MEXICO SURPASSES 100,000 DISAPPEARANCES, WHY? BOOK REVIEW

By Roxana Gutiérrez-Romero

Since 2000, Mexico has experienced over 100,000 disappearances, with 30% of these victims being women. As the figure below shows, the number of disappearances skyrocketed in the country soon after Felipe Calderón launched the War on Drugs. In recent years, during Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) administration, disappearances have continued to grow and reached a historical maximum. The tragic number of disappearances hides the many families left behind struggling to know the whereabouts of their loved ones and calling on the government to take action and bring justice to the victims.

To understand this phenomenon better, as part of the reading activities of the group PEACELA, I recently read the book “Disappearances in Mexico. From the ‘Dirty War’ to the ‘War on Drugs’. The book, edited by Silvana Mandolessi and Katia Olalde Rico, provides a poignant and essential reminder of the ongoing crisis in Mexico. The book is open-access and can be downloaded by clicking here.

Chapter 1, written by Emilio Crenzel, provides an overview of disappearances in Argentina. The chapter discusses that enforced disappearances became a systematic practice during the country’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. According to human rights organisations, more than 30,000 people were forcibly taken by state officials during this ‘dirty war’ period. Many of these individuals were tortured, killed, and illegally buried in unmarked graves. The chapter also discusses how, after the return of democracy, a number of reports, such as the Nunca Más, increased awareness about the direct involvement and responsibility of the dictatorship in the disappearances. Since then, the Argentine government has made efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these crimes. However, many victims’ families are still searching for answers and closure.

Chapter 2, written by Eugenia Allier Montaño, Camilo Vicente Ovalle and Juan Sebastián Granada-Cardona, describes the state violence that took place in Mexico during 1958-2018. The chapter describes that despite some economic progress during the 1950s, there were instances of state violence as those experienced in rural areas in Guerrero in 1967. In 1968 state violence escalated to use political imprisonment and killings to suppress student movements. Crucially, on a peaceful student protest on 2 October 1968, over 300 students were killed by the army in what is known as the Matanza de Tlatelolco, albeit the government alleges that just 30 students were killed. The chapter also describes other popular mobilisations that followed during the 1970s, up to reaching the important period of the tragic war on drugs. The chapter then very quickly describes how disappearances have skyrocketed since 2006, with the explicit involvement of both the state and drug trafficking groups. A clear example of this collaboration is the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinama. On 26 September 2014, these 43 students were victims of enforced disappearance after getting arrested by the municipal police. These students were preparing to take part in a demonstration in Mexico City to commemorate the massacre of students that took place on 2 October 1968. After several years of investigation, all point out that the students seeking to arrive at Mexico City stole several buses. The students did not know that these buses carried a hidden cargo of heroin intended to be smuggled to the USA border, which motivated their arrest being mistaken by rival gangs. With the key distinction that the government’s forces were directly involved in the disappearance and alleged killings of these students.  

Chapter 3, written by Pilar Calveiro, defines the term of enforced disappearances, e.g., an involuntary act where the state is responsible behind. The motives are not necessarily political but might involve revenge, punishment, and drug traffickers and the army making an example of what happens to rivals or those who do not obey orders. Other motives include appropriation of assets, acquiring skills such as disappearing experts or technicians, and dispossession of people as a commodity to get ransom or to use for labour or sexual exploitation. This chapter also describes that several families left behind have found clandestine burials throughout the country. According to the National Search Commission, over 3,631 clandestine graves have been found.

Chapter 4, written by Karina Ansolabehere and Alvaro Martos, attempts to provide an analytical, theoretical framework to understand the logic of disappearances and the actors involved. Their analysis suggests that disappearances have a logic in terms of where they occur and who are the typical victims in terms of age and social status. In their case study, three northern states of the country (Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas) show 50% of the disappearances involve the government at the municipality level, 25% at the state level and 25% at the federal level. Also, the characteristics of the victims might be used to re-victimise and blame them for their disappearance and avoid the state’s responsibility.

Chapter 5, written by Lene Guercke, questions whether the Mexican state could be held accountable and responsible for the disappearances committed by non-state actors. This is an important question since impunity has been the leading factor in criminal actors using violence and disappearance not only to inflict harm on the direct victims. It is also a form of psychological torture for the families left behind. The author concludes that it is unlikely that impunity itself can be used for such legal purposes.

Chapter 6, written by Rainer Huhle, explains that it is difficult to separate the right to truth and the obligation to investigate. To clarify this point, the chapter discusses the ‘Guiding Principles for the Search of the Disappeared Persons’ which the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearance adopted in 2019.

Chapter 7, written by Carolina Robledo Silvestre, reminds the reader that a disappearance is a form of dispossession that destroys lives and offers a harrowing look at the issue from the perspective of their families and other victims, migrants. Migrants in Mexico are being targeted by organised crime groups who kidnap them for ransom or forcibly recruit them into their ranks. In addition, migrants often face violence and exploitation at the hands of corrupt officials, who may detain or extort them for money. As a result, many migrants go missing along the journey, and their families, in despair, travel miles to search for their whereabouts and justice.

Chapter 8, written by Jorge Verástegui González, brilliantly describes that searching for disappeared people is a fundamental human right enshrined in international law. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, everyone has the right to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person. In addition, the government is responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of enforced disappearances. This includes conducting thorough and impartial investigations, providing support and assistance to the families of the disappeared, and ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice. However, in many cases, governments fail to fulfil this responsibility. In some instances, state officials may be involved in enforced disappearances or fail to investigate cases adequately. In other cases, governments may be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem or may lack the resources and capacity to address it effectively. This chapter also analyses the various social movement of relatives of the disappeared searching for their loved ones and pushing for the recognition and advancement of this human right.

Chapter 9, written by María de Vecchi Gerli, explains how art can help immortalise those who have disappeared and the struggle for justice. The chapter contrasts two memorials, the Museo Casa de la Memoria Indómita in Mexico City and the memorial in Allende, Coahuila. The first one provides a vivid memory of both tragic periods, the ‘dirty war’ and the ‘war on drugs’. In the second, the Allende memorial it is unveiled how the government washes its hands by shifting the blame on the war on drugs and on organised crime.

Overall, the book left me wanting to know more about the multiple problems described. In my recent research on migration from Central America to Mexico, a problem I have encountered is the growing number of extorsions that migrants suffer. Similarly, in my ongoing analysis of drug-related violence in Mexico, I have also come across that homicides are not the only weapons drug traffickers use to silence. Intimidation and disappearances are other commonly used strategies, and thus far less analysed.

It is clear that the Mexican government must uphold its legal obligations and take the steps needed to investigate and prosecute cases of enforced disappearances.

This blog was written by Roxana Gutiérrez-Romero. She is an Economist and Professor of Policy and Quantitative Methods at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London. Roxana is the author of several articles that analyse the causes and effects of conflict and underdevelopment. She can be contacted at r.gutierrez@qmul.ac.uk or twitter @Roxanagutz.  

The blog was originally posted in PEACELA Blog.

PEACELA Blog

The reading group From Violence to Peace in Latin America (PEACELA) reads weekly literature on four types of violence affecting the region: political, gender, environmental and non-state armed violence. In this blog, we share our analysis and reflections on these readings.

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