‘Dirty War’ Tactic of Disappearances Reappears in Mexico

The War on Drugs is becoming another “Dirty War” in Mexico, with the tactic of enforced disappearances reappearing as a commonplace occurrence in the country.

“Enforced disappearances in Mexico have happened in the past and continue to happen today,” the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances stated during a presentation of its findings in March.

The UN Group noted that during the country’s first “Dirty War”, which lasted from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, enforced disappearances was a systematic State practice used against students, indigenous peoples, peasants, activists and anyone suspected of being a critic or opponent of the government.

“While the Cold War provided the pretext to disappear social movement actors and people opposed to regimes, the War on Drugs again provides pretexts to disappear people opposed to government policies,” said Stuart Schussler, the Mexico Solidarity Network’s International Solidarity Coordinator. “When you disappear people it’s a crime against the whole community and an assault on its social fabric. As a result, people become afraid to speak up and to organize.”

Now that this practice has reappeared in the country’s latest conflict, the UN notes that the cases of disappearances share the same patterns of widespread impunity, secrecy and lack of reparations and justice for the victims as in the past.

“The refusal of the authorities to recognize the true dimensions of this phenomenon and the involvement of public officials in these crimes – whether by commission, omission, or collusion with organized crime groups – has enabled this crime to spread to many parts of the country,” Amnesty International stated in response to the UN’s findings.

Since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military to combat narco-trafficking in December 2006, over 50,000 people have been murdered—more than the death toll for the 11-year war in Afghanistan. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, between 2006 and April 2011, 5,937 people have been reported lost or missing, while 8,898 murdered people remain unidentified. Much of this violence, which has been carried out by the Mexican government, military, and police, has been subsidized by U.S. taxpayers though the Merida Initiative, a counter-narcotics policy modeled after Plan Colombia, which provides Mexico with $1.6 billion in aid that is supposed to have human rights requirements.

“Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The UN Group noted that groups targeted include women, migrant workers, human rights defenders and journalists. It also noted that although drug cartels are responsible for these acts, it received “detailed documentation” that public authorities and military personnel are believed to be responsible for numerous cases.

HRW published a report in November 2011 which supports these charges. The report documented 39 cases of disappearances where evidence “strongly suggests” government involvement. It states: “The cases follow a pattern: victims are arbitrarily detained by soldiers or police, their detentions never officially registered, and they are not handed over to prosecutors. In the immediate aftermath of such detentions, victims’ relatives routinely seek information from security forces and justice officials, who deny having the victims in their custody.”

This lawlessness and failure to investigate and prosecute crimes was of great concern to the UN. In fact, 24 states in Mexico have not even criminalized the offense, while “less than 25 per cent of offenses are reported and only 2 per cent result in conviction.”

“The victims of enforced disappearances have no faith in the justice system, prosecution services, the police or Armed Forces. 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,” the UN Group’s report stated. “It would seem that Mexico is unwilling or unable to conduct effective investigations into cases of enforced disappearance.”

HRW’s Vivanco added that this leaves victims’ families with the burden of searching for their loved ones. The UN also noted that the government has also consistently dismissed the crimes by suggesting that the victims were involved in illicit activities, much like how the victims of Cold War state terror in the region were often labeled communists.

Mothers from across Mexico marched to the nation’s capital this past Mother’s Day on behalf of their loved ones who have been disappeared to demand justice.

“For some it has been years, for others months or days, of walking alone, of clamoring in the desert of the hallways of indolent and irresponsible authorities, many of them directly responsible for (disappearances) or complicit with those who took (loved ones) away,” the mothers’ group said in a communiqué.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.