Disappearances in Mexico
There is a crisis of enforced disappearances of persons in Mexico. The Mexican Government acknowledges that there are more than 80,000 disappeared or missing persons in the country -- a number that literally grows by the day. And the disappearance of each of these persons not only violates their human rights -- to life, to be free from arbitrary detention and torture, and to be recognized by the law -- but this abhorrent act violates the rights of their anguished families and causes deep trauma in Mexican communities. The Mexican government’s own Sub-Secretary of Human Rights, has observed that “México is an enormous clandestine grave.”
The crisis of disappearances has unfolded as part of the larger pattern of criminal violence in México, driven by the activities of organized crime and the involvement, support, or acquiescence of state actors in those criminal activities. Disappearances frequently occur with the direct and indirect involvement of government agents. These state actors may be part of a web of macro-criminality in which they are furthering the ends of organized crime. Even if the state is not directly involved in a disappearance, it has a positive responsibility to prevent and punish the perpetrators and to search for the disappeared.
According to Payne and Ansolabehere, there are four logics that explain the persistence of disappearance in a post-transitional state such as Mexico: its clandestine nature; the construction of a ‘disposable’ person; the political economy utility; and ambiguous loss as social control.
The context of impunity in Mexico has contributed to the crisis of disappearances. Lack of information about disappearances is used to justify the lack of accountability, a breeding ground for unimpeded violence. A close look at these cases, however, demonstrate that government officials seldom investigate disappearances in the timely and effective manner as required by law, or to make even a minimal effort to search for the whereabouts of the disappeared. This may be because of the difficulty of such an investigation or the fear of undertaking one in a context of violent crime. Alternatively, failure to search or investigate has been meant to conceal the involvement of state agents themselves.
Because of the government’s failure to investigate, many families of the disappeared themselves took on the burden of searching for their loved ones. Collectives of family members, such as United Forces for Our Disappeared(FUUNDEC) and Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CADHAC), discussed in this study, became fierce advocates for accountability. After a decade of crimes and mounting numbers of disappearance cases, the collective pressure of families of the disappeared and national and international NGOs led to the 2017 adoption of the General Law on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, Disappearances Committed by Individuals, and the National System for the Search for Persons. This new legal framework led to a more engaged governmental response led by the National Search Commission on disappearances.
Despite the efforts by some branches of the Mexican government to search and investigate, the crisis of disappearances is ongoing.
Faces of the Disappeared
More than 80,000 people have been disappeared since the start of Mexico's "war on drugs" in 2006. While these large numbers give us a sense of the depth of the crisis, it is the stories of individuals who help us to understand the significance of each individual loss.
Following are two emblematic stories among the many thousands of stories of disappeared persons. The stories of Israel and Toño were among those covered by the press and are included in our database. The unrelenting efforts of their families played a large part in the visibility of their cases -- explained in the story maps below. (Use the embeded scroll bars to the right to view the entire story)
Israel Arenas Durán, who worked in a plant nursery in Nuevo Leon with his father, was disappeared on June 17, 2011 by the local transit police acting in collusion with organized crime. He was turned over to the police for failing to pay his full bar tab.
Jose Antonio Robledo Fernandez, affectionately referred to as “Toño” by friends and family, was a civil engineer who worked for a construction company in the state of Coahuila. On January 25, 2009, Toño was abducted by a group of men while he was on a road trip. He was in the midst of a phone conversation with his girlfriend, who heard the events play out on the other end of the line.
Watchdog Journalism in Action
The Risks for Journalists
In Mexico, journalists are the targets of violence themselves. The Committee to Protect Journalists identified Mexico as one of the deadliest countries for journalists to carry out their work, with 57 journalists killed and 14 missing since 1992. While violence against journalists has long been a problem in Mexico, it has become increasingly worse since the turn of the century. In 2020 alone, eight journalists were killed. Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights Humanos reported that, between 2010 and 2018--a span of just eight years--148 journalists were killed in Mexico. Between 2005 and 2018, 21 were victims of disappearances.
