This article is the fourth in the series "Lessons from a Human Rights Catastrophe." The complete series is available here.
As human rights lawyers, we generally don’t rank the crimes we document. But after interviewing the families of countless victims over the years, I’m convinced there’s no crime more cruel than the “disappearance” of a human being.
In 2003, during one of my first research trips to Mexico, I interviewed women in Guerrero state who had lost family members during the country’s “dirty war” in the early 1970s. Their missing loved ones were presumed to be among the hundreds of people the military executed and tossed from planes into the sea. But the families weren’t sure—and this uncertainty was why they wept with anguish while recounting their loss, as if it had occurred just days before rather than decades.
For many, perhaps most, relatives of the disappeared, the loss of the loved one continues to feel recent, even when logic tells them that the person is most likely dead. So long as there’s uncertainty, there will be hope. So long as there’s hope, they remain trapped in a torturous limbo, unable to mourn or move on with their lives. For parents in particular, abandoning hope feels like a betrayal, like they are killing their own child.
When we presented our report on the “dirty war” cases to President Vicente Fox during a private meeting in Los Pinos in 2003, we gave two reasons why Mexico needed to investigate and prosecute these atrocities. One was the government’s obligation to these families. The second was to prevent the repetition of these crimes. Justice for past abuses can be the most effect deterrent against future ones, we told him. We did not stress this second argument, however. After all, at the time, none of us thought the problem of disappearances would be returning to Mexico.
How wrong we were.
Eight years later, in November 2011, we were back in Los Pinos to present a report on disappearances and other abuses in Mexico. These had been committed under the watch of the president we were there to meet, Felipe Calderón. Since he had launched his “war on drugs” in 2006, Mexican soldiers and police had committed widespread atrocities, including torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. The latter were part of a larger resurgence of disappearances—many by organized crime—that had only recently begun to gain national attention, as a growing number of families spoke out, imploring the authorities to help them find their loved ones.
Calderón began the meeting preemptively dismissing our claim that Mexico was facing a human rights crisis. As we summarized our findings, he interrupted with questions, his tone skeptical and defensive. He challenged us to present a single “so-called” case, and our researcher did: Jehú Abraham Sepúlveda Garza, detained by transit police in San Pedro Garza García, Nuevo León, in November 2010 for allegedly driving without a license, handed over to the investigative judicial police, then transferred to the Navy—and never seen again. “That can’t be,” the president said. So we showed him the evidence, which included statements by the police and Navy confirming Sepúlveda had been in their custody. He asked for more examples.
We had been told he would have less than 30 minutes to spend with us, but more than an hour later we were still reviewing cases, and Calderón was still asking questions. His tone had changed. He looked worried. The meeting ended almost two hours after it began with him inviting us to attend a meeting of his national security council. We declined.
Two weeks later, in a nationally-televised ceremony commemorating International Human Rights Day, Calderón announced he was taking several of the steps we had recommended. One was to develop a comprehensive national database of missing people to help determine their whereabouts. Throughout 2012, the Attorney General’s Office led the effort, gathering information from state prosecutors’ offices and other government entities. But the government did not make this information public. Instead, during Calderón’s final weeks in office, officials who feared the information would never see the light of day leaked it to the Washington Post. Two days before Enrique Peña Nieto’s inauguration, the Post ran a story highlighting the secret database’s most troubling data point: more than 25,000 people had gone missing during Calderón’s presidency.
When Peña Nieto took office, it was evident to all—thanks both to the leak and the efforts of victims’ families and local rights advocates—that that the problem of disappearances had returned to Mexico. Two months later, in February 2013, we released a report that aimed to show just how serious the problem was. With the help of local human rights groups, we had documented nearly 250 disappearances that occurred during the Calderón presidency—including 149 in which we found compelling evidence that government agents had participated in the crime. We also obtained evidence indicating that security forces had committed some of these enforced disappearances in a planned and coordinated manner.
Peña Nieto was unwilling to meet with us. So, instead, we presented the report to his interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, who assured us he would do more than his predecessors to address the crisis. Immediately after the meeting, in an impromptu news conference on the street, his sub-secretary for human rights announced that the administration would review and update the database of disappeared and missing people, as we had recommended, and make the information available to the public.
Our next stop was with Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. We discussed with him our findings regarding the failure of Mexican authorities—particularly the Attorney General’s Office—to properly investigate disappearance cases. We described the egregious errors and omissions we had found in nearly all the cases we had reviewed—how investigators had not interviewed victims’ families, witnesses, and possible suspects, visited crime scenes, traced victims cell phones, or tracked their bank accounts.
The attorney general responded with an offer: if Human Rights Watch provided the evidence on which we based our report, he would assign a team to investigate some of these cases with our guidance. We accepted.
We returned to Mexico the following month with our files for 14 cases involving 41 victims whose families had authorized us to share the evidence with the authorities. This evidence included witness testimony, photos and video that implicated military or police in enforced disappearances. When we met with the team again six weeks later, they had made no meaningful progress. We repeated our recommendations for advancing the investigations and asked them to let us know when they had made progress. They never did. A few months later, Murillo Karam told us that he had given up hope that his team would resolve any of the cases.
