The Mexican government has just assumed something that thousands of Mexicans have known and suffered for a long time: their territory became “a huge clandestine grave. This is how crude the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador recognized it this week when it launched a program to search for and identify the 40,000 disappeared who left behind narco-trafficking, repressive forces, paramilitaries, human trafficking, and other criminal networks that have been destroying the country for a couple of decades. The project represents a great challenge for AMLO. It can mark a break with the contempt for human rights shown by his predecessors Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto and open for the first time a path of reparation for the victims. Or it could end up being a new disappointment for organizations and families who have had enough of the impotence, inaction or complicity of the State.
AMLO promises a paradigm shift. In presenting his strategy for the issue of the disappeared, he criticized the “profound simulation” of his predecessors on this issue and assured that no more will force be used nor will war be declared to solve social problems. For now, the human rights movement awaits the government’s next steps with both expectation and caution. The only thing we are doing is recovering the claim of the victims and transforming it into public policy,” Aarón Mastache Mondragón, head of the Mexican government’s Unit for the Defense of Human Rights, told with PROFILE.
We are aware that the trust between relatives and the State has been broken, even because many perpetrators belong to the State. Repairing it is our priority and that’s why we do everything we can with the families. Tasks. The authorities will have to face a gigantic scientific and technical task. For now, in Mexico there are 26,000 unidentified bodies in forensic services and thousands of unopened clandestine graves throughout the country. The government hopes to have the support of international experts and, in particular, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), a world reference in the field. EAAF has been working in Mexico for fifteen years and has a permanent presence there. It gained prominence from the case of the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa, when it demonstrated with its independent expertise that the “historical truth” that Peña Nieto’s government had presented about the crime of the “normalists” (Ayotzinapa) was an unsustainable fabrication.
The EAAF is working on proposals for the new Mexican government to deal with an enormous workload in the area of unidentified remains and the disappearance of people,” says Argentine anthropologist Mercedes Doretti, EAAF’s director in Mexico. There is much hope that this administration will generate a more favorable framework for investigations into human rights violations. EAAF already participates in Mexican institutional spaces such as the National Search Council and the Forensic Space for Human Rights, from where it makes its contributions.
According to Doretti, the main framework for the work ahead should be the General Law on Forced Disappearance of Persons, approved in November 2017, whose implementation for now leaves much to be desired. At a glance. Twelve years after the beginning of that total failure that was Calderón’s “war on drugs,” the situation that the new government is inheriting today is devastating. Clandestine graves are perhaps the most visible physical mark of the systemic violence that shakes the country. An investigation presented late last year by the Mexican journalism project “A dónde van los desaparecidos” counted nearly 2,000 illegal graves discovered between 2006 and 2016 in 24 Mexican states, almost double the officially recognized ones, where the remains and fragments of bones of no-one knows how many thousands of victims were found.
The concealment of bodies through illegal inhumations – also their incineration or dissolution in acid – was one of the hallmarks of the lost decade of the war on drugs. And it is an indication of the degree of penetration of organized crime in spaces of public power. Digging a huge well to bury dozens or hundreds of corpses requires a great deal of impunity. Even more so when the graves are not opened in isolated places, as one would tend to believe, but also in communities and towns, in the sight of settlers and security forces. To make matters worse, illegal burials are a current phenomenon. It is difficult to know how many active but undiscovered graves exist in territories currently controlled by narco or other criminal networks.
The search for Mexican disappeared persons has a particularity that makes it different, for example, from Argentina’s post-dictatorial experience: in Mexico, the spiral of violence continues to rise. The forensic ineptitude of the State victimizes the disappeared for the second time. Negligence in exhumations, lax records of the NN under the protection of prosecutors and incomplete, fragmentary or contradictory information are common currency in investigations. There is no standardized protocol at the national level for state prosecutors’ offices to share a common criterion for recording graves and remains found, which prevents reliable statistics on disappearances.
“Within the forensic area it is necessary to create or purify large national registries that today do not exist or exist partially: National Registry of Disappeared Persons, Registry of Unidentified or Unclaimed Remains, Forensic Data Bank, National Exhumations Program”, Doretti details.
To face this panorama, AMLO presented last Monday an eleven-point strategic plan. Some of the most outstanding are: Creation of a National Institute of Forensic Identification by July 2019. Disbursement of 21 million dollars this year to implement the project. Appointment of a new head for the National Search Commission. Priority to the search for missing persons in life. Increased attention to migrants, who make up about 10% of disappearance victims. Introduction of the figure of “effective collaboration” to obtain information and improve witness protection mechanisms. Waiting and seeing. In the human rights environment, hardly anyone distrusts AMLO’s political will to bring about change around the issue of the disappeared.
What is fundamentally feared is that he does not have the strength or the capacity to do so. “The announcement is fine, it shows a good intention and it is a novelty that the size of the disaster is recognized, but now it is necessary to see how they are going to implement this policy,” warns the Mexican poet and activist Javier Sicilia, referent of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. “The problem is not only the graves, but the collusion between the State and organized crime in Mexico is very deep. For that to change, state policy is needed, not a government policy. Sicily decided to abandon poetry and dedicate herself to the struggle for human rights on March 28, 2011, when her 24-year-old son was found dead by a road in Temixco, Morelos, along with six other young people. Juan Francisco Sicilia belonged to the age group most punished by narco-violence: people from 17 to 29 years old. The search for the disappeared must be integrated with a transitional justice process, something that today we do not see designed or announced by the media,” says Sicilia. Without it, there is no reparation possible. For him, it will be a matter of waiting and seeing. In principle, AMLO is a novelty for relatives. One of the first things he did after being elected president last year was to embrace Ayotzinapa’s parents. In recent days, he promoted the creation of a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the case and promised legal protection to anyone who provides information about the crime of the Ayotzinapa’s “normalists”. The Ayotzinapa case is, at the same time, a synthesis of the national drama of the disappeared and a reminder of the embarrassment that was the Peña Nieto administration in the area of human rights.
Unauthorized translation of the original article in Spanish, published on February 9, 2019, in the Argentinian newspaper PERFIL by Facundo F. Barrio.