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Mexico's disappeared continues to rise

Four more people gone missing in recent months raises new concerns over government inaction.

Last Modified: 29 Sep 2013 17:14
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Angelica Avila holds a picture of her son Gino who disappeared in June [Nina Lakhani/Al Jazeera]

Mexico City - Mexico's mountain of unsolved disappearances continues to rise despite President Enrique Pena Nieto's promise to tackle the problem which has devastated thousands of families since 2006.

The disappearance of four people within six days close to the US border recently exposed the cruel mix of state corruption and organised crime still blighting the lives ordinary folks on Mexico's mean streets.

"Mexico today has the worst crisis of disappearances in Latin America, arguably the world," Nik Steinberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. "That there is still no single unified definition and many state authorities have no idea how to investigate disappearances shows the government has failed to take the problem seriously."

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The recent cluster of disappearances in and around the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, bears the hallmarks of previous cases documented by local and international human rights organisations. 

In the early hours of July 29, Jose de Jesus Martinez Chigo and 17-year-old Diana Laura Hernandez Acosta were stopped by marines at a checkpoint while driving home.

A relative, one of several eyewitnesses, saw marines force the pair into a military vehicle and then drive them to a nearby base. Their families rushed to the base, but were told no civilians were being held.

The next day, 17-year-old Raul David Alvarez Gutiérrez was stopped by marines at a different checkpoint in the same city. Several eyewitnesses described to the teenager's family how marines apprehended him. But the federal prosecutor's office refused to accept the family's complaint because the witnesses were too frightened to provide official statements.

Four days later and 40km away in the town of Colombia, Nuevo Leon, several witnesses saw 33-year-old Armando Humberto del Bosque Villarreal dragged from his car by marines as two local police officers watched on. He was witnessed being taken to the navy base on the edge of town, where a captain initially told del Bosque's father his son was being questioned. An hour later, he denied the arrest had ever taken place. Another naval officer later claimed del Bosque was last seen driving to Nuevo Laredo, yet another said he had escaped during the arrest.

None of the victims have been seen since being detained. The navy, which answers directly to the president's office, denies any involvement despite eyewitness accounts.

"There is no more information on their whereabouts or fate. The last we heard the cases were languishing with the PGR [Federal Attorney General] in Nuevo Laredo," Rupert Knox, Amnesty International's Mexico researcher, told Al Jazeera

"Prosecutors want the families to provide more evidence while they do nothing to further the investigations. They say the eyewitness accounts prove nothing as naval authorities deny responsibility. The military have simply stonewalled; the government has ignored all requests for an official response." 

Government complicity?

In February 2013, Nieto's government revealed that 26,000 people were reported missing or disappeared between 2006 and 2012 - on top of the 60,000 killed - and authorities had no idea what became of them. The figure, along with the acknowledgement that authorities had so far failed to properly investigate, was a major step forward. It came after six years of denial and downplaying by the previous president Felipe Calderon.

The state - police, army or navy - were directly implicated in half of the disappearances documented by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in reports published earlier this year. 

Even when the state was not directly involved, it consistently failed to carry out even the most basic of investigations. Criminal inquiries remain unopened in 40 percent of the 26,000 cases, according to the Interior Ministry.

In 2012, the National Human Rights Commission reported 16,000 unidentified bodies across the country.

Adrian Dominguez Rolon, a police officer, disappeared from the Hote Regis in Michoacan in February [Nina Lakhani/Al Jazeera]

The government is reviewing and revising the disappeared "list" so those who returned safely or died are taken off, but so far there has been no progress report or transparency about its methodology.

Their task is impeded by the fact there is still no reliable national database of disappeared people or unidentified human remains, many of which were found in mass graves.

"The failure to carry out even basic investigations into these disappearances, old and new, has not fundamentally changed since Pena Nieto came to power," Steinberg said.

"There are exceptions when authorities have done what they ought to do, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. On the whole the status quo remains."

In 2009, four families whose relatives disappeared in Coahuila amid warring cartels and strongly suspected state collusion, formed FUUNDEC (United Forces for our Disappeared in Coahuila). This movement helps families carry out their own basic investigations and resist intimidation or pressure from authorities to give up their search. 

It demands and gets regular meetings with prosecutors and uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness. The movement has gained momentum across Mexico and given many families the strength to keep fighting.

Failure to investigate

Adrian Dominguez Rolon, a federal police officer, disappeared from the Hotel Regis in Uruapan, Michoacan, on February 17, when state authorities were deeply infiltrated by the ruling cartel La Familia Michoacana.

Dominguez, 33, was part of a federal operation known as Michoacan Seguro (Secure Michoacan) tasked with guarding the airport. He spoke with his uncle Victor Rolon from the hotel, which served as the federal police HQ, at 5pm just before dinner. Then he and another colleague disappeared.

"Nobody saw or heard anything," Rolon told Al Jazeera. "A hotel occupied by the federal police and no one would talk. The authorities didn't open an investigation for three days until Adrian's mother went looking for answers."

The government failed to conduct a basic investigation, leaving the family to piece together what had happened.

"We asked to see the CCTV from outside the Regis, but first they said the camera didn't exist and later that it wasn't working," said Rolon. "We are sure he was sold to a cartel by his commanding officer and so we hold the authorities completely responsible for his disappearance, and the failure to find him.

"The only hope we have is ourselves and FUNDEM [United Forces for our Disappeared in Mexico]. As for the government, Adrian is just a number."

Mexico today has the worst crisis of disappearances in Latin America, arguably the world.

-Nik Steinberg, Human Rights Watch

In another case Gino Alberto Campos Avilo, an 18-year-old graphic design student, was taken from outside his grandparents' home in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon on June 8, in what his family said was a case of mistaken identity.

"Can you imagine what it's like not being able to rely on the authorities to find your son, it undermines your strength to fight," his distraught mother Angelica Avila told Al Jazeera. "Sometimes the pain and sorrow makes you so ill, I have no idea if he's alive, but I cannot lose hope … I must carry on come what may."

Thousands of families are still missing mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and thousands of bodies remain unclaimed in mortuaries across Mexico.

President Nieto's government has taken some important steps to tackle the disappearances. Twelve investigators have been assigned to a new dedicated unit in the Federal Attorney General's Office.

Mexico is now nine months late submitting information to the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappeared (CED) regarding what exactly it is doing to meet its obligations under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which it ratified in 2008.

Luciano Hazan, CED member, told Al Jazeera: "We await the government's report, but we are seriously worried by the information we have collected from victims and civil society groups."

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