A member of the Federal Police stands guard atop a vehicle in downtown Iguala, southern Mexican state of Guerrero, to keep the peace after a series of disappearances.

Mexico’s efforts to address the large number of cases of enforced disappearances and abductions throughout the country in recent years have been marred by inexplicable delays and contradictory public statements, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent today to Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong.

The administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto has initiated important measures to find missing people, assist their families, and investigate and prosecute abuses, but with very limited results, Human Rights Watch said.

“The disappearances are a human rights crisis of major proportions for Mexico,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But the Peña Nieto administration has fallen woefully short of its commitment to find out what happened to these thousands of missing people, and is now even slashing the budget of the special prosecutors’ unit it created to handle these cases.”

In February 2013, Human Rights Watch published “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” documenting nearly 250 “disappearances” during the administration of President Felipe Calderón, including 149 cases in which there was compelling evidence of enforced disappearances involving state agents from all branches of the country’s security forces.

Following the report’s release, the Interior Ministry acknowledged the existence of a list, compiled by the previous administration, of over 26,000 people reported disappeared or missing, and promised to examine these cases and clarify the precise scope of the problem.

In May 2014, Interior Minister Osorio Chong said that the number of people missing or disappeared had dropped to 8,000. In June, the then-deputy prosecutor for human rights in the Attorney General’s Office stated that the 8,000 number only included people who had gone missing during the Peña Nieto administration. Later that month, Osorio Chong announced at a news conference that the whereabouts of 16,000 people remained unknown. In August, the government said that the actual number of “people not found” was more than 22,000, including people who had been reported missing during both the Calderón and Peña Nieto presidencies.

The administration reports that the number of people who were reported missing during the Calderón presidency and remain missing has dropped by 17,000 (from 29,000 to 12,000), while the number for those missing since Peña Nieto took office has dropped by 13,000 (from 23,000 to 10,000). Yet the administration has not provided a list either of the people who remain missing or of those who have been found. Instead, it has merely created an online database that allows people to determine the status of specific individuals, but tells them virtually nothing about the cases themselves.

“Rather than clarify the problem, the Peña Nieto administration has issued a series of contradictory statements that have raised more questions than they’ve answered,” Vivanco said. “The administration claims that 30,000 missing people have turned up, but it has not revealed who these people are or what happened to them.”   

The government, in particular the Attorney General’s Office, has pursued several potentially promising initiatives to address the problem of disappearances, including the special  prosecutors’ unit to investigate disappearances and search for the missing. It has also created an “Amber Alert” system to search for missing women and children.

Yet these initiatives have produced limited results. Government officials have found only 214 children and women who have been reported missing since 2011 through the “Amber Alert” system, and 86 people through the special unit’s work.

No one has been convicted of an enforced disappearance committed after 2006, according to official information. Between 2006 and 2013, authorities opened 99 criminal investigations for the alleged crime of enforced disappearance at the federal level, and 192 at the state level. During this time, only six people were convicted for the enforced disappearances of seven victims, all of these involved cases that had occurred before 2006.

Officials in the special unit told Human Rights Watch that even though the attorney general had made this effort a priority, they did not have sufficient resources to handle their large caseload. Yet in September, the government announced that it would cut the special unit’s budget by more than 60 percent, according to press accounts.

“Without adequate support, it will be impossible for prosecutors charged with this monumental task to succeed in finding the missing and bringing perpetrators to justice,” Vivanco said.

In February 2013, the Attorney General’s Office signed an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to create a comprehensive database with standardized information on unidentified remains and on cases of people whose whereabouts are unknown, which could play a fundamental role in determining the fate of many of the disappeared. However, as of August, only six jurisdictions had signed a follow-up agreement for the ICRC to donate the required software to them, and the system had not become operative in any of them.

Similarly, the government has several initiatives to provide support for victims of crime, including the enactment of a Victims Law to provide them with justice and reparations, and the creation of an Executive Commission on Attention to Victims and of a special office within the Interior Ministry with a similar mandate. Yet the Executive Commission is unable to provide reparations to victims because the government has failed to adopt the law’s implementing regulations, which it needs to execute a budget of approximately 500 million Mexican pesos (approximately US$38 million) already approved by Congress.

The government also failed to include measures to address the problem of disappearances in the National Program on Social Prevention of Violence and Crime, adopted in April. 

The Peña Nieto administration should release the list of people it claims were missing and have been found, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also make criminal investigation of alleged cases of enforced disappearances a priority, and accelerate the nationwide implementation of the database donated by the ICRC.

Human Rights Watch cited additional steps the government should take. It should ensure that the definition of enforced disappearance is consistent across jurisdictions and with international law, adopt a clear crime-prevention strategy to curb disappearances, and ensure effective collaboration between state and federal authorities and between various federal offices with similar mandates.