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“The greatest anguish”: forced disappearance in Mexico

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

In his state of the union address a few weeks ago, Mexican president Peña Nieto acknowledged that this past year had been “difficult.” In fact, his entire term has been difficult. Not so much for the companies benefiting from his constitutional reforms, the escaped kingpin Chapo Guzman, or the contractor who sold the first lady a luxury house suspiciously below market value. But it’s certainly been difficult for the 55.3 million Mexicans who are poor, and especially for human rights defenders. During his less than three years in office, there have been 81 cases of forced disappearances of human rights defenders (versus the already high 53 during the entire 6-year administration of his predecessor). 

This Saturday marks the one-year anniversary since the forced disappearances of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. Despite the government’s denials, an independent investigation by the IAHCR demonstrated that municipal, state and federal police all actively paritipated in the attacks on the students, and that military officers were present at at least two of the attack scenes. If that weren’t enough, it also found that the government destroyed key evidence. But when we talk about disappearances in Mexico, 43 is not the only relevant number. 26,000 is also. At least that many Mexicans have been disappeared since the US-supported Drug War went into effect in 2006. Nadín Reyes Maldonado is an expert on the topic. Ever since her father Edmundo Reyes and his friend Gabriel Cruz were forcibly disappeared in 2007, she has been working tirelessly on the topic: searching for justice in her father’s case, supporting other family members of disappeared, raising consciousness about the issue, and advocating for preventive laws and measures. She and three other women make up the organization Comité de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos Hasta Encontrarlos(in English, Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared and Detained ‘Until We Find Them’).I sat down with her recently and asked a few questions.

A year ago the Ayotzinapa case caused horror and indignation on an international scale. However, ever since the Dirty War and especially since the War on Drugs began in Mexico, forced disappearances have been happening here. Why does the Mexican government turn to this crime against humanity? What does it gain? Nadín: We think that the crime of forced disappearance is the pefect crime for the government because it causes terror in the population and paralyzes various sectors of society. It also sends a message to certain human rights organizations and movements to dismantle themselves and end their work. Forced disappearances are now being committed against the population in general, not just activists. But it continues to be used selectively – as it was in the sixties and seventies – against social organizations and human rights defenders, with this objective of dismantling them through fear and terror. The government wants its people to be stuck in paralysis so that it can continue implementing neoliberal policies. This is what we see. And it’s important to keep in mind that forced disappearance is a form of torture and repression against the people. Unlike simply killing, disappearing someone creates a lot of distress and anxiety.

Their loved ones don’t know what happened to the person who’s missing. And that’s different than an extrajudicial killing or murder, when there’s closure in the process. There’s a grieving process and closure, knowing that the person has been killed. There’s the body, the evidence. In the case of forced disappearance, you don’t know if the person is dead. You don’t know if the person is alive or not, and that creates more anxiety and uncertainty, great anguish and pain in the family and the population as a whole. And therefore it’s a more effective practice that is used by the government to maintain uncertainty in the population.WFP: In the case of the forced disappearance of your father, the authories didn’t want to take a report in Oaxaca, where it occurred.

Furthermore, they denied that it had happened. In cases of forced disappearances, how common are these types of obstacles?

Nadín: In the majority of cases, similiar things happen, as in the case of our family. We’ve heard testimonies of mothers where the same thing’s happened, where the authorities don’t want to take reports of this crime. They put up a lot of roadblocks, and refuse to take action. One issue is that the crime is not classified as such in all states. Additionally, they often tell the family members to go back home, or claim the disappeared person probably just left without saying anything, that they’ll probably be back in a few days. They give excuse after excuse as to not take the report. And that’s why… I think that it’s in over 80 percent of the cases that institutions give the same response, in order to not take a report.  And the authorities intimidate a lot. Not only do they not take reports, but they also threaten family members. They tell them not to report the crime because since they already have a family member disappeared, one of them might also be disappeared. And they recommend not moving forward with a report. That’s the most common response from the authorities, who not only don’t take reports, but also intimidate and threaten folks not to make reports.

WFP: As part of your work, you support and share information with family members of disappeared. Are there patterns that you’ve noticed in their cases? 

