Andrea Sanchez and Teodoro Garcia
“We are asking precisely for protection, we are looking for how we can be protected because we need to go out and search, but they are killing us. We don’t know what to do.”
The woman making this plea to the Mexican federal government is Virgina “Vicki” Garay, a mother from Nayarit, Mexico, who has not seen her son since 2018. Bryan was 19 years old when his mother last saw him; in the evenings after school, he would work at a food stand, but one day he didn’t come home: “For me, it was a surprise that he had not spoken to me at all. When I saw that he hadn’t, that hours went by and he didn’t come back, I went out to look for him… nobody mentioned anything, nobody knew anything.”
Vicky’s story, unfortunately, is all too common. In the past two decades, over 100,000 (registered) people have disappeared in Mexico, leaving families with questions and prayers that have gone largely unanswered. Despite said circumstances, the same people who grieve have found the strength to pursue justice on their own.
The Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards: A Mutual Recognition of Lives Lost
Vicki shared her story with the Latin America Working Group and many other organizations and activists at this year’s 46th Annual Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights Awards ceremony, which she attended along with three other representatives of the Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México and members of Serapaz, a peace-building organization that accompanies the Movement. The Movement shared the stage with the Amazon Labor Union, the other winner of this year’s awards, which are sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies. Martha Camacho, Marisol Esquivel, and Diana Iris represented the movement alongside Vicki. LAWG’s director Lisa Haugaard, who is honored to serve on the jury for the prize, noted that she was delighted they won the award: “because their courageous and determined organizing has resulted in advances in policy and public understanding of the vast extent of disappearances in Mexico, and because of the admirable collective nature of their work which united families all across the country to seek for justice together.” Each representative has a loved one who was forcibly disappeared; Martha lost her husband, Jose Manuel Alapizco, Marisol joined after she recently lost her daughter, Irma, and Diana is currently searching for her son, Daniel. Their pain has served as a catalyst to help their families and many others to find their loved ones.
In the same way that the Movement dedicates itself to finding truth and justice, so too does the history of the award. Orlando Letelier, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Transnational Institute, and IPS Development Associate Ronni Karpen Moffitt were killed in a truck explosion carried out by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Washington, D.C., in 1976. Orlando Letelier had served in Salvador Allende’s government in Chile before it was overthrown. Each year, a prize is given to a U.S. organization and one from Latin America.
A Mother’s Desperate Plea falls on Deaf Ears
El Movimiento Por Nuestros Desaparecidos itself is a network of 84 collective organizations in 22 states of Mexico and 3 Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Since 2015, El Movimiento has been fighting to get the Mexican government to provide an ample response to the crisis of forced disappearances. But what does this response look like?
Our interview with El Movimiento highlighted a few of their demands:
- More cooperation between Mexican prosecutors’ offices and the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification to better identify the 52,000+ deceased.
- Sufficient resources must be granted to the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification to address Mexico’s forensic crisis.
- The Mexican government must regularly consult with family members of disappeared persons regarding the search for Mexico’s disappeared and must provide them with protection.
The members’ protection is vital given the real dangers they face when searching for their loved ones; during their searches, they are frequently subject to threats and attacks from members of Mexico’s security forces, corrupt politicians, local gangs and other individuals who do not want them to uncover the truth. Vicki Garay continuously pleads for the protection of people searching for their disappeared family members: “Many of us have been killed. There have been more than thirteen murders of searching mothers because they searched, and were demanding answers from authorities… If they kill us, who is going to look for them?” More often than not, mothers like Vicki are aware they are their child’s only hope to be found, but that also means running the risk of death themselves.
While the protection for organization members is still lacking, they have had remarkable success on a different front, advancing legislation to seek justice for forced disappearances. El Movimiento played a primary role via protests, working with politicians on policy implementation, in the creation of the General Law regarding disappeared persons and its implementation. The law, which was approved in 2017, defined the crime of forced disappearance (when authorities are involved) and disappearance by private actors (when they are not). It mandated the creation of institutions specifically designed to address this heinous crime, such as search commissions and specialized prosecutors’ offices.
Their struggles in advocating for the law emboldened their general efforts: “There was nothing to protect us, nothing to help us, nothing that had the power to say that they [the authorities] had to take us into account…. There was no law and it was that urgency that they take us into account, that they pay attention, that led to the law’s creation.”
But this hasn’t been enough. The commissions’ budgets and staff are inadequate to support the weight of the abundance of crimes, and officers are not incentivized to care. To the government, these forcibly disappeared individuals are not someone’s son, daughter, husband, or family member; they are just another case added to the rapidly expanding 100,000+ forcibly disappeared in Mexico.
