force planes over the Pacific Ocean. If even half of the cases on the leaked 2012 list were real, they would constitute one of the worst waves of disappearances in the Americas in decades.

But unlike the dirty-war disappearances, which followed a sinister logic in targeting specific sectors of the population, there is no single explanation for why so many people have gone missing in Mexico's drug war, or for what has happened to them. I have spent over three years investigating more than 300 disappearances across 11 Mexican states for Human Rights Watch. I've found that, if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing. And it has consistently failed to pursue the obvious lines of evidence that, in case after case -- including Israel Arenas Durán's -- point to collusion between the cartels and the very soldiers and police sent to combat them.

The Peña Nieto administration initially refused to confirm the existence of the list of victims' names. Months later, under pressure, it pledged to take rudimentary steps to address disappearances. Yet today, more than one year into his administration, few if any of Peña Nieto's promises have been fulfilled. Thousands of Mexicans are still unaccounted for. Their families are still searching for them, often with little help from the government. And more people are disappearing.

* * *

After Irving raced home, he quickly told his mother, Luz María Durán Mota, what he had seen.

A small, soft-spoken woman with a long black braid down her back, Luz recounted the events surrounding Israel's disappearance in interviews over the course of two years, along with her husband, Emilio, and Irving. Their accounts were corroborated by prosecutors I spoke with who eventually took up the case.

According to Luz, she grabbed Irving and drove to the police station in the city of Benito Juárez. When they arrived around midnight, Irving says he noticed the police car involved in his brother's detention parked outside: patrol car 131.

Luz told the attendant at the front desk that she'd come for her son. The attendant took down Israel's name and walked through a door to the back of the station. While she was away, the cop who had arrested Israel walked by. Irving quickly hid his face.

When the attendant returned, she said no one named Israel was being held there. Where else would he be, Luz asked, caught off guard. "Come back tomorrow morning," the attendant told her. Luz spent the night awake in bed, hoping to hear Israel's truck pull up onto the gravel outside.

The next morning, Luz and Irving were back at the same desk, where a different attendant told them the same thing. Check the other police stations in the area, he said. They did, but none had any record of Israel's detention.

Back at the Benito Juárez station for the third time, Luz and Irving were met at the front desk by a plainclothes cop, tall and barrel-chested, with a commanding officer's demeanor. Luz told him her story. "Don't worry," the cop assured her. "He'll turn up soon." Luz asked him to check the station's holding cells to see whether Israel was there, but he said he'd know whether someone by that name had been brought in. Luz insisted, and he eventually agreed to look. When he returned, he told Luz that her son Israel was there after all. He was just being "slapped around a little" to teach him a lesson and would be released the next afternoon.

Luz thanked the officer profusely and then called the mothers of the three young men who had been with Israel and were also still missing.

As Luz spoke on the phone, the plainclothes cop waved Irving over and firmly gripped his shoulder. Leaning in, Irving recalls, the cop said in a low voice, "You know what happens to people who talk too much." Then he patted Irving on the back and walked away. Terrified, Irving did not immediately tell his mother about the warning.

After Luz finished her calls, she and Irving left the station. Next to it was a lot used by a towing company. Luz spotted Israel's truck inside and asked a man at the gate who had brought it there. "Cops," he replied.

Luz returned to the police station early the following day, carrying a change of clothes for Israel and some beans and tortillas -- in case he hadn't eaten. She took a seat by the front desk. After waiting for hours, she went up to the attendant -- one she'd never seen before -- and asked when Israel would be released. The attendant checked the rolls and said no one by that name was there. When Luz insisted, the attendant went to fetch a superior.

Again Luz told her story, this time to another ranking officer. The man said that, according to the station's records, no one named Israel had ever been held there. But what about the assurances of the plainclothes officer, Luz asked, describing the man.

"We have no idea who you're talking about," the officer told her.

At that moment, Luz says, she felt her son slipping through her hands.

Piece by piece in the coming days, the evidence tying the police to Israel's detention began to vanish. Israel's truck went missing from the towing lot. The cop whom Irving had seen loading his brother into a patrol car -- and spotted when he and Luz initially went to the station -- was nowhere to be seen on subsequent visits. The same was true for the plainclothes officer.

