Human Rights Challenges in Mexico: Addressing Enforced Disappearances

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October 21, 2020
Human Rights Challenges in Mexico: Addressing Enforced

Mexico faces significant human rights concerns amidst
Figure 1. Disappearances in Mexico, 1964-2020
record violence related to drug trafficking and organized
crime. Since 2006, the government estimates that 275,000
people have been killed and another 71,678 have
disappeared. In some cases, referred to as “enforced
disappearances,” those disappearances have involved the
complicity of state forces. Congress has taken steps to
address the general human rights situation in Mexico, as
well as the specific issue of enforced disappearances,
through foreign assistance and conditions on that assistance,
hearings, and letters to Mexican and U.S. Administrations.
The United Nations (U.N.) International Convention for the
Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

defines the term enforced disappearance to mean
Source: National Search Commission, Government of Mexico.
Human rights organizations have identified patterns of
the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of
behavior regarding enforced disappearances in Mexico. In
deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by
many cases, police or military officials first detain people
persons or groups of persons acting with the
from whom they seek to obtain confessions or gather
authorization, support or acquiescence of the State,
intelligence without warrants or probable cause. Some
followed by a refusal to acknowledge the
detainees are tortured for purposes of obtaining information
deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate
and then “disappeared” by security forces to cover up their
or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which
deaths. Others are handed over to organized crime groups,
place such a person outside the protection of the
who often hold them for ransom, extort them, or use them
for forced labor. Victims’ families routinely face threats
and intimidation from authorities when trying to report
The phenomenon of enforced disappearances rose to
disappearances. Families are often forced to carry out
prominence in Latin America during the military
searches for disappeared family members on their own.
dictatorships of the 1960s-1980s. During the “dirty wars” of
this period, officials arrested and “disappeared” individuals
Ayotzinapa, Guerrero
as a strategy to silence insurgents and opposition activists.
The case of the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa,
Mexico is distinct in its experience with enforced
Guerrero, in September 2014 attracted global attention. The
disappearances; only a small fraction of those who have
initial investigation by the federal attorney general’s office
disappeared in Mexico went missing during the country’s
found that local police had arrested the students on orders
“dirty war” period (1,500 out of an estimated 73,200 total;
from the mayor and handed them over to a criminal group.
see Figure 1). The vast majority of enforced
A group of experts from the Inter-American Commission
disappearances have occurred more recently.
on Human Rights disproved the investigation findings,
which did not consider the involvement of federal forces in
Enforced Disappearances in Mexico
the case. In 2018, a federal judge deemed the initial
As of July 2020, Mexican authorities estimated that 71,678
investigation flawed. President López Obrador later
people had disappeared since drug trafficking related
established a truth commission on Ayotzinapa, and a new
violence began to escalate in 2006, and then-president
special prosecutor within the federal prosecutor general’s
Felipe Calderón launched a military-led response. Despite
office—which has replaced the attorney general’s office—
criticism that military-led antidrug strategies have
reopened the case. In March 2020, a federal judge issued
contributed to an escalation in homicides and enforced
arrest warrants sought by the special prosecutor’s office for
disappearances, former President Enrique Peña Nieto
a former Mexican marine and five former officials in the
(2012-2018) and current President Andrés Manuel López
office of the attorney general for torture and obstruction of
Obrador have largely maintained Calderón’s approach.
justice related to the case. Arrest warrants also have been
While criminal groups have carried out many of the
issued for dozens of Mexican soldiers and police. DNA
disappearances, state forces have participated, or have been
analysis has helped identify the remains of at least two
complicit, in many cases.
students; the other students have yet to be identified.

