Human Rights Watch claims the disappearances are, “The most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades.”
When Enrique Peña Nieto took office on December 1, 2012, he inherited a country reeling from an epidemic of drug violence that had taken the lives of more than 60,000 Mexicans in six years. The “war on drugs” launched by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had produced disastrous results. Not only had it failed to rein in the country’s powerful criminal groups, but it had led to a dramatic increase in grave human rights violations committed by the security forces sent to confront them. Rather than strengthening public security, these abuses had exacerbated a climate of violence, lawlessness, and fear.
Throughout most of his presidency, Calderón denied security forces had committed any abuses, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Only in his final year did he acknowledge that human rights violations had occurred, and take a handful of positive—though very limited—steps to curb some abusive practices. However, he failed to fulfill his fundamental obligation to ensure that the egregious violations committed by members of the military and police were investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
56-year-old Maria Orozco, a shopkeeper whose son was taken along with 5 of his colleagues, by soldiers from a nightclub where they all worked nearly 3 years ago, says there has been no word on his whereabouts or even if he is still alive. She told Human Rights Watch, who used her son’s case as one example in the report that, “We used to see the military like Superman or Batman or Robin. Super heroes. Now the spirit of the whole country has turned against them.”
Last month the new government signed into law “long-delayed” legislation to help trace victims of the ongoing drug war and “compensate” the families of those who have been killed or gone missing, and there are plans to create a database of DNA, similar to those used in the US to help track the victims of violent crimes and hopefully help the families of those who have “disappeared.” Lia Limon, the deputy secretary of human rights at Mexico’s interior ministry says, “There exists, in theory, a database with more than 27,000 people on it. It’s a job that’s beginning.” However, even with the new legislation and the proposed database Human Rights Watch asserts that “impunity remains rife,” claiming that the Mexican Armed Forces “opened nearly 5,000 investigations into criminal wrongdoing between 2007 and 2012, but only 38 ended in sentencing.”
As the report points out, the disappearances take not only an emotional toll on families of the victims, but a serious economic one as well. The “overwhelming majority” of the people documented as abducted by Human Rights Watch were working class men, “who were often the sole wage earners in households with several children.” The loss of not only a parent and partner is then exacerbated by the fact that many of the social services in Mexico are “conditional upon a member of the household being employed,” and as of right now the system does not recognize the disappeared. Therefore, “In order to maintain access to these crucial services, relatives were forced to initiate a costly and protracted bureaucratic process to obtain recognition that the disappeared person was missing or dead, which heightened their suffering.”
Laura Orozco, who witnessed the military-led abduction of her brother says, “To us if just seems that the military is untouchable. They’re bulletproof.” While that may have been the case under Calderón, recently several families of the disappeared petitioned Mexico’s Supreme Court to allow soldiers who are guilty of human rights violations to be “judged like civilians,” and the court has approved the request.
While none of the actions taken by the government so far would have any real impact individually, taken together as a whole one can only hope that Mexico will soon see a decrease, and eventually an end to these horrific crimes against their citizens.
Photo: AP/Alexandre Meneghini