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‘The parents need certainty and they need proof’

Human Rights
Mexican protesters

© Jen Wilton

‘Let us stand for a minute of silence,’ Emmanuel Decaux, chairperson of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, told those gathered in Geneva on 2 February to discuss the grave problem of involuntary disappearances in Mexico.   

A high-level government delegation and a sizeable civil-society contingent travelled from Mexico to attend the two-day event. Several family members of missing young Mexicans were also at the hearing, including parents of students abducted by local police in Iguala last September. The disappearance of the 43 students from a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa thrust Mexico into the international spotlight.

‘We have been searching for our children, but we cannot find them,’ Bernabé Abraján Gaspar, whose son was one of the 43 students, said in Geneva. ‘We have demanded of our government that they help us.’

‘We carry great sorrow and we are asking for help so that our children can be returned to us,’ explained Hilda Legideño Vargas, mother of missing Ayotzinapa student Jorge Antonio Tizapa. ‘It is the only thing we want.’

Olaya Dozal, whose 16-year-old daughter disappeared five years ago in Chihuahua, described the sessions in Geneva as a window of opportunity. She wants the government to work harder to locate missing persons across Mexico.  

The committee pressed Mexican officials for basic information on involuntary disappearances. ‘How many alleged cases of enforced disappearances have been received in Mexico?’ the rapporteur for the report of Mexico asked. ‘We need to ask you that question again and again.’

The government delegation was unable to provide accurate figures, leading the rapporteur to conclude it will be hard to find a solution without knowing the full extent of the problem. Daniel Joloy from Amnesty International argues the Mexican government has not been willing to shoulder its responsibility: ‘Even here before the Committee of Enforced Disappearances they do not acknowledge how grave the problem is,’ he said.

The rapporteur went on to say he was ‘shocked’ to read that remains of another 40 people had been found in mass graves dotted around the town of Iguala. ‘Why has it taken so long for the Attorney General to open its own investigation?’ he asked, stating that an immediate and systematic enquiry should have been launched.

‘We continue to face challenges that we need to overcome,’ Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in his opening statement. With reference to the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students, he said that there had been ‘an unprecedented criminal investigation’, while affirming that poverty, exclusion and corruption played an important role.  

However, civil-society groups point out that Mexican officials tried to close the case of the missing Ayotzinapa students in January, saying they had exhausted all angles. ‘What we would like the government to do is to wait for scientific proof,’ explains María Luisa Aguilar Rodríguez from Tlachinollan, a Guerrero-based human rights organisation. ‘The parents need certainty and they need proof.’

In terms of the wider issue of involuntary disappearances, Undersecretary Gómez said that only when perpetrators had been punished and the disappeared persons found could Mexico ‘move from pain to reknitting the social fabric.’ He reported that Mexico is open to help from foreign governments, stating the US, Britain, France and Germany had already offered assistance. ‘We welcome constructive criticism,’ Gómez said, but warned that ‘we should not just indulge in condemnation.’

The rapporteurs asked when Mexico’s Ante Mortem-Post Mortem database, designed to help in the identification of missing persons, would be adopted nationwide. Eliana García Laguna of the Office of the Attorney General said that to date only 102 people have been identified through the database, which was launched in early 2013. Officials estimate that more than 20,000 people are currently unaccounted for in Mexico.

‘We do not forget that behind the numbers there are real disappeared people,’ García gravely stated. However, another delegate member confirmed that there are still six Mexican states that do not recognize enforced disappearance as a crime.

The committee asked pointed questions about the controversial practice of arraigo, in which people suspected of connections to organized crime can be detained without charge for up to 40 days, or up to 80 days with a court order.

‘We are aware of the abuses that arraigo can give rise to,’ Undersecretary Gómez admitted. However he confirmed the practice would not cease when a new criminal justice system comes into effect in 2016. Rapporteur Luciano Hazan questioned why the Mexican government would keep the practice of pre-charge detention when it greatly increases the risk of forced disappearances.

‘We leave with the clear knowledge of the challenges we face,’ Undersecretary Gómez said. He stated the delegation would not leave Geneva with the sense of a job well done, as there is hard work ahead.

‘Without a doubt, what needs to change is the control that criminal groups have in state institutions,’ Ruth Fierro Pineda, from the Centre for the Human Rights of Women in Chihuahua, asserted at the UN. ‘Above all, we hope that the Mexican government will move beyond pretence, to take action to help locate all disappeared persons.’

Committee chair Decaux concluded the session on Tuesday 3 February by thanking the family members of the missing Mexican youth for attending. ‘We are deeply touched by your presence,’ he said. ‘We are very aware of the deep hurt you have felt as a result of enforced disappearances.’

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist and researcher who writes about human rights and environmental issues in Mexico, and across Latin America more widely. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution is Eternal.

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