A new report highlighting Mexico’s human rights crisis finds that security forces have taken part in many kidnappings and disappearances over the six-year term of President Felipe Calderón, with the government failing to investigate most cases. Despite some controversy over the numbers, an estimated 70,000 are believed to have met violent deaths under Calderón‘s militarized crackdown on the cartels. But the new report, released by Human Rights Watch Feb. 20, finds that on top of this figure, possibly more than 20,000 disappeared during Calderón‘s term. Many were abducted by narco gangs, but all state security forces—the military, federal and local police—are also accused in “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades.”
“What sets these crimes apart is that, for as long as the fate of the victim remains unknown, they are ongoing,” the report states. “Each day that passes is another that authorities have failed to find victims, and another day that families continue to suffer the anguish of not knowing what happened to a loved one.” HRW focused on 249 cases of men and women who disappeared since 2006. In 149 cases, state security forces participated “directly in the crime, or indirectly through support or acquiescence,” it found.
In one case, 12 house paint vendors disappeared near a military checkpoint as they traveled to a job in the border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, in March 2009. In another, eight young men went missing on a hunting trip in Zacatecas in December 2010. In both cases, HRW found, authorities subjected families desperately seeking their loved ones to dismissive and sometimes humiliating treatment.
“How can 12 people go missing, get rounded up, whatever happened, and no one notices?” Reyna Estrada, the wife of one of the Piedras Negras missing, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “At least when your loved one dies, you know where they are, what happened, you can eventually get used to it. We do not know what monster we are fighting.”
In some cases, people disappeared by the security forces were turned over to narco gangs. On May 28, 2011, the report states, 19 men on a construction crew in the Nuevo León town of Pesqueria were detained by municipal police who are believed to have delivered them to a local crime boss. HRW said the cases it examined were a small sample, but that “there is no question that there are thousands more.”
Mexico’s new Prosecutor General, Jesús Murillo Karam, said late last year that thousands of people disappeared during Calderón’s term. This week, a senior official of the interior ministry (Gobernación) put the figure at 27,000. There was no immediate response to the report from the new government of Enrique Peña Nieto. In meetings with members of an HRW delegation, government representatives did say they were working to prevent disappearances and step up searches. Nik Steinberg, HRW’s top researcher for the Americas: “As positive as that is, none of this can work until the government starts to do what the previous government never did and determines who is responsible and brings them to justice.” (LAT, Feb. 20)
US Sen. John McCain met with Peña Nieto Feb. 22, saying he was “convinced” that the new leader is “committed to taking action against the drug cartels.” Meanwhile, in the border town pf Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state authorities are searching for the municipal police chief, Roberto Alejandro Balmori Garza, who disappeared over the weekend. Local media report that Balmori Garza’s two brothers were found shot dead in the neighboring state of Nuevo León Feb. 17. One of the brothers was a federal prosecutor.
With violence begining to wane in some border cities, Nuevo Laredo remains among the most deadly places in Mexico (with Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel vying for control). In 2005, the city’s police chief was gunned down on his first day on the job. In 2010, gunmen killed a retired army general who had been put in charge of the city’s police force. (LAT, Feb. 22; CNN, Feb. 19)
In an especially disturbing trend, the city has recently seen a wave of abductions of youths and adolescents. With officials and the local news media silent, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter report that at least four youths, aged 13 to 20, have disappeared over the past week. (SDP Noticias, Feb. 22) One Facebook page that has reported such abuses, Valor por Tamaulipas, with more than 164,000 “likes,” has not surprisingly received threats. Last week, fliers were distributed in the state capital Ciudad Victoria offering 600,000 pesos, or $46,500, “for whoever has exact information about the owner of the page ‘Valor por Tamaulipas.'” (AFP, Feb. 22)
Peña Nieto is working to project an image of a rebooted anti-narco effort. He has changed the name of the campaign to “Operations for Strengthening the Security of Mexicans”—whereas Calderón oversaw “High Impact Operations” carried out in the context of the “Mexican State Comprehensive Strategy Against Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime.” Some 45,000 military troops remain deployed against the cartels throughout the country, but defense officials now pledge a new commitment to human rights. Data from the National Defense Secretariat indicates that the military has actually stepped up its enforcement role, however. In little more than two months of the new administration, 1,318 people have been detained by military forces. This represents nearly a third of the arrests reported by the armed forces throughout all of 2007, the first year of the Calderón government. On Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos met behind closed doors with congressional deputies to brief them on the anti-narco strategy. (Milenio, Feb. 9 via Mexico Voices)