Crime and Violence · Human Rights and Civil Society

HRW releases report on forced disappearances in Mexico

Photo: Human Rights Watch
Photo: Human Rights Watch

02/27/13 (written by cmolzahn) – Human Rights Watch (HRW) this month released a report detailing the broad scope of disappearances in Mexico, as well as authorities’ failure–and in many cases refusal–to investigate and resolve such cases. The report, titled “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” was based on research conducted in Mexico between January 2012 and February 2013, including on-the-ground investigations in the states of Coahuila, Guanajuato, Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. (To read the full HRW report, click here.) This publication also follows up on a previous report, titled “Neither Rights Nor Security,” which focused on cases of disappearances in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Guerrero, and Nuevo León. While there is no official database documenting the disappeared in Mexico, a human rights spokesperson in Mexico’s Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación, Segob) cited a list compiled by the administration of former President Felipe Calderón exceeding 27,000 victims, a total rivaling or even surpassing that of Argentina’s “dirty war,” perpetrated in in the 1970s. The Interior Ministry and Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) have expressed a commitment to find all of the disappeared, and have announced the creation of a special committee to oversee the searches.

In its executive summary, the HRW report blasts the administration of former President Felipe Calderón for carrying out a six-year “war on drugs” that produced “disastrous results,” not only in failing to achieve its principle goal of weakening the drug cartels, but also for a corresponding increase of human rights abuses committed by the security forces charged with confronting the organizations and, ultimately, with protecting Mexican citizens. While crediting Calderón for acknowledging that human rights abuses had taken place at the hands of security forces and taking some steps to limit such practices, the report criticizes him for waiting until the last year of his six-year term to do so, and also for the limited nature of his reforms. It exhorts Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) to address the problem of human rights abuses in Mexico–and particularly cases of disappearances, which set themselves apart from other abuses because of their ongoing nature as long as the victims remain missing.

The report differentiates between the terms “disappearance” and “enforced disappearance,” with cases of the latter displaying compelling evidence of: “the deprivation of liberty against the will of the person concerned”; “the involvement of state agents, either directly or indirectly through authorization, support or acquiescence”; and “the refusal to disclose the fate and whereabouts of the person concerned.” Cases of disappearances, on the other hand, are not believed to have involved state agents. For its report, HRW documented a total of 249 disappearances occurring during the Calderón administration, 149 of which it considers to be enforced disappearances, a conclusion reached through interviews with family members, review of arrest documents, detention registers, witness testimony, among other indicators. It is important to note that HRW does not intend this number to represent the total number of disappeared in Mexico during that time, but rather a selection of detailed cases meant to represent a much larger trend. In virtually all of these cases, it says, the victims were witnessed being taken into custody by the police or military without apparent due cause, and the arrests were almost never officially registered. The law also requires that such detainees be handed over to the public prosecutor’s office, which also did not happen in these cases. HRW claims that there were cases in which security forces acted on their own to detain victims, after which they were never seen again, as well as cases in which there is evidence to suggest that they then handed their victims over to criminal groups after the illegal detention. There were also instances in which state agents acted with criminal groups in the detentions, and later aided them in extorting the victims’ families. Perhaps more troubling, the report says that the planning and coordination apparent in some of the illegal detentions betrays at least the knowledge of high-ranking authorities in the security forces, if not active participation.

The report recounts in great detail several specific cases of alleged enforced disappearances at the hands of the police and military, of which it says 20 were carried out by members of the Mexican Navy just during the period between June and July 2011. These detentions were the most large-scale and elaborate detailed in the HRW report, which recounts witness testimonies of large convoys of marked and unmarked vehicles closing off entire streets, with masked, heavily-armed members of the Navy forcibly entering homes looking for individuals by name, but then seemingly indiscriminately taking young men prisoner, telling family members they would be released if found to be innocent. Local police accounted for 95–or nearly 64%–of the 149 documented cases of forced disappearances. An additional 13 enforced disappearances were attributed to federal police. HRW found “compelling evidence” in more than 60 cases–or 40% of all cases documented–of cooperation between organized crime and security forces, principally municipal police.

Aside from detailing the extent of disappearances and enforced disappearances in Mexico, the HRW report outlines systematic institutional failures in intervening during and following abductions. The report details cases in which police refused to respond during abductions as well as immediately after, which is a crucial time for obtaining reports from witnesses and locating victims and perpetrators while they are still in the area where the abduction took place. It also found routine failure by prosecutors to open preliminary investigations immediately following reports of disappearances, resulting in loss of key evidence and discouraging families from turning to authorities in subsequent cases of abduction. Families are routinely advised of a 72-hour waiting period before opening an investigation into a reported disappearance, which was official policy until 2011, but still remains largely in effect. The dismissive attitude of officials toward cases of disappearance is likely at least in part due to an attitude of “blaming the victim,” where it is assumed that the victim was targeted for belonging to a criminal organization. HRW reports that families are regularly met with this reaction from authorities, and argues that while a victim’s background–including possible criminal ties–can provide useful information in investigating cases of disappearances, criminal involvement does not relieve the state of its responsibility to investigate crimes committed against them. In other cases, authorities rejected that there had been an abduction, suggesting to a romantic partner that the individual had left voluntarily because he or she was unhappy in their relationship, or was involved with someone else. Other investigative failings, such as lengthy delays in requesting cell phone and banking records of victims, failing to interview key witnesses and family members, failing to obtain or misplacing key evidence, and even fabricating evidence, were also detailed in the report.

