27,600 disappeared in Mexico — and nobody’s looking for them

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Kelly Arthur Garrett@kagmex

Well, to be accurate, there are people looking for disappearance victims — their own families. What they often find is that the evidence they come up with is the only information that gets into the case files. Authorities at all levels, Amnesty International says, seldom initiate disappearance investigations, and when they do they are so flawed as to be worthless. What’s the problem?

Amnesty International report on disappeared in Mexico
All photos: Amnesty International

The staggering number of disappeared persons in Mexico — 27,600 is the figure most often given — is clearly an outrage. Worse, hardly anybody in authority is looking for them.

Almost six years ago, for example, a 36-year-old rancher named Alfredo Quezada disappeared in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, while picking up a dog that had been given as a present to his family. “I thought the authorities would take action,” said his mother, who reported the disappearance, “that that they would investigate, that they would start searching.”

But they didn’t. Nor were they eager to let the family members see the case file to help with their own search.

Cuauhtémoc City, Chihuahua. Iguala, Guerrero.
Click to enlarge.

And for good reason it turned out. When family members finally saw the file, they realized that the Chihuahua State Prosecutor’s Office had done nothing beyond notifying neighboring states — no search for his truck, no review of security cameras along the route he was driving, no cell phone tracking.

Brenda Karina González disappeared from the same Chihuahua town in 2011 when armed men came for her at a relative’s home and took her away. Again, the family suspected that authorities were doing nothing, so they started their own fruitless investigation.

Their suspicions were confirmed much later when they were finally able to see the case file, which contained a shock. “What is in my daughter’s file is what I have handed in, nothing else,” Karina’s mother told Amnesty International.

These are anecdotes, of course, but new research released this week has led Amnesty International to conclude that they’re typical of official action — or the lack of it.

“In the rare occasions when investigations actually take place, they are little more than a mere formality to pretend something is being done,” reads Amnesty International’s  report, released under the title “Treated with Indolence: The State’s Response to Disappearances in Mexico.” The study focuses on Ciudad Cuauhtémoc in Chihuahua and Iguala in Guerrero as emblematic of Mexico’s disappearance crisis.

Amnesty International (AI) found that those who report disappearances often find themselves stonewalled from the beginning. For example, the reporting citizens, usually family members of the victim, might be told that the disappeared was probably a member of a drug cartel and was caught up in a turf war. The implication is that he or she is not worth looking for.

Initial delays are routine. AI reports cases in Chihuahua where the family members were told they would have to wait 72 hours before any missing persons complaint could be registered. (There is no such requirement.) In one case uncovered by AI, a desperate family member was told to come back the next morning; it was too late in the day to receive complaints.

Whatever semblance of an investigation does take place is woefully inadequate, according to AI. “Authorities frequently fail to check the telephone, banking and financial records of victims or suspects, to search for the geolocation signal of mobile phones or to review data from security cameras footage in the area where the person disappeared,” reads the report. “On many occasions, by the time officials finally request this information, it is no longer available.”

What’s the problem?

amnistia4The question that suggests itself is — why? Why don’t state and local police, and prosecutors’ offices, do their job?

The answer may lie outside the scope of the AI study, but comments gathered during the research indicate some possible explanations.

One is predictable: “The power and influence of the drug cartels also plays a powerful role in deterring investigations.”

Those officials who were honest about not carrying out an investigation — as opposed to the majority who pretend to — were sometimes blunt in their explanation. One family member of a disappearance victim told how a prosecutor showed him his pay slip and said, “I’m not going to risk my life for that kind of money.”

You may want to read, in English or Spanish, the complete AI report  “Treated with Indolence.”

Another reported a prosecutor explaining his refusal to carry out an investigation in an especially narco-infested area of Chihuahua, “We’re afraid. We can’t go there.”

The fear factor is an understandable, if not admirable, motive for inaction. But narco influence goes beyond intimidation.

“In many cases, the families and their representatives suspect that it is the fact that officials are colluding with organized criminal gangs, rather than fear, that blocks investigations,” the AI report reads. “In Cuauhtémoc some families do not report disappearances, mainly because of the fear that prevails in the community.”

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that many of the disappeared were last seen being hauled off by law enforcement officials. That should make it easier to trace the victim and track down the perpetrators, or at least find out what happened. But it doesn’t.

One reason it doesn’t could be the obvious one — cops protecting their own. But even if they wanted to pursue such a case, it wouldn’t be easy. That’s because there are no reliable registers of arrests to check against. Any guilty police officer, or soldier for that matter, can simply deny having anything to do with the victim and there is no evidence-based way to gainsay him.

There’s something else. Generally speaking, the people who are supposed to be looking for the disappeared and arresting the people who disappeared them don’t have anywhere near the resources they need to carry out their duties. AI found a serious lack of investment in prosecutors’ offices.

“Public officials are overloaded with an unmanageable number of case files and high staff turnover,” reads the report.

In other words, when the officer behind the desk tells a disappearance victim’s relative that he doesn’t have time to pursue the case, he could be telling the truth.

Disappearances in Mexico by state

Baby steps

Responding to public pressure, the Peña Nieto administration has begun to take action to improve responses to disappearance cases. The Federal Attorney General’s Office created a new special office for disappearance cases, which mainly served to highlight the curious fact that one didn’t already exist.

Potentially more significant, President Peña Nieto announced on Dec. 10 that he was sending proposed legislation to Congress that would beef up response to disappearances. The bill calls for a search system that would would mobilize law enforcement nationally as soon as a disappearance is reported anywhere in Mexico. A citizens council will monitor the search system performance.

The proposal is a first step, but it would for the first time nationalize strategy for tackling the disappearance problem.

Peña Nieto had little choice but to act. The issue has asserted itself in the public agenda. A big reason for that, as is well-known, is the ongoing dissatisfaction with the investigation of the biggest disappearance case of them all — that of the 43 teachers college students from Ayotzinapa who were taken in Iguala, Guerrero.

Another reason is that much of Mexico’s disappearance crisis has unfolded on this president’s watch. Of the 27,000-plus reported cases pending, nearly half (46.5 percent) have happened since Peña Nieto took office in December of 2012, 3,425 of them in 2015 alone.

That 27,600 figure needs to be handled with care, however. It is a total of persons whose whereabouts are unknown. AI points out that we don’t know how many of them are victims of disappearances by non-state actors, as opposed to those who were disappeared with the backing or involvement of authorities — the so-called “forced” or “enforced” disappearances.

Nor do we know how many of those 27,600 left on their own accord.

And we don’t know how accurate the number is. Crime is notoriously under-reported in Mexico; for some crimes it’s estimated that more than 90 percent are never reported. That percentage could be lower with disappearances, since those who file complaints are often more interested in finding the victim than the perpetrator. But we still don’t know by how much.

What we do know is that the number of disappearances is shockingly high in Mexico. And we know that even if the percentage of forced — i.e. official — disappearances is small, Mexico still has a huge problem.

“Tragically,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, “disappearances have become such a common occurrence across Mexico that they have almost become part of ordinary life.”

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