Mexican families struggle to find drug war's 'disappeared'

Thousands of people have disappeared without a trace amid the ongoing drug war in Mexico. Their families are now demanding action from the Mexican government.

By , Staff writer

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    Relatives of missing Central American migrants demonstrated in Mexico City last month. They sought to pressure authorities to do more to guarantee the human rights of migrants traveling toward the United States.
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Veronica Coronilla said goodbye to her husband on March 21 as he set off from their home in rural Guanajuato in central Mexico with 22 other men to enter the United States illegally to find work. It was her husband's fifth trip, so Ms. Coronilla was not worried.

But weeks went by with no word. Then news came that bus passengers were going missing in northern Mexico and that a mass grave in the state of Tamaulipas, right where he was to pass. Dread set in.

Now, months later, she still has no news of him. She doesn’t think he was in the mass grave, but is he in another? Or has he been kidnapped and forced to labor for a drug gang? Where is he?

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These are the questions that plague Coronilla and thousands of others whose relatives from across Latin America have vanished in recent years as lawlessness prevails in large swaths of Mexico. Now, family members of the missing are starting to unite to call for more government action to help end the epidemic of disappearances across the country.

Recently, Coronilla, along with three other women from her hometown whose relatives are also missing, traveled to Mexico City to demand that federal authorities investigate. "If we don't do this, people will start to forget," she says.

'A humanitarian tragedy'

To be "disappeared" in Latin America carries overtones of the military dictatorships and state-sponsored repression of the 1970s and '80s that saw tens of thousands of dissidents go missing across the region. But today's disappearances, largely apolitical, terrorize civil society.

Some of Mexico's disappeared are believed to have been kidnapped by drug traffickers settling scores or beefing up their ranks. Others report that their relatives were last seen in the hands of officials, or at least by those posing in uniform. Often lines are blurry, as many authorities, particularly at the municipal level, have ties to organized crime.

“Within this context of generalized violence, one of the dramas we are living is the problem of disappearances,” says Blanca Martinez, the director of the Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios in Coahuila who has organized families looking for the missing. “We are living a humanitarian tragedy whose ends we do not know.”

Trying to put a number on how many Mexicans have disappeared among a death toll of some 40,000 in the nearly five years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent the military to fight organized crime is a dizzying affair.

The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico estimated in April that they have received 5,397 reports of missing people since December 2006. Many groups do not specify, or even know, whether the disappearances are enforced by corrupt officials or are the work of criminals. Some numbers include migrants who are missing, while others deal specifically with Mexicans.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, visiting the country in March, said in a report that among the most vulnerable in Mexico today are migrants. The National Human Rights Commission said 11,000 migrants had been kidnapped in a six-month period in 2010 alone. Javier Sicilia, a renowned poet who is leading a social movement against President Calderon’s strategy after his son was found tortured and killed this spring, calls it a Holocaust playing out on Mexican soil.

Swells of Mexicans have gone missing, too. Ms. Martinez works with 190 families whose members have been missing since 2007. She says the vast majority are men, and that most of them were traveling at the time of their disappearances. One group of 12 men who sell house paint door-to-door, state-by-state, went missing in northern Mexico in 2009.

And the families of the missing often receive little if any support from local, state, and federal authorities. Most feel they are on their own. Many of those that Martinez works with hold out hope that the missing are still alive, perhaps forced to work for drug gangs cultivating marijuana or as henchmen. So they continue searching, gathering information where they can.

Some families are now pressing the government for an emergency national search. Nik Steinberg, Mexico expert at Human Rights Watch, says the government should also create a database to coordinate investigations between state and federal entities. As long as cases remain unsolved, he says, impunity will reign and more disappearances will occur.

Behind government's inaction

Part of the inaction in solving crimes is a prejudice that all victims are wrapped up in organized crime. "Authorities have a reflex reaction with cases of disappearances that these were all 'levantones,' perpetrated by organized crime against other members of organized crime," he says.

President Calderón, in his recent state address, announced the creation of an office for victims' assistance, after emphasizing for years that most of those counted in the death toll have criminal ties.

Activists are also trying to draw attention to the role that the state is playing in disappearances. Human Rights Watch, for example, documented over a dozen enforced disappearances in Nuevo Leon since 2007, in which the group says evidence points to the involvement of the Army, Navy, and police. In the case of bodies found in mass graves in Tamaulipas, nearly 20 municipal police officers were arrested for covering for the drug gang blamed for the mass killings.

Regardless of who is behind killings and what the motives are, the families of the missing are unable to mourn or have closure, says Julio Mata Montiel, president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained, Disappeared, and Victims of Human Rights Violations in Mexico. His group counts 4,000 missing since the beginning of the Calderon administration, and he blames authorities for many of them. He says he believes today’s violence is more damaging to the social fabric than Mexico's "dirty war" because it is not just directed at dissidents but society at large.

"They cannot bury their family member," he said. "They [deal with] uncertainty, not knowing if he is cold or warm, is alive or dead, if he is out there somewhere."

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