Bringing Mexico’s missing out of the shadows

More than 37,000 people in Mexico are currently declared missing – seen as neither dead nor alive. Carlos Heras Rodríguez reports from Guadalajara on how the state has failed the victims’ families.

Raquel showing a picture of her disappeared brother, J Felix Castro. Credit: Carlos Heras Rodríguez

J Félix Castro disappeared on 13 December 2012. He was a 39-year-old car trader and had four sons by then. According to his family, a local police patrol of Zapopan, a municipality in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara, took him. His sister Raquel* claims that the family knows the officer who illegally arrested him after following his van.

‘He was a very well-known one,’ she said. According to Raquel, two people witnessed the moment the patrol stopped J Félix about midday. They abandoned his van in the road and allegedly delivered him to other men related to the local criminal network.

Raquel tells the story while she waits outside the Forensic Institute of Jalisco, which hosts the main morgue in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico. One of her sisters and his 18-year-old daughter are inside searching the database of stored corpses. This is the tenth time they’ve visited a morgue in almost six years. Once again, they don’t find anything.

At least 37,000 people were missing in Mexico by April 2018, according to a public register compiled by the Interior Ministry. It is a conservative figure, since it only collects announced cases from the Public Ministries of all the 32 states, and many under-report them

They reported the disappearance the day it happened, but the case has hardly progressed through the years. Each time they came back to the prosecutor’s office hoping for an update, they had to talk to a different officer.

Prosecutors never called the eyewitnesses to make a statement. Skeptical about the judicial process, another sister contacted the local mafia through an acquaintance to find out if they had J Félix or knew what had happened to him. Later, armed men surveilled the family house for a week, looking to intimidate them.

Unidentified, unresolved

In mid-September this year, a commercial trailer loaded with 157 unidentified corpses was found in a wasteland in the outskirts of Guadalajara. The cadavers were in the prosecution’s custody, but the morgue had no place to store them and the vehicle was moving looking for an alternative provisional place. The scandal broke when neighbors in the area discovered it by its strong smell and the national media covered the story.

When the head of the Forensic Institute changed a few days later, it was revealed that they had 444 bodies in their custody distributed between the regular forensic facilities, the found trailer and another similar vehicle. The authorities had failed to carry out the forensic procedures needed to identify the families of the deceased, such as keeping their DNA on record.

During the following weeks, hundreds of families visited the morgue with the conflicted hope of finding their loved ones there.

At least 37,000 people were missing in Mexico by April 2018, according to a public register compiled by the Interior Ministry. It is a conservative figure, since it only collects announced cases from the Public Ministries of all the 32 states, and many under-report them. In Jalisco alone – the Pacific-coast state home to Guadalajara – prosecutors have more than 6,635 missing people on file, a figure that makes it the state with the third highest number of cases. Since the regional legislature passed a bill on enforced disappearance in 2013, not a single case has ended with a court ruling sentencing anybody for such a crime.

Most families tell stories involving uncertainty about who is responsible for their loved ones’ disappearances – about whether it’s related to organized crime, public security forces or both. Victims find limited support from the prosecutors, who don’t actively search for the missing people and often discourage families from investigating.

The collective has some 40 active members. They request and share information, communicate regularly with forensic authorities, do research on their own and look for their missing loved ones’ unidentified corpses

Leticia Rodríguez has been searching for her son Alejandro Ulises de Alba since 26 March 2017, when seven armed men took him from her house in Guadalajara.

She reported the kidnapping immediately, but the authorities made no progress searching for him or investigating his disappearing. About a year after the event, Leticia joined Out of love to them, a Guadalajara-based collective of people devoted to find their missing relatives and helping those in similar situations.

Strength in numbers

The collective has some 40 active members, but hundreds of families around Guadalajara ask them for help occasionally. They request and share information, communicate regularly with forensic authorities, do research on their own and look for their missing loved ones’ unidentified corpses.

Through Facebook and Twitter, they share pictures and information of missing people provided by their families. They also share information about the corpses they find in prosecution custody, such as physical features or even names when they carried identity cards, so their families can head to the facilities and identify their relatives. The group has helped identify 15 people this way, said Consuelo Elizabeth, a member of the collective.

They have come together to collectively demand that all the data of unidentified people be made public and accessible. States like Sinaloa or Baja California have digital platforms to consult data and photographic registration of the bodies in custody, including clothes, tattoos, face pictures or names. Jalisco does not.

Sofía*, another member of the group, said that many of the 444 corpses had identity cards, but the Forensic Institute did not make the names public until the trailer scandal happened. By mid-October, the collective shared a list of 74 people whose bodies had arrived there between 2014 and 2018.

Leticia holding a poster of her missing son, Alejandro Ulises. Credit: Carlos Heras Rodríguez

The war on drugs: collateral damage

Between 2007 and 2017, the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Mexico rose from 8 to 25. It was the result of then-president Felipe Calderón declaring a ‘war on drugs’ at the end of 2006, which introduced the army and federal police to the fight against criminal networks. Fights for territory increased and most criminal groups splintered and diversified their activities during those years, becoming more violent in the process. The number of people disappearing dramatically increased.

César Pérez is the executive director of Centro de Justicia para la Paz y el Desarrollo (Justice Centre for Peace and Development, CEPAD), an NGO working on human rights issues in Jalisco. He explains that the lack of investigation by the police and prosecutors on forced disappearance is an obstacle to understanding the scale of the issue and its causes.

‘In Jalisco, we have no deeply investigated cases which can provide information about disappearances,’ he says. Nevertheless, he reels off a number of probable causes such as human trafficking, forced labour or coercive recruitment for organized crime. Anna Karolina Chimiak, a lawyer working with CEPAD, adds that the prosecution office specializing in disappearances has only six prosecutors responsible for more than 6,000 cases.

Other people have probably disappeared because of their professional skills, like oil workers needed for large-scale fuel theft, a surging racket in recent years. Others end up in clandestine graves, a method of illegal execution used by organized criminals. A recent investigation by Mexican journalists found out that there were 1,978 clandestine graves registered in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states between 2006 and 2016.

The federal government of Mexico did not sanction a law on enforced disappearance and disappearance committed by particulars until the end of 2017. Calling all Mexican cases enforced disappearances is controversial, since its definition implies some degree of collaboration by security forces or state employees and it was originally linked to political repression.

Most disappearances in Mexico are related to organized crime, and they are rarely politically motivated. According to Anna, numerous cases have involved police officers or soldiers illegally detaining the victim, co-operating with the perpetrators or obstructing the investigation.

A good example is the Iguala case, the widely reported disappearance of 43 rural students in September 2014 and the most investigated case in Mexico. A report by an interdisciplinary group designated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that, beside two local police forces who allegedly kidnapped the students and handed them to a local drug cartel, the state police, the federal police and the army witnessed some of the events that lead to the disappearance of ‘the 43’ and didn’t protect them.

Anna Chimiak argues that the authorities don’t investigate because investigations could expose the people responsible for corrupt practices.

A significant case of the proven implication of security forces and public authorities in enforced disappearance was uncovered this year in the state of Veracruz, when the Attorney General’s Office identified two paramilitary groups carrying out forced disappearances.

In September 2018, Mexican authorities disarmed the entire local police force of the coastal city of Acapulco, and put it under investigation for alleged infiltration by drug gangs, an astonishing but not unique episode that shows the collusion of security forces with organized crime in the country.

A conflict of interest

Standing outside the Forensic Institute, Socorro Barajas tells us that her son César Valencia disappeared in 2014, when he was 38. César worked as a private security guard in Guadalajara. She tried to make a complaint for kidnapping, but prosecutors rejected her saying that Cesar's wife was required to make the formal request.

‘Since I knew about the trailers I was restless about coming, afraid I would be rejected like the first time,’ she explains. Instead, they told her she could consult the database, but she found nothing. They took DNA samples to look for a match and filled a complaint for the first time after four years. ‘Now thank God I had a good response and we only have to wait,’ she says.

Sofía, however, is less hopeful. She reveals that she is the only one in the collective who has never filed a complaint about her case. ‘And I won’t, because I don’t believe in anyone,’ she says.

Consuelo agrees.‘The same people who are taking the complaints, the investigators themselves are the ones who took our people,’ she says.

*Raquel and Sofia's names are pseudonyms and the last name of Consuelo Elizabeth was omitted at her request.