Mexico’s involvement in forced disappearances extends past its lack of action; indeed, Mexican officials are all too often active perpetrators of forced disappearances. Movimiento representative Martha Camacho’s experience with forced disappearances did not stop at the loss of her husband. She was also a victim of forced disappearance herself. Martha and her husband were members of the September 23 Communist League, a Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla movement during the time of President Luis Echeverría. She and her husband were both arrested on August 19, 1977, in Culiacán, Sinaloa by the Federal Judicial Police of Sinaloa and agents of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad, a now-dissolved Mexican intelligence agency and secret police.
Soldiers in the Ninth Military Zone in Culiacán, Sinaloa, deprived her of her freedom for 49 days, where she was forced to give birth in the most inhumane conditions: bound and blindfolded. The only time they lifted her blindfold was to threaten her newborn son’s life: “When they took the baby out and cut the [umbilical] cord that night–it was about 2:30 a.m.–they lifted my blindfold for the first and only time. They were holding up my baby, with the machine gun pointed at him. And one of them said, ‘Meet your son, Thompson.’ It was a Thompson submachine gun.” She regained her freedom after a ransom payment and became one of the few survivors of the Mexican government’s anti-leftist dissident campaigns. They never found her husband’s body, and he remains one of the estimated 1,100+ who disappeared from the Mexican Dirty War.
Martha Camacho remains traumatized from her torture while pregnant, fear for her son’s life, and the loss of her husband. Even after her release, she is one of the countless women left to pick up the pieces of her broken family by spending the rest of her life searching for her husband’s body and fighting to acheive justice for the crimes committed by the Mexican state. For victims of forced disappearances, there is no room to mourn. It is a constant and tireless fight by groups like El Movimiento to hold the government accountable for crimes committed by their state actors. As contended by Viki Garay and through Martha’s first-hand experience, the Mexican military played and continues to play a disturbingly significant role in the crisis of disappeared persons.
Sin Ellas No Hay Movimiento
El Movimiento is a woman-centric movement, primarily encompassed by mothers, wives, and daughters searching for their forcibly disappeared loved ones. Women are left to bear the responsibilities of the Mexican government, becoming the police force, forensic unit, and judges altogether. Yet, they continue to be at increased risk of murder for seeking the truth. From 2015 to 2021, the number of women murdered increased by 135 percent, with more than 1000 women dying in 2021 alone. The militarization of the federal police force has also vastly contributed to gendered violence and disappearances. Confrontations involving armed forces during the “War on Drugs” led to increased homicides of women and femicides between 2007 and 2018. And given that firearms are increasingly used to murder women, with six in ten having lost their lives to firearms, militarization has not protected women nor diminished violence, but exacerbated it.
And today in Mexico, we are witnessing the disturbing militarization of the Federal Police. Whether through uniforms or increased weaponry, militarization refers to making a previously civilian organization resemble the armed forces. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, created the National Guard. And although the National Guard was constitutionally created as a civilian security force, the guard is under the control of SEDENA, the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense, as 100,000 members are part of the military.
And while President Andrés Manuel López Obrador acknowledges the hundreds of thousands of disappeared or missing persons, comparing Mexico to an “enormous clandestine grave”, he plans to reform the National Guard so it is entirely under the Ministry of Defense’s authority. This is not only against the Mexican Constitution, which states the National Guard is supposed to be a civilian security force, not a military force, but gives power to a system that historically has had no regard for and takes away human rights or lives. Perpetrators of the Dirty War have not been held accountable.Vicki Garay affirms El Movimiento is worried about the negative effect this will have on their search for the forcibly disappeared. It is a backward step for a nation that claims to want to find them.
The Movimiento is demanding that the Mexican government take action, and we stand alongside them as they ask for the U.S. government to:
● Ensure that the crisis of forced disappearances is front and center in the dialogue between the United States and Mexico, between the two governments, legislatures, and civil societies.
● Urge the prompt and full implementation of the General Law on disappearances. In particular, urge prosecutors’ offices to investigate disappearances and advance justice, as the General Law on disappearances mandates, especially in the broader context of transnational organized crime.
● Encourage the Mexican prosecutors’ offices to cooperate with the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification and other recently created institutions related to the forensic identification crisis.
● Emphasize in dialogues with Mexico the importance of complying with the recommendations issued by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, with a specific inter-institutional strategy that ensures participation by victims’ collectives and civil society.
● Cooperate with, support, and give visibility to the collectives of disappeared persons’ family members, especially those at high risk. Urge the Mexican government to consult meaningfully with those collectives on all of the policies and legal reforms related to disappearances.
● Improve the technical support and assistance of the United States with Mexico.
● Reestablish the high-level dialogue on human rights between Mexico and the United States.