Mexico state security officials collaborated in civilian abductions: Human Rights Watch

According to Human Rights Watch, police and soldiers played roles in 'disappearing' nearly 150 people amid Mexico's drug war. Tens of thousands have gone missing over the past six years. 

Tomas Bravo/REUTERS
Photographs of young men allegedly abducted by Mexican soldiers are seen at a desk in Iguala, in the Mexican state of Guerrero February 20, 2013.

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The very government and security forces meant to protect Mexicans from the violence that has overwhelmed the country during its drug war played a role in the disappearance of nearly 150 people over a six-year period, with little or no investigation into the cases, Human Rights Watch announced yesterday.

The new report, entitled “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” documents some 249 cases of disappearances between December 2006 and 2012, with 149 providing “compelling evidence” that state security officials were involved. The involvement is not limited to Mexico’s notoriously corrupt local police, but includes evidence of participation by members of all security branches, including the Army, federal and local police, and the oft-lauded Navy.

In more than 60 cases, the human rights group found proof of collaboration between state agents and crime syndicates. One example cited in the report was the case of 19 construction workers “arbitrarily” taken into police custody in May 2011, only to be handed over to an organized crime group. The men have not been seen since then, and Human Rights Watch postulates in cases like this security forces and crime groups work together to disappear citizens in order to extort their families.

But the 249 cases investigated in the report do not represent the entirety of Mexico’s population that has gone missing over the past six years.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said in late 2012 that thousands of people were disappeared during President Felipe Calderón’s six-year term in office.

This week, a senior government official placed the number of disappeared in Mexico at 27,000. Human Rights Watch, however, finds the government’s tally incomplete, reports The New York Times. “Among other problems, the list fails to distinguish how many were eventually found or how many people left by choice,” though it is a good indicator of the scale of the problem, The NY Times notes.

"President Peña Nieto has inherited one of the worst crises of disappearances in the history of Latin America," said José Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. Countries like Argentina, which is still dealing with the repercussions of the state’s role in the disappearance of citizens during its military dictatorship that ended in 1983, illustrate the long-term implications of such activity.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, President Calderón, who left office in December, attempted to fight organized crime head on, with often deadly results. An estimated 70,000 people died in Mexico since 2006.

President Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), made fighting drug cartels the cornerstone of his administration – a calculation he made clear by donning Army fatigues and telling the nation he meant business in January 2007, just a month after taking office. While Mexicans largely hailed this courageous move to send thousands of military personnel to root out organized crime from urban pockets and tiny pueblos alike, they quickly wearied from the unthinkable slaughter and its impact on society.

Human Rights Watch has called on the new administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, which began in December 2012, to account for those who are missing. It recommended reforming the military justice system and creating a national database that could link the missing with the thousands of bodies that have been left unidentified during Mexico’s drug-war violence.

The Wall Street Journal reports that President Peña Nieto has taken some steps to change the nature of fighting crimes since taking office.

… Mr. Peña Nieto has folded the ministry that used to be in charge of the Federal Police into the Interior Ministry. Mr. Peña Nieto also has plans to form a 10,000-strong militarized police force, called a Gendarmerie, similar Spain's Guardia Civil or France's National Gendarmerie to patrol rural areas.

A separate Christian Science Monitor story notes that although Peña Nieto hasn’t backed away from using the military to fight crime, his administration has “promised a more multi-faceted approach.”

A Human Rights Watch delegation presented copies of its report to representatives of the current administration, which responded by saying it is “working to prevent disappearances and improve search methods,” reports the LA Times.

But Nik Steinberg, an author of the report, said, "As positive as that is, none of this can work until the government starts to do what the previous government never did and determines who is responsible and brings them to justice.”

Investigating crimes and bringing justice to victims is an ongoing challenge in Mexico. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the Mexican justice system has the capacity to pursue some 4,000 cases of homicide each year.  But given the ongoing drug war, homicides have gone up to close to 25,000 annually, overwhelming the justice system and its resources to try all types of crimes.  

President Peña Nieto has also taken steps to address the needs of victims through legislation such as The General Law of Victims, which passed this year after stalling under Calderón’s administration. According to The Monitor:

To start, the law makes “victim” a legally recognized entity. It provides for a victim’s right to respectful treatment, a full investigation of the crime, and the awarding of damages whenever possible.

The law also demands the creation of a new National System of Attention to Victims to aid victims in various capacities, a national victims’ registry, and a fund to dole out reparations – ostensibly to be paid for with cash and property seized from criminals.

Critics, including other victims' groups, say the law is flawed. In a statement, the victims’ advocate group Mexico S.O.S. highlighted what it sees as the law’s failings. For one thing, the group says, it only covers victims of federal crimes, not state and local crimes. And it creates a scheme in which the state must pay out damages caused by a criminal. What's more, they argue that the law defines “victim” in terms that are unnecessarily sweeping and vague. 

Peña Nieto conceded the law “still needs to be improved” and has asked lawmakers to work up reforms.

Reuters reports that family members of some of the disappeared "have asked for soldiers guilty of rights abuses to be judged like civilians." Mexico’s Supreme Court has approved such measures.

"To us it just seems that the military is untouchable," Laura Orozco, who says she witnessed her brother's military-led abduction, told Reuters. "They're bulletproof."

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