Mexico today is experiencing a crisis of disappearances. In the first four months of 2016, an average of 10 people per day disappeared in the country. This crisis has been building for some time: between 2007 and April 2016, over 27,000 persons were officially reported as disappeared in Mexico, an unprecedented number. Over 49 percent of these disappearances occurred during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. As alarming as these figures are, human rights organizations that document disappearances and work with victims’ families believe the true number of cases is much higher. Multiple organizations that have searched the official registry have found that anywhere from 63 to 98 percent of the cases they had documented were not included.
To date, Mexico lacks an appropriate legal framework for investigating disappearances. Although all states and the federal government have legal instruments to investigate cases, they have been ineffective at searching for and finding the disappeared, and at bringing justice and reparations to the victims. Currently, the unit charged with searching for the disappeared within the federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la Republica, PGR) has only 29 prosecutors and 58 investigators working on over 1,000 federal cases. The unit’s budget for 2016 is 34 percent lower than the funds it received in 2014.
The enforced disappearance at the hands of municipal police of the 43 students from the rural teachers’ school “Raúl Isidro Burgos” in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in September 2014 only confirmed what families and victims have denounced for years: in Mexico, law enforcement and judicial authorities hinder investigations and obstruct search and localization efforts. Mexico’s shortcomings on this front were well documented by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes, GIEI) advising Mexico on the Ayotzinapa case, that recommended the government adopt an adequate legal framework to respond to disappearances.
In response to increasing criticism over the alarming persistence of disappearances in Mexico, Congress approved a constitutional amendment on July 10, 2015 that granted lawmakers the authority to pass wide-ranging legislation on the issue. The reform authorized the enactment of a General Law on Disappearances, which would standardize the criminal definition of disappearances and the associated penalties throughout the country and establish a National System for the Search of Persons (Sistema Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas).
This was a positive step towards justice: the proposed law would eliminate alleged “jurisdictional complexities” that authorities use to justify the lack of results in investigations and would also harmonize definitions, procedures, and protocols for the search for the disappeared. What made this constitutional amendment exceptional was the possibility, for the first time in Mexico, that lawmakers would pass a law that truly incorporated the claims and needs of victims and families searching for disappeared relatives.
Unfortunately, judging by the lack of promptness and compliance with deadlines, the actual will of Mexican lawmakers to enact an effective law to address disappearances can only be described as weak.
The deadline for passing the General Law on Disappearances expired almost five months ago. While the Mexican Congress had given itself a 180-day period to approve the law, the deadline passed without fanfare on January 6, 2016. Additionally, lawmakers went on recess in April without approving the law, delaying the discussion until the next congressional session begins in September. At the same time, fundamental issues that should be included in the law remain undefined and unclear, such as the criminal definition of enforced disappearance, penalties for crimes, and procedures to search for the disappeared. Furthermore, while authorities organized some meetings with families and victims to discuss the content of the law, fundamental requests of those groups remain unfulfilled in existing drafts of the legislation.
The failure to enact the General Law on Disappearances has grave consequences for victims and deprives families of a legal framework that could help them find their relatives. Until Congress approves the General Law and sets forth a comprehensive system for the search for the disappeared, families will face a situation similar to the one that prevailed during the enforced disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa: a judicial system incapable of carrying out basic investigative actions to search for the disappeared, and either incapable or unwilling to sanction the perpetrators. And until then, isolated but valuable efforts like the immediate search protocol implemented in the state of Nuevo Leon will not be enough to prevent and investigate disappearances.
While passing a comprehensive law is clearly necessary, experience shows us that in Mexico, having good laws on the books is not enough to ensure justice. Guerrero, for instance, where the 43 students were disappeared and where the GIEI documented 148 additional cases of disappearances, has one of the most advanced laws in the country regarding the investigation of enforced disappearances. Although Mexican authorities should prioritize the enactment of the General Law on Disappearances and ensure that the concerns of victims’ families are properly addressed, they must also demonstrate political will to equip their institutions with sufficient human and financial resources and capacities to implement the law once it is approved.
For the more than 27,000 victims and their families, the Mexican government must step up its efforts to respond to this human tragedy and combat the impunity and disregard that has characterized its efforts for far too long.