The Mexican state systematically fails to investigate and prosecute the attacks on, disappearances and murders of journalists in Mexico. Since 2010, the Federal Special Prosecutor’s Office, whose task is to investigate crimes against journalists, has opened more than 1,000 investigations but, by December 2018, the Special Prosecutor’s Office brought just 186 charges for crimes against journalists, a mere 16.3 percent of all received complaints. During the same period, the office obtained only 10 convictions. A National Protection Mechanism was established by the federal government to protect journalists under threat, but there are ongoing concerns about the lack of resources, coordination, and procedures for this mechanism.
In this context, journalists we interviewed explained that their press outlets engaged in editorial self-censorship, including publishing without a by-line in order to avoid any negative repercussions. Frey and Cuellar (2020) found that cases of disappearance are significantly underreported in Mexico’s print media in relation to the dimensions of the problem, because of security concerns, questions of attracting readers and the influence that political actors have in controlling what information is published. The Observatory’s press database further demonstrates this gap: we found fewer than 200 reported disappearance victims who appeared in print media outlets in each of the four states we studied (Coahuila, 196; Guerrero, 120; Jalisco, 173; and Nuevo Leon, 162), despite thousands of disappearances reported in each state.
This section of the website is dedicated to highlighting the ways in which journalists across different states in Mexico have experienced, been harmed by and coped with working in a context that is explicitly hostile to their work. We include the story of Valentin Valdez Espinoza, a reporter from Coahuila, who paid the highest price for his professional work, brutally killed to terrorize the public and his colleagues. Undoubtedly, the work done by reporters around the world is of central importance in drawing attention to issues that may otherwise be swept under the rug by governments, administrations, corporations, and criminal organizations that are all too eager to pursue their operations without the input or attention of outside actors. Such watchdog reporting is perhaps even more important, and certainly more dangerous, in states like Mexico, which are plagued by impunity, violence, and corruption.
Coahuila: His death was a message to journalists
An impassioned, driven journalist and caring son, Valentín Valdez Espinoza exemplified professionalism in his work in the state of Coahuila. Remembered by his colleagues as a man who took great care in writing his stories; who sought out interviews week after week; who arrived at the office before everyone else and stayed until dark, Valentín wrote stories that brought light to pressing issues in Coahuila. Unfortunately, this dedication to the pursuit of truth ultimately led Valentín to his untimely and tragic death in January 2010.
Educated at the Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila, Valentín worked for various news outlets in the state over the course of his ten years as a journalist. Starting at El Diario de Coahuila, moving to Vanguardia, and becoming one of the founding members of Zocalo, Valentín developed his skills with a variety of different news organizations. Producing mostly political and investigative pieces, Valentín was a dependable worker known to publish high-quality content.
The last story covered by Valentín was one of the first that reported on the activities of organized crime in Coahuila. Due to his experience covering investigations, Valentín was tapped to cover a story about a raid that had taken place at a motel in Coahuila, called Marbella. In the federal operation at the motel on December 29, 2009, members of the Mexican army arrested 12 individuals involved in organized crime; among them, an alleged leader in the Gulf Cartel.
Valentín published an article, to which he did not attach his name, with the headline, “Capturan a sicarios en el Motel Marbella de Saltillo” (Hit men captured in the Marbella de Saltillo Motel). On the day it was published, January 7, 2010, Valentín was abducted by a group of armed men while riding in a taxi with two of his colleagues. After his captors beat and tortured Valentin to death, they left his body in front of the Motel Marbella de Saltillo with a threatening note splayed across the chest.
Left to grieve the tragic loss of their colleague and afraid for their lives, none of the journalists in the area covered Valentin’s torture and death. In fact, reporting on disappearances and crime in Coahuila came to a halt before it had really begun. The officials in charge of investigating Valentin’s murder took a similar approach; in failing to adequately investigate the case, Valentín’s murder remains unsolved and his attackers free.
The young journalist left behind an aging mother and a sick father. Valentín’s father, who had suffered from diabetes and was on dialysis, died soon after the death of his beloved son, who had become his caretaker. Valentín's mother, María del Carmen, keeps pictures of her son up in her room, keeping his joyful smile in her heart and his hopeful mantra in her mind: mañana será otro día, mamá, mañana saldrá el sol.
