It was a typical Sunday in downtown Mexico City. The main streets were closed to car traffic; thousands of bicyclists filled the streets of Reforma Ave.; and families were enjoying their Sunday stroll. One block away from this pastoral scene, 12 young people were kidnapped from an after-hours club.
Since then, more than a month has passed, and little is known about those young people's whereabouts.
Tragically, the only thing atypical about this situation is that it happened in Mexico City as opposed to Ciudad Juarez, or Tamaulipas or Guerrero, where events like this are all too common. Over the past six years, it is estimated that more than 26,000 people have been disappeared, and the government has done little to investigate these cases.
As is the case with these youths, people's mere disappearance is sufficient evidence for the media to declare them guilty, responsible for their own kidnapping and possible death. Since these kidnappings are often carried out by organized crime groups, the media implies that those kidnapped are connected to those carrying out these violent acts. Also typical of the majority of the violence and disappearances that have ravaged Mexico over the past 6 years, the government has failed to do a thorough investigation. Instead, the government has responded with heavy-handed security tactics, whereby they deploy more police and military agents to "control" the situation.
Rising Disappearances and Prevailing Impunity:
Amnesty International recently released a report, "Confronting a Nightmare: Disappearances in Mexico," on the recent rise of kidnappings in Mexico.
The report includes the testimonies of various families who have had loved ones disappear. The 26,000 disappearances that have been documented over the past 6 years largely involve men between the ages of 17 and 50. Most were conducting routine activities, travelling to work or home, and then, mysteriously, did not come back.
Amnesty International analyzed the possible causes of the abductions and found "ransom, extortion, robbery, mistaken identity, inter-gang retaliation, reprisal for failing to cooperate with gangs, forced recruitment into gangs, people trafficking, the interrogation of suspects and the detention of anyone believed to have links to criminal gangs, and terrorizing communities to control neighborhoods," as the principal motives.
While the circumstances, locations and ages of victims differ, there is a common thread of government inaction. Families recounted being turned away by government authorities who attempted to blame the families for being involved in criminal activities or for not sufficiently searching for their own family members. No criminal investigation has been opened into over 40 percent of the 26,000 cases.
Many testimonies implicated not just the ineptitude of security forces, but their outright involvement in numerous kidnappings. People commonly recounted that the last time that their family members were seen, they were in the custody of police or military forces. While there is strong evidence of the involvement of municipal, state and federal authorities in the disappearances, there have only been two recorded convictions since 2006.
Human Rights Watch recently released a report that specifically documents 250 “enforced disappearances”- a label that signifies that government officials were involved explicitly or implicitly in the kidnapping. The report states that there is concrete evidence in at least 149 of these cases that government agents were involved and a high probability in the remaining cases. The fact that these agents, many of whom are working in cahoots with organized crime, are never prosecuted, allows them to repeatedly commit the same crimes.
Legacy of “Dirty War” and Political Disappearances
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Mexican government responded to emerging leftist student and guerilla movements with brutal repression. One week before the 1968 Olympics were to take place in Mexico City, the government opened fire on student activists, with snipers firing from apartment buildings in the Tlatlelolco neighborhood of Mexico City. It is estimated that hundreds of people were killed, although there is no official statistic. Three years later, on June 10, 1971, an urban paramilitary group, Los Halcones, attacked a student march and killed more than 120 activists - while police stood by without intervening.
These two government-sponsored massacres provided the motivating impulse for the creation of armed guerilla groups throughout the country - but largely concentrated in the rural and largely indigenous southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The Party of the Poor was one of the most prevalent and eventually joined with other groups to evolve into the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR).
With the emergence and popularization of these armed resistance groups, the government began increasing its military presence throughout the regions. It is estimated that at the height of the dirty war, between 350 and 600 people were forcefully disappeared by military personnel.
Many of those disappeared never had access to trials to determine whether or not they were guilty of involvement in the guerrilla movement.
The disappearances of alleged guerrillas did not conclude with the end of the Dirty War in the 1980’s. The last week of May 2013 marked the 6th anniversary of the disappearance of Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sánchez in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. These two men were alleged to be members of the guerilla group EPR and were last seen detained by military forces. For each of the six years since, civil associations and activist organizations have organized a week of action to demand clarity around this case and thousands of others of cases of people disappeared for both political and nonpolitical reasons.
Organizers also held a People’s Permanent Tribunal at the Autonomous University of the City of Mexico to document cases of forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions in Mexico. This kind of tribunal emerged out of an international gathering in Algiers in 1976 and has functioned as a forum for communities to document human rights violations when the government refuses to do so.