Nearly a week later, Israel's father was driving along the road where Israel had been taken when a truck drove by that looked like his son's. He followed it to a residential neighborhood and called the police. When the authorities arrived, Israel's father pointed out his son's truck and the house the driver had entered. He went with them to the door. The man who answered, investigators would soon learn, was a former cop from a neighboring state. He had been fired a year earlier after failing a polygraph test used to weed out corrupt officers. Since then, he would later admit, he had begun working full-time for the Zetas, the ascendant cartel in Nuevo León.

Once the enforcement arm of another powerful cartel, the Zetas split off on its own in 2010. Without immediate access to a drug supply, the Zetas carved out other trades preying on Mexicans: kidnapping, smuggling undocumented migrants, trafficking women. One of its most profitable rackets was extortion. In cities controlled by the Zetas, virtually every business -- from white-tablecloth restaurants to corner taquerías -- was forced to pay a quota to stay open. Businesses that didn't pay were burned down, their proprietors murdered in spectacular fashion, sometimes with "Z's" carved into their flesh. Some of the money the Zetas brought in was used to buy off local police and politicians.

In Nuevo León, one of the many bars the Zetas ran was the one where Israel and his friends stopped on the night they disappeared. Not long after Israel called his younger brother, he argued with the manager about the tab, paid what he thought was fair, and left, the manager later admitted in a deposition. The manager felt Israel had shorted her and called her Zeta boss to report what had happened. That boss then contacted police on his payroll and told them to stop Israel's truck.

But the ex-cop who now had the truck said he had no idea who Israel was or what had happened to him. He said that one of his Zeta bosses had given him the vehicle.

After the bust with the truck, investigators assigned to Israel's case finally got around to questioning the cop assigned to patrol car 131. He too admitted that he had been working for the Zetas. In his statement, he said he'd stopped Israel's truck under orders from the cartel and had then handed Israel and his three friends over to the Zetas. But he claimed he had no idea why the Zetas wanted the men or what had been done with them.

* * *

As reports of disappearances began to surface in the first years of Calderón's drug war, his administration claimed the people had gone missing on their own volition. Young women had run off with boyfriends or fled overbearing parents; young men had fallen in with gangs or gone into hiding after committing crimes. When overwhelming evidence of people being taken against their will made this explanation untenable, the administration began to claim the crimes were a byproduct of the turf battle between rival cartels: criminals disappearing criminals. But like so many of Calderón's claims about drug violence, the theory was unfounded -- made to fit a broader official narrative that cast the growing number of victims as responsible for their own plight.

Undoubtedly, some disappearances were the result of the settling of scores between cartels. Yet in interviews with law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, witnesses, victims' families, and human rights defenders, together with an in-depth review of thousands of pages of case files, police reports, and other government documents, the evidence I found suggests that the vast majority of victims were not criminals, but young, working-class men with families. What's more, the evidence suggests not only that authorities have failed to investigate disappearances, but also, in many cases, that soldiers and police have helped to carry them out.

During a single night in June 2011, for example, six men were detained in separate raids in the northern city of Nuevo Laredo. The men's families, none of whom knew each other before that night, provided near-identical accounts: A convoy of more than a dozen vehicles, most bearing Navy insignia, arrived at their homes. Then armed marines in uniform entered without warrants and detained the men. Several families took photographs, which they later shared with me, of the troops and their official vehicles.

At first, the Navy denied any involvement. Then it said it had detained the men briefly for questioning. Later, it claimed it had taken the men into custody to protect them from the Zetas and had subsequently dropped them off at a bus station nearly 100 miles away. None of the six men has been seen since.

Victims' families I have met often tell me they believe that the disappeared are being forced to work for the cartels -- as assassins, prostitutes, or in drug-processing plants. Although few families have proof to support this theory, it is plausible. The parents of a 17-year-old bus-ticket collector, who was taken at gunpoint from his route in 2011 in Escobedo -- a city near Benito Juárez -- told me they have seen him driving a car for the Zetas while the cartel makes rounds collecting extortion payments. Not long after his abduction, he called home and said the Zetas told him they would kill his family if he tried to escape.

"Don't go to the police," he warned his parents. "They work for the cartel."

Indeed, many victims' families have chosen not to report the disappearances of relatives. This is in part because, in a country where 98 percent of reported crimes go unpunished, families often lack confidence in authorities. Others justifiably fear that reporting could lead to reprisals.

People who have gone to the police often find that authorities blame the victims of disappearances -- a presumption then used to justify not opening investigations. One woman told me that when she informed the police chief in her town in Coahuila state that her son had been abducted, his first question was, "What do you think he did to bring this upon himself?"

