Mexico Must Address “Widespread” Enforced Disappearances

NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative is urging the Mexican government to respond positively to a highly critical international assessment of an epidemic of enforced disappearances that has left more than 23,600 people officially listed as “personas no localizadas,” or disappeared. 

On Friday, February 13, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) delivered a grim review of the shortcomings in the government’s response to what it described as “a situation of widespread disappearances across much of Mexico” (un contexto de desapariciones generalizadas en gran parte del territorio).

The committee said it was concerned by the climate of impunity created by “the virtual lack of any convictions for enforced disappearance, despite the numerous cases reported.”

The committee’s report was issued after its first review of Mexico’s compliance with the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Mexico ratified in 2008. The review took place against the background of public protests in Mexico over the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in the southern province of Guerrero last September.

The committee’s recommendations highlighted numerous areas in which the Mexican state has failed to respond adequately to widespread forced disappearances involving federal and state security forces as well as criminal gangs, including:

  • a lack of accurate official statistics on enforced disappearances;
  • intimidation and threats against family members of victims of enforced disappearances as well as against human rights defenders and victims’ advocates;
  • failure to launch effective investigations with appropriate speed;
  • failure to properly identify cases of enforced disappearance;
  • the exemption of military personnel from the jurisdiction of civil courts in cases of enforced disappearance; and
  • failure to provide accurate records of people in state custody.

The Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been assessing the capacity of Mexico’s criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute grave crimes, was among the groups that made submissions to the committee.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, said:

“It is imperative that the Mexican government works to address the widespread enforced disappearances. As the CED recognizes, we are not dealing with isolated incidents of criminality, but with profound failures of the criminal justice system. These can only be resolved through real accountability and fundamental reform.” 

In its submission, the Justice Initiative noted that in addition to the use of disappearances as a tactic of the so-called “Dirty War,” they became a signature phenomenon of the government’s “war on drugs,” which has relied strongly on the deployment of federal security forces, including the army and the navy.

Disappearance rose sharply and steadily once President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, and have escalated during the term of President Peña Nieto, with 5,133 disappearances reported in 2014—the highest annual number on record, up from 4,539 in 2013. Mexico’s National Registry of Information of Missing or Disappeared Persons (Registro Nacional de Datos de Personas Extraviadas o Desaparecidas, lists over 23,600 people who have been reported “disappeared.”

The submission also highlighted fundamental weaknesses within the Mexican criminal justice system, as well as continued shortcomings in the operation of institutions created to protect the safety and rights of Mexican citizens, including the Specialized Unit for the Search of Missing Persons, the Executive Commission for Implementation of the Victims’ Law, and the National Human Rights Commission.

Recognizing that the Convention on Enforced Disappearances requires states to maintain accurate information, the Justice Initiative noted that “over the past year alone, contradictory statements and wildly varying numbers have marred the government’s response” on the issue. 

The Justice Initiative submission also addressed the failure of the Mexican government to advance promised reforms, including a nonexistent national action plan on disappeared persons (Plan Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas No Localizadas), and amendments to laws outlawing enforced disappearances and allowing for the prosecution of international crimes under the Rome Statute.