Guerrero: Using spot reporting to minimize the risk
The indices of violence in the state of Guerrero are among the highest in México, and journalists have been a particular target of that violence. In one recent example, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the small community of reporters who covered organized crime in Iguala dwindled after journalist Pablo Morrugares’s 2020 murder, evidently for his reporting about organized crime. It is perhaps, then, unsurprising that reporters take into account questions of personal security when reporting on enforced disappearances in the state.
Characteristic of the media reports on disappearances in this region is spot reporting or notas rojas, mentioned in the introduction to this section. When reported as notas rojas, disappearances are portrayed as singular crimes, removed from the context in which they occurred, presented as being one-off tragedies in a country that has known all too well the realities of the widespread, systemic nature of disappearances.
One reporter in Guerrero, (“Esther”), portrayed for us the very real limitations faced by journalists working in this state. Reflecting on her time at a local newspaper, Esther remarked that “there are many things that are not investigated here… Violence here is no small thing and has obligated reporters to take many precautions.” Such precautions, Esther noted, have influenced the reporting done on disappearances such that, when reporting on Amber Alerts, reporters seldom undertake further investigation into the cases, unless it “draws a lot of attention.”
Questions of readership and profitability additionally influence which stories are pursued. When speaking about which variables influence the editorial decisions at her news outlet, Esther noted that she detected a change in its guiding principles, which affected the information and stories it published.
For those reporters living in areas with high levels of violence and working for companies whose interests are influenced by political and economic concerns, covering unpopular stories that highlight both human rights violations and the state’s role in their perpetuation is difficult, if not impossible, and has consequences that undermine victims’ and society’s right to the truth.
Nuevo Leon: Putting a face on disappearance victims
As early as 2004, Daniel de la Fuente, a reporter for the variety section of El Norte, began to put a human face on violence in the region. He felt an obligation to use his tools and power as a reporter to draw attention to the violence and the human stories behind it. Through his reporting, de la Fuente hopes to combat the notas rojas phenomenon, instead contextualizing disappearances and violent crimes within a larger framework of human rights violations, raising collective awareness and, most importantly, telling the stories of the victims and their loved ones. De la Fuente offered his perspective on why some cases receive more news coverage than others, noting that the degree of mobilization of the victim's family increases visibility in the news and the public's interest level in a story depends on the socioeconomic class of the victim (Interview, July 9, 2019).
In his own reporting, de la Fuente humanized the victims through storytelling, describing for readers the emotional trauma experienced by family members who were reeling from disappearances, and painting a picture of the personality of disappeared individuals. In his article, Marineros en Tierra, published by El Norte in January 2012, the storytelling skills of de la Fuente are visible. His coverage of the disappearance of two taxi drivers begins with an emotional scene in which Jesús Victor sees his son, Junior, being taken away in a caravan of military vehicles. Jesús courageously runs up to the military officer who has taken his son captive, exemplifying the bravery assumed by family members of the disappeared and their feelings of desperation as they struggle against and reckon with the reality of having a loved one disappear. Reporting that focused on the humanity and powerful emotions of victims themselves provided a counterpoint to the dominant narrative of Mexican authorities -- broadcast by many media outlets -- that the disappeared were bad apples themselves, linked to organized crime, enemies of their communities, and responsible for their own fate.
In Marineros en Tierra, de la Fuente also profiles the perpetrators in a disappearance case, giving special attention and emphasis to the role of naval officers in depriving Junior and others of their liberty. By describing how Junior was covered with a sheet and beaten by his captors, de la Fuente highlighted the role of the state in orchestrating disappearances; a journalistic move that many reporters working in Nuevo Leon at the time might not have risked. The omnipresence and abusive power of the military was apparent in de la Fuente’s reporting on the nighttime visit by military officials to Junior’s brother, and other threats to victims.
In focusing on the experiences of one father and the search for his son, de la Fuente draws the reader into the personal suffering of the families of the disappeared. The reader accompanies Jesús as he questions public authorities about the whereabouts of his son and weeps at the sight of the daughter Junior left behind. De la Fuente’s characterization of the young man who the Navy disappeared and the father who searched for him provided the public with a firsthand understanding about the human toll of disappearances.
