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Searching for Mexico's disappeared: One mother's journey

At least 60,000 people were killed in Mexico between 2006 and 2012 and tens of thousands more disappeared. But the burden of proof is on the family of the missing, who are stuck battling an unprepared and often intransigent bureaucracy as they try to find answers.

By , Contributor

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    Women held posters and photographs of their missing relatives during an event to commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Saltillo, in the Mexican state of Coahuila, Aug. 30, 2013.
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Since the day in 2009 when Luis Angel Leon Rodriguez, a federal police officer, disappeared, his mother has searched for any clues that could reunite her with her son – or at the very least, his remains.

Araceli Rodriguez has been thrown out of the Mexico City police station where her son once worked. She’s received threatening phone calls and menacing letters; she's battled reports calling her son a deserter. She’s traveled around the country seeking interviews with judges, local politicians, and convicted prisoners, looking for anyone able to shed new light on what happened to him. 

“Of course I am afraid,” says Ms. Rodriguez, a soft-spoken woman with steel-blue eyes. She travels with a bodyguard now, but says it’s not the threats that keep her up at night. “I am more afraid of not knowing what happened to my son.”

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Her inability to get the information she is pursuing so tenaciously has ramifications far beyond her own peace of mind.

While drug-related violence – the kind that may have led to Luis Angel's disappearance – has plagued Mexico for decades, the killings spiked after former President Felipe Calderón tasked a militarized police with fighting narcotraffickers in 2006. At least 60,000 people were killed during his six-year term. An additional 26,000 or more Mexicans disappeared in that same time frame, apparent casualties of Mexico’s drug war. 

At the same time, Mexico has garnered international attention for its growing economic promise. The government recently passed far-reaching reforms of its banking, telecommunications, and energy sectors. Lawmakers spent the summer putting the finishing touches on legislation, recently signed into law by President Enrique Peña Nieto, that they estimate could bring in as much as $30 billion a year in investment in Mexico’s oil and gas fields. 

Yet some of these same investment sites are in areas hardest hit by the violence and disappearances, highlighting that the government’s inability to address these crimes not only has a huge social cost, but could also curtail hopes of future economic growth. Investors say Mexico’s lack of “rule of law,” meaning control and transparency in its courts and contracts, will be its biggest hurdle in attracting overseas investment.

On a very human level, this legal weakness is devastating for families like Rodriguez’s. It manifests itself in the bureaucratic obstacles and battles families face in trying to find out even the most basic information about disappeared relatives.

“People think twice or thrice before going out to the authorities, because they assume that there is collaboration between authorities and criminals, or they may feel [threatened] if they go and try to file a case,” says Juan Salgado, an associate professor of judicial studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Disappearances in Mexico are highly underreported as a crime.”

How it began

Rodriguez’s story began in November 2009, when her son and six colleagues were assigned to assist the Ministry of Public Safety. Normal precautions for the mission weren’t followed: The officers traveled in an unarmored car and had no backup security. In a state like Michoacán, which is plagued by drug cartel violence, this was particularly unusual.

When her son’s driver – a family friend – didn’t return home as planned, Rodriguez immediately suspected foul play. She recalled her son telling her just days before his departure that his commanding officer had threatened him, saying Luis Angel would never make it to Michoacán. 

Hoping it was the confidential nature of her son’s assignment that kept him out of touch, Rodriguez waited six days before showing up at police headquarters.

Her decision to report her son’s disappearance isn’t one every family in her position would make. 

When the number of disappearances began escalating in the mid-2000s, former President Calderón’s administration tried to portray them as individual events, often implying victims must have been involved in illegal activities. When President Peña Nieto took office in 2013, his administration was initially quick to acknowledge that the scope of the problem is much bigger. For the first time,  in 2013, he made public an online database listing more than 26,000 disappearances in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. However, his administration has been much slower to update the list, and has since argued that many of those counted have since been found. Meanwhile, key identifying data that could establish patterns is still absent from the database.

Independent researchers and human rights groups have expressed concern about the accuracy of the government’s list, noting that even some high-profile cases have not been included. They say the number could be as high as 45,000 people, given the strong disincentives to report a disappearance.

Little information, lots of resistance

At the police station, Rodriguez’s fears were confirmed by the lack of interest expressed by her son’s colleagues. When she began demanding answers, she was physically pulled out of the building by three female officers. They told her to come back in 15 days.

