Will the Mexican President-Elect’s “New Revolution” Include the Thousands of Disappeared?

Abandoned by the state, families are continuing the search for their missing loved ones. Andrés Manuel López Obrador has an opportunity to help.

Chantal Flores August 15, 2018

A man walks past pictures of members of the press during a protest against the murder or disappearance of more than 140 journalists and photojournalists in Mexico since 2000, in front of the National Palace in Mexico City on June 1, 2018. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

On a hot day in May, a small group of moth­ers and fathers was sit­ting out­side of a ceme­tery in Ciu­dad Miguel Alemán, Tamauli­pas, just across Roma, Texas. They were wait­ing for dozens of foren­sic experts to exhume hun­dreds of uniden­ti­fied bod­ies that were buried in com­mon graves. While taran­tu­las cir­cled their feet and a sticky humid­i­ty filled the air, they sat there for hours won­der­ing if one of those bod­ies belong to their miss­ing loved ones.

"We don’t stop, we continue as a collective. We continue with the searches, we continue collecting [human remains], regardless of the authorities.”

Mean­while, a bit fur­ther south in Ver­acruz state, the Solecito Col­lec­tive con­tin­ued to wait for author­i­ties to iden­ti­fy the near­ly 300 bod­ies and thou­sands of human remains that were found in 2016 in what is now known as the largest mass grave in Mex­i­co to date. Two years lat­er, only 16 bod­ies have been identified.

These are human lives that were lost in that place. It is not noth­ing. It’s not some­thing super­fi­cial, some­thing that can be omit­ted. This is some­thing extreme­ly seri­ous that must be inves­ti­gat­ed. And no, they are not inves­ti­gat­ing any­thing,” says Lucy Díaz, co-founder of Solecito Col­lec­tive and moth­er of Luis Guiller­mo Lagunes, who was dis­ap­peared in 2013.

On July 1, Andrés Manuel López Obrador won Mexico’s pres­i­den­cy, destroy­ing a polit­i­cal duop­oly and stir­ring hope in a coun­try tha has seen more than 200,000 killed and 37,000 dis­ap­peared since 2006. With an elec­torate tired of polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and endem­ic vio­lence, AMLO, as he’s pop­u­lar­ly known, vowed to curb pover­ty, end cor­rup­tion and bring peace to the coun­try, though he has yet to present a detailed plan of action to achieve these lofty goals.

One of the main demands, which didn’t receive ade­quate atten­tion from the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates dur­ing the cam­paigns, is the plight of the fam­i­lies of the dis­ap­peared, who are call­ing on law­mak­ers to respond to the con­tin­u­ing epi­dem­ic of enforced dis­ap­pear­ances — and accel­er­ate the search and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of human remains. Between 2006 and 2017, accord­ing to the Mex­i­can Com­mis­sion for the Defense and Pro­mo­tion of Human Rights, 1,588 hid­den graves were found, with approx­i­mate­ly 2,674 bod­ies and 11,429 human remains. 

Lack of polit­i­cal will

After a per­son is dis­ap­peared in Mex­i­co, the fam­i­ly faces an exten­sive jour­ney of cor­rup­tion, bureau­cra­cy, impuni­ty and the con­tin­u­ous crim­i­nal­iza­tion of their loved ones. Exas­per­at­ed by the state’s inac­tion, many of them have been forced to lead their own search efforts.

The Gen­er­al Law on Dis­ap­pear­ances, which entered into force last year after a long delay, is the main legal mech­a­nism to address the cri­sis. But col­lec­tives of rel­a­tives and human rights groups have stressed that with­out polit­i­cal will and resources, the new law, which man­dates the cre­ation of a new offi­cial reg­istry of dis­ap­peared peo­ple and a nation­al search com­mis­sion, can’t be ful­ly implemented. 

There are many things that have to hap­pen to imple­ment this law: give the nation­al search com­mis­sion the equip­ment and resources to begin the search for peo­ple, strength­en the PGR (Attor­ney Gen­er­al) so that it can inves­ti­gate these cas­es, work with the fam­i­lies in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of remains,” explains Xime­na Suárez-Enríquez, a Mex­i­can lawyer who works with groups of vic­tims, defend­ers and jour­nal­ists, and is assis­tant direc­tor for Mex­i­co of Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca (WOLA).

I think the biggest chal­lenge is to ensure that there are insti­tu­tions that can imple­ment the law because that is the great chal­lenge of Mex­i­co some­times. There are laws that are very good on paper, but in the imple­men­ta­tion you real­ize that it has no resources to inves­ti­gate or doesn’t have the will to inves­ti­gate,” adds Suárez-Enríquez. 

Under­stand­ing the violence 

While high lev­els of impuni­ty and sys­temic polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion are key chal­lenges for AMLO’s gov­ern­ment, there is a big­ger and more com­plex issue that is hid­ing under these deep-root­ed prob­lems: under­stand­ing the mag­ni­tude of Mexico’s severe human rights crisis. 