Nadín: One of the patterns we’ve seen is the difficulty of identifying who the actors are. We’ve identified them as paramilitary groups, but because they’re usually dressed in black with high-caliber weapons and ski masks, it can be hard to identify them, and to link them directly to the authoriries or state agents. It’s difficult to determine. However, in this context – in this country –  a lot of criminal groups were started by members of the armed forces who deserted, or by police that we can clearly identify as operating as parastatal groups. This is so the government will not be held responsible for the disappearances. These are the majority of the cases that we currently see. Many of the disappearances that are happening now are being committed by these groups. Many call them organized crime but we have identified them as paramlitary groups acting with the clear support and consent of the state. Additionally, along with the crime of forced disappearances, there may be other crimes committed. For example, the disappearance of women which can be linked to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. There have also been collective disappearances of men, to create a workforce, where they’re forced into exploitative work, used for their labor. Then there are also many other related crimes; it’s very difficult to identify or separate one from another. There’s also a pattern we’ve seen in terms of ages. For the most part it’s young folks who are disappeared, of working age, when they’re strong and capable. And some with certain professional or technical skills have been disappeared. This may also indicate that they’re being subjected to forced labor. These are some of the things we’ve identified. And then there are the disappearances of human rights defenders who participate in social and political movements. And we can identify state police, municipal police, and the army that have commited them. And it’s sometimes made clearer by threats made prior to the disappearance. And sometimes there are testimonials of people who see the moment of arrest of people who are subsequently disappeared, and this also points to the participation state agents.

WFP: Since 2006, Mexico has become more and more militarized in the name of the War on Drugs and national security. The US strongly supports this trend, and in fact has channeled more than 2.4 billion dollars for this purpose through the Merida Initiative. What effect has this militarization in Mexico had in terms of human rights violations in general and on forced disappearances specifically?Nadín: This militarization has brought about an increase in human rights violations. It’s irrefutable, and it’s been well documented by various human rights organizations that in areas where there’s a greater presence of military personnel, there have been more human rights abuses. Chihuahua was one of the first states to militarize. Michoacán was one where the Merida Initiative was first employed. And these are states where thousands of human rights violations have been committed. Michoacán, in 2010, was one of the first states with cases of collective forced disappearances committed in the wake of militarization, and because of the creation of special forces to supposedly fight organized crime groups. And in the North, there have been many violations including extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, and forced disappearances of both men and women. So what we say is that in addition to being a war supposedly against drug trafficking, it’s a war against the people. A war focused more on putting fear and terror in the people under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking. But in fact, the allegations made by the local people show that in areas where the armed forces are, it’s brought more insecurity and fear. They don’t feel protected. On the contrary, there are many testimonies indicating collusion between the military and alleged criminal groups. This is well-documented, and it’s clear that they’re not there to protect, but instead mostly to instill fear and terror in the population. This is what militarization has brought to this country. One example of this is the rejection of the people, who increasingly demand that the armed forces return to their barracks. They don’t want the army doing this type of security work, because…it has a negative effect. There is clear evidence of this. Recently, a child was killed in Ostula, Michoacan who was hit by a bullet fired by soldiers. And there are countless testimonies like this one. So it’s not appropriate. The army wasn’t created to do public security work, but to protect the integrity and security of the nation. It can’t do law enforcement work because it’s not trained for that.

WFP: The majority of the readers of our blogs are US citizens. How can a US citizen be in solidarity with Mexico to support a change in terms of human rights and forced disappearances?

Nadín: I think one way they could be in solidarity with our country on the issue of forced disappearances would be first: questioning the situation in their own country, as Americans. Taking a stand against policies that hurt out country. The US intervenes in our security issues, and that’s one of the causes of increased forced disappearances. US resources are invested in the name of national security, under the pretext of fighting crime. But instead of being used to that end, they’re used to commit serious human rights violations which I’ve already mentioned. So one of the ways that US citizens can support us is questioning their government. How is this money being invested? They can be critical and they question. Another way is to disseminate information and bring light to the issues of human rights in Mexico and how Mexican citizens live in fear of forced disappearances. And I think it could be done in many ways. Sometimes there are young people with professions that may be able to support with their expertise. They can write and share information, and send any kind of support. Perhaps an exchange program where they learn about what’s happening here, and they can link up with organizations here and study and analyze what’s happening in Mexico. And they could share what they experience back in their country and their communities.They can also help with economic resources or with specific materials which we sometimes need. Most of the organizations struggling against forced disappearance are organizations that don’t have material resources, they’re grassroots. And sometimes very minimal support is invaluable to continue their work. So that’s another way you can help support these Mexican organizations.

Nadín will be on the Witness for Peace-Southeast Fall Speaker’s Tour in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Georgia from November 1 – 22. Stay tuned here for more info.  Show your solidarity with the students of Ayotzinapa this Saturday, September 26th: Sign this (easy, fast) urgent action demanding the US withdraw funding for militarization of Mexico:


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