“Buscándolos Nos Encontramos”: Families Lead Search for Disappeared in Mexico, Call on Government for Justice

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Author: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

“Buscándolos Nos Encontramos” (“searching for them, we find ourselves”) has been the mantra of the collectives of families launching national Brigadas Nacionales de Búsqueda (National Search Brigades) to search for their disappeared loved ones across Mexico this year.

This August 30th, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, we pause to ask: Why have groups of family members had to do this difficult work on their own? The obstacles they encounter, and the Mexican government’s overall lack of action on enforced disappearances, reflect not only individual stories of suffering but a broad human rights crisis across Mexico.

Photo: Emma Buckhout, Mexico City

Hundreds of families of the disappeared have been taking on the search for their loved ones in Mexico since the time of the Dirty War in the 1960s and 1970s. While disappearances occurred back then, the number shot up with the widespread dispersal of Mexican security agents to fight organized crime as a part of the “War on Drugs” starting under former President Felipe Calderon in 2007. Today, Mexico’s official National Registry points to approximately 28,000 people who have been disappeared between 2007 and May 2016, but civil society organizations and the families themselves estimate the number to be much higher.

Families Leading the Way

In Mexico, government authorities don’t search for the disappeared, so families do. Emblematic cases like those of the disappeared 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s school have demonstrated the ongoing efforts of families on an international stage; unfortunately families of the disappeared across Mexico live similar stories on a daily basis.

 State and local government officials neglect to take action within the first seventy-two hours of a person’s disappearance, which is the crucial time period for finding someone alive. Authorities commonly fail to follow up on the trail of information that families may have. In the process, families are re-victimized by being given false hope with no concrete action. They are told that their case will be followed up on; instead it is left in a bureaucratic paper trail among many authorities without clear results. In the case that physical remains are found, families report that authorities are slow to perform DNA tests. Often, the very authorities that could have been involved in the enforced disappearance are the ones families have to approach, adding another layer of fear to denounce the cases.

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Photo: Emma Buckhout, Mexico City

This year alone there have been two national search brigades by family collectives, (Brigadas Nacional de Búsqueda), although various smaller groups take on searches on a regular basis. For example groups of family members that LAWG accompanied took on searches for others who may have been disappeared in Guerrero in the aftermath of the disappearance of the 43 students last year. Most recently, the FUNDEC-FUNDEMM family groups (Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Coahuila y México) led searches in prisons in Coahuila and also included families from Central America searching for migrants who disappeared en route to the United States.

The first larger, national search brigade took place in April of this year in Veracruz, one of the states with the highest number of disappeared in Mexico, and was made up of groups from Guerrero, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Morelos, and Baja California. After only fifteen days of their search, the Brigade identified fifteen locations with human remains and came across forty new cases of disappearances from family members who had not previously brought their stories before authorities due to fear.

A second search brigade to Veracruz in July, again consisting of about fifty family members from various states in Mexico, documented thirty new cases of disappearances in various gravesites.

The specific findings of these small brigades demonstrate that coordinated actions between family members, government authorities, and civil society can lead to results and bring families one step closer to finding truth and peace.

Risking Their Lives to Search

The search for the disappeared is never easy or safe, and the families receive little logistical or psychological support for their work. The brigades fundraise for the simple equipment they use to dig up graves. They request protection from federal and state authorities, including vehicles to accompany them along their planned routes. This is important not only to ensure protection to the families as they cross territories disputed by organized criminal groups but also to ensure follow-up by forensic authorities in the registration, processing, and DNA testing of the remains found. For the two national brigades, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos) and the United Nations Office for Human Rights in Mexico sent observers as well as other civil society groups, including religious leaders that regularly accompany the families.

This past June while participating in the brigade for the first time, a father, whose daughter had been disappeared, was killed and his wife injured by unidentified armed men. This exemplifies the environment of threats and assaults that constantly plague family members. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances had recommended that the Mexican government ensure protection for these search brigades, but the families have denounced the lack of protection on various occasions. Threats against the search brigades reflect the broader situation of fear that human rights defenders victims experience on a daily basis in Mexico.

Families in the brigades also have also faced significant delays from authorities in processing remains they have found. The Veracruz State Attorney General’s Office delayed three months in sharing remains found on the first brigade with the federal police for example.

Little Support for Searches

Last year, the Mexican government published a Unified Protocol for the Search of Disappeared Persons and the Investigation of the Crime of Enforced Disappearance (Protocolo Homologado para la Busqueda de personas Desaparecidas y la Investigacion del Delito de Desaparicion Forzada)which is supposed to outline the coordination among state and federal authorities for the search and investigation of enforced disappearances and include an eventual National System of Information on Enforced Disappearances (Sistema Nacional de Información). However, families have demonstrated that it is largely not implemented due to the refusal by authorities to do so, a lack of coordination, and insufficient funding.

Largely thanks to the activism of family collectives, the states of Coahuila and Guerrero have successful examples of local initiatives that aim to address the comprehensive needs of families of the disappeared. They include search mechanisms and attention to victims, but they are small illustrations of processes needed at a national scale.

Mexico’s Lack of National Responses

Last year, the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico (Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México), a group of over 35 collectives of families of the disappeared and 40 civil society organizations, identified the implementation of search mechanisms for the disappeared as one of the ten essential points that the Mexican government should consider in drafting the General Law on Disappearances (Ley General sobre Personas Desaparecidos en Mexico), among their more comprehensive demands for the new law. They specifically call for a National Search Commission (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda) which would include family members, federal, state, and local government authorities, and forensic experts in the design and implementation of plans and actions to search for the disappeared. This type of Commission had also been previously recommended by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) working on the Ayotzinapa case.

Unfortunately, the current draft of the Mexican law does not include this proposed National Search System. It is one crucial piece alongside a mechanism for families to monitor the searches, instead of only other aspects of the law that is missing from the current draft. The Mexican government is set to debate the draft law in September in its next Congressional session and should pass a comprehensive, well-funded law that incorporates the demands of the families, and succinctly outlines the roles and responsibilities of all of the actors, including authorities at all levels, civil society organizations, and the families, to be involved in the search, investigation, and prosecution of enforced disappearances.

In the short-term, it is imperative that the U.S. government hold the Mexican government accountable to passing such a law. Inaction and delays in passing such a law should also be evaluated as a reflection of the Mexican government’s commitment to the protection of human rights. As LAWG and seven other human rights organizations evidenced a month ago, the Mexican government has so far failed to demonstrate progress on how it is “effectively searching for the victims of enforced disappearances and is investigating and prosecuting those responsible for such crimes,” one of the four human rights conditions under the Merida Initiative, a U.S. security aid package to Mexico.

There is no better example of this than the experiences of the families searching for their disappeared on their own. On this International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, LAWG honors the families of the disappeared leading the way in the search for their loved ones and calls for justice.

 See how you can raise awareness and call for justice on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances here.

For more information on the  Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México (Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico), see their new campaign #SinLasFamiliasNo and website here.