In Mexico, families lead the search for their disappeared loved ones

A mural reads “Where are our children?” in Borunda Park, Ciudad Juárez, in honour of Mexico’s victims of enforced disappearances. (Credit: Courtesy of Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte/Favia Lucero)

Thousands in Mexico have been subject to enforced disappearances with rampant impunity, according to UN experts. Families and civil society organisations refuse to give up the chance for justice without a fight.

Two kilometres south of the US border, looking across from El Paso, Texas, Borunda Park is one of the main attractions of Ciudad Juarez. At the heart of the Mexican Northern city, the park hosts joy rides, a playground and food stands for families to enjoy. Once a month, the decor completely changes as families gather at the park to remember their loved ones, who have gone missing.

These gatherings have been taking place since last year thanks to the Network of United Families for Truth and Justice and the Centre for Human Rights of Paso del Norte. In Mexico, it is families and civil society organisations that lead the search for those who have forcibly disappeared, Carla Palacio, lawyer and coordinator at the Centre, told Geneva Solutions. The organisation provides legal and psychological support for male victims of enforced disappearances and their relatives as well as male and female victims of state-perpetrated torture.

The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances called on Tuesday for “immediate actions to end absolute impunity and a national policy to prevent this human tragedy”, following a visit to Mexico in November.

In the North American country of about 129 million people, enforced disappearances have become a daily event. Since 1964 and up to this date, the whereabouts of 99,007 people remain unknown, with nearly 90 per cent having disappeared by force, according to the country’s national registry.

Often lured by criminal groups and abducted for forced labour, or brought in for questioning by the police and then tortured, killed and buried to hide the evidence, the circumstances in which thousands vanish every day in Mexico are a stark reminder of the violence that the country grapples with.

Taking matter into their own hands

A hotspot for violence and organised crime, the state of Chihuahua where Ciudad Juárez is located, currently reports 3,463 missing persons. Palacio and her 10-strong team of lawyers, psychologists and sociologists, have had to step up to address the staggering number of cases.

Aside from counselling and legally representing victims, they work with police investigations, making recommendations on how and where to search for missing people, and even participate in search parties along with the families to monitor that the police conduct them appropriately. Like many families, Palacio distrusts the authorities who are often the perpetrators of these and many other crimes.

“A lot of public authority agents are in collusion with organised crime, including in human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, which we have constantly documented here in Ciudad Juárez,” she says.

And even if not all agents are culprits, the system is designed to leave families without answers, Palacio adds. Families have a hard time filing a complaint, in many cases losing a valuable window of time in which the chances of finding a missing person are greater. Even when investigations are set in motion, authorities leave families in the dark about the investigations.

In the case of a missing dead person, Palacio says families are not informed about the process. “The relatives only have their genetic samples taken to consult a database at state level but they are not told what the other possibilities are, such as an expert interview to gather antemortem data, which we know from experience makes the forensic search more efficient,” she adds.  And when families don’t follow procedure and put in the necessary requests, they’re often blamed for not knowing.

For Palacio, the profile of the victims explains why there is so much impunity. For the most part, they’re poor, young and male both in cases of disappearances and torture. “It would be different if they were people with a high economic level because there we would see a mobilisation on the part of the authorities,” Palacio observes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, migrants have become a predominant target. “Polleros”, or human smugglers, have increasingly killed migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti and other countries who are fleeing violence and poverty. Palacio recalls the case of a young Venezuelan, who had paid a smuggler to get him to the United States where he would meet his girlfriend.

When he disappeared, his family spent months trying to get Mexican authorities to investigate, until Palacio’s team tracked him down at a morgue and helped the family identify and recover the body to take him back home.

“The family had paid and they still brutally robbed him of his life,” says Palacio. “It’s heartbreaking.”

The government has launched a national plan to tackle the issue of enforced disappearances but the UN committee warned that despite legal advances, the plan had not been implemented.

The experts further raised the alarm on the country’s forensic crisis, where over 52,000 unidentified bodies were lying in mass graves, forensic facilities and universities.

Targeted for their work

Keeping the police in check comes with a price for professionals like Palacio. “As an organisation, we are targeted by all kinds of threats and aggressions from the police precisely for pointing out to the public ministries and the police the omissions they have committed,” she says. Palacio says she has herself been threatened with detention for denouncing torture taking place in the state attorney general's office.

The organisation has been accompanied since 2013 by the Mexican arm of Peace Brigades International, an NGO that uses the presence of international volunteers to dissuade attacks against defenders.

In their findings, the UN committee said it was concerned about human rights defenders in Mexico, “some of whom have disappeared because of their participation in searches and fighting against disappearances”.

“There is no mechanism or political will to ensure that the aggressions committed against those of us who work in this field are properly sanctioned, investigated and, above all, prevented,” Palacio says. A law to protect defenders is currently being discussed in the assembly but Palacio doubts that it will bring about the necessary changes that need to happen at all levels of a justice system plagued by corruption.

Harnessing the strength to carry on

Some families have gone over 10 years without an answer about what happened to their loved ones. Frustrated with the wait and the lack of action, many of them have organised themselves into networks to help each other in the search of their loved ones and push for political action.

Most of them are women. They’re not only the ones to lead the search but they’re also the ones to replace disappeared fathers as sole providers, proof for Palacio that “machismo” is one of the root causes of such violence.

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Families put up flyers of missing loved ones. (Credit: Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte/Favia Lucero)
Providing a place for moral support, such as in Borunda Park, has also been a major role of these networks. “It serves as a memorial, where the families can remember their loved ones and remember that they are not dead. They’re still demanding that they are located but they have a physical place to channel all that pain and frustration,” Palacio says.

Her organisation also offers different types of therapies, including workshops and meditation to provide what they call “self-care”, so that they can replenish their psychological strength to continue with their long search.

“One of the most common phrases I hear from families is ‘I just don't want to do nothing’,” she adds.

Despite seriously doubting that she will see an end to this crisis during her lifetime, Palacio has hopes of seeing more and more families come forward, even after years of silence.

“It gives me a lot of faith that the authorities are more cautious when the victims are gathered together, that they are really recognised as the most legitimate to demand truth and justice,” she says. It is perhaps them who hold the power to spark a transformation in Mexico’s justice system.