Mexico's disappeared: forgotten and criminalised

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No one knows exactly how many people have disappeared in Mexico. Estimates range from 24,000 to 26,000. But whatever the true number, “A country that has nearly 30.000 citizens who have disappeared and doesn’t know where they are is a country with a serious problem,” says legal expert Julio Hernández Barros. 

by Gabriel Infante Carrillo

According to Mexico’s Interior Ministry, the number of disappeared is 26.000. The National Human Rights Commission puts the figure at 24.000, while Amnesty International estimates that the number exceeds 25.000. Dr Barros is a professor of law at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. He co-wrote the recently published report The disappeared of Tepito…the tip of the iceberg.

On May 26, 12 young people disappeared in the Tepito neighbourhood  of Mexico City in broad daylight, only half a block from the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main avenue, and quite close to the Attorney General’s office . The event shook the general public’s belief that the Mexican capital is the safest place in the country and that it is protected from the drugs cartels.

The mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Ángel Mancera, has categorically denied that drugs cartels are present and operating in the city. But he added that he has never denied the existence of the drug trade and the presence of criminal gangs.

Little progress
More than a month after the mass kidnapping, investigators have made little progress. The Attorney General of the Federal District still doesn’t have any leads as to the whereabouts of the young people. The only thing that’s certain – based on CCTV footage – is that they were abducted by a gang of around 17 individuals who took them away in several private vehicles, apparently without the use of physical violence or weapons. 

Since the young people came from the Tepito neighbourhood, which has a high crime rate, their disappearance has been linked to a conflict between criminal gangs in the area. Two of the young people are the sons of two convicted gangsters, Jorge Ortiz Reyes (a.k.a. The Tank) and Alejandro Sánchez Zamudio (a.k.a. “El Papis”), who are serving time for involvement in extortion and the drugs trade between 1998 and 2003.

Victims blamed 
The figures regarding the number of disappeared people are regarded as a scandal. But there’s another “serious problem” says Dr. Barros, “Many media outlets are complicit, but it’s mainly the authorities who are criminalising the victims.” This criminalisation takes place on many levels, he says, “prosecutors and other officials suggest that the victims themselves are responsible for what happened to them. They say, for instance, ‘the guy was probably involved with bad elements’; ‎’your daughter didn’t disappear, she left with her boyfriend’; ‘Look for them in brothels’; or ‘those young people who disappeared were up to something’.”

In the case of the 12 youths who disappeared in Tepito, the authorities claimed, even before they launched their investigation, that “they belonged to organised crime, they were involved in the drugs trade, they were socially undesirable, and they lived in a neighbourhood where people are useless”, explains Barros.

Seen and unseen
According to Javier Sicilia, who was involved in drawing up the Victims’ Protection Law, there are two types of victims in Mexico: “There are victims who are seen and those who remain unseen. One of the successes of the Mexican Indignados Movement was to name the victims and show Mexico that nearly 100.000 people have been killed in this war. Over 20.000 people have disappeared, and thousands or even millions of people have been the victims of other crimes and human rights violations committed by the authorities.”

The first category of victims, explains Barros, are unfortunately “the very few who have been able to demonstrate that they are decent people without any links to organised crime, like the young people who died near the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education or the other few who have managed to clear their names.” But, he adds, “most of the other victims have been criminalised by the government.”