When authorities have opened investigations, they've done so halfheartedly: neglecting to trace victims' cell phones (routinely left on for weeks after their abductions), interview witnesses, or seek surveillance-camera footage. Whether this negligence is driven by incompetence or fear of digging too deeply in places where collusion between organized crime and government officials is commonplace depends on the case. To be sure, honest police and prosecutors face real risks. In Chihuahua state, the head of a prosecution unit told me that, of the six leaders of investigative teams like his, three have been killed in the last several years.

What progress has been made in investigating disappearances has come mostly from victims' families, some of which have formed groups or worked with local human rights organizations. They have tracked down key witnesses and persuaded them to speak. They have gone to prisons, hospitals, morgues, military bases, police stations, and border crossings in search of the missing. They have confronted known cartel members and crooked cops. Encountering obstacles, they've improvised: When phone companies have refused to hand over victims' cell-phone records, for instance, families have bought them from corrupt employees.

For several years, these groups and local organizations worked in isolation from one another, and despite making progress in investigations, virtually no families were able to find their relatives. All the while, the mounting disappearances and the plight of affected families were invisible to most Mexicans -- rarely covered by the media and largely ignored by the government.

That began to change in March 2011, when seven bodies were found in the back of a car in the state of Morelos. The incident would barely have made the news, given Mexico's unrelenting violence, had it not been for the fact that one of the victims was the son of a respected Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia. The following week, Sicilia published a blistering public letter to Mexico's politicians and cartels. "We have had it up to here," he wrote. He told the government, "[You are] not only permitting our children to be murdered, but also subsequently portraying them as delinquents, falsely criminalizing them to satisfy your limited imagination."

The letter catalyzed victims' marches across the country, bringing families' suffering into the public eye. Sicilia led a caravan of victims' families to Mexico City, where Calderón received them. Although unwavering in his view that the drug war had been necessary, Calderón expressed empathy for the families' suffering and pledged that his government would do more to help them.

After the meeting, however, Calderón did little to follow through on his promise. In November 2011, a few months after his meeting with Sicilia, I presented Calderón with a report I'd written on abuses by soldiers and police, including disappearances, in the drug war. Still, Calderón insisted the cases were isolated and that both the perpetrators and victims mostly worked for cartels. He would maintain this position through his final year in office, even as his administration was privately amassing a list of thousands of the disappeared -- the same one that would eventually be leaked to the Washington Post.

* * *

Despite campaigning on the promise to end Calderón's drug war, Peña Nieto's strategy after taking office looked remarkably similar to his predecessor's, relying almost exclusively on Mexico's ill-trained and abusive security forces to combat cartels. Shortly into his term, for example, Peña Nieto deployed thousands of soldiers to Michoacán to restore order when the state erupted in drug violence. (It was the first place Calderón had sent the Army after declaring a start to his drug war six years earlier.)

Unsurprisingly, the strategy has proved ineffective. While killings dropped between 8 and 13 percent in Peña Nieto's first year, the decrease fell far short of the 50 percent drop he had promised: Roughly 20,000people were killed between December 2012 and December 2013. Perhaps more troublingly, the violence has spread. In Calderón's last six months in office, drug-related executions were registered in 217 municipalities; in Peña Nieto's first six, they occurred in 236. Kidnappings and extortionshave also increased under Peña Nieto, to their highest levels in more than 15 years.

On disappearances, Peña Nieto's early record has also been disappointing. On Feb. 20, 2013, nearly three months into his term, Human Rights Watch released a report I had written documenting widespread disappearances committed during Calderón's term. The same day, the Peña Nieto administration publicly acknowledged for the first time that there was indeed a list of more than 26,000 disappeared and missing people. (The size of the list had grown since it was first leaked.) The government pledged to create a special prosecutor's unit to investigate the problem, which it called a "humanitarian crisis."

Although a promising step, the administration then waited until the end of May to set up the special unit, announcing its formation only after more than a dozen parents of the disappeared went on a hunger strike outside the attorney general's office. The unit was assigned a mere 12 prosecutors -- roughly one for every 2,170 individuals reported missing -- and lacked a clear mandate. (Several months later, the unit was assigned 10 more prosecutors.)

In addition, Peña Nieto has dragged his feet on creating a database of unidentified bodies. More than 16,000 such bodies have been found in recent years, many in mass graves. Were a national registry of human remains to exist, modeled on similar ones in Argentina and the Balkans (among other places), it could be cross-checked against a nationaldatabase of the disappeared, built on the government's existing list of more than 26,000 individuals. Then, the fate of at least some of the missing could be resolved.

