30,000 Mexicans Have Disappeared in Past 10 Years
Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy says that as thousands disappear the Mexican government has turns a blind eye instead of investigating and preventing disappearances
DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. The U.N. representative to Mexico of the high commissioner on human rights reported on Wednesday that the number of disappeared in Mexico has reached over 30,000 in the past decade. This confirms a number that had been released last April by Mexico’s own National Commission of Human Rights. Joining us to discuss these latest figures is Laura Carlsen. Laura’s the Director of the Americas program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. There she focuses on U.S. policy in Latin America and grassroots movements in the [reason 00:00:39]. Thanks for coming on, Laura.
LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you.
DHARNA NOOR: First, we’ve known for a while now that the numbers of disappeared in Mexico are quite high. How significant are these latest figures, which again, show over 30,000 disappeared in the past 10 years?
LAURA CARLSEN: They’re shocking, of course. As you mentioned, they’re not way out of the range of what we’ve been hearing even from the official government figures. Also, the U.N. representative noted at the time that the 30,000 figure was put out, that this is grossly underrepresented. That in fact, taking into the account the number of cases that are not reported and in some ways not registered, or that are falsely classified as other than forced disappearances and disappearances, the number is probably far higher. They’re people who talk about 100,000. It’s really impossible for us to know. What we do know is the whole geography of Mexico has changed. That they’re vast swaths of national territory that have become clandestine graveyards and families with disappeared loved ones are finding that out on a daily basis.
DHARNA NOOR: The numbers by themselves can sound rather abstract. You hear 30,000 disappeared, but what do we know about the individuals, about the victims and what do we know about how they came to be what’s called, disappeared?
LAURA CARLSEN: Well, it’s very, very difficult to classify Dharna, because there aren’t really investigations. This is really the number one problem behind this, the level of impunity. As long as there aren’t investigations and the government does not take seriously prosecution of these cases, they’re sending a signal to continue disappearing people, basically, within the drug cartels. It’s a very, very serious problem. What we know about the people is very little. We know on a region to region basis that there’s some that fit of pattern of, for example, disappearing individuals that drug cartels need for some reason, whether it’s accountants, or engineers along the northern border, or around certain highways.
We know that a number of them could have to do with rivalries between drug cartels, or revenge, or retaliation cases. We know that others have to do with young women that drug cartel leaders have decided to use as basically sexual slaves. There’s a whole wide range of really terrible reasons behind this, but without investigations we’re not able to prove it and that means that we’re not able to do much to prevent it at this point.
DHARNA NOOR: I guess one of the big questions that this raises, is what is the Mexican government’s involvement in all of this? According to the most recent human right’s reports, such as from the U.N., the OAS, the Organization of American States, and MC International, many or most of the disappearances are attributable to organized crime, as you said, like drug cartels. In what ways does the government bear responsibility?
LAURA CARLSEN: The government bears tremendous responsibility in this, whether it’s by omission or by commission. First of all, the fact that there are government officials that are complicit with organized crime is very important in understanding why there’s such a high degree of impunity. We’ve had people report that they’ve gone into local offices to report or get updates on the cases of their disappeared loved ones and they found themselves face to face with the individuals that they knew were working with the same organized crime gang that was most probably behind the disappearance of their loved ones. There have been prosecutions and actual discoveries of government officials that have been working with the cartels. That means that they don’t want to resolve these cases.
In fact, for victims it can be really dangerous because they can go into an office, they could find themselves in front of people who actually have contacts and are working with the local gangs and that means that the message that goes out is not, “Okay. Here we have a case we have to resolve.” It’s calling up the local drug cartel and saying, “This person’s causing problems.” Then we get what’s called, re-victimization, where the victims themselves, the loved ones with the family members, become targets and there have even been cases where they’ve been killed just for insisting that the government find their disappeared family member. It becomes a vicious cycle and then we get people that are afraid to report the cases and we have numbers that are no longer reliable because of the under-reporting.
The government then also is responsible for omission. For whatever reason it’s not taking it seriously, often times, and there’s a real gender and racial discrimination involved here as well. For example, we’ve had many mothers report and they’ll go and say, “My daughter didn’t come home last night,” distraught, desperate, and the officials will basically sneer at them and say, “She’s probably run off with her boyfriend,” or, “She’s probably involved with the wrong people.” They’ll say, “And anyway, we don’t do anything for 72 hours,” when by all international protocols they know that those first 72 hours can be the most important. They’re not following the international protocols on this. They’re belittling the pain of the loved ones and the degree of cases that they’re actually prosecuting and solving is infinitesimal.
DHARNA NOOR: God. In some countries, like we know in Honduras, it’s fairly well known that international corporations are involved in these sorts of human rights violations. To what extent is that true, is that known about in Mexico?
