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Mexico’s Institutions Overwhelmed by Scale of Forced Disappearances

MEXICO CITY, Jun 6 2013 (IPS) - Mexican police officer Luis Ángel León Rodríguez disappeared along with six other officers and a civilian on Nov. 16, 2009, in the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Six days later, his mother, Araceli Rodríguez, began her ceaseless search.

“Help us find them” reads a sign with photos of victims of forced disappearance, put up by their families. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

“Help us find them” reads a sign with photos of victims of forced disappearance, put up by their families. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

In the past three and a half years, she has knocked on every door, heard from her son’s killers how his body was dismembered and buried, supposedly under an avocado tree, and helped excavate twice in a fruitless search for his and the others’ remains.

But in April an official citation was delivered to her house from the internal affairs department of the federal police, summoning León Rodríguez to appear on May 15 “without his uniform and service firearm” and “with a lawyer” to respond to charges of dereliction of duty and abandoning his post.

His mother showed up with the same photo that she has taken to protest marches and caravans by the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, to meetings with then conservative president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), and to a number of interviews.

“Here is my son, in uniform, because I couldn’t take it off; without a gun; and with his lawyer, me. Can I bring charges against you, who lost my son?” she told the police representatives. The head of the internal affairs department, Paul Aguilera, said the police do not have a complete up-to-date database making it possible to follow the precise circumstances of each officer, and that his office has 16,000 cases pending.

“What they did to me was cruel, and the worst thing is that if this can happen in my case, which is so visible, what about the thousands of others who have not drawn so much attention?” Rodríguez remarked to IPS.

Local and international human rights groups have been sounding the alert about the humanitarian tragedy in Mexico, where tens of thousands of people have been killed and forcibly disappeared since Calderón involved the military in the war on drugs. The violence has not let up since conservative President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December.

There are 26,000 missing people in Mexico, according to a list released in February by the interior ministry. But the list does not include, for example, 86 of the 140 cases of forced disappearance documented by the New York-based Human Rights Watch in the report “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored”.

Nor does it include the victims of cases made public by the Movement for Peace in 2011, like those of environmental activists Eva Alarcón and Marcial Bautista, chess player Roberto Galván, or Yahaira Guadalupe Bahena, whose mother has held two hunger strikes to demand answers.

In a Jun. 4 report, “Confronting a nightmare: Disappearances in Mexico”, London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International talks about a “pattern of systematic disappearances and enforced disappearances largely ignored by the previous administration.”

It says “Some are the victims of enforced disappearances in which public officials are implicated. Others have been abducted by private individuals or criminal gangs.”

The rights group says that during several visits to Mexico since 2010, it documented 152 cases of disappearance, and adds that evidence of involvement of public officials was found in 85 of the cases.

It mentions cases of people apparently abducted by criminal groups for their professional skills, such as nine telephone engineers who went missing in June 2009 in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

But the available information is just the tip of the iceberg that the government of Peña Nieto risks crashing into.

Investigative reports by the daily newspaper Milenio published in October 2012, based on municipal reports, found that during the Calderón administration, at least 24,000 unidentified bodies were buried in common graves.

In Mexico there is no protocol for collecting information on missing persons, or for medical examiners to register information. Each state has its own system for identifying bodies, and the files on most unidentified corpses buried in common graves are, in the best of cases, incomplete, lacking fingerprints, photographs, dental X-rays or DNA samples. In other cases, the information in the files actually turns out to be wrong. And in some cases, unidentified bodies are even cremated.

There are only 25 forensic anthropologists in this country of 117 million people, and many mortuaries have no DNA lab. There are no standard procedures in place for exhuming and identifying bodies.

The government refuses to acknowledge that there is a humanitarian tragedy. But on Feb. 21 it signed an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross for advice on the creation of a protocol for the search for missing persons.

There are cases like that of Bárbara Reyes, who disappeared at the age of 17 in August 2011, and whose remains were found 18 months later in a common grave. To find her body, trenches were dug along 64 metres over the space of three days. “I only recovered my daughter’s bones,” her mother, Lourdes Muñiz, told IPS.

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