The haunting reality of the disappearance crisis in Mexico

By Alejandro Vélez and Doria del Mar Vélez

Demonstrations on August 30 in Mexico. Photo by Alejandro Velez

Demonstrations on August 30 in Mexico. Photo by Alejandro Velez

“How can a country advance when thousands of its citizens are missing?” this is the question that journalist Carmen Aristegui addressed to the audience after reporting that according to the State Ministry there are 22,322 people missing in Mexico since 2006. This question is relevant because the main objective of the Enrique Peña Nieto administration has been the approval of major legislative reforms “to carry Mexico to its full potential”[1]. Polemic reforms[2] related to education, labor, telecommunications, energy and taxation were lobbied for heavily by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional PRI) since day one of the Peña Nieto administration and have recently been approved thanks to the support of the conservative National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional PAN).

The discussion of the so-called “structural reforms” invaded the mass media and drowned the echo of the Drug War, the actions against organized crime and its pernicious psychosocial and economic consequences. Nevertheless, the humanitarian tragedy going on in Mexico is so severe that not even the controversy around the reforms can overpower and silence the resentment, sorrow and grief that have been accumulated over decades of violence. We are making special reference to the increase of several crimes and human rights violations since 2000 when the model of drug trafficking that was controlled completely by a one party State collapsed and caused the fragmentation of the business and a steep increase in violence. In 2006 the Administration of Felipe Calderon decided to pursue a militarized approach to address public security and tackle the drug trade, per US recommendations. Have there been significant changes since then?

As a first response, we can say that the narrative about public security has been slightly different. The PRI administration has reduced to a minimum references to crime and violence as if nothing was happening in the country. However if we have a closer look, we can appreciate that the strategy of the new administration hasn’t changed; the military and navy are still performing a public security role in states like Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Veracruz and even at the borders of Mexico City. The new administration has even created a new military police inspired by the model of the French and Chilean gendarmerie to protect critical infrastructures, and regions ravaged by violence such as Michoacán, Morelos, Tamaulipas and Guerrero.

Unfortunately these actions have resulted in little change: the weekly paper Zeta Tijuana has just published that during the current administration 36,718 persons have been murdered.[3] If we compare this data with the first two years of the former administration, there have been 7,000 more homicides in the first two years of the Peña Nieto Administration than in the first two years of the last administration. Statistics from the Executive Secretary for National Public Security System (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP) show that state attorneys have officially registered 29,417 preliminary investigations of intentional homicides, 59.43% more than reported during the same period of the Administration of Felipe Calderón. The disparity between the figures on homicides show that despite official statistics linked to prosecution activities, those figures do not represent the complex reality that Mexicans face everyday.

Unfortunately, the statistics on the missing are even less clear than those on homicide. The most recent data released by the government affirm that there are 22,322 people missing since 2006. The State Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office explained that until November 30, 2012 there were 26,121 records in the database and that number rose to 29,707 after the first updates made by this administration. From this initial database, government officials reported that they have found 17,175 persons, and most of them (16,274) were found alive. So, according to the official statistics, there are still 12,532 persons missing from the time of the Calderon Administration. At the same press conference, government officials stated that during the new administration they have recorded 23,234 missing persons, but of these 13,444 have been found (95% alive). So there are “only” 9,790 people that have gone missing in the last two years.

Officially, there are 22,322 persons that have not been “located”. The terms “enforced disappearance” or “involuntary disappearance” are always avoided in press conferences in an effort to convince civil society that the missing are missing voluntarily and in turn that such crimes and human rights violations have not occurred. According to the former Head of the UN Team investigating enforced disappearances, Ariel Dulitzky[4], the government should also explain how more than 15,000 men and women have been found alive. They should also explain if they were disappeared by criminal organizations, by state agents, or by a mixture of both. It is important to stress that in Mexico, as historian Luis Astorga has stated in his research, most of the times we cannot separate the actions and interests of the criminal organizations (formerly known as drug cartels) from the ones of state agents and institutions. This reality poses a complex problem when we try to classify the crimes that are being committed as enforced disappearances. Some organizations and collectives think the crimes should be considered enforced disappearances because the State is not fulfilling its obligation of ensuring security to its citizens by leaving some of its agents – policemen, soldiers, marines, judges, mayors, congressmen and governors – to engage in criminal activities. However, there are other persons that are lobbying heavily for the integration of the definition of involuntary disappearance in Law Codes to punish the disappearances that are committed strictly by criminal organizations without the authorization, support or acquiescence of state agents.

It is also important to know the methodology the authorities are using to debug the database, because there are 13 states that do not have the categorization of enforced or involuntary disappearance in their penal codes. Several human rights defenders have filed freedom of information requests to understand this methodology, especially after Guadalupe Fernandez received a call from the Special Search Group of the Attorney General’s Office to ask if her son, Jose Antonio Robles, was still missing[5]. The shaky statistics are proof that neither federal nor local authorities are investigating such cases. This is extremely worrying as each figure represents more than one victim that should have access to justice and compensation.

Another worrying issue is the huge number of mass graves discovered in recent years. These mass graves serve as a reminder that Mexico has experienced war crimes and crimes against humanity for the last 8 years. Unfortunately the government has downplayed the findings by silencing the press and refusing to exhume all bodies. This is the case in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, where – according to local people – there are even more corpses than the 193 that were originally exhumed in April 2011. The rumors are the same in La Barca, a small town at the border of Jalisco and Michoacán, where a grave with 74 bodies was found in January 2014.

