Searching for the Disappeared in Mexico

In the context of organized crime – often drug related – people have been disappearing in Mexico for decades. Prodded by the victims’ families, the government has finally begun a more serious effort confront the reality of the disappeared.

Families of the disappeared often received little help from the state. As a result, small groups of families have taken matters into their own hands and formed “collectives” to investigate the disappearance of their loved ones. This is dangerous work.  If your family member is disappeared it is because the perpetrator didn’t want them found. These “collectives” are made up of some of the bravest people in the country, real heroes.  Some have killed as a result of their efforts. 

The “collectives” have gotten results. They have identified perpetrators, found clandestine graves and forced the government to exhume remains. The Lopez Obrador administration committed to address the issue of disappearance during its campaign and, so far, progress is being made. That progress can be evaluated in stages:  1) identifying the scope of the problem; 2) identifying as many existing remains as possible; 3) and dealing with disappearances in real time. Here are two positive things have been done so far. 

First, the government has collected more complete data. 40,000 is the number that has was commonly used as the tally of the disappeared.  But in January, the government’s National Search Commission released a report documenting 60,053 disappearances between 2006-2019. 

That number is still below reality, as 12 Mexican states (shamefully) did not participate in the data collection, but it is an improvement. To address disappearances, the scope of the problem needs to be fully understood.

Second, the government has agreed to the formation of a national/international group of technical experts to clear the backlog of unidentified cases through forensic testing. Thousands of families have provided DNA samples in hope of finding a match with the recovered remains. But, the backlog in DNA testing is massive. There are 37,000 unidentified bodies and thousand more fragments, that need testing. Hopefully, this new group of technical experts can start making a dent in the backlog.

Then, when this group is up and running, it should allow domestic forensic teams to focus the governments’ DNA identification capacity on real-time case work, facilitating the prosecution of criminals. In 2019, 5,000 people were disappeared in Mexico.

According to a new report from the WOLA, the US will help fund these efforts to address disappearances. This is appropriate as many disappearances are related to criminal activity rooted in trafficking oriented toward the United States. Confirming this reality, the National Search Commission documented that in 2018 and 2019, three of the four Mexican states with the highest number of disappearances bordered the United States. 

Government institutions previously established to resolve the problem of disappearances in Mexico, have failed miserably in their mission, letting down the valiant families desperately searching for their loved ones. Efforts to fix the system have begun showing some promising signs.  Let’s make sure this time it works.  

* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson

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