Mexicans fight back over their missing

Baja California – with its own grim history of disappeared people – finds a voice in the fight against violence.

Fernando Ocegueda's son was disappeared at gunpoint by men dressed as police in 2007 [Brooke Binkowski]

Baja California, Mexico – Mexico has been in the grip of civil unrest since 43 student teachers from southern Guerrero state went missing after they drove to protest what they perceived as discriminatory hiring practices by the government.

Police intercepted the students’ convoy and opened fire, killing six people – including a student who was later found dead with his eyes gouged out and his face flayed. The last time witnesses saw the students they were being loaded into police vans.

Since then, people across the country have been demanding change to the impunity and corruption that has dogged Mexico’s politics for generations. Former President Felipe Calderón’s militarised anti-drug offensive that began in 2006 only helped amplify the opportunity for corruption by people in power.

Mexicans were terrified into silence by the ongoing violence – until now.

Even in places such as Baja California, the Mexican state that is physically separated from the rest of Mexico by its proximity to the United States and the Sea of Cortez, people have been moved to act.

Baja California is often considered its own country with its own culture, not quite here, not quite there. The Tijuana-San Ysidro port of entry is one of the most crossed borders in the world. It is also crucial to the North American economy. But in reality, it was never immune from cartel violence or police brutality.

Tortured and disappeared

According to Mexico’s own figures, Baja California has more than 1,150 unsolved disappearances – one of the highest in the country. Those are the official numbers, however, critics say, the real figures are much higher.

Every day people are arrested here, every day there are people who are tortured and disappeared in Tijuana and Mexicali.

by - Ramirez Baen, Citizen's Commission of Human Rights of the Northwest

After the cartel crackdown began, once-shadowy killings began to erupt into public view as increasingly brazen rival gangs struggled to mark out new territory throughout Mexico. Body parts were found in backyards and hanging from bridges. 

But in 2010, reports of Baja’s violence seemed to stop. Murders and disappearances were no longer making headlines; it was instead overshadowed by a major public relations offensive from a firm out of the US. The PR push offered press junkets to reporters to bring attention to Baja California’s wines, arts, and food, heavily promoting tourism.

Despite worldwide publicity touting Baja as an attractive tourism destination, violence continued unabated, said Raul Ramirez Baena, director of the Citizen’s Commission of Human Rights of the Northwest.

“Every day people are arrested here, every day there are people who are tortured and disappeared in Tijuana and Mexicali,” Ramirez told Al Jazeera. “There’s a cultural breakdown in the system.”

‘War on drugs‘ gone rogue

Now, the case of the missing 43 students has galvanised people here, more than 3,000km north of Guerrero state. People in Baja California see this as their chance to shine a light on their own state’s corruption and collusion with criminals, said Ramirez.

He said the US Mérida Initiative, a George W Bush-era project that earmarked almost $2bn for Mexico to fight corruption and help beef up the “war on drugs”, instead further empowered the police and military’s already strong culture of corruption and impunity throughout the country. It came at a steep price, according to Ramirez: more deaths and disappearances.

“It’s evident that this entire situation is accompanied by grave human rights violations,” said Ramirez. “But the other characteristics of [Guerrero] is that it uncovered the participation of politicians and the links that exist between authorities and criminal organisations. Not just police, but politicians.”

Fernando Ocegueda’s son was kidnapped at gunpoint by men dressed as federal police in 2007 [Brooke Binkowski] 

Fernando Ocegueda Flores sat outside a cluster of tents in front of Tijuana’s Palacio Municipal, waiting for the governor of Baja California to come out and talk to him. He has been camping here as a protest next to a large display of photos of murdered and missing people, their names embroidered on bright banners that hung around the tents.

“I’ve been here for four days,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have solidarity with the people in Ayotzinapa [in Guerrero]. We are here to support them, too.”

Ocegueda is head of the Association for the Disappeared People of Baja California, which he founded after his son was kidnapped at gunpoint by men dressed as federal police from his family’s home in 2007. Ocegueda said police refused to help at first. His kidnappers, who turned out to be gang members, confessed and were jailed. His son was never found.

“The government said, ‘we tried to find [him] but your family maybe is involved with criminal organisations’,” Ocegueda said. “Well, then there’s no reason to try to find people.”

‘The Stewmaker’

Ocegueda’s group pressures local and federal governments to step up their efforts to find missing people and solve murders in Mexico – no small feat in a country with years of backlogs and a culture of impunity.

According to INEGI, Mexico’s national statistics bureau, 93 percent of crime in the country went unpunished in 2013.

Ocegueda said members of his group have conducted their own independent investigations and research, helping to solve hundreds of disappearances. In 2012 they located the site where a notorious cartel member nicknamed “El Pozolero” – the stewmaker – dissolved hundreds of bodies using caustic soda.

Teodoro Barraza, a spokesman for the Baja California state government, said authorities try to listen to everyone’s concerns and investigate killings and disappearances as much as they can with the resources they have.

“We recognise citizens’ freedom of expression,” said Barraza. “They have a right to march or hold sit-ins.”

But people here want more than that. “Mexico is fed up with so much repression, so much misery, so much bad government – this is a tired Mexico,” said Marco Antonio Pacheco Peña during a protest near downtown Tijuana.

People across the country are demanding change to the impunty and corruption that has dogged Mexican politics for generations [Brook Binkowski/Al Jazeera]

Targeting victim advocates

Pacheco is a professor and coordinator at Movimiento de Resistencia Magisterial, a group of teachers and students that has organised several peaceful demonstrations in Tijuana. His group is one of many calling for Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to resign.

This level of engagement is unusual for Baja California, but part of a larger story unfolding throughout Mexico, said Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute, a US research facility at University of San Diego that focuses on the US-Mexico border.

“One of the most nefarious aspects since 2006 is that it’s been really dangerous to be an advocate for victims. Advocates for victims are a known target,” Meade told Al Jazeera.

Meade said the spectacles of public killings and beheadings, plus impunity for criminals, has amounted to what is essentially a reign of terror. That is a narrative against which Mexicans are now pushing back.

“People are saying, as scared as we are of these people, they’re not the whole country, and they’re not in charge any more, and we’re not going to let them be in charge anymore,” Meade said. “That’s the change.”

Mexico’s government has started to respond as well. In November, the federal government announced it had created an online database for genetic information of women and children for 11 states plagued by disappearances, including Baja California – a project they have been promising to start for seven years.

Meanwhile, demonstrations for change are expected to continue through at least the end of the year.

Follow Brooke Binkowski on Twitter: @brooklynmarie

Source: Al Jazeera