Especially in the peak years of violence in Nuevo Leon, de la Fuente and other journalists had to consider questions of security when covering disappearances and violent crimes. De la Fuente explained to us that the stress of covering is intense; before the publication of any article, he and his coworkers have to think about the potential effects on both reporters and victims. Between 2009-12, according to de la Fuente, “You had to go to the neighborhoods, you had to go to the municipalities, to the rural areas. And then those routes, and that talking and asking about information from neighbors and acquaintances is where you can suddenly put yourself at risk.” (Interview, July 9, 2019).
In 2012, De la Fuente assisted with a special report published in three major news outlets, El Norte, La Reforma and Mural, which covered a series of disappearance cases that typified the nature of the crimes being carried out in Nuevo Leon. The report relied on the cooperation of the organization CADHAC, its director, Sr. Consuelo Morales, and the cases its lawyers had investigated. The series had an important impact on public opinion, according to De la Fuente, “it shocked and outraged, it made visible that none of these cases was resolved, none of those people returned.” The series underscored the impunity inherent in the wave of disappearances. De la Fuente reflected, “How difficult, how difficult this issue of doing journalism but not seeing concrete consequences in favor of families.” (Interview, July 9, 2019)
El Norte, in continuation of its efforts to draw attention to violence in Mexico and situate disappearances and other crimes within a larger context of human rights violations, published a multimedia project called La decada roja, in 2016. Highlighting trends in murders and disappearances since 2006. Along with the 2012 series, this project was emblematic of best practices in watchdog journalism on the issues of disappearances. In addition to highlighting specific cases of violence, the reporting situated them within a broader context, bringing to light the endemic nature of human rights violations and the culpability of public officials and state actors in carrying out or covering up the crimes.
Journalism in Mexico extends beyond the traditional news outlets and is additionally characterized and enriched by independent collectives that work to call attention to corruption, human rights abuses, impunity, and disappearances. The work of the journalists that make up these collectives is invaluable in raising consciousness of human rights violations in Mexico and in decriminalizing victims of such crimes.
Zona Docs: Periodismo en Resistencia
Zona Docs is an independent journalist collective that operates in Guadalajara, Jalisco which was established as an independent entity in 2017. Its members, Darwin Franco, Dalia Souza, Ximena Torres, Aletse Torres, Samantha Anaya and Christian Cantero, undertake the investigative and documentary reporting they do from a human rights perspective, taking as their ethical and normative base the Universal Declaration on Human Rights from the United Nations. The reporting done by Zona Docs focuses on systemic issues and on those who have been victimized by them. Understanding the centrality of accessible, transparent reporting in the maintenance of democracy and freedom, Zona Docs denounces injustices, calls attention to issues that may otherwise be left out of mainstream discourse, and highlights movements that look to support the defence and universal enjoyment of human rights.
The work done by Zona Docs has garnered attention from local and international organizations. In 2019, this collective was awarded two awards for journalism in Jalisco in the categories chronicles and students. In 2020, Zona Docs was recognized by Google News Initiative and Seattle International Foundation for their reporting. Aiming to increase their reach and work with other news organizations committed to promoting human rights through the visualization and denouncement of crimes, Zona Docs is a member of the Periodistas de a Pie network.
An independent, non-profit organization, those at Quinto Elemento use their investigative reporting to empower citizens, strengthen accountability in Mexico, and facilitate the construction of a more just and transparent society. Quinto Elemento promises to deliver independent, honest reporting that is not influenced by outside causes or political interests.
Team members Alejandra Xanic, Armando Talamantes, Andrea Cárdenas, Efrían Tzuc, Ruth Muñiz, Marcela Turati, and Diana Partida Arteaga promise to “rummage around where one should not be,” to “go through that which has been hidden in the closet” and to provide the people of Mexico with a more informed understanding of the communities and country in which they live.An understanding which can then be used in the construction of a better society. Such a promise is no small thing, especially in Mexico, given the many risks and violence that journalists face when carrying out their work.