Jurisdictional ambiguity is also cited as a key factor in disappearances effectively going uninvestigated. Mexico’s federal government must coordinate with its 32 federal entities to determine which authority will investigate and prosecute which crimes. The federal government is responsible for handling crimes involving organized crime, but this classification is vaguely defined, which HRW says both state and federal authorities take advantage of to abdicate responsibility for investigating cases of disappearances. This, again, compromises investigations, particularly in the first hours and days following an abduction, a time crucial for gathering evidence and preventing further harm from coming to the victim.

Finally, the report found that authorities systematically rely “disproportionately, if not entirely,” on relatives to carry out their investigative duties in disappearance cases, duties that include the interviewing of witnesses, examining crime scenes, and soliciting information from the same security forces that allegedly carried out the abduction. This, said HRW, not only compromises the integrity of the investigations, but also puts family members at undue risk for retaliation. HRW also found evidence that authorities in more than a dozen instances used information provided by families to extort them, or handed it over to the perpetrators of the crimes, who themselves would use the information to extort the families.

Family members and friends of disappeared persons compiled this banner documenting the missing individuals, which was displayed at last year’s International Week of the Detained-Disappeared held in Mexico City. Photo: Yuri Cortez, AFP, Getty Images
Family members and friends of disappeared persons compiled this banner documenting the missing individuals, which was displayed at last year’s International Week of the Detained-Disappeared held in Mexico City. Photo: Yuri Cortez, AFP, Getty Images

While the majority of the HRW report focuses on the endemic problem of disappearances in Mexico and the institutional failings in investigating such cases, it does turn to approaches in Nuevo León and Coahuila that could provide models for improving the situation nationwide. According to a leaked draft of a federal database on the disappeared, 636 disappearances were reported in Nuevo León between August 2006 and February 2012. Meanwhile, a human rights group based in Monterrey–Citizens in Support of Human Rights (Ciudadanos en Apoyo a los Derechos Humanos, CADHAC)–says it received reports of 1,007 disappearances in Nuevo León from 2009 through 2012. Since HRW’s previous report on the subject of disappearances, in which it harshly criticized Nuevo León authorities for failing to investigate such crimes, public pressure has led the Nuevo León government to work more collaboratively with human rights groups and victims’ families, which HRW says has allowed investigations to advance “for the first time in years.” This progress, it says, has led to an increase of public trust in public officials, and resulted in more families coming forward to report their missing loved ones, instead of attempting to resolve the cases extra-judicially. In addition, the Nuevo León Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de Justicia del Estado, PGJE) has drafted a prosecutor’s manual for handling cases of enforced disappearances, which, while still a work in progress, is a step in the right direction, according to HRW. Moreover, the state congress has amended the state’s penal code to include the crime of enforced disappearance, which previously did not exist in Nuevo León. Another reform made to the state penal code is a narrowing of the definition of flagrancia, which allows police to detain a perpetrator without a warrant if they determine that the individual is in the act of committing a crime. In December 2012, the Nuevo León congress removed a provision in the criminal procedural code that allowed police to detain individuals arrested under flagrancia for up to 60 hours after a crime had been committed, which is the norm in Mexico. Finally, the PGJE in early 2012 assigned five judicial police exclusively to cases of disappearances, a move that has contributed to overall improvements in investigative methods employed in such cases. In neighboring Coahuila, Governor Rubén Moreira in early 2012 created a special prosecutor’s office for investigating cases of disappearances (Subprocuraduría para la Investigación y Búsqueda de Personas No Localizadas), and shown a greater willingness to collaborate with families of the disappeared as well as international organizations to strengthen the state’s approach to resolving the issue of disappearances. While the report gives credit to Coahuila for taking steps to address the problem, it says the state has at times fallen short, specifically in its January 2012 reform to the criminal code to add the crime of enforced disappearance, which the report says is too narrow, and not in line with international human rights standards.

The HRW report issues a total of 18 recommendations to various factions of state and federal government that broadly urge officials to strengthen judicial frameworks, streamline investigative processes, and to take measures such as the creation of national databases to track the disappeared as well as unidentified human remains. Also prominent in the recommendations is a call to put an end to military jurisdiction in cases of alleged abuses of civilians by members of Mexico’s armed forces. During a recent visit to Mexico, Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco said that the Mexican Congress must address the issue of military jurisdiction to bring an appropriate conclusion to the matter, following the Mexican Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Inter-American Human Rights Court’s resolution that Mexico must reform its military justice code to specify that allegations of human rights abuses by members of the armed forces against civilians must be handled by the civilian justice system. These reforms, he said are in tune with not only international human rights treaties that Mexico has signed, but also Mexico’s own federal constitution.


“Mexico’s Disappeared.” Human Rights Watch. February 20, 2013.

García, Dennis A. and Blanca Estela Botello. “Todos los desaparecidos en México serán buscados, afirman PGR y Gobernación.” La Crónica de Hoy. February 22, 2013.

González, Luz. “Fuero militar sigue pendiente en México: HRW.” El Universal. February 19, 2013.

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