LAURA CARLSEN: Well again, because of the lack of investigations we don’t know. We do know that a growing number of people who are in the movements defense of land and territories, which are the movements that come up against transnational corporations that are especially going after Mexican national resources are very, very vulnerable. We know that within the entire region that these people have been disappeared and have been assassinated on occasions. So far we just don’t have statistics, again, to say how many of these involve transnational corporations either directly or indirectly because of the lack of reporting in the cases. We do know that in some regions, especially where there are these types of land conflicts, it becomes certainly a risk factor for activists.
DHARNA NOOR: Laura, you’re a longtime observer of Mexico. What would you say from your work have you found are some of the most important things that need to happen for these kinds of crimes to be reduced, or I mean, we would hope eliminated?
LAURA CARLSEN: Well, one of the most important things to happen is, of course, to end the impunity and that would involve both the justice system and the law enforcement system actually going after these crimes no matter who’s involved, including and especially when corrupt government officials are involved. That’s not happening and we’re not seeing any pressure from the United States besides all this … In spite of all this criticism of Mexico, to pressure the justice system to actually solve crimes. We’re getting more funding. It’s probably going to be reduced under Trump, but the Mérida Initiative has consistently funded these corrupt security forces without any pressure to respect human rights and to actually go after these crimes. That’s one of the most important things to have happen.
Now, when you look at the cases, or you look at the area of forced disappearance, you can see some progress in what is a formal legal framework and there’s been a lot of emphasis on this. Right now there’s a law of forced disappearance that could be important to get the government to search more for the loved ones, because a lot of times they just cannot get them to move. In this desperate situation of the families, the government is not even really searching and other times the families themselves will find the remains and then it will take months or even longer for the government to actually test the DNA and to establish identity. Every step of the way there’s stalling and there’s obstruction by the government agents themselves.
A law and legal framework could help on that, but essentially what’s happening is that despite advances in the law there’s what we call, simulation, in Mexico, which means that the government tries to set up special prosecutors, special government agencies as if it were dealing with the problem, when it’s not dealing with the problem. I work with a group of … A coalition of local collectives of families of loved ones of the disappeared throughout Mexico and some places are worse than others. [Veracruz 00:09:53] is a disaster, but it’s spread to many different parts of Mexico over the years since the war on drugs was launched. Many of those have come to the conclusion that they cannot rely on the government anymore to basically do its job.
The families, at great risk to themselves, as I’m sure many of your listeners have heard, are going out with shovels, they’re going out with sticks, I’ve gone out myself, they’re going into areas where someone’s given them a tip that there could be a clandestine graveyard and they’re searching themselves. They’ve gotten extremely frustrated with trying to wait for the government to do this, so they’re forming brigades and they’re going out and searching and they’ve been far more successful than the government on the state, local, or federal level in finding remains.
Then again, they have to wait for the government to identify them. There’s been some hope in the growth of this grassroots movement that actually takes matters into its own hand in terms of the search and has also brought these collectives together to form some kind of moral support with families who really are at the end of their rope economically, psychologically, emotionally, to continue to pressure the government to demand justice, but at the same time, to go out themselves to try to find their loved ones. That’s one of the most amazing things that we’ve seen in the midst of this tragedy.
DHARNA NOOR: You spoke about some of the activism and the movement that you’ve seen to combat these disappearances. Next month will be the three year anniversary of one of the most notorious cases of the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. What can you tell us about the latest develops in this case and about the continued significance of this case?
LAURA CARLSEN: Ayotzinapa’s been critical to the whole movement of the family members of the disappeared in Mexico because it was such a high profile and continues to be such a high profile case. If it weren’t for those mothers and fathers and other family members of Ayotzinapa, it could easily have been a case like so many others in Mexico that are just swept under the rug. You might hear about it in the news and even in the international news for a couple months or maybe a little bit longer, but in this case the continued pressure and the shock of a nation to see that 43 university students, poor, indigenous many of them, could be disappeared in one night and then to see this huge government coverup transcur after the disappearance itself, has been a factor that’s been able to keep it into the news and it’s been able to keep it in the courts as well.
What the Ayotzinapa people and parents have done is to go to the international level. They’ve filed cases with the International Human Rights courts and others. Now some other family members of the disappeared, like in the state of [Coahuila 00:12:50] in [the Hague 00:12:51] have done the same thing. What they’re doing is appealing to international courts in a situation where it’s become clear that the Mexican justice system not only is not going to resolve these cases, but it is actively covering up these cases and repressing these cases both on the federal and the local level. Lately, they’ve made some progress in taking the case to the international level and most of all they kept it in the public eye.
When that three year anniversary comes up, we’ll see protests again. Not just in Mexico, but in support groups that they’ve been able to create in places throughout the world. This has a higher cost, a political cost for the [Peña Nieto 00:13:36] government, which is now at one of its lowest points in history in terms of its approval rating and that’s one of the ways that they’re able to continue to exert pressure on the government to resolve the case.
DHARNA NOOR: Well, as those coming protests crop up and the movement continues, the resistance continues, we hope to hear from you again Laura. Thanks so much for coming on today.
LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you.
DHARNA NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.