The group Committee of the Disappeared in Guerrero presented numerous cases at the May 2013 tribunal involving the disappearance of a group of youth from a nightclub and the disappearance of a police officer. Years had passed since these disappearances and the committee said they had seen few advances. The ineptitude and disinterest of the state government propelled them to travel all the way to Mexico City to present these cases.
"In six years, there have been no investigations. We have had dialogues with the state government and our governor, and they have just responded criminalizing us. We cannot resolve anything more with the state government, and that is why we have brought the cases to the federal level," said Isabel Morales, a member of the committee, in an interview with Truthout.
In a pre-audience forum held for this tribunal in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, international judges from Argentina, Australia, France and Spain classified the rampant disappearances and prevailing government impunity as state-sponsored terrorism.
"We understand that this policy has been planned and implemented in order to combat by illegal means social struggles and paralyze or destroy the political or ideological opposition and/or annihilate the armed opposition in order to justify suspension of constitutional guarantees, the establishment of a state of emergency and the violation of human rights," the judges stated.
The judges also likened what is happening in modern day Mexico to state repression that occurred in the '70s and '80s in Chile and Argentina and other dictatorships in South America. However, they stated that in South America there was a very clear objective to disappear political militants, whereas in Mexico, people from all sectors of society from young female factory workers to Central American migrants are the victims.
Another case that was presented at the tribunal was that of Teodulfo Torres. Torres had been a longtime activist aligned with the Zapatista movement and was a key witness to a police-launched projectile that severely injured protester Kuy Kuykendall. His friends, family and local activists have been demanding that the government investigate his disappearance and also question what role the government might have played. As of now the only information his loved ones have is that one day Torres didn’t show up to work, nor to the greenhouse project he volunteered with. His friends searched for him at hospitals and morgues throughout the city but with no results.
"Why do we say it is a enforced disappearance? Forced disappearances have certain characteristics that they are carried out by the authorities or with the complicity of the authorities," explained Adrian, who is a member of the activist committee Monseñor Romero (who didn’t want to give last name for security concerns) in an interview with Truthout. He added, "In the case of Teodulfo, he is the principal witness to the violence against Kuykendall. The only people who would be interested in his disappearance would be the state."
Activists Disappeared and Murdered in Guerrero
As the week of actions against forced disappearances was taking place, eight political activists in Guerrero disappeared. They were last seen coordinating a protest they organized to demand fertilizer for the growing season. Their whereabouts was unknown for a week - until four of the men were able to escape and report that the other men had been assassinated. Few details have emerged about the case, but the activists are placing the blame on the government, due to an altercation between police and the activists shortly before their disappearance.
The Guerrero-based Human Rights organization Tlachinollan has been investigating threats and violence that human rights defenders have faced in their state. According to the organization's director Abel Barrera, the "War on Drugs" has not just led to the disappearances of those involved with organized crime, but also to the disappearances of community activists.
"This is very serious, it has generated an indignation in the state of Guerrero and on a national level for the manner in which they were disappeared, tortured and executed," said Barrera, in a conversation with Truthout. The community activists who were able to escape are now in hiding in protection of their own lives. "Here we say that this is a situation where impunity reigns, and they don't punish the people who commit grave offenses against the lives and physical integrity of people," adds Barrera.
Bursting the Bubble of Security in Mexico City
Ten years ago, Mexico City was considered one of the most dangerous places in the country, with high rates of aggravated robbery and murder. Over the past six years, the statistics have flipped, and this capital city has emerged to be one of the safest places in a country ravaged by the war on drugs.
On May 26, 2013, the mass kidnapping of 12 young people in broad daylight in a tourist zone, heavily patrolled by police, burst the bubble of a secure city. These youth disappeared on a Sunday, but the story didn’t even hit the press until 3 days later, when their mothers blocked a major road demanding an investigation. The Zona Rosa, the neighborhood in which they were last seen, is full of security cameras. Even though the mothers immediately complained to the government about their missing children, security agents only started reviewing the footage of the cameras when the case hit the newsstands. The cameras revealed 3 large SUV’s leaving the area heading to the north of the city, but failed to capture any more information.
"In the US they issue an amber alert; they track down the license plates; they mobilize to actually find the people,” said Miguel Trujillo, who has been mobilizing against disappearances following the disappearance of his 4 brothers in the state of Michoacan. "Here, you can say the last time I saw them was here, they were in this vehicle with this license plate and recount more details, and the government doesn’t do anything," adds Trujillo.
