The revelation that as many as 27,000 people may have gone missing in Mexico in recent years renews attention to the huge human toll left by the war on crime that former President Felipe Calderon waged during his six years in office.
Combined with the 70,000 dead acknowledged recently by the new administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who succeeded Calderon on Dec. 1, the number of the disappeared makes the Calderon tenure the bloodiest period in Mexican history since the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century.
On Thursday, human rights campaigners said the numbers place Mexico far above some of the better-known Latin American human catastrophes of decades past, including the rule of military regimes in Argentina, Chile and Brazil and civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Lia Limon, Mexico’s deputy interior secretary for human rights and legal affairs, acknowledged on Wednesday that the government had compiled a list of 27,000 missing people after meeting with representatives of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
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Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Thursday promised to “look for all of them.” But he also warned there were no guarantees. “We start from a fundamental fact,” he said, “little information, little evidence and no rules.”
Civic activists hailed the government for disclosing the list, nonetheless.
“It is an acknowledgement by the Mexican state of the problem,” said Jorge Verastegui Gonzalez, spokesman for United Forces for Our Disappeared in Mexico, an advocacy group. “Recognition is a first step.”
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said any list of disappeared must be carefully scrutinized and cross-checked to eliminate those who are known dead or who later reappeared. He said that even if a final tally is smaller, the numbers are “overwhelming.”
Over the past six years, Vivanco said, Mexican authorities have collected 15,921 bodies or partial human remains that have never been identified.
“These figures speak for themselves,” he said at a news conference, adding that “in terms of forced disappearances, the numbers put Mexico almost at the vanguard of what lamentably has occurred in Latin America in this area.”
“How many people disappeared during the military dictatorship in Brazil? According to official figures, 137 people,” Vivanco said. “How many disappeared in Chile? The most recent official figures say around 3,000. How many disappeared in Argentina during the military dictatorship? According to the Sabato report ‘Never Again,’ around 10,000 people.”
In a detailed report released this week, Vivanco’s group said that it had investigated 249 cases of disappearances in Mexico. Of those, 149 involved people who witnesses saw being detained by military personnel or municipal, state or federal police. He said the actual number of such cases is certainly far higher, though what proportion of the total number of disappeared had government involvement is not clear.
Organized crime syndicates are thought to be responsible for the bulk of Mexico’s bloodshed, unleashing a wave of terror that included beheadings, dismemberments and public executions in a battle fueled by cash from an insatiable demand for cocaine and other drugs in the United States.
In some areas, the criminals operated as virtual shadow governments, particularly along the border with the United States.
But Vivanco said the likelihood that police and military were involved in at least some of the crimes increases the obligation of the Pena Nieto government to prosecute. To do otherwise, he said, would just encourage more abuses.
Vivanco called for “exemplary punishment” for soldiers and police found guilty of crimes with “sentences proportional to the atrocities that have been committed by public forces in a war against drug traffickers in which everything was permitted. This is the result of a war without any controls.”
Building cases from long-cold crimes will not be easy, he said, especially when “officials manipulated crime scenes, fabricated evidence to clear themselves and implicate others.”
Judicial investigators are often poorly trained, unable to carry out simple tasks for building a criminal case, added Nik Steinberg, a Mexico researcher for Human Rights Watch. In one case, he said, “investigators spoke to the wives of disappeared men, and then took DNA samples from the wives. . . . This is an example of the capabilities of the investigators they are sending.”
Vivanco noted that citizens placed more than 5,000 complaints of abuses against naval and army forces during the Calderon government. “How many led to conviction? Thirty-eight,” he added.
Recent years mark the bloodiest chapter in Mexico’s history since its national revolution, which took more than 1 million lives between 1910 and 1920.
Other Latin nations have known intense periods of bloodshed as well. A period between 1948 and 1958 in Colombia, known as La Violencia, left 200,000 people dead.
Civil wars in Central America also left vast tolls. A Guatemalan insurgency that began in 1960 and lasted until 1996 triggered bloodshed that left 200,000 Guatemalans dead and 50,000 missing. Civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador took 60,000 and 75,000 lives, respectively.
Calculating the disappeared in Mexico draws particular challenges because of the nation’s proximity to the United States and the tendency of some Mexicans to cross the border secretively, even slipping away without informing family members.
Some migrants – especially those from Central America – have fallen into the grasp of organized crime in northern Mexico and suffered mass killings. In August 2010, Mexican marines found the bodies of 72 migrants. Less than a year later, they found mass graves containing 193 bodies.
Verastegui said he believes the figure of 27,000 missing may actually be shy of the real number.
“In a great majority of the cases, people don’t dare denounce the crime,” he said, “because the authorities are the ones linked to organized crime or actually participated in the disappearances. The families are afraid.”