Washington, DC—Today, after more than two years of debate, Mexico’s Congress took an important step towards improving its human rights record by passing the General Law on Disappearances, which aims to strengthen the government’s ability to track and investigate disappearances. The law will go into effect once it is approved by President Enrique Peña Nieto. However, Mexico must now summon the political will to promptly and fully implement the new law, which will be a significant challenge given the government’s spotty record in adequately enforcing reforms, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas.
“While approval of the General Law on Disappearances is a welcome step forward, its effective implementation will be critical for the thousands of families that are tirelessly searching for their loved ones,” said Maureen Meyer, WOLA Senior Associate for Mexico. “The moment the law becomes effective, authorities in Mexico must fulfill their obligation to search for the disappeared and investigate state agents and criminal groups that perpetrate disappearances.”
According to the Mexican government’s official database, at least 33,000 people have disappeared in the country since 2007. However, most cases are never properly investigated and the whereabouts of thousands of missing people remains unknown. The Mexican government has only reported six federal court convictions for enforced disappearance in Mexico and many of these cases involved incidents that took place prior to 2007. Such widespread impunity takes a heavy toll on Mexican society: in 2016 Mexico suffered the largest number of registered disappearances, with nearly 5,000 people reported missing—an average of 14 people per day.
The new General Law on Disappearances establishes a number of measures and protocols that, if implemented well, will play a critical role in addressing this crisis. The law standardizes the criminal definition of enforced disappearance in accordance with international law and assigns clear roles to the different government bodies responsible for handling these cases, eliminating in part the alleged “jurisdictional complexities” that authorities often blame for their lack of results in investigating disappearances. The new law also mandates the creation of a National Search System (Sistema Nacional de Búsqueda) and a National Search Commission (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda) to relieve family members of the disappeared from the burden of leading search efforts and carrying out their own investigations, given the little support they receive from authorities.
However, as WOLA has previously noted, important aspects of the law could still be improved to further strengthen investigative and search procedures. As it currently stands, the law lacks clarity on how the National Search Commission would coordinate with federal and local authorities in order to carry out prompt and thorough searches. The law also does little to facilitate the investigation of high-ranking security officers accused of forced disappearances. Another problem is the way the law establishes harmful distinctions between “disappeared” and “missing” persons, which could possibly cause many cases to be classified as voluntary absences rather than forced disappearances. Despite these limitations, there is room for those with the political will to continue improving and strengthening this law, which is why it remains a key step forward for addressing the tens of thousands of cases of disappearances in Mexico and should promptly be enacted by President Peña Nieto.
“While not without its limitations, the General Law serves as an important starting point for addressing the widespread practice of disappearances in Mexico,” said Meyer. “Going forward, the Mexican government must guarantee adequate funding for the full implementation of the law, including the National Search System, to bring justice for disappeared victims and their families.”