WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 Aug 2021 | Press Release

Mexico: Thousands of Disappearances From 2018-2020 Not Being Investigated As Mexican Anti-Disappearance Law Orders

New WOLA Campaign Reveals Gaps Between Legislation and Reality

Justice is failing Mexico’s disappeared starting from the first step of the process: recognizing and investigating disappearances as crimes. This is one of the central findings of a new campaign launched today by research and advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Findings from the first installment of the campaign include:

  • Mexico’s National Registry of the disappeared lists over 23,000 people disappeared from 2018-2020, all of whom are presumed to be victims of a crime. Yet less than a third are listed in the Registry as victims of any specific crime currently under investigation. This reflects both a failure by authorities to upload information to the Registry—preventing it from fulfilling its potential as a search and investigation tool—and a real gap between disappearance victims and criminal investigations.
    • As of mid-2021, only 811 of these 23,000+ people (3.5 percent) were registered as victims of disappearance crimes.
    • The majority of disappeared children from 2018-2020 were girls, yet not a single person was recognized as a victim of human trafficking.
  • Prosecutors’ offices in a range of states reported opening far fewer investigations for disappearance crimes than the number of people disappeared in their territory from 2018-2020. In response to WOLA’s information requests, a series of offices reported a dozen or fewer such investigations in a context of hundreds or thousands of disappeared people.
  • Disappearances are not just being investigated as other crimes: many were not initially, or are not now, recognized as crimes at all.

“Effective investigations are essential to turning the tide in Mexico’s disappearance crisis,” said Stephanie Brewer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at WOLA. “Solving cases is crucial to discovering the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, mapping patterns, and prosecuting networks of perpetrators, all of which are key to preventing future disappearances. That path starts with treating disappearance cases as crimes and forming a theory of the case and an investigation plan, elements frequently lacking right now.”

Over 90,000 people are currently disappeared and missing in Mexico according to government statistics—a number that continues to grow. For years, the families of the disappeared, led in particular by mothers, have spearheaded the search for their loved ones and for justice.

“Authorities should guarantee families’ right to participate fully in searches and investigations,” added Brewer. “But that shouldn’t mean placing the burden of solving cases on families. When authorities don’t move investigations forward, relatives end up essentially investigating on their own, which can put them at serious risk. No family member should be forced to choose between their safety and obtaining truth and justice for a disappeared loved one.”

WOLA’s campaign calls on Mexican authorities to bring investigations into full compliance with Mexico’s General Law against disappearances, in force since January 2018. This landmark legislation created specialized tools and procedures to investigate disappearances, but three and a half years later, the official data analyzed by WOLA show that the law remains under-applied, leaving the majority of Mexico’s disappearances unpunished. WOLA and counterpart organizations in Mexico have written to the country’s National Prosecutors’ Conference and National Search System to share key findings and call for these bodies to coordinate action plans to close the gaps between law and reality.

Over each of the coming three weeks, WOLA will publish findings on obstacles that must be addressed at each stage of the investigative process: firstly, recognizing disappearance crimes; secondly, investigating disappearances; and thirdly, securing justice.

WOLA’s campaign coincides with the International Day of the Victims of Disappearances, August 30. The campaign website includes links to the work of Mexican collectives and organizations, as well as ways to support upcoming search efforts. WOLA invites everyone to join in its call for authorities to ensure effective disappearance investigations, stating that, “For disappearances to end, justice must begin.”