Not tak­ing this seri­ous­ly, or not under­stand­ing deeply the prob­lem of vio­lence in the coun­try, can be a lost oppor­tu­ni­ty that could cost us a lot,” says Móni­ca Meltis, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the cit­i­zen group Data Cívi­ca, which uses data analy­sis to doc­u­ment human rights violations. 

I believe that with­in the chal­lenges, it has the giant chal­lenge of under­stand­ing the mag­ni­tude of the vio­lence, of under­stand­ing the pat­terns of violence.”

Under­stand­ing size of the prob­lem, as well as the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of forms of vio­lence and het­ero­gene­ity of vic­tims, is nec­es­sary to com­pre­hend the grave human rights cri­sis, which also includes extra­ju­di­cial killings, femi­cides, tor­ture, ille­gal deten­tion and forced dis­place­ment, explains Guiller­mo Tre­jo, pro­fes­sor of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame.

Last year, Data Cívi­ca revealed the names of the dis­ap­peared peo­ple list­ed on the government’s offi­cial reg­istry in an effort to con­vert fig­ures into peo­ple and start a process of dig­i­tal mem­o­ry.” Fam­i­lies have often accused the gov­ern­ment of under­es­ti­mat­ing the real fig­ures of enforced dis­ap­pear­ances and hid­den graves, and fail­ing to pro­vide the nec­es­sary resources that the search­es and process­es of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion demand. Along with oth­er human rights groups, Data Cívi­ca is also cur­rent­ly work­ing on a map to pre­dict the local­iza­tion of hid­den graves in Mexico’s munic­i­pal­i­ties to aid the process­es of truth and justice. 

Beyond the hid­den graves that may hold their dis­ap­peared loved ones, fam­i­lies have also been demand­ing the exhuma­tion of uniden­ti­fied bod­ies in com­mon graves, such as in the case of Tamauli­pas, which ranks first among states in Mex­i­co for dis­ap­pear­ances, with 6,131 vic­tims. Unclaimed dead were buried with­out prop­er inves­ti­ga­tion as intense drug bat­tles left piles of dead in the bor­der state, a key spot in the drug and human smug­gling routes. 

Jus­tice first 

Gra­ciela Pérez, who has been look­ing for her daugh­ter, broth­er and three nephews since 2012, leads a col­lec­tive that has been car­ry­ing out hun­dred of search­es in south­ern Tamauli­pas. Pérez claims that after the begin­ning of the exhuma­tion project in Miguel Alemán, the first of its kind in the coun­try, the sup­port from author­i­ties ceased due to lim­it­ed resources. 

We don’t stop, we con­tin­ue as a col­lec­tive. We con­tin­ue with the search­es, we con­tin­ue col­lect­ing [human remains], regard­less of the author­i­ties,” says Pérez. 

Pérez and Díaz agree that their col­lec­tives won’t stop doing the most impor­tant work — look­ing for their loved ones— yet AMLO’s gov­ern­ment has opened a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty and raised the hopes of vic­tims of vio­lence. Tre­jo, mem­ber of the Truth and Mem­o­ry Group, a plat­form that unites vic­tims with social orga­ni­za­tions and aca­d­e­m­ic groups, argues that the first step should be the cre­ation of a nation­al com­mis­sion of truth, instead of the region­al com­mis­sions that AMLO’s tran­si­tion team has dis­cussed. Accord­ing to Tre­jo, the goals should be to dig­ni­fy the vic­tims, iden­ti­fy the per­pe­tra­tors and under­stand the pat­terns and caus­es of the vio­lence, fol­low­ing the prin­ci­ples of tran­si­tion­al justice.

While AMLO is not set to take office until Decem­ber 1, he and his team have begun a series of peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion forums where vic­tims and experts are being con­sult­ed to devel­op a secu­ri­ty pro­pos­al, which aims to address the root caus­es of vio­lence. How­ev­er, as is now com­mon, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion gap between vic­tims and gov­ern­ment offi­cials widened as AMLO called to for­give but not for­get,” while fam­i­lies respond­ed with a loud: No for­give­ness with­out justice.” 

For the fam­i­lies, a truth-seek­ing process is manda­to­ry to iden­ti­fy and reveal the fates of each of the thou­sands of dis­ap­peared, and bring those respon­si­ble to jus­tice. They demand the new gov­ern­ment end bureau­cra­cy and cor­rup­tion, imple­ment the law, pro­vide finan­cial sup­port to col­lec­tives of fam­i­lies with trans­paren­cy and inclu­sion, bring author­i­ties and col­lec­tives togeth­er to col­lab­o­rate in search brigades and invest in genet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Most impor­tant­ly, they urge AMLO and his team to end the repeat­ed rights vio­la­tions that the State com­mits with total impunity. 

There is a lot of work to be done. The new gov­ern­ment finds a coun­try that today is destroyed in every­thing that refers to human rights, to human life. The sub­ject of Mex­i­co is human rights and the vio­la­tions against them,” says Díaz. But the pri­or­i­ty will always be to find them”. 

Chan­tal Flo­res is a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Mex­i­co City. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her first book, focused on the par­ents of Mexico’s dis­ap­peared. Her writ­ing has appeared at Vice, Rolling Stone Mex­i­co and Upwor­thy.
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