“Why should 15 days have to pass before anything can be done? I told them his body would be stiff by then,” Rodriguez says.

In the days that followed, the police gave her little information. They made it difficult for her to register her son as a missing person, saying he was probably off on a drinking spree.

A month later, she received photos. Her son, the other officers, and the driver were pictured tied up to a tree: beaten, but still alive. The envelope was signed by the Zetas, one of the most ruthless drug cartels in Mexico. Members had been arrested for other crimes and confessed to executing Rodriguez’s son.

But there was no physical evidence of his death, and the confessions were contradictory and inconsistent. That, combined with the puzzling behavior at the police department, made Rodriguez even more determined to keep pushing for information. 

She staged a three-month sit-in at the police department to pressure authorities to continue searching. To this day, the state and federal governments have provided no information on why the officers were sent to Michoacán.

Lack of funding vs. darker motives

Despite the tens of thousands of disappeared people in Mexico, the burden of proving a disappearance is left to family members, who battle a system that often feels designed to silence them.

Some say that the neglect is the result of an over extended bureaucracy with insufficient resources.

“Peña Nieto has a lot of interest in the issue of the disappeared if you compare him with the last president,” says Julio Hernandez, one of the commissioners of the recently established Executive Commission for Victims’ Rights and former victims’ rights advocate.  “I think there is some interest on the part of the government to make things better, but the problem is huge. I don’t think we have any other problem that is bigger in Mexico than the violence and the security – but there is never going to be enough money for these problems.”

Others argue that darker motives play a role.

“Sometimes it is the sheer inefficiency of a bureaucracy not prepared to do its job,” Mr. Salgado says. “And sometimes, it is because government officials are collaborating with organized criminals.”

Even after a new law went into effect in February 2013 to provide relatives of the disappeared with legal resources, there are still less than a hundred special investigators for the more than 70,000 cases that have stacked up in the past six years, according to government officials. Even if a family is lucky enough to find a perpetrator and see him or her tried, only about 2 percent of cases in Mexico are successfully prosecuted, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Investigators often fail to take basic steps like interviewing witnesses, tracing cellphones, or looking for surveillance-camera footage, the New York-based organization reports.

Under international law, obstructing investigations or behaving negligently is seen as a form of collusion, Salgado says, noting that “the Mexican government [is] in a bad standing regarding its human rights obligations.” 

“The Mexican government needs a ... way to recognize that things have been done incorrectly, and to prove to the community that if legal officials are not able to perform their investigative task properly, they will be thrown out,” says Salgado.

‘Small victories’

Human rights groups say families have won small victories: In 2012, Peña Nieto signed the General Law on Victims – previously vetoed by Calderón. The law offers relatives of those murdered or disappeared special access to attorneys to pursue their cases and apply for compensation.

“Most prosecutors used to wait three days to start a missing person’s search, but we have learned that the first 72 hours are the most important in finding people,” Mr. Hernandez says.

The assistance, when it is available, is vital, relatives of the missing say. For Rodriguez, the flow of paperwork has been demanding, requiring diligent oversight to make sure key documents are not filled out incorrectly, such as one that previously characterized her son and the other officers as willful deserters. A miscategorization can cut off possible death benefits for a family, such as the right to a deceased’s pension.

Like the many others in her situation, Rodriguez has also endured false hope. Government officials once told her that her son’s remains were located. She later learned it was not her son’s body.

Such stories are common among families of the disappeared. More than 7,000 unidentified bodies – killed between 2006 and 2012 – currently lay in Mexican morgues and public graves, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

“The majority of people never get a body returned to them, despite all their efforts,” says Zara Snapp, the advocacy director for the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, which has worked with relatives of the missing to promote better laws and to build support networks. “There isn't the capacity to do comprehensive autopsies in Mexico and there is no DNA bank for victims of disappearances.”

Ongoing loss

Support networks are key. And they are growing across the country, as relatives reach out for much-needed help from those who share their plight.

“You lose your friends and family,” while searching for your lost loved one, says Rodriguez. She’s lost her job as a receptionist and her common-law husband left her. Her other son was fired from his job as well: His employers feared a possible connection to drug cartels, given his brother’s disappearance.

Family members complain that now it is Rodriguez who has been “kidnapped.” She’s so obsessed with this case, it’s like she no longer lives her own life.

“I know I am putting my life at risk, but every time they detain someone connected to this case, I go and talk to the judges,” Rodriguez says. “I know he is dead, but I still don’t really know where he is.”

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