Besides the rumors coming from several states, there have been complaints made by NGO’s and collectives claiming that most exhumations that have occurred have not been conducted according to international standards. This is the case in Allende, Cohauila, where at least 300 persons were allegedly apprehended and disappeared by the Zetas in 2011. Local and federal authorities concealed the gruesome event and it is probable that the criminals burned the remains of those kidnapped using diesel fuel in order to hide the horrendous crime. When the first information started to flow form Allende, we watched a video[6] where the crime scene was not cordoned off; we also noticed the use of heavy machinery to look for human remains. Finally, the journalist that was telling the story was walking over possible evidence. The video infuriated the association Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Coahuila (FUNDEC) because the Coahuila governor had just promised them that all the exhumations would be carried out with extreme care and confidentiality.

The recent findings of mass graves in Veracruz, Jalisco, Michoacán, Durango, Coahuila; Nuevo León, Morelos, etc. have demonstrated that the State lack the forensic professionals, the adequate expertise, the technology and the political will to began a thorough identification campaign. In this context, the job of international forensic teams such as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) has been of great help. After the two massacres committed in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, and that committed in Cadereyta, Nuevo León, where a criminal organization left 49 torsos in the middle of a highway, the Attorney General’s Office signed a contract with the EAAF to work on retrieving and identifying human remains from those events. EAAF is also part of Proyecto Frontera that is building an international database in the region to try to identify the thousands of migrants that go missing as they cross Mexico on their way to the US. Here they are working not only with organizations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras but also with some border counties in the United States like Pima in Arizona. Meanwhile, the EPAF has participated as experts in the famous case of Rosendo Radilla[7] where they made several exhumations trying to find the body of the missing social activist. They are also training the archeologists and anthropologists that will form Mexican Forensic Anthropology Team that could eventually star working next year in the field. There is also a small organization, Gobernanza Forense Ciudadana, which got a grant from the United Kingdom Economic Social Research Council to foster a citizen led biobank, a DNA database built, governed and used by the relatives of missing persons. Their plan is to perform 1500 cheek swab DNA tests and store the genetic information in a secure place in order to press the government to engage in an identification campaign.

Some laws have been changed or amended thanks to the lobbying of NGOs and groups of relatives of missing persons. An example is a state law approved by the Coahuila Congress that will permit the relatives of missing persons to process an “absence declaration” that will allow them not to continue to access social security, housing or health services that were linked to the missing person. There are serious discussions to get this new legislation reproduced in other states and at the federal level, to guarantee relatives of missing persons the minimum assurance until their beloved one is found. Another extraordinary piece of news is the Supreme Court’s demand that the two Ejercito Popular Revolucionario (EPR) combatants Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sánchez be found. The requirement is immediate and it demands governmental authorities look for them even inside military camps. As a part of the ruling, the Supreme Court asked for the formation of an independent civil society commission to monitor the work of government authorities.

In the middle of all these processes, and with people still being disappeared daily, we commemorated the International Day of the Missing on August 30. Events were celebrated in at least 13 Mexican cities as well as in El Paso, Texas, Guatemala and Honduras. In Tijuana, Baja California the group Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Baja California (FUNDEBJ) celebrated a mass for the missing; in Xalapa, Veracruz, the Colectivo Xalapa por la Paz gathered in a public square and flew balloons with the names of the missing; in Monterrey, Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Nuevo León (FUNDENL) added more names to a monument they took over to raise awareness on the tragedy; in Ciudad Juárez some organizations marched with human silhouettes and others organized to form the phrase “search for them” by forming letters lying down on the floor; and in Mexico City there was a huge demonstration by several organizations that visited the Attorney General’s Office building and the Senate: in both places there were speeches and cultural activities.

Thousands of disappearances have been committed in a country that is undergoing a broad process of democratization, with a stable economy and without any kind of visible civil conflict. This phenomenon is unique because there are several potential perpetrators and victims of this crime and the resulting human rights violations. How can we think about forgetting the missing if we need each and every one of them? How can the authorities think society could be silenced if thousands of sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, mothers and fathers are missing in México leaving behind millions of empty arms? Unfortunately “enforced disappearance” and “involuntary disappearance” are still a haunting reality in our country even though there is no information in the mass media.

[1] The slogan of Peña Nieto Administration has been Mover a México (“To move Mexico”)

[2] Landmark structural reforms, designed to “lift the country”, have been awaiting approval approve since the last administration. However there are certain reforms like those on telecommunications and energy that have been described as neoliberal because they are opening cherished sectors of Mexican economy to private investors.

[3] “Los muertos de EPN: 36 mil 718”, Zeta Tijuana. August 28, 2014. (Retrieved: August 30, 2014) from

[4] Daniela Rea. “Tres fallas de Peña Nieto contra la desaparición forzada, según experto”, Animal Político. August 30, 2014. (Retrieved: August 31, 2014) from:

[5] Shaila Rosagel. ““¿Oiga su hijo ya apareció?”, pregunta la PGR a madre de un desaparecido, dos días antes de anunciar cifras oficiales”, Sin Embargo. August 28, 2014. (Accessed: August 31, 2014) from:


[7] Rosendo Radilla was illegally arrestd by the military at a roadblock on August 25, 1974 during the “Dirty War”. His relatives took the case to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) and finally the IACHR issued a ruling on the case condemning the Mexican state for serious human rights violations.