Periodistas de a pie
A civil society organization composed primarily of female journalists, Periodistas de a Pie, was founded in 2007 with the intention to put a human face to human rights violations. Today, the organization looks to elevate the quality of independent journalism in Mexico through education of journalists, the collection of information on human rights, creation of databases, and collaboration among reporters that supports the exchange of investigation techniques, experiences, and narrative styles. With the mission of using journalism to protect and advocate for human rights, Periodistas de a Pie supports reporting on, investigations into, and denouncements of human rights abuses, their perpetrators, and their causes.
The evolution of Periodistas de a pie is marked by and reflects the danger that journalists in Mexico face. In 2010, when violence against journalists became systematic, Periodistas transformed into a civil society organization dedicated to promoting the safety and protection of journalists across the country. The organization has grown over the years, looking to meet the needs of journalists who often find themselves working with great vulnerability. Maintaining alliances with more than 80 organizations, Periodistas continues to support, educate, and connect journalists across Mexico.
To underscore the importance of journalism in the current moment, Periodistas has launched its Periodismo campaign. This campaign highlights the protective role that independent, investigative journalism plays in the construction of a transparent society and is conceived of as an antidote to corruption, evasion, the criminalization of victims, organized crime, and silence, among other things. Facilitating collaboration among independent journalists, working for their protection, and collecting information for use by journalists, Periodistas de a pie plays a foundational role in supporting independent, critical journalism across Mexico.
Enforced Disappearance under International Law
Enforced disappearance is universally and unconditionally prohibited as a human rights violation. It is prohibited under international law in peacetime or armed conflict, and is a crime in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines an enforced disappearance as:
the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law. (Article 2)
Disappearance is a violation regardless whether it is for a short term or long term. It is also a continuous crime, so that the government is responsible for the violation until the whereabouts of the missing person are determined. Relatives of persons who have disappeared have the right to know the truth regarding the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.
An enforced disappearance consists of multiple violations of human rights -- the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to be free from arbitrary detention, the right to recognition before the law, and the right to a fair trial. Disappearances also result in severe economic and social rights violations for direct and indirect victims. These crimes completely undermine the victims’ rights to work, to care for their families and to live healthy, sustainable lives. (UN Factsheet No. 6, Rev. 3).
The international human rights community has spoken out consistently and assertively about the problem of disappearances in Mexico. The Inter-American system has found the Mexican government responsible for disappearances in its case law on México (Radilla, Campo de Algodon) and put in place precautionary measures and an unprecedented international investigative group and a special follow-up mechanism of the country’s most notorious mass disappearance of the 43 normal school students in Ayotzinapa.
Similarly, the United Nations has condemned the pattern of disappearances in México, through reports of the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
For purposes of this study, we include all disappearance cases in our analysis, recognizing that the line between a crime by private actors and a human rights violation by state actors is very thin indeed. Because many, if not most disappearances are carried out by organised crime or other private actors without a verifiable connection to the state, Mexico’s response to these international concerns had been to differentiate disappearances from various crimes that are “in the nature of enforced disappearance” but take place without the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State (Report of Mexico to CED, 2014: paras. 94, et seq.)
While many disappearances in México are committed by, or with the ‘authorization, support or acquiescence’ of State authorities, there are many cases where state involvement in the disappearance cannot be proven or where the crime is carried out by non-state criminal actors. States, however, are responsible not only for direct involvement but also for their omissions in disappearance cases -- failure to search, failing to investigate, or delay that results in further endangerment of the disappeared person. A failure to respect the duty to investigate is a breach of the right to life. (Minnesota Protocol 2017, para. 8(c)); UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, UN doc. A/70/304)
In 2017, México adopted the General Law on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, Disappearances Committed by Individuals, which categorized two types of disappearances as crimes. The first is the crime of enforced disappearance, which, in line with the international definition, is one committed by an authority or a non-state actor with the acquiescence of a public official. The second crime defined by the General Law concerns disappearances committed by private actors who deprive a person of liberty for the purpose of concealing the victim or his/her fate or whereabouts. The General Law has established search mechanisms and registries of disappearances that embrace the victims of both of these categories, recognizing the state’s legal responsibilities for preventing disappearances and for publishing perpetrators -- whether state or private actors.