As for the database of missing people, there was no news of any progress for more than a year. When the administration finally broke its silence, it was with a series of contradictory statements that created more confusion than clarity. In May 2014, the Interior Ministry reported that the number of people missing had dropped to 8,000. In June, it put the number at 16,000. In August, 22,000.
Rather than making the information public as promised, the government created an online portal that enabled users only to find out whether specific individuals were in the database and, if so, when and where they had gone missing. The portal was little more than a peephole, but it was enough to reveal that the database—supposedly central to the government’s efforts to find the missing—was full of holes. In December 2013, Animal Político reported that 86 of the 149 cases of enforced disappearances we had identified in our report were not in the database. Three years later, in July 2016, a group of Mexican organizations discovered that the vast majority of the more than 600 cases they had reported were also missing.
It’s not that the Pena Nieto administration did nothing to address the disappearance crisis. In June 2013, Murillo Karam—despite or perhaps because he was losing faith in his ad-hoc team that was working on our cases—created a special unit to investigate disappearance cases. In the five years since, the unit has found 379 people (177 alive, 202 dead). While this is an important accomplishment, it represents only a small fraction of the total number of missing people—currently more than 37,000, according to the government.
What the unit hasn’t done is bring anyone responsible for these disappearances to justice. The unit, which in 2015 was made into a special prosecutor’s office, has opened fewer than 1,300 criminal investigations, pressed charges in only 11, and obtained convictions in none. While there might have been some successful prosecutions of disappearance cases by state-level prosecutors, and a handful by federal prosecutors outside of the special prosecutor’s office, impunity remains the norm.
In hindsight, the second reason we gave President Fox for prosecuting the “dirty war” disappearances—justice as a deterrent against future abuses—warranted much greater emphasis. Among the cases that Murillo Karam’s team was unable to resolve was the disappearances of 10 people by Navy personnel in Nuevo Laredo in early June 2011. In July 2013, during the first year of Peña Nieto presidency, another very similar wave of abductions by the Navy was reported in Nuevo Laredo. And in 2018, during Peña Nieto’s final year, there was yet another.
The victims’ families began reporting the disappearances last February. But the Attorney General’s Office only opened investigations in June, after family members blocked the US border to demand action and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that it had documented the possible enforced disappearances of at least 23 people by the Navy. And it was only in mid-August—after family members obtained a federal court order—that prosecutors visited the three naval bases in Nuevo Laredo to seek information and searched a field where some believed the victims might have been buried. The number of people reportedly disappeared by the Navy has risen to more than 40, according to the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, a nongovernmental organization. The authorities have found the bodies of nine of the victims. The others remain missing. No criminal charges have been field.
As the Peña Nieto presidency draws to a close, it would seem that members of security forces who have disappeared people can be as confident as they were when he took office—or as they were during the Fox presidency, or during the “dirty war”—that they will not be held accountable.
President Fox created a special prosecutor’s office that tried and largely failed to prosecute the “dirty war” crimes. One of its few accomplishments, however, was a ruling from the Supreme Court establishing that an enforced disappearance is an ongoing crime. The crime continues so long as the victim remains missing. This principle of international law, since incorporated into the 2017 General Law on Disappearances, enables prosecutors to pursue cases that would otherwise have been subject to statutes of limitations, as they have done in other countries in Latin America. But it is more than just a legal tool: it captures an essential feature of the crime, as it is experienced by the families, for whom the profound suffering continues as long as the victims’ whereabouts remain unknown.
Mexico’s disappearance crisis will soon be Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s responsibility. To fully appreciate what that responsibility entails, it is crucial that he understand the ongoing nature of the crime. All the enforced disappearances that began under his predecessors are ongoing crimes being committed under his watch until the victims’ whereabouts are revealed. If his government fails to resolve these cases, it will be perpetuating the crimes. Moreover, if it fails to prosecute the perpetrators and their accomplices, it will increase the likelihood that more such crimes will be committed. The moment he takes office, in other words, all these disappearances—past, present and future—will become his responsibility.
Since the election, López Obrador’s team has held multiple public forums with the families of victims. The soon-to-be interior minister, Olga Sanchez Cordero, and her deputy for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, have spoken forcefully—and eloquently—about the human rights catastrophe that they are inheriting. López Obrador himself has also recognized the gravity of the problem in a way that his predecessors never did.
Yet the president-elect has met fierce resistance from the families on one issue: his repeated insistence on the importance of forgiving the perpetrators. This should not have surprised him. It is problematic to ask victims of any type of crime to pardon perpetrators who have not been brought to justice or sought forgiveness. But it is even more insensitive towards families enduring the ongoing enforced disappearance of a loved one. It is like asking someone to forgive her assailant while she is still being assaulted, or to forgive her torturer while still undergoing the torture.
These families have endured far worse affronts than López Obrador’s insistence on forgiveness, however. The next article in this series will explore further the profound cruelty of Mexico’s mishandling of its disappearance crisis, and how the responses of the families—individually and collectively—could potentially have a transformative impact on the rule of law in Mexico.
Daniel Wilkinson is the Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch.