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23 Mar 2020 | Commentary

Mexico Moves Forward with Efforts to Address Disappearances Crisis

Strengthening Search Plans, Addressing a “Forensic Emergency,” and Securing International Assistance

In January, Mexican officials announced that they had registered 60,053 disappeared people in the country between 2006 and 2019, a tally that far exceeds the previous official estimate of around 40,000. The announcement came after Mexico’s National Search Commission (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda, CNB)—the body that coordinates efforts to search for the missing—conducted a thorough review of data from prosecutors’ offices last year, finding that many cases were missing from the government’s National Registry of Missing and Disappeared Persons. Calling the new statistic “data of horror,” the head of the CNB, Karla Quintana, said the number represents “stories and narratives of great pain for the families.”

This number is likely still an underestimate, since 12 of Mexico’s 32 state prosecutors’ offices did not report their information to the CNB for review. However, the Mexican government’s effort to strengthen the accuracy of the registry and publicly recognize the scale of Mexico’s disappearances crisis breaks with the apathetic attitude of past governments.

Before President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed power in December 2018, previous administrations largely dismissed the crisis. During President Enrique Peña Nieto’s mandate, advocacy organizations and families of the disappeared succeeded in pushing for a sweeping General Law on Disappearances, which Mexico’s Congress passed in November 2017. But while the law set forth a framework for better tracking disappearances and strengthening search and investigation efforts, the Peña Nieto administration did not demonstrate the political will needed to properly implement the law.

In the face of government inaction, families of the missing have borne the brunt of investigating the disappearance of their loved ones, leading community-based searches and forensic digs at suspected clandestine gravesites. Thanks largely to the work of the families, the government has registered more than 3,631 clandestine graves across the country.

López Obrador based part of his presidential campaign on promising to put an end to government apathy and bring justice to victims and their families. Since taking office, his administration has issued various public apologies for past inaction, met regularly with families, and raised the budget of the CNB to USD$32.8 million (MXN$720.4 million) for 2020, a 55 percent increase over the search commission’s 2019 budget. The administration has also said that there will be no “financial ceiling” for forensic efforts to identify the tens of thousands of disappeared persons that have been found postmortem and repatriating the victims’ remains to their families. In addition, on his third day in office, the president signed a presidential decree to create a Presidential Commission for Truth and Justice to coordinate efforts to investigate the emblematic case of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero who were forcefully disappeared by Mexican security forces in September 2014.

While López Obrador has made this issue a priority for his administration, addressing this crisis is a colossal task, and many families have expressed impatience with the pace of progress. Most developments have so far focused on search and identification efforts, while the National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR)—under the leadership of Alejandro Gertz Manero since January 2018—has made little progress in investigating and prosecuting disappearance cases. While the FGR has made important progress in investigating the case of the 43 students, progress in other cases has been limited.

Below, we analyze the steps the Mexican government has taken to address this crisis, the obstacles ahead that may hinder these efforts, as well as how the U.S. government is supporting this undertaking.

Search efforts

With an enhanced budget and Karla Quintana’s leadership since February 2019, the CNB has beefed up searches and made an important effort to implement the disappearances law passed in 2017. Beyond strengthening the accuracy of the National Registry of Missing and Disappeared Persons, the CNB has also launched a digital platform where individuals can directly report a disappearance to the search commission. This tool is meant to address cases in which families fear that reporting the crime to local authorities may lead to reprisals.

In addition, the CNB is working closely with state governments, international human rights bodies and development organizations, and families of the disappeared to develop Mexico’s first “regional search plan” for the northern border states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Durango. The plan aims to strengthen coordination between government institutions across state lines and will serve as a basis for creating a broader national search plan—a measure mandated by the General Law on Disappearances.

The CNB has announced that it will transfer 63.5 percent of its 2020 budget, a sum of USD$20.6 million (MXN$457.6 million), to strengthen the capacities of state-level search commissions. (By January 2020, 29 of Mexico’s 32 states had installed these constitutionally mandated commissions.) Between December 2018 and December 2019, the first year of the López Obrador administration—the CNB worked with the state-level commissions to locate 873 clandestine graves across the country. During this period, authorities exhumed 1,124 bodies from these graves, a crucial step toward bringing answers to victims’ families.

While the majority of the CNB’s search efforts have focused on searching for clandestine graves, families have called on the government to not neglect searching for victims who may still be alive. This should include strengthening the capacities of local authorities to rapidly respond to missing or disappeared persons reports and overturning certain state protocols that recommend authorities wait several hours to initiate a search after receiving a report. It should also include doubling down on searches and investigations related to criminal networks known to forcefully recruit victims into working for them.

In addition, the Mexican government has welcomed international support for its activities in this area. For instance, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, FAFG) is working with the CNB to strengthen search efforts and state forensic capacity in select Mexican states. 

Forensic identification

Search and exhumation efforts are just the first step in tending to the disappearance crisis. For the remains that have been recovered, forensics experts must identify the bodies by extracting genetic samples and cross-referencing them with samples submitted by families searching for a disappeared loved one.

Thousands of families have submitted DNA swabs to prosecutor’s offices in recent years, but Mexico clearly lacks the forensic capacity to keep up. Government facilities currently house a backlog of over 37,000 bodies and an unknown number of bone fragments—a total that likely extends into the hundreds of thousands—that have yet to be processed and identified.

The Mexican government recognizes that, with its current capacities and infrastructure, it can’t tackle a crisis of this magnitude on its own. Alejandro Encinas, the Interior Ministry’s undersecretary for human rights and migration, has deemed the backlog a “forensic emergency” that requires international assistance to resolve.

Over the past year, a nationwide collective of families called the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico and several human rights groups have advocated for the creation of a temporary body of national and international technical experts to help clear the backlog of unidentified remains in government custody. On December 5, the Mexican government formally agreed to create this body, called the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification.

The mechanism will operate as a semi-autonomous government body attached to the National Search System (Sistema Nacional de Búsqueda, SNB), but it will enjoy full operational and financial independence. The new body will be made up of national and international experts in forensic archaeology and anthropology, DNA and data analysis, and other relevant areas, as well as administrative personnel.

As an “extraordinary” measure, its mandate will last only until the backlog of unidentified remains is cleared. With limited exceptions, the mechanism will just have the authority to analyze remains that were already in government custody by December 5, 2019, the date of its creation. By relieving prosecutors’ offices of backlogged remains, the mechanism’s work will enable domestic forensics teams to dedicate their time and resources toward supporting investigations into recent disappearance cases and other investigations. 

In addition, the mechanism’s analysis of human remains and other backlogged evidence recovered from clandestine graves, such as clothing and weapons, can generate valuable intelligence to aid in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for these crimes. Past experience shows the powerful impact that forensic analysis can have on criminal investigations into grave human rights violations. In the case of Guatemala, the exhumation and identification of 97 victims who were buried in clandestine graves in the 1980s helped national prosecutors arrest 14 military officers for the crimes of enforced disappearance, torture, and murder in 2016.

Beyond helping to bring answers to families of the disappeared, the forensic mechanism can play a role in supporting Mexico’s broader criminal justice efforts. Forensics institutions are one of the weakest links in Mexico’s criminal justice system; gaps in forensic capacity greatly hinder efforts to combat organized crime and other criminal activity. In a country where impunity reigns supreme, the mechanism’s forensic expertise can go a long way. The experts will be required to issue an annual report detailing their activities and results, as well as policy recommendations for addressing deficiencies in Mexico’s forensics landscape. The experts will also work closely with the leadership of the SNB to produce legislative proposals on these issues.

Next steps

On February 21, a temporary “Follow-Up Committee” (Comité de Seguimiento) was formed to take the first steps in implementing the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification. This committee is made up of 14 individuals—seven government officials, four representatives of family collectives, and three representatives from civil society organizations. The Follow-Up Committee’s primary task is to determine a process for selecting the members of the forensic mechanism’s Coordinating Group (Grupo Coordinador), which will play the lead role in shaping the body’s activities. (The Follow-Up Committee will dissipate once it selects these members.)

Once formed, the Coordinating Group will carry out a detailed assessment of Mexico’s forensic identification needs. With its findings, the group will establish a strategic plan outlining which cases the mechanism will prioritize and how many experts to send to each site to conduct analyses. In addition, this group will be responsible for establishing mechanisms that guarantee the ability of families to actively participate in the mechanism’s work.

The Coordinating Group will also be charged with determining funding needs, issuing budget requests, and emitting recommendations for international assistance. In regards to funding, President López Obrador has instructed the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit (Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público) to create a bridge loan to help fund the body’s operations. In addition, the governments of the United States and Germany, as well as the European Union, have expressed interest in supporting the mechanism. Securing sufficient funding will serve as a crucial step toward guaranteeing the mechanism’s success.

Threats to the forensic mechanism’s effectiveness

Aside from a continuous, adequate funding stream, the central factor that will facilitate or hinder the mechanism’s success will be the access and support it receives from the FGR and state-level prosecutor’s offices, which exercise control over the DNA databases and backlogged remains that the experts will need to analyze.

The agreement creating the mechanism stipulates that prosecutors’ offices will have the power to determine their own guidelines for collaborating with the mechanism’s experts and granting them access to the remains and databases. In a March 6, 2020 hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about the forensic mechanism’s implementation, families and federal government representatives framed the potential reticence of prosecutors’ offices as the biggest threat to the mechanism’s success.

Another challenge will be the shortcomings in Mexico’s genetic database framework. While the disappearances law called for the creation of a National Forensic Database to consolidate all databases at the federal and state level that contain information relevant to the search and identification of disappeared persons, this is far from a reality. Undersecretary Encinas has announced progress in consolidating the FGR’s database with that of the Ministry of  Security and Citizen Protection, but the FGR has yet to report on any effort to integrate information housed in state-level databases. The absence of a centralized forensic database will in many cases limit the experts’ ability to cross-reference genetic samples.

In addition, the forensic mechanism’s legal mandate to operate in Mexico will depend entirely on the continued political will of the federal government. The contracts that enable the international experts to stay in the country will require ongoing support from the López Obrador administration as well as future governments.

U.S. support for Mexico’s efforts to address disappearances

Through the Merida Initiative (a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar aid package to Mexico), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is rolling out a multi-year human rights and accountability activity in Mexico, which will fund programs totaling USD$10-24.9 million. A substantial component of these activities will involve support for efforts to address disappearances, including the establishment and implementation of  the forensic mechanism.

These new activities will build on USAID’s existing efforts to aid in the implementation of Mexico’s disappearances law and to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations and state governments to search for the disappeared, identify human remains, and carry out criminal investigations. USAID will continue to support the work of international experts, such as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) and the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), that are partnering with Mexican human rights organizations and carrying out capacity-building projects at the state level.

Other U.S. agencies are also supporting Mexico’s efforts to address disappearances. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice has administered funds appropriated by the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) to provide forensic equipment and direct technical training to Mexican agencies.

The U.S. government has also equipped the FGR’s National Forensic Database with technology from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to facilitate DNA comparisons.

Looking ahead

The López Obrador administration has taken essential steps to implement the General Law on Disappearances and develop a comprehensive framework for bringing answers to the tens of thousands of families searching for a disappeared loved one—some of whom have been searching for more than a decade. To be successful, this effort will require the unwavering commitment of federal and state officials, including after  López Obrador’s presidency ends on September 30, 2024.

Given the magnitude of this crisis, progress will likely be slow, and small wins at the local level should not be overlooked. As the CNB’s initiatives move forward, and as the forensic mechanism takes shape, measuring success must go beyond counting the number of mass graves found or the number of remains identified. Progress should also be measured by efforts to increase staffing and funding levels within state-level prosecutor’s offices, search commissions, and other relevant agencies, as well as securing international assistance and oversight.

The FGR and state prosecutors’ offices must also step up to do their part, not only by supporting search and identification efforts, but also by doubling down on investigating and prosecuting disappearance cases, including the many cases in which government officials were involved. Bringing truth to the families of the disappeared must be paired with ensuring justice in these cases.