Al Jazeera Faultlines – The Disappeared

Two effigies with photos of missing students are seen during a march in support of the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College missing students, in Mexico CityPhoto: Reuters

By Erik B. Wilson, Alejandro Vélez and Simon Robins

A perfect storm is taking place where the cost of kidnapping a human being and killing that human being is almost zero – Edgardo Buscaglia

We’re caught in the middle, trying to keep ourselves safe from not only criminals, bust also from authorities – Raymundo Ramos Vasquez

In Mexico, more than 26,000 people have been disappeared since 2006 – victims of the drug war started by Felipe Calderon and continued by his successor Enrique Pena Nieto. For the family members left behind there have been few if any answers; none of the cases have been investigated formally by authorities and international pressure to raise awareness and bring action on the issue has been generally nonexistent. The exception to this is the most recent episode of violence in the state of Guerrero where 43 rural students were disappeared by local policemen and hit men of a criminal organization known as Guerreros Unidos.

On this week’s “Faultlines” Al Jazeera America considers the ongoing crisis of disappearances in Mexico, discussing the issue with families, human rights practitioners and survivors. The episode begins with the story of Jose Rodolfo, a young boy of 15 years, who was disappeared while attending a motorcycle show with his mother. “I turned around to look at the show, and when I turned back he was gone. It was not even 10 minutes; we had just arrived.” she tearfully explains. It is assumed by many that the drug cartels kidnap people in Mexico, taking them to distant places and forcing them to work. However, it is later explained and demonstrated that the practice is as much a state perpetration as one by the cartels. As Raymundo Ramos explains, “When they put marines and police on the streets it was to create a terror; people are submissive and live locked in their homes and people don’t complain despite economic problems, despite corruption amongst officials at the highest levels.”

As Edgardo Buscaglia points out, Mexico is extremely attractive to large multinational corporations as a source of natural resources and affordable labor. The pressures placed on the government to welcome these organizations with open arms often leads to violations like disappearances being either ignored or papered over. At one point in the episode, Al Jazeera discusses the ongoing problem with Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, who says that he feels confident that when cases of disappearance are properly confirmed they will be investigated and dealt with appropriately. Meanwhile no cases have been investigated and the justice system provides more roadblocks than paths to justice for victims of the families.

State impotence has not left the families of the disappeared idle however. As in other contexts where disappearances are prevalent and justice systems weak, families of the disappeared in Mexico have taken matters into their own hands, forming groups of affected families and engaging in whatever level of search that they can, even if it is only on social media sites like Facebook. Families need to know the truth about their loved ones, though this is surely not the extent of their needs. For instance Jose Rodolfo’s mother Sara Cruz has nearly gone into debt searching for her son and has been left with nothing.

The third case shown by Faultlines is a good example of how civil society has taken the place of the state in the search of their missing. It presents the case of an independent forensic examination that took place in Monterrey to verify the identity of the skeletal remains that the Nuevo León Attorney General’s Office handed over to Juana Solis in 2012 as those of their missing daughter Brenda Damaris. The collective Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Nuevo León (FUNDENL) accompanied Damaris’ family throughout the process and found several inconsistencies in the criminal investigation that aroused doubts about the identity of the remains. The independent exhumation and the DNA identification process depicted in Faultlines is the result of the efforts of FUNDENL and the solidarity and professionalism of the Peruvian and the Mexican Forensic Anthropology teams, the results should be known by January.

As is often the case with disappearances, Faultlines’ view is largely informed by the realities of the Mexican justice system and lack of criminal prosecution. It is important to note that according to the last Victimization Survey (ENVIPE) the unrecorded crime rate is 93%, which means that 9 out of 10 crimes were not even reported to the authorities because of fear or distrust[1]. Due to rampant impunity only 2% of reported crimes are punished[2]. Given the failures of the Mexican justice system, the often prolonged nature of disappearances and the years that many families spend searching, hoping and waiting it is important to consider how to best help those families outside of pushing for criminal prosecutions. In other contexts, where people have disappeared during armed conflict, the need for truth, justice and acknowledgment has been accompanied by economic needs, as the missing often were principle breadwinners. There are also social impacts, with families facing social stigma from their communities. An understanding of the effects of ambiguous loss reveals the need for families who are living with no knowledge of the fate of loved ones to be supported in coping effectively with its impacts. Further discussions of disappearance need to take these factors into consideration, with the ultimate hope of not only addressing the root causes and drivers of disappearance but also supporting families who are living with the torment of a missing relative.

[1] INEGI, “Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública (ENVIPE) 2014” retrieved from

[2] Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de Derechos Humanos and Instituto Mexicano de Derechos Humanos y Democracia. “Access to Justice in Mexico: The incessant impunity on human rights violations. Report presented before the Human Rights Council on the occasion of Mexico’s Universal Periodic Review”. Retreieved from: