The war on drugs officially started in Mexico with the Merida Initiative and the military strategy pushed by the Calderon and Peña Nieto administrations, which led to a huge increase in acts of torture, violence, enforced disappearances, impunity and corruption. But even before then, the Guerrero inhabitants were acutely aware of what this dirty war entailed. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Sierra Madre was at the epicentre of the repressive policies implemented in Central America and the South Cone at the time of the dictatorships. Between 1971 and 1974, several villages in the Sierra Madre and Atoyac de Alvarez were completely devastated. Acts of torture against innocent and vulnerable people were a common military practice in the area, resulting in the disappearance of at least 650 people, according to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
Nowadays, and in the context of the war on drugs, the number of victims of enforced disappeared has been rapidly growing across the country. In 2013, Human Rights Watch reviewed some of the disappearance cases under the Calderon government and reported that, in more than 140 such cases, there was clear evidence that these "crimes had been committed by members of the security forces involved in public security operations, sometimes in conjunction with organised crime" – that is, these involved not only the local and the federal police, but also the army and the navy. Human Rights Watch also highlighted that “prosecutors and law enforcement officials consistently failed to thoroughly and promptly search for people reported missing or to investigate those responsible for the disappearances”. Since then, despite the rhetorical shift adopted by Mexico in the international drug policy arena, human rights abuses have worsened at domestic level. According to official data, in the first 18 months of the Peña Nieto administration alone, more than 10,000 people have been victims of enforced disappearances. The slaughter of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, and the extrajudicial killings of Tlatlaya, are not isolated cases. Nor is the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, whose faces, sadly famous, have already travelled around the world – a global outrage that the perpetrators probably did not expected.
Whilst public institutions are busy designing a communication strategy to try and alleviate the legitimacy crisis of the government, each enforced disappearance leaves behind a hole, much pain, an absence. Pandora’s Box has been opened and civil society is now saying that enough is enough, by any means at their disposal, and is calling for justice and for an end of the perverse crime of enforced disappearances. In fact, this crime used to be an important method in state terrorism policies in the 1970s, because it displayed exemplary and ongoing punishment at community level, denied fundamental rights for the victims and their friends and relatives – such as the right to mourn – and, as Isabel Jelin (2002) recalls, it deprived the survivors from moving forward after having lived through such a traumatic event. The wounds opened by the enforced disappearance are difficult to heal, and the fear inflicted on society is permanent. The crime of enforced disappearance is also a manifestation of the hegemonic power of the perpetrators – their concealment of the location of the disappeared bodies is part of a well-thought strategy, highlighting the inefficiency of justice mechanisms and the prevailing impunity, while impeding truth telling on what really happened.
For this and other reasons, enforced disappearance has been considered a crime against humanity by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, approved in 2006, and of which Mexico is a signatory party. In this context, the announcement by the Peña Nieto government that the “Mexican Attorney General's Office has indications that the students were killed and charred by criminals” looks more like the administration is trying to close a difficult chapter. A chapter in the history of Mexico that, internationally, very much highlighted the high levels of impunity, state violence and corruption prevailing in the country. However, for justice to be done – and to alleviate some of the pain of the victims´ families – a mere iteration of the facts is not enough: evidence is what’s needed. Faced with the impossibility conducting DNA testing in charred bodies, the “indications” gathered by the Attorney General's Office do not constitute sufficient evidence; they are a mere media attention display to try and calm down the situation (although, in reality, it just did the opposite).
Sadly, this particular chapter is still open. And the call made by national and international organisations urging the Mexican state to investigate the disappearances and punish the perpetrators remains in full force.
Inés Giménez, Communications Officer, International Drug Policy Consortium
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