Describing what it called “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades,” the U.S. organization Human Rights Watch issued a report Wednesday with grim implications for the thousands of Mexican civilians who have gone missing in the country’s shadowy drug fight.
While inquiring into the cases of 249 missing persons in Mexico, the group said, its researchers found credible evidence that soldiers or police participated in 149 of the disappearances.
The victims included husbands and fathers who went out for groceries and never came back and others dragged from their homes by uniformed men in the middle of the night, the rights group said. Many were last seen being stuffed into military trucks and police vehicles.
Claims of extrajudicial killings and other grave rights violations have dogged Mexican security forces for years. But the report released Wednesday is one of the most significant attempts to date to identify patterns of abuse during the anti-drug effort and to examine the degree to which Mexican authorities either fail to investigate disappearances or, in many instances, are responsible for them.
U.S. lawmakers have periodically threatened to withhold millions of dollars in security aid to Mexico over concerns that police and military abuses have worsened in recent years, and some funding was temporarily blocked in 2010. Congress has appropriated nearly $2 billion in assistance so far under the terms of the 2007 Merida Initiative, and 15 percent of the funds are supposed to be conditioned on rights improvements in Mexico.
“More and more Mexican military and security forces are involved in human rights abuses, and we shouldn’t be funding that. We should be condemning that,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chair of the human rights commission in the House, adding that he intends to hold hearings on the report’s findings.
The group presented its findings Wednesday to the administration of Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Mexican officials declined to comment on the report.
In its report, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the 249 cases represent only a small and unscientific sampling of Mexico’s missing. An unpublished government database lists more than 25,000 people who have vanished since former president Felipe Calderon launched his U.S.-backed military offensive against the cartels in 2006. At least 60,000 have been slain in gangland violence over the same period.
Of the 149 instances in which Human Rights Watch found evidence of an “enforced disappearance” at the hands of Mexican authorities, 95 cases involved local police agencies. Their low-paid, poorly trained officers are often on the payroll of the gangsters; in some cases, they are the gangsters.
“For years the Calderon government responded to the mounting cases of disappearances like it did all human rights problems, by pretending they weren’t happening, and blaming the few cases it acknowledged on narcos,” said senior researcher Nik Steinberg, the report’s author.
“The Peña Nieto administration has begun to acknowledge the problem, but what remains to be seen is whether they’re ready to do the tough work of finding the missing, prosecuting the perpetrators and stopping this horrific practice,” he said.
In more than 60 cases, investigators found evidence that authorities worked directly with criminals to carry out the abductions and disappearances. In one 2011 incident, 19 construction workers in northern Mexico were taken into police custody and apparently handed over to the Zetas drug cartel, which wanted to retaliate against their employer. The men were never seen again.
Determining responsibility for the disappearances is further complicated by cartel operatives who sometimes disguise themselves as police officers or soldiers, carrying out mob hits and kidnappings while wearing government uniforms or replicas and driving fake military and law enforcement vehicles.
The cases in the report involve both the police and the military, including Mexico’s navy, which is generally viewed as the least corrupt and most professional of the country’s armed forces.
In June and July of 2011, naval forces conducted a series of home raids across three states in northern Mexico, taking more than 20 suspects into custody who were never heard from again, according to the report. Their families provided photographic and other visual evidence to investigators.
The majority of the enforced disappearances followed a similar pattern, rights advocates said. Victims were arbitrarily detained without arrest orders or probable cause, often in front of family members and other witnesses. But when victims’ relatives went to inquire into the whereabouts of their loved ones, they were told the detentions never took place.
“Making matters worse, when prosecutors, judicial police and law enforcement officials attend to the families of the disappeared, they regularly tell them the victims were likely targeted because they were involved in illicit activities,” the report states, “even when there is no evidence for such assertions.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.