Families of Mexico’s disappeared still waiting for law to help find loved ones

Draft bill that President Enrique Peña sent to Congress in 2015 has been beset by delays

Mexico’s already-poor human-rights record has worsened in recent years as a result of the state’s decade-long war against drugs cartels: 15 months after President Enrique Peña sent Congress a bill to improve and coordinate efforts between federal and state authorities in the search of the 31,000 people missing as a result of the violence, the families of the so-called “disappeared” are calling for legislators to move on the issue.

A forensics team at work in Jojutla, in Morelos state.
A forensics team at work in Jojutla, in Morelos state.EFE
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Las víctimas critican el retraso en la ley sobre desaparecidos

“We have attended working groups in the Senate to outline our struggle – they listen to us, but they are not being honest, because there is no question of doing what we ask and things are constantly being delayed,” says Mario Vergara, a member of an association of families of disappeared in the western state of Guerrero, adding that a national registry of the disappeared needs to be created.

In February 2015, the UN’s Committee on Forced Disappearances expressed its concern about human rights in Mexico, pointing out that forced disappearances involving members of the security forces and public officials are widespread. In September of that year, several organizations presented a draft bill to the Senate that aimed to prevent such abuses, and that would facilitate finding disappeared people and provide for full compensation for victims.

Families want to  take part in searches aware of the corruption that has corroded the justice system

International pressure over the disappearance of 43 student teachers in Guerrero in September 2014, along with the UN’s observations, led President Peña to present a bill on the disappearance of people in December 2015. Since then, four Senatorial commissions have studied these proposals and others with the aim of producing a report outlining its recommendations – so far to no effect.

Senator Angélica de la Peña, head of the higher chamber’s human rights commission, says the delay in producing a report reflects the importance of the draft law: “This is a very ambitious law that would be the only one of its kind in the world and that we are putting together with organizations representing the families of disappeared people: we have to work with all of them.” She says the Senate’s conclusions must be based on consensus.

One of the key aspects of the draft law is the creation of a national search commission that would coordinate with the different levels of government when a disappearance is reported. This has proved one of the main sticking points, says Diana Iris García, a member of an association in the northern state of Coahuila representing the families of the disappeared: “We believe the commission should be the heart of the law, but we were told there was no need for another institution and that there were enough already to deal with a tragedy.”

Families also want to be able to take part in searches, aware of the corruption and impunity that has corroded the justice system. “The families are mistrustful and until it is seen that this has changed, we want to be present at all stages to make sure that things are being done properly,” she says. The problem is that the commission’s draft report doesn’t mention families being involved, says Peña: “I don’t think they will participate directly. This is because finding human remains will shock families and if a family takes part in the search commission that would be very surprising.”

Forced disappearances by the security forces and public officials are widespread

Michael W. Chamberlin of the Fray Juan de Larios human rights center says the families of the disappeared are worried because the Senate breaks in April and the commission has so far produced no report.

“Things are going terribly slowly and people are concerned because once again, time has run out and no law has been passed,” says Chamberlin, adding that efforts were made to discuss the issue with the government to no avail. “The government is occupied with other things, it doesn’t see this as a priority,” he notes.

Other organizations have also called for a state program of exhumations and identification of remains. At present, families looking for their loved ones have had to fund searches themselves, typically with no protection and in areas that have been under the control of drug cartels.

Silvia Ortiz of human rights group Vida highlights the importance of creating a register of mass graves so that remains can be protected and bodies identified.

 English version by Nick Lyne.

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