Human Rights Chal enges in Mexico: Addressing Enforced Disappearances
Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
U.S. Response
According to Amnesty International, some 36 people
The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for
vanished between February and May 2018 in Nuevo
International Development (USAID) have supported efforts
Laredo, Tamaulipas. Witness reports collected by the U.N.
to address enforced disappearances in Mexico. Within the
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
State Department, the Bureau of International Narcotics and
indicated that federal security forces detained many of those
Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) has provided forensics
individuals, including at least five youth under the age of
assistance that has enabled all of Mexico’s federal labs and
18. Despite evidence that implicated the Mexican navy,
several state labs to receive international accreditation. INL
prosecutors delayed and hindered investigations of the
is helping Mexican officials conduct forensic analysis of
cases. Witnesses reported threats and harassment after
decomposed bodies, present DNA evidence at trial, and
reporting the disappearances to authorities. In July 2020,
identify remains. With the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission released a
INL is helping the prosecutor general build a national
report that attributed 27 of the disappearances to the navy.
genetics database. The Bureau on Population, Refugees,
The report also recommended that criminal investigations
and Migration has provided funds to enable the ICRC to
be opened against those responsible.
support state-level search commissions. In FY2018, the
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL)
Government Response
provided nearly $1 million to help relevant stakeholders use
Until recently, the Mexican government did little to address
forensics to search for and identify the disappeared. Mexico
the issue of enforced disappearances. In 2017, the Peña
has not been among the countries that have received DRL
Nieto administration supported passage of a law on
forensic funds earmarked for mass exhumations.
enforced disappearances but did not ensure its
implementation. The law created a National Search
USAID helped draft Mexico’s 2017 law on enforced
Commission (CNB) to locate and identify missing persons,
disappearances, supported the CNB and the creation of a
but the administration did not allocate sufficient resources
national search protocol, and strengthened seven state
for the CNB to carry out its mission.
search commissions. USAID continues to support the CNB,
the Extraordinary Mechanism to identify backlogged
The López Obrador administration has taken steps toward
remains, state search commissions, and victims’ groups.
addressing enforced disappearances. The administration has
met regularly with families of the missing, launched an
Congressional Action
online portal for reporting missing persons, supported
Congressional concerns about human rights abuses in
community-led searches, and ensured that all states create
Mexico have intensified as U.S. security assistance to
state-level search commissions. The CNB, which received
Mexico has increased under the Mérida Initiative, a security
budget increases in 2020 and 2021, has registered more
and rule-of-law partnership launched in 2007 for which
than 1,143 clandestine graves and identified 712 of the
Congress has provided more than $3 billion. Since FY2008,
1,682 bodies exhumed from those graves. The International
Congress has conditioned the annual provision of a
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International
percentage of certain U.S. assistance to Mexican security
Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), and others have
forces on the State Department’s submission of a report
supported the CNB’s efforts. Families have complained,
confirming that Mexico has made progress in complying
however, that the CNB has had problems mobilizing to
with human rights standards. Since FY2014, those
search for missing persons who may still be alive. Amidst
standards have included addressing enforced
what the interior ministry has deemed a “forensics crisis,”
disappearances. In FY2014 and FY2016, the State
the government is seeking international assistance for an
Department did not submit a report, as they assessed
“Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification” to
Mexico had not met the criteria.
resolve a backlog of some 39,000 unidentified bodies in
morgues. Mexico has already received some support from
The 116th Congress could appropriate additional assistance
Argentine and Guatemalan forensics experts.
to bolster Mexico’s efforts to find and identify victims and
to support federal and state-level special prosecutors
Obstacles continue to impede Mexico’s efforts to address
investigating disappearance cases. At an October 2020
enforced disappearances according to many human rights
Lantos Commission hearing, witnesses recommended U.S.
organizations. These obstacles include inadequate funds
support for the Extraordinary Mechanism; continued
and staffing on commissions and in forensics labs; the
funding for forensics labs, experts, and infrastructure; and
mishandling of bodies and case information; limited
continued support for families and victims’ organizations.
information sharing and trust among families, commissions,
Some witnesses also urged the U.S. government to consider
and prosecutors; low political will in some states; and
allowing families to access DNA databases on migrants
inadequate access to DNA analysis. Due to these
who have died on the U.S. side of the border.
challenges, impunity for perpetrators of forced
disappearances persists. In 2019, for example, Mexican
Clare Ribando Seelke, Specialist in Latin American
prosecutors secured no convictions for enforced
disappearances. The prosecutor general’s office has
Rachel L. Martin, Research Assistant
reportedly requested less funding for forensic and victims’
assistance in 2021 than in 2020, at a time when the services
offered to victims’ families are quite limited.

Human Rights Chal enges in Mexico: Addressing Enforced Disappearances

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