Human Rights Watch documented that the government rarely tracks victims' cellphone usage or bank transactions and often fails to obtain surveillance camera footage before it is deleted.
Over a week after the 12 youth were disappeared, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Mancera had claimed that there was no evidence that the youth had even visited the bar - even though camera footage proved their arrival in taxis. The government said they would investigate their cellphones to see if they had GPS, but no news has emerged since they made this statement. They did deploy hundreds of extra police to the area, conduct searches and close down some of the other after-hours bars. The owners of the Heaven were arrested, and the local was closed down, but the youth have yet to appear, dead or alive. Information recently emerged that Heaven had been closed down two years ago when another person was disappeared, and his whereabouts are still unknown to this date. It was later illegally reopened without government permission.
The majority of these youth are from Tepito, a working class neighborhood with one of the largest outdoor markets in the city, with goods ranging from clothing to pirated music and movies to weapons and drugs. Known as the "Barrio Bravo" or Brave Neighborhood, their geographical origin served as a pretext for justifying their kidnapping. The youngest boy, Jerzy Ortiz Ponce, who is 16, is the son of a man incarcerated for drug trafficking, but family members maintained that he has little to do with his father, who has been locked away for more than half the boy's life.
Amnesty International’s report states that criminal connections should not translate into the denial of a family's right to know what happened to their loved ones:
"Some victims may have had criminal connections, but even if this is proved after a full investigation, it does not remove the state’s obligation to conduct a full investigation to establish their whereabouts and to ensure the rights of the relatives to know the truth."
Maria Herrera, mother of Miguel Trujillo, whose four brothers were disappeared, said that the families not only suffer from the disappearance of their loved ones, but also from the social stigma they face.
"We live with pain from the moment in which our children don’t arrive home and we start a never-ending search. It is very cruel that both the society and government further criminalize us and start talking about what they [our children] did or did not do. The important thing is that they look for them, and when they have them in front of them, they can judge them according to the law."
The Trujillo-Herrera family has been accompanying the families of 5 other young people who were also recently disappeared from a nightclub in Mexico City. The disappearance of these 5 youth happened a month before the infamous Heaven case, but barely hit the press until the government of Mexico City was under the spotlight for security breaches.
According to the Trujillo-Herrera family, the young men's parents immediately went to CAPEA, the government Attention Center for Lost and Absent people, who paid little attention to the families. CAPEA employees refused to review the security camera footage and responded to the mothers that their sons were criminals or were gay, and therefore it didn’t matter what happened to them.
This kind of government behavior has also been documented by the United Nations: "The chronic pattern of impunity still exists in cases of enforced disappearance, and sufficient efforts are not being made to determine the fate or whereabouts of persons who have disappeared, to punish those responsible and to guarantee the right to the truth and reparation."
Government Units Make Slow Advancements
In his campaign promises, new Mexican President Peña-Nieto promised that he would change the security strategy of the country that had clearly failed during the six-year term of Felipe Calderon. Yet disappearances, assassinations and extortions continue to rule the country. He has recently felt the heat concerning disappearances in international denunciations.
On a recent visit to London, President Peña-Nieto was asked what he would say to the father or mother of a disappeared person. He responded, in an interview with BBC, "Clearly I would say that my government is committed to conduct an exhaustive investigation with the new specialized division that will search and find the whereabouts of the people who have tragically been disappeared." He referenced the creation of the Unit to Searching Persons. Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam in a press conference announcing the Unit’s creation said family members of the disappeared have had to confront too much government bureaucracy on top of their suffering. He added that this unit would "destroy the bureaucratic maze."
The government also recently passed a victim’s law which will allow federal authorities to dedicate more resources to helping family members search for their loved ones. This law came out of demands from the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity that united victims of the War on Drugs to demand a change in former president Calderon’s security strategy.
Civil society groups have recognized that these are steps in the right direction, but also acknowledge many people's reluctance to trust the government due to the vast number of enforced disappearances.
These days it is near impossible to enter a Facebook account in Mexico without seeing missing posters flashing across your wall. On one hand it seems as though the situation has become normalized and that society has accepted that disappearances are just a normal consequence of the drug war. Then you take to the streets and see that people are refusing to let their loved ones be forgotten and see they will not stop marching, holding photos of the disappeared, until they get answers. Teresa Vera Alvarado has been searching for answers for years concerning the disappearance of her sister in Oaxaca and begs all members of society to come through. Speaking with Truthout, she stated, "This is a crisis that we are facing, and we can’t go it alone. We ask you to sympathize with us and join us."