Mexico said Wednesday that it had records of more than 27,000 cases of “disappeared people” that it would make public soon in an effort to clarify the circumstances under which they vanished.
Lia Limon, the country’s deputy interior secretary for human rights, acknowledged the cases hours after Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report that called Mexico the Western Hemisphere’s hot spot for “enforced disappearances,” in which police or the military arrest citizens who are never seen again.
The advocacy group said it had documented 149 cases throughout the country in which witnesses saw police or soldiers take someone into custody only to have the person vanish without a trace. But the group said the number of people who’d disappeared since 2006 was enormous, noting that a provisional list compiled by the attorney general’s office indicated that more than 25,000 people had gone missing during the administration of former President Felipe Calderon, who left office Dec. 1 and is now a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Limon’s comments, which were made shortly after she met with Human Rights Watch representatives, seemed to confirm that assertion, though it was unclear whether the number she cited comprised only people who’d vanished during the Calderon administration’s frontal assault on drug trafficking or whether it might include some of the 3,000 people who vanished during the country’s so-called dirty war against Marxist guerrillas in the 1960s and ’70s.
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Limon described the 27,000 records as a database that contained information about each case. She said it was in the custody of the country’s Center for Analysis, Planning and Information and that that department had promised to pass the information on, according to an account by the newspaper Milenio.
Like many countries in Latin America, Mexico has long faced allegations that its security services often detained people who were never brought to trial and whose detention was never officially acknowledged. When Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, took office in 2000, he promised to launch a “truth commission” to detail what had happened during the country’s “dirty war,” but such a commission was never formed.
The Human Rights Watch allegations renewed attention on the role of security agents in a significant number of disappearances. The advocacy group called it “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades” and urged President Enrique Pena Nieto’s 11-week-old administration to create a database of missing people to address it.
The group said it had probed 249 cases in depth, and found that 149 of them implicated security and law enforcement agents in the disappearances.
“These crimes were committed by members of every security force involved in public security operations, sometimes acting in conjunction with organized crime,” the report says.
The Calderon administration “ignored this mounting ‘disappearance’ problem” and Mexican authorities “failed to take serious steps to address it,” it says.
Neither Pena Nieto, who was traveling in Costa Rica, nor his top security aides offered an immediate response to the 176-page report, titled “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored.” Calderon has argued that his attack on drug gangs helped restore order to the country.
Human Rights Watch said the disappearances it had investigated usually followed the same pattern:
“In many cases, these detentions occur in victims’ homes, in front of family members; in others, they take place at security checkpoints, at workplaces or in public venues, such as bars,” the report says. “When victims’ relatives inquire about detainees’ whereabouts at the headquarters of security forces and public prosecutors’ offices, they are told that the detentions never took place.”
Adding to the agony of family members, the prosecutors who are asked to investigate routinely blame the victims, suggesting that they had connections to organized crime or simply ran off for romantic liaisons, the report says. Then they tell the families to conduct searches on their own, sloughing off investigative responsibilities.
When prosecutors do pursue cases, their work is often sloppy. They fail to interview witnesses and suspects, the report says, and don’t bother to visit crime scenes.
Investigators routinely “do not trace victims’ cellphones, track their bank transactions, obtain security camera footage (which is often automatically deleted at regular intervals) or take other time-sensitive actions,” the report says.
Such inaction causes “irreparable loss of information” that could save lives and bring culprits to justice, it added.
“A mother whose son was abducted outside of her home in March 2011 told Human Rights Watch that whenever she met with the investigator in charge of the case, he began their conversation the same way. “He asks me, ‘What new info do you have for me?’ ” the report says.
For relatives of the missing, the searches for their loved ones become “perpetual anguish” that doesn’t end for months or years, or simply remains a wound that doesn’t heal.
The report notes that in at least 20 disappearances of Mexicans in June and July 2011, naval personnel were implicated. The United States works closely with the Mexican navy on drug cases.
In another 13 cases, the Federal Police made the initial arrests. State, local and army units were fingered in the remainder.
In more than 60 cases, security forces appeared to be working in tandem with organized crime groups, it said.
The group cited an incident in late 2011 outside Juarez, in Nuevo Leon state, in which two brothers in the used car business were detained at a police checkpoint. Less than a week later, prosecutors arrested three police officers who “said they had carried out the detention ‘under orders’ of a local crime boss,” the report says.
Human Rights Watch called on Mexico to create “unified, accurate databases of the disappeared,” catalog “unidentified human remains” and try to match the DNA of the remains to those who are missing.
The advocacy group also asked Congress to enact a law that any military or law enforcement agent involved in a disappearance be tried in civilian courts and that suspects not be remanded to military or police holding cells.