#HastaEncontrarles: The Uphill Battle to Justice for Mexico’s Disappeared

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Authors: Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Yadira Sánchez-Esparza

As of May 16, 2022, there are over 100,000 officially registered cases of disappearances Mexico. The Movement for the Disappeared in Mexico (Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México), a group of over 80 family collectives across the country, believe the actual number of disappearances is much higher. And while there has been some progress in advancing the investigation of high-profile cases like the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, there is still a long way to go in obtaining justice for the other tens of thousands (and soon to be hundreds of thousands) disappeared. LAWG continues to accompany the Movimiento and Mexican NGOs at this crucial juncture. We work to highlight their continued struggle for justice by supporting families of the disappeared and calling on our own government to back their fight.

Many families of the disappeared have been searching for their loved ones on their own in dangerous conditions for years without much support. As the crisis persists, the collectives in the Movimiento have continued to grow with newer families joining those who have already spent decades searching for their loved ones. Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Coahuila (FUUNDEC-FUNDEM) in the northern state of Nuevo León, for example, has been organized since 2009. In other states like Guanajuato, there were previously no collectives of families of the disappeared before 2019, and now, there are at least 14. Territorial disputes between organized criminal cartels in Guanajuato have led to a serious uptick in violence and deterioration of public safety and with it, disappearances. According to recent statistics from Mexico’s National Search Commission, the states with the highest number of disappearances as of March 2022 included Tamaulipas, the State of Mexico, and Nuevo León. Municipalities in the state of Guanajuato registered in the top five highest in the country for persons found in clandestine graves.

Family collectives still face enormous risks in their search for the disappeared. Frequently they search with simple equipment and make their way to remote and dangerous terrain to excavate graves on their own. Throughout this process, they receive threats, are criminalized, face harassment on social media, and are even killed. Some, like Francisco Javier Barajas Piña, who formed part of a collective in Guanajuato and searched for his disappeared sister, received so many threats that he had to leave the city where he was only to be killed last year. His family had to leave the state after he was killed due to fears of what would happen to them. Many families of the disappeared who report these threats and harassment receive no responses or few protective measures from local governmental authorities.

And even when family members do find remains, there are serious challenges in identifying and processing them across Mexico. As of 2021, there are at least 52,000 unidentified deceased people in the country, the vast majority in mass graves or cemeteries. In many states like Guanajuato, there is a lack of data about forensic identification to begin with. The State Prosecutor’s Offices are often weak and lack the capacity to provide regular reports on forensic identification processes to families. Family collectives in Guanajuato have reported delays in being notified about the identification of their disappeared relatives. Databases containing information about disappearances and forensic information remain fragmented among different local agencies, making the matching of genetic information very difficult.

Some of the challenges related to the search, forensic identification, and investigation into cases of the disappeared were supposed to be resolved with the implementation of the General Law on Disappearances, which passed in large part due to the advocacy from families of the disappeared. But the reality is that more than four years after the law was passed, progress has been limited. The law created mechanisms at the state and federal levels to improve and streamline search, identification, and investigation processes for disappearances and to improve civil society consultation via a Citizens’ Council. But the local search commissions and specialized prosecutors’ offices that have been created remain weak and underfunded. The Mexican government established an Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification (the MEIF) with international support and experts to strengthen the government’s work to improve identification processes. It has just been staffed and issued its work plan for this year, but a National Forensic Data Bank, which the law mandated, has not yet been set up.There are still gaps in connecting national databases with local ones. Investigations and prosecutions are still lagging—the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances in its recent report stated that only between 2 and 6% of all disappearance cases in Mexico resulted in prosecutions, emphasizing the widespread impunity that still exists in these cases.

LAWG, along with our partners, has echoed the voices of these family collectives to educate U.S. policymakers and created spaces to organize together towards justice. We organized a virtual briefing for congressional staff with family collectives from the state of Guanajuato where they shared how these structural failures manifested into huge losses of time, energy, and money in the search for their loved ones. As we approach the tragic number of 100,000 people disappeared in Mexico, we have urged the Biden Administration and members of Congress to emphasize addressing disappearances and human rights in the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship. 

We have encouraged U.S. funding for the Extraordinary Forensic Identification Mechanism to increase the Mexican’s government’s capacity to identify human remains and to strengthen state-level identification and search efforts, ensuring that families are involved throughout the process. We’re urging U.S. Ambassador Salazar to meet with civil society organizations, including the family collectives, in his visits to various Mexican states. And we didn’t stop there. We called for strong public statements on social media to support the family collectives and for U.S. policymakers to raise with the Mexican government the need to advance and fund the search, identification, and investigatory mechanisms of the General Law.

With you, we will mobilize together to support the hundreds of families in Mexico who are put in danger everyday simply by searching for their family members. With you, we will advocate for an end to impunity for the human rights violations and corruption that perpetuate disappearances in Mexico–we will not stop until they are found. #HastaEncontrarles