In Mexico, cases of missing and disappeared persons have reached crisis levels. During the administration of President Felipe Calderon, who assumed office in 2006, thousands of Mexicans have vanished without a trace and some families are trying to make sure the issue isn’t lost in the upcoming presidential transition. Shannon Young reports.
No one knows for sure just how many people have disappeared during the six year administration of President Felipe Calderon. But data published this week does provide a hint.
At least 14 thousand cases were documented between January 2008 and December 2011. That’s according to the national newspaper Excelsior, but the number is likely much higher because not all states handed over complete data and no cases from 2007 or 2012 were included. The most commonly cited independent figure estimates around 30 thousand people have disappeared or gone missing in the past 6 years.
Many relatives of the disappeared have grown frustrated with the lack of government action.
(Edith Pérez interrupts Calderon’s speech)
On Monday, a speech by President Calderon to inaugurate a highway was interrupted by Edith Pérez, whose two sons were abducted August 14th along with her brother, a nephew, and niece near Ciudad Mante in the border state of Tamaulipas. Pérez said the family has gone to all agencies possible without any concrete results.
(Graciela Pérez clip – reporter interprets)
Pérez’s sister, Graciela – whose 13 year old only daughter is among the missing – says she keeps a list of reports of shootouts and homicides in the area. Despite written and in-person requests, Tamaulipas state officials have yet to provide details or photographs of bodies that would allow her to eliminate the doubt that her relatives may be among the dead.
Graciela Pérez: “We want to believe they’re still alive, but we can’t be sure. But hope dies last. So, I’ve filed written requests with the authorities and hope from the bottom of my heart that they at least respond. Given they aren’t searching, they can at least look at what they DO have.”
The state of Tamaulipas is infamous for its lack of transparency. Infiltration of government and police institutions by organized crime is an open secret. But families looking for abducted relatives in other states have also complained of systematic run-around treatment.
(Jorge Verástegui clip – reporter interprets)
Jorge Verástegui is a university student whose brother and nephew were abducted in 2009 in the state of Coahuila. He’s a member of FUUNDEC, an association of relatives of the disappeared, which has met on multiple occasions with state and federal officials to push for search mechanisms and legal protocols. Verástegui says the first reaction by authorities is to criminalize the victims and intimidate those who speak out. When the issue becomes to big to ignore, Verástegui says officials make some concessions without officially recognizing the magnitude of the problem.
Jurisdictional ambiguities have also allowed officials to pass the buck between the federal and state levels, especially when it comes to naming the crime. For example, an armed abduction that does not come with a subsequent ransom demand won’t necessarily be categorized as a kidnapping – which is a federal crime.
(Marisela Reyes clip – reporter interprets)
Marisela Reyes Salazar says that when three of her relatives were taken by armed men near Ciudad Juárez in 2011, federal investigators refused to register the crime as a forced disappearance and made the family file the complaint as a missing persons case.
This tendency prompted family associations like FUUNDEC to push for states to recognize the crime of forced disappearance. Just this week, the state legislature of Nuevo León approved a measure to recognize “forced disappearance” as a crime. It was the third state to do so this year.
Relatives also say federal and state governments need to show more political will when it comes to searching for the disappeared – dead or alive. When illegal mass graves are discovered, the investigations are often handled by state authorities. There’s no centralized federal database to store DNA samples of those seeking missing or disappeared relatives, despite recommendations made to Mexico by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
Murder victims whose bodies medical examiners are unable to identify go into state mass graves. A recent investigation by Milenio found more than 24 thousand unidentified bodieshave been sent to cemetery mass graves during the present administration.
Marisela Reyes and her family staged a hunger strike and an attention-grabbing sit-in protest until the bodies of their three abducted relatives appeared. Under pressure, the state government of Chihuahua offered a reward for information on the whereabouts of the family. Their bodies were left near a roadside soon after. But Reyes says the agony of not knowing the fate of a loved one is far worse than having to bury the dead.
Marisela Reyes: “In our case, they had to unbury our dead so we could have them. Perhaps it was just so we’d shut our mouths…but we got them. So, I want people to know that if you fight, you can win. That, thank God, we found them and we know where they are. And that, if one day we can go back to the Juárez Valley, we know they’re there and that we can at least bring them a flower…It’s hell to have someone disappeared…and to not know what they’re going through, what’s happening with them, what they’re doing to them…or simply, what they’ve done to them.”
Other relatives of missing persons recently held a week-long hunger strike in front of the Interior Ministry. They warned they’re prepared to return if the government doesn’t make good on promises of concrete actions in their cases.
The hunger strike was part of an effort to keep the issue of the disappeared on the government’s agenda ahead of the December 1st change of administrations.
Others relatives and supporters have been hard at work for months, embroidering the stories of victims on white handkerchiefs. Among them, is Jorge Verástegui, who participated in the public sewing circles known as “Embroidery for Peace” in the northern city of Monterrey.
Jorge Verástegui: “We know it’s only a symbolic act, but there’s something about embroidering the stories that gives us a certain sense of calm. It’s like a way to let off steam, to provide an outlet for all of this pain that’s been building up in us over the past few years.”
The Embroidery for Peace groups plan to stitch together their work to present in Mexico City’s main plaza the day Enrique Peña Nieto takes office as president – a visual reminder of the debt of justice owed to thousands of families…and of a crisis that has been steadily building over the past six years.
(Transcript of report prepared for the Nov. 16, 2012 broadcast of FSRN.)