Mexico’s Disappeared: An Urgent International Matter

Although forced disappearance in Mexico is a burning national question, its ramifications extend across borders as well. In Central America and the United States, relatives of persons disappeared in Mexico struggle to find out any inkling of the truth from afar, often with no or limited resources.

Carlos Spector, an attorney in the Texas border city of El Paso who represents refugees seeking political asylum and the organization Mexicans in Exile, posed a question at a recent conference held at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ) on forced disappearance in Mexico:  “What can we do in Houston, L.A., San Antonio?“ Functionally, forced displacement and disappearance is “an escape valve for the Mexican government,” Spector contended, “to disappear (people) in the Sierra or exile them.”

But even as human rights violations don’t respect political boundaries, cross-border collaborations dedicated to locating people disappeared in Mexico are gaining traction.

Also addressing the UACJ conference co-sponsored by several Juarez universities and Mexican human rights organizations, Michael Chamberlin detailed the efforts of his advocacy organization, the Fray Juan de Larios Center, together with  relatives of disappeared persons in the northern Mexican border state of Coahuila, to locate the whereabouts of at least 1,791 missing persons from the state and identify 458 recovered bodies, plus numerous bone fragments that have been collected during family and government searches of suspected clandestine graveyards where murder victims were dumped.

Given Coahuila’s location on the hemispheric migrant route to the U.S., Chamberlin predicted that many of the unidentified bodies or remains will turn out to belong to migrants. Conversely, Chamberlin touched on the possibility that some of Coahuila’s own disappeared met a fate somewhere else. Accordingly, Chamberlin said his group was in the process of reaching an accord with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) to identify remains found as far away as Arizona and Texas, “because we know that not all the disappeared from Coahuila could’ve ended up in Coahuila.”

Renowned internationally for its skill in identifying remains in challenging situations, the EAAF has played an indispensable role in recent years in several high profile cases in Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region, including the Ciudad Juarez femicides, the massive disappearance and violent deaths of migrants and the ongoing drama over the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in 2014.

In another instance of transnational collaboration, Central American relatives of missing migrants joined with families of disappeared Mexicans last August in searching Coahuila’s jails.  Based in Mexico City, the Foundation for Justice is currently working on the cases of Central Americans presumably gone missing in Mexico.

Until now, getting official action in Mexico has been very difficult, said Foundation for Justice Executive Director Ana Lorena Delgadillo. A denunciation from a Central American family must go through diplomatic channels from the home country to Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, which should then refer the complaint to Mexican prosecutors but instead typically winds up in “limbo,” Delgadillo said.

In interviews with FNS, the human rights attorney said she wasn’t aware until now of families who knew about investigations happening after filing such complaints. To speed up investigations, the Foundation for Justice is working with committees of relatives in the Transnational Justice Mechanism, a new initiative  that kicked off in earnest September 28, when 19 cases of missing persons from Honduras, including some who vanished ten years or so ago, were presented directly to Mexican officials in the Central American nation.

“They are few in relation to the number of (missing persons) cases denounced in Honduras,” Delgadillo stressed, adding that the Justice Foundation has a registry of 350 persons, while relatives know of about 500 cases solely in the city of Progreso.

Though different representatives of the Mexican government participated in the September 28 meeting, the PGR will remain the principal authority responsible for investigating the whereabouts of persons vanished in Mexico, according to Delgadillo.

“It was a good exercise for the families because it was the first time their complaints were addressed,” Delgadillo said. Concretely, the Honduran families are petitioning the Mexican government to investigate their cases, conduct searches and check DNA data bases, she said.

In Delgadillo’s opinion, one shortcoming of the Honduras meeting was the absence of Mexico’s Executive Commission for Victim Assistance, a federal agency established after the 2011 Caravan for Peace with Justice that traveled across Mexico put the issue of the disappeared and drug war victims on the national political agenda.  On the other hand, the presence of a representative of the United Nations gave the encounter “international scrutiny,” Delgadillo added.

The assistance requested by the Honduran migrants is codified in official Mexican policy. Last December, Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez Gonzalez signed off an agreement published in Mexico’s federal register that establishes a specialized unit of the PGR to investigate crimes against migrants and formally recognizes a responsibility for searching and investigating disappearances reported in Mexico from the exterior.

Based on recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations, as well as Mexican and international law, the new policy commits Mexico to cooperating with other nations in establishing international DNA data bases, guaranteeing access to justice for interested parties outside Mexico searching for a disappeared person in the country, and providing adequate funding for all the necessary work.

The agreement applies to documented and undocumented immigrants, migratory workers and refugees. In foreign countries, the PGR representative of the Mexican diplomatic corps will be the point of contact for complaints pursued by relatives.

IACHR President James Cavallaro praised the new policy earlier this year as a step forward in institutionalizing a response to human rights violations committed against migrants and their families. Cavallaro urged Mexico “to continue adopting all the necessary measures so these institutions are more efficient, and for especially the states of the Northern Triangle of Central American and the United States to establish mechanisms of coordination with these institutions.”

Almost ten months after Attorney General Gomez officially rolled out the new PGR unit and disappeared persons policy, Honduras stands as a test case. For Delgadillo, grassroots activism has been critical in thrusting hemispheric migrant issues to the forefront. Similar to the Caravan for Peace with Justice initiated by poet Javier Sicilia, the yearly caravans of Central American mothers searching Mexico for any signs of their loved ones have put names, faces and human stories in the public eye.

“The caravans have been fundamental in making visible the great necessity that families of the region have,” Delgadillo said.   Ultimately, the mass expulsion of Central Americans, and the role of a restrictive U.S. immigration policy in turning a flight for life into a dance with death, owe to socio-economic and political factors such as the 2009 Honduran coup, she continued.

“We’re talking about forced displacement. Many families leave not because they want to but they have to survive. The countries of the region share the same histories of weak institutions and governmental corruption,” Delgadillo said.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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