Mexican National Context
Location and Demographics
Mexico, a country located in North America that shares borders with the United States to the north and with Guatemala and Belize to the south, is made up of 32 states and a population of 119,938,473 people, as of 2015. Mexico is home to the eleventh strongest economy in the world as of 2018. Despite its apparent economic strength, Mexico has underperformed in terms of economic growth and the reduction of poverty. A startling 48.8% of people in Mexico live below the poverty line. While the economy of Mexico places it among the world’s top performers, the quality of life of iits citizens is not comparable to that of other wealthy, developed nations.
Government of Mexico
The Mexican government is an electoral democracy in which citizens participate in regular elections that determine national, regional, and local leadership. Much like that of the United States, the government of Mexico is composed of Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. However, while the Federal Executive branch is headed by an elected president as in the U.S., in Mexico, this individual is eligible to serve only one six-year term, with no possibility of reelection . Also distinct from the U.S. context is the plurality of political parties that characterize Mexican politics. Instead of being an essentially two-party system, Mexican national politics are characterized by a diversity of parties, many of which have been formed in recent years, given the tight control of the country under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) from 1929-1989. It was only in 2000 that this party lost control over the federal presidency (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2016).
The current president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), won this position thanks to support from the “Juntos haremos historia” (Together We Will Make History) coalition, composed of his own political party, Movimiento Regeneración Nacional [National Regeneration Movement (MORENA)], as well as the Partido de Trabajo [Workers Party], and el Partido Encuentro Social [Social Encounter Party].
Mexico’s International Relations and Commitment to Human Rights
México’s diplomatic profile is characterized by a willingness to collaborate with, participate in, and receive feedback from international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), especially on programs which look to promote human rights. México has a standing invitation to all UN thematic special procedures and, since 1997, Mexico has received visits from 61 Rapporteurs and special mechanisms from the UN. In 2013 and 2015, it received high level visits from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mexico demonstrates its support of the UN and the fight for human rights through the financial contributions made to this organization and it is the tenth largest financial contributor to the UN and consistently advocates for increasing the budget that this organization allocates to human rights work.
Indeed, since 2002, Mexico has hosted a field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which monitors human rights concerns in the country, provides technical assistance and advisory services to the Mexican State.
In addition to hosting visits from members of the UN, Mexico has led and participated in the Human Rights Council, during both the 2006-2009 and 2009-2012 terms. In these years, Mexico campaigned for the creation of the Human Rights Council as a body that promotes and protects human rights. Mexico has also campaigned for the broader inclusion and support of NGOs, civil society groups, and national human rights organizations in the operations of the Council. Importantly, Mexico has advocated for open dialogue among participant nations and the nuanced evaluation of human rights issues around the world. As part of its commitment to transparency and open dialogue, Mexican officials, in their work with the Human Rights Council, have advocated for the implementation of universal periodic review as a tool for effective collaboration among Council participants.
In accordance with its commitment to the protection and defense of human rights, Mexico has ratified all major international human rights treaties, including the two Covenants (1981), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1986), the Convention for the Protection of all Persons From Enforced Disappearance (2008), and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1981).
Mexico additionally reformed its constitution in 2011 to increase protection and recognition of human rights in harmony with its international obligations. This reform includes respect for human rights as a foreign policy principle, the strengthening of the powers of human rights protection entities in Mexico and the creation of a general normative framework for its human rights policy. This reform also recognizes the right of every person to nutritious and quality food and the state’s responsibility in securing this right. Both at home and abroad, the Mexican government has branded itself as one that is attuned to the realization and protection of human rights.
Mexican Security and Disappearances
Despite its commitment to human rights institutions and obligations, the last fourteen years in Mexico have been plagued by widespread violence. For example, using figures from the National Public Security System, the Justice in México Project at the University of San Diego reported a steady decline in the number of intentional homicides reported in the 1990s until the early 2000s, followed by two steep surges from 2008 to 2011 and from 2015 to the present. The Project reported that by 2019, the Mexican government reported a nationwide total of 34,588 homicide victims -- a new record high -- exceeding the 33,742 individual victims reported in 2018, which had set the previous record.
