Bojana Djokanovic examines structural elements in Mexico’s missing persons pandemic
On 26 September 2015, exactly one year after 43 teacher trainees were abducted in the city of Iguala, in Mexico’s Guerrero state, families of the missing students staged demonstrations in Mexico City and elsewhere. The abduction and presumed murder of the students galvanized public opinion throughout Mexico and attracted worldwide media attention. Only two of the disappeared students are reported to have been identified (and only one of these identifications was definitive), while the location and fate of the other 41 students remains unknown.
In their initial response, the authorities insisted that the 43 young men were abducted by corrupt municipal police and handed over to be massacred by a local drug gang that believed the students had links to a rival gang in the crime-racked and impoverished state of Guerrero. This analysis was subsequently challenged by various experts and criticism of the original handling of the cases led to the resignation of Mexico’s Attorney-General.
On 24 September 2015, President Enrique Peña Nieto met with families of the students and sought to reassure them that the authorities had not closed the investigation. He also promised to create a new Special Prosecutor’s Office to investigate thousands of missing-person cases throughout the country.
While attention remains focused on the missing students, it is worth noting that Mexico’s missing persons challenge is much more extensive and complex and the disappearance of the 43 students is just one aspect of a deep-seated problem. In the past decade over 100,000 people have been killed in drug-related and criminal violence in Mexico, and according to Human Rights Watch more than 26,000 people have gone missing since 2007, with a sharp spike in the numbers of disappeared since President Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. The problem has reached pandemic proportions and the overwhelming majority of states are now grappling with the specter of missing persons.
This issue does not bear consequences only for the families of the missing – it affects all levels of society and leaves deep scars that last for generations. Enforced disappearances occur for a variety of reasons, and as Amnesty International points out, they are often used as a strategy to spread terror. The insecurity and fear generated by an abduction or by multiple abductions is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but affects society as a whole. In Mexico – and around the world – human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and lawyers have all been targeted. Vulnerable people are also at risk, including children and people with disabilities.
Enforced disappearances violate a number of human rights:
- The right to security and dignity of the person
- The right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
- The right to humane conditions of detention
- The right to a legal personality
- The right to a fair trial
- The right to a family life
- The right to life (if the disappeared person is killed or their fate is unknown).
While global missing persons trends suggest that the majority of the missing are men, in the case of Mexico women are equally affected and increasingly vulnerable. In some regions of the country, such as Ciudad Juarez, and the states of Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon, the majority of those who go missing are young women and girls who are victims of what is generally known as “femicide”. An increasing number of women are victims of sexual violence and abuse, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and murder. The authorities’ response has been inadequate and insufficient to investigate this gender-based violence and the majority of cases remain unsolved. Reports indicate that these women are mostly factory workers who have to travel long distances – either walking or on a bus – to work, and are increasingly vulnerable (socially and economically) to abduction, violence, and murder. Other reports note that some of the disappeared and murdered women have been accused of provoking the abductions by their clothing, walking alone at night (even if returning from jobs), being prostitutes, and similar accusations which are usually the elements found in patriarchal societal order in which women are held responsible for violence and abuse directed at them.  Human Rights Watch reports that “Mexican laws do not adequately protect women and girls from domestic violence and sexual violence. Women and girls who have suffered these types of human rights violations generally do not report them to authorities, while those who do generally face suspicion, apathy, and disrespect.”
It is imperative that States take responsibility for investigating missing persons cases, including cases of enforced disappearance, and that they hold those responsible to account. It is also imperative that cases of enforced disappearance are properly reported, registered and documented across all Mexican states. Prosecuting perpetrators must be viewed as part of a broader effort to secure justice, safeguard the rights of families of the missing, and uphold the rule of law, because abductions and enforced disappearance – particularly when police and security officials are involved – challenge the very foundations of criminal justice.
President Peña Nieto has indicated that he intends to take an active approach to address human rights abuses, and he has instructed the State Attorneys General to take meaningful steps to investigate and resolve missing persons cases. This public expression of resolve has been made against a backdrop of criticism leveled at the authorities’ handling of the investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students, described as “a scandalous cover-up orchestrated by the highest levels of government.” 
While addressing the issue of disappearances has been sporadic across Mexico, the state of Nuevo Leon in the country’s north-east has begun to take effective steps to address drug-related violence in general and enforced disappearances in particular. Nuevo Leon’s approach, which includes constructive dialogue between civil society and the political and judicial authorities, together with an initiative to compile a comprehensive list of missing persons, may represent a model that can be followed by other states. ICMP is currently working with local human rights groups and government authorities in Nuevo Leon and is seeking to broaden its assistance and help Mexico deal with this complex issue.
A year on from the abduction of the 43 trainee teachers, popular indignation in Mexico has not abated and there is reason to hope that this will sustain efforts to initiate an effective response to the country’s missing persons crisis.