‘Disappearing the disappeared’: outcry after Mexico reduces number of missing

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When the Mexican government announced it would review the official register of “disappeared” people, it was presented as an effort to eliminate false entries. But with little transparency over how it was being done, activists suspected a ploy to reduce the number ahead of the 2024 election.

The government has now announced it was able to confirm just 12,377 of the more than 113,000 cases of disappeared people.

Another 16,681 were located, either alive or through death certificates, but in roughly two-thirds of the cases there wasn’t enough information to either identify or start looking for them, leaving it unclear whether they remained missing.

The registry had become intensely politicised, with the rising number of disappeared a symbol of the continuing insecurity across the country, while the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said that it was being inflated to attack the government.

But investigators say the political fixation on the number – which could just as easily be an underestimate of the true figure as an overestimate – is misplaced, when the real issue is impunity.

“What we need to know is how and why people are disappearing – and what is being done to find them,” said Carlos Pérez Ricart, a political scientist in Mexico City.

Violence in Mexico soared with the launch of the militarised “war on drugs” in 2006, and it has remained stubbornly high throughout the term of López Obrador, popularly known as Amlo, which began in 2018.

That same year, the National Search Commission was established to look for disappeared people, working with local commissions and prosecutor’s offices in each state, and regularly publishing the accumulating number of cases in its registry.

Amlo promised a change in security strategy, but has failed to deliver improvements, and the ever-climbing number of disappeared – along with the number of homicides, which in 2022 topped 30,000 for the fifth year in a row – have been a frequent line of attack on his government.

Searchers look for signs of clandestine graves inside a municipal dump in the port city of Veracruz on 11 March 2019.
Searchers look for signs of clandestine graves inside a municipal dump in the port city of Veracruz on 11 March 2019. Photograph: Félix Márquez/AP

“This term has been the most violent in history,” said Xóchitl Gálvez, presidential candidate for the opposition coalition, earlier this month. “In these five years, 47,000 people have disappeared. That is the truth – these are the government’s own numbers.”

In June, Amlo announced a “census” to review the official total of disappearances, case by case.

Karla Quintana, who had led the National Search Commission since 2019, resigned shortly after that announcement. “Their intention is very clear and it is regrettable: it is to reduce the number of disappeared people, mainly during this government,” said Quintana soon afterwards.

Quintana was replaced by Teresa Guadalupe Reyes Sahagún, who before that had been the general director of the National Institute for Adult Education.

The UN’s human rights office in Mexico criticised the process by which Reyes was appointed, citing a lack of consultation, transparency and scrutiny.

“I think the National Search Commission had important support from the government in the first few years,” said Pérez Ricart. “And now the impression is that the commission is at the service of the president.”

Little information was made public about the methodology with which the commission was updating the registry.

In a statement this week, some collectives of family members of missing people rejected the update, “because without transparency they are disappearing the disappeared”.

“The data is a mess. That’s the reality,” said Pérez Ricart. “[The registry] was an important effort, and I think Karla Quintana was a great civil servant, who did everything she could. But we are talking about a project that regrettably failed, and one that now has very little legitimacy.”

Meanwhile, the underlying phenomenon of disappearances remains poorly understood.

“Various important [questions] remain in the air,” wrote Jacobo Dayán, an investigator and columnist. “Who are these people? Where are they? Who is responsible for their disappearance? Why did they disappear? Why is it not being investigated?”

And the violence and insecurity in Mexico continue unabated.

“Instead of trying to score political points by disputing the number of disappeared, the president should listen to the thousands of families clamouring for justice and take steps to address the systemic causes of this ongoing catastrophe,” said Tyler Mattiace, a Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Source: The Guardian