The militarization of national security has been noted as one of the forces behind the increase in violence. Complaints made to the National Human Rights Commission regarding torture and ill-treatment quadrupled in the six years following the implementation of militarized security in Mexico (Open Justice Society, 2016). Instead of undermining the integrity of drug cartels through the removal of their leaders and funds, interventions undertaken by Mexican security officials led to abuses perpetrated by military officials against individuals and the initiation of wars among drug cartels that look to fill power vacuums created in the wake of cartel decapitations. Civilians, caught in the middle of the wars on drugs and the new cartel wars, have been victimized by the resulting violence; the increase in disappearances and deaths reflects this somber reality.
Impunity in Mexico: lack of access to justice
The disappearances and murders committed in Mexico take place in a context of impunity, or lack of accountability for crimes. The country is repeatedly among the 10 countries with the highest level of impunity. Mexico ranked 60th out of 69 countries in the 2020 Global Impunity Index. The index measures systems of security, justice, the protection of human rights and structural capacity to come up with its ranking. Impunity erodes the rule of law and the trust of citizens in institutions, and to exacerbate the consequences of insecurity, violence, or corruption.
The Observatory on Disappearance and Impunity in Mexico analyzed 28 sentences related to disappearances between 2005 and 2019, 15 federal and 13 local prosecutions. The Observatory sought to turn the impunity question on its head, to learn what it could from this small number of successful prosecutions about the access to justice in disappearance cases.
According to Sandra Serrano, in terms of access to justice, the bulk of the sentences in disappearances in Mexico did not seek to provide truth on the facts nor to achieve accountability of the various perpetrators. Many of the sentences encapsulated the disappearance of a person as if it had occurred as a singular case, removed from the broad context of disappearances in the country. The facts of the cases are not connected to the violence produced by the military, sailors, and state security forces, or by various criminal groups. The actions of public servants convicted of enforced disappearance was not linked to structural criminal-state structures or to the state - which they serve. The story most judgments tell is that of disappearances that occurred by "accident", by a few bad apples, by state agents linked (individually) to criminal groups or even by the military fulfilling its duty to maintain security.
Mexico and the United States
In addition to collaborating with international bodies such as the UN in the protection of human rights, Mexico has maintained a collaborative relationship with the United States in issues of security and the economy.
NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, is perhaps the most notable treaty signed by the United States and Mexico in recent years and has transformed not only the economies of both nations, but their demographics as well. Leading to the industrialization of Northern Mexico and destruction of its agricultural sector, NAFTA can be identified, in part, as being responsible for the migration seen both within this country and across its borders, as farmers without work search for jobs in the north.While the Mexican economy has been able to increase its exports of manufactured products under the implementation of NAFTA, no clear link has been seen between the opening of Mexico, exportation, and its economic development.
In addition to collaborating on economic issues, Mexico and the United States have, in the 20th Century, collaborated on issues of transnational security. Signed in 2008 by former presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon, the Merida Initiative marked an important point in the development of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Drafted in an attempt to manage and detain the illicit drug market, this agreement has functioned to highlight the shared responsibility that the U.S. and Mexico have in the management of drug cartels and the violence they perpetuate.
The Initiative was designed and carried out in a context of militarized security in Mexico; a framework constructed and implemented under the Calderon administration in 2006. The militarization of domestic security has been undertaken in an effort to combat drug cartels in Mexico through their “decapitation,” which refers to the removal of cartel leaders and resources (Ansolabehere, Frey, et al., 2018).
Thus, the Merida Initiative functions as a supplement to domestic security measures being taken in Mexico, as it provides the Mexican government with $2.8 billion in U.S. funds in the form of helicopters, technology, and weaponry. This initiative, whose focus is fighting organized crime and delinquency, has led to the death of some 70,000 individuals and the disappearance of 23,000 more.
While the Plan Merida remains in place today, the AMLO administration has spoken out against its continued presence in Mexican society and advocated for its discontinuance. AMLO has criticized the emphasis that this plan places on the militarization of Mexican society and security, highlighting that the support that Mexico needs from the United States has to do with internal development, not the militarization of security.