When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights presented its preliminary report on the “serious human rights crisis” in the country, the Mexican government responded angrily that the report “does not reflect the situation in the country”. Human Rights Undersecretary Roberto Ciprian Campo added that the notorious mass disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa is “an absolutely extraordinary case.”
What country are our government officials talking about? According to their own statistics, the number of disappeared persons in Mexico is between 23 and 27 thousand. Government figures from different agencies contradict each other on the exact number. The disappearances include scandalous cases of 20, 40 and more people disappeared at once, and the constant hemorraging of human lives in areas where individuals disappear, one by one, almost every week.
In August last year, the media reported the disappearance of at least 20 people in San Antonio Coyahuacan, Guerrero. In Allende, Coahuila, the then-mayor reported that 300 residents were abducted in 2011 by police and organized crime commandos in an alleged act of revenge for a betrayal among its members. In an act of disappearing the disappeared, the state government now says it was “only” 28.
Life is so insignificant in the time of the war on drugs that no one has even bothered to explain the huge discrepancy between the versions of the Allende disappearances. Much less find and identify all the bodies of the disappeared, even though local people say that the remains are still there.
Disappearance and forced disappearance (involving elements of the State) have become ordinary, almost everyday, events in many parts of the country.
“The Other Disappeared” is a group in Iguala, Guerrero that formed after the Ayotzinapa crime to call attention to the widespread crisis that has been going on for years there. They head out every Sunday to search for bodies. On their own and without the support of the government security forces that occupy the zone, they have found the remains of more than 130 people buried in the surrounding hills.
Further north, a recent report by Amnesty International (AI) documents that the state of Chihuahua is experiencing “an epidemic “of disappearances. Chihuahua, and particularly the border city of Ciudad Juarez, used to be the epicenter of drug war violence and the laboratory for militarized federal anti-cartel efforts through Operation Chihuahua, with the close collaboration of the U.S. government.
In recent years there’s been a drop in open conflict. According to the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, the homicide rate fell from being the highest in the world in Ciudad Juarez, to only 26 murders per 100,000 people statewide in 2015, compared to 229 in 2010.
But as the U.S. and Mexican governments heralded the success of Chihuahua as seen in the drop in assassinations, it turns out that disappearances were soaring. Amnesty recorded 1,698 disappearances in Chihuahua since 2006, with 351 in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc alone.
The phenomenon of apparently low homicide rates accompanied by a rise in disappearances, many of them forced disappearances, is not new. In Colombia’s internal conflict, when the death toll rose to 28,534 in 2002 and began to draw international attention, then-president Alvaro Uribe changed the modus operandi. The state and paramilitaries began to systematically hide corpses in an apparent effort to avoid inflating the homicide rate.
Between 2002 and 2008, according to official figures from the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Colombia, there were 24,048 cases of disappearances. These six years of the Uribe presidency accounted for 36% of the total disappearances in the six decades from 1938 to 2013, which registered a total of 66,437 disappearances.
The report of the Organization of American States’ Experts Panel on Ayotzinapa warns, “The forced disappearance of persons is a strategy to erase the traces of the crime, spreading confusion and ambiguity as a way to avoid investigation, knowledge of the facts and to strip victims of legal protection, in addition to being carried out by state officials or by private individuals with government support or acquiescence, and extends the horror of suffering the same fate to all those who can identify with the victims. ”
In light of the Colombian and Mexican experiences, disappearance must be seen as policy of a repressive state. The Peña Nieto administration, with U.S. financing, relies heavily on Colombian advisors to map out and implement its security strategies. This raises the question: What security lessons are the Colombians teaching the Mexicans? During the peak years of the Colombian war and with the aid of Plan Colombia, the Colombian government garnered one of the worst human rights records in the world. Not only disappearance, but also displacement and extrajudicial executions rose precipitously.
In Mexico, the results of the war on drugs implemented through the joint actions of Mexican, U.S. and Colombian officials has led to multiple tragedies–personal and social—that repeat day after day in our cities and communities.
The advantage of a missing person for a criminal group–or a criminal state–is that he or she is rendered invisible. Their deaths do not count as deaths, although their lives following their disappearance are merely a memory.
But those who believe that memory has no force underestimate the human spirit.
They fail to calculate the undying love of a mother for her children, a brother for his brother, a daughter for her mother. Across the country, victims groups have emerged and shed their mantle of victim. From the pain of their loss, they are forging a new movement for change from the essential fact of their lives: the search for their missing loved ones.
This search has led them to unite and raise their voices against a state that does not want to acknowledge their existence. It has led them to confront murderers, often alone and at great risk, and spend days and years being shuffled from one government office to the next where they often encounter the criminals’ accomplices.
Seeing the cruel indifference or cynical complicity of officials has driven the victims’ families out into mountains and deserts throughout Mexico. With picks and shovels, they have taken matters into their own hands to search the soil for bones that could what’s left of the person they love.
“The dead cry out to be rescued,” affirms Luz Lopez, whose teenage daughter, Claribel, disappeared in August of 2008. She has been searching in the harsh deserts of Coahuila with Grupo Vida–“life” in English. Made up of almost all women, Grupo Vida has found several clandestine cemetaries of dried and calcinated bones in the arid lands around Torreon. When they rescue the dead, they rescue themselves, and they rescue at least fragments of the truth that many have sought to hide.
Thanks to them, disappeared persons are increasingly visible in our society; they are less forgotten.
What is extraordinary, then, is not the crime. The crime of disappearance is part of the structural violence that has become daily life in Mexico.
What is extraordinary is the families’ ability to fight for their missing loved ones. They persevere, they protest; they get sick, and sadly, some die without ever being able to embrace again—or bury–their relatives. These men and women are an example of courage and good citizenship for the whole country.
In a country where rule of law holds, the disappearance of persons should be “absolutely extraordinary”, an abhorrent act, totally unacceptable. Or really, it should never happen at all. That’s not the case in Mexico.
But as violence becomes the norm, for families of the disappeared that empty place at the table will never be normal, or ordinary.
Through their extraordinary efforts, they continue the search. And every day–to the missing person and to whoever will listen in a far too callous society–they make the same vow: “I will search until I find you.”
Laura Carlsen is the director of the CIP Americas Program in Mexico City www.americas.org. This column is based on the Spanish original published in Desinformémonos and available here: http://desinformemonos.org.mx/los-desaparecidos-extraordinarios/