Meanwhile, disappearances have continued in Peña Nieto's term. In Nuevo Laredo, for example, a wave of new abductions was reported in June and July 2013. As with the disappearances of six men in the city in 2011, almost all have been attributed to the Navy.

One case involved a couple whose car was stopped at a Navy checkpoint early on the morning of July 29. They were ordered out of their car, loaded into a military vehicle, and driven to a nearby Navy base, according to a friend who was in the car behind them. They are still missing.

In an October report sent to the United Nations regarding the case, the Mexican government said the Navy does not set up checkpoints in urban areas. However, three federal prosecutors I spoke to in Nuevo Laredo told me the Navy regularly does so in the city.

* * *

In May 2013, nearly two years after Israel Arenas Durán's disappearance, Nuevo León's human rights commission issued a report concluding that police had taken part in the abduction. The findings had no legal consequences, but it was the first time the state commission had determined that government actors were responsible for a disappearance. The mayor's office in Benito Juárez agreed to hold a public ceremony to apologize, as the commission had recommended.

The day of the event, Israel's parents and siblings arrived at city hall and were ushered into a windowless room, barely large enough to hold them and a few officials. Luz insisted they move somewhere that could accommodate the dozens of other victims' families who had come to support them. When officials demurred, Luz gave them an ultimatum: either they move the ceremony to a place where all the families could attend, or her family would not take part. The officials gave in, moving to a larger room in the same building.

The mayor arrived late, appearing flustered by the number of families present. A staffer handed him a script, which he read from directly. "I offer sincere apologies," he said toward the end of his short speech, "to all of the relatives for the acts and omissions that may have been committed."

In June, not long after the ceremony, I visited Israel's family in Benito Juárez, where we'd first met nearly two years earlier. Despite the official apology, the investigation into Israel's case was proceeding only haltingly. The authorities, it seemed, had run out of leads.

The family lives at the end of a dirt road, which runs between their nursery's neatly lined rows of trees and piles of mulch and gravel. Their wooden home, which Israel's father built, is set back in a grassy clearing. When I arrived, Luz was scrubbing a pot outside; she invited me inside. On a small shelf above Israel's still-made bed was a photo of him, alongside an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a gilded frame.

Asked who might know what happened to her son, Luz took a plastic folder bound in string from beneath one of the beds. Untying it, she leafed through news clippings and official documents about her son's case, before arriving at a black-and-white mug shot. The man in it cut an intimidating figure, with a thick neck and a defiant stare. "This man knows," she said.

The man was Fernando Lecea González, who goes by the nickname "El Lanchas" ("The Motorboat") and who was running Benito Juárez for the Zetas at the time Israel disappeared. Luz first saw his photo in February 2012, when Lanchas was arrested on other charges. She immediately recognized him as the plainclothes officer from the police station: the one who had told her that Israel was being held and who had warned Irving to keep his mouth shut.

"The local boss of the Zetas," she said, looking down at the photograph, "working from the front desk of the police station."

After being detained, Lanchas admitted to ordering Israel's abduction and execution, as well as nearly a dozen other killings, local prosecutors said. But he would not tell them where to find Israel's body. With many crimes attributed to him and no hope of leniency, Lanchas had little incentive to cooperate. So Luz and her family have continued to suffer, not knowing whether Lanchas's story is true or whether it is just the latest in a series of false leads in Israel's case.

I asked Luz whether the mayor's apology had mattered, given that Israel was still missing and the police officers involved had not yet been punished. She replied that it was important to her that she'd had the chance to address the mayor in front of other victims' families. "I told him that he should train better police, so that no one else would have to go through what we've been through," she said.

Luz also told the mayor that, if the policeman who detained Israel was eventually convicted, she wanted the government to put up a plaque at the entrance to the Benito Juárez police station. "It should say that police officers who worked here were convicted for the disappearance of Israel Arenas Durán," Luz said. "I want every police officer who walks in that door to have to read those words."

In August, the cop who detained Israel was found guilty of participating in the abduction and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. (After initially admitting to the crime, he then said he had given a false confession under torture -- a claim the judge found unsubstantiated.) It marked the first time in the history of Nuevo León, a state where more than 2,000 people have gone missing in recent years, that a government official had been convicted for carrying out a disappearance. A plaque, however, has not been put up at the police station where the cop worked.

Today, Israel's whereabouts still remain unknown.

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