Mexico and human rights, a law on forced disappearances is finally on the way but is it enough?

Mexico’s Senate has approved the law on forced disappearances, badly needed in a country where 30,000 people remain missing. But celebrations might be premature.

It’s been two years since the Mexican Congress began working on the General Law on Enforced Disappearances, but despite the arrival of the Senate’s approval on the 27th of April there’s still a long way until Mexico becomes accountable for the over 30,000 people who are currently missing. The bill still awaits consideration on the part of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, which is juggling it between commissions instead of putting it to a vote. The next parliamentary session will be in September, but it is likely that under the pressure of numerous criticisms of the current version of the bill, the Chamber will introduce changes and send it back to the Senate.

Forced disappearances in Mexico

In Mexico, the use of forced disappearances as a deliberate state tactic to eliminate political adversaries dates back to the so-called “dirty war” between the 1960s and 1980s, when the government repressed and tortured hundreds of left-wing sympathisers in order to prevent their rise to power. The current wave of disappearances started in the wake of former president Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs” between 2006 and 2012.

Social outrage over state violence culminated in September 2014 when municipal police in Iguala in the state of Guerrero opened fire on a group of students heading to Mexico City for a peaceful commemoration of a student massacre that took place in 1968. Although there are various hypotheses about what happened that night they all point to police connections with local drug trafficking networks.

The police fatally shot six people and injured many more but the whereabouts of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Normal School are still unknown and despite onsite visits, reports, letters of condemnation from NGOs and international bodies, the government still hasn’t answered to the crime. And sadly this determination to evade responsibility for cases of state violence demonstrates that there is still a long way to implement any meaningful changes to the Mexican system of human rights – with or without the bill.

The legal vacuum

Currently, there exists no federal law targeting the crime of forced disappearances except for one too-narrow article in the Criminal Code. Even though Mexico has ratified international agreements on the matter, such as the Inter-American Convention in 2002 and the International Convention in 2008, the domestic law hasn’t followed these standards. Only half of Mexican states recognise the crime of forced disappearances as a separate crime, and the definitions and applicability of punishment are inconsistent between them.

In 2012 Mexico passed a law creating a registry of forced disappearances but this initiative has been highly ineffective due to dubious transparency, ambiguous classification and poor coordination between different agencies. This partly explains why only 2 per cent of cases of disappearances lead to a conviction.

homicides mexico
Source: Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI)


The law on forced disappearances

There is a consensus regarding the urgency of adopting comprehensive legal measures to investigate and bring justice in cases of forced disappearances. The new legislation could unify all definitions and penalties, as well as assign clear roles to organs involved in the search of those who go missing. “The definitive approval of the bill on enforced disappearances is crucial in order to begin to seriously address the nightmare which thousands of families face, searching for their loved ones in the face of serious risks and carrying out work which is the responsibility of the authorities,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Among other novelties, the new law calls for up to 90 years of imprisonment for the crime of forced disappearance and between 15 and 20 years for those who destroy human remains. The law provides mitigating circumstances that can reduce the sanctions up to a third for revealing the location of the disappeared within 10 days after the crime has been carried out if the individual is still alive.

Supporting the law at all costs?

Despite advances, the new bill has received mixed reactions from civil society and human rights lawyers, and consequently Mexicans face the question whether to back the bill at all costs, despite deficiencies. The proposal “shows a striking naiveté towards the reality the families searching for their disappeared relatives face and a worrisome resistance of the government to end the opacity surrounding the disappearances,” according to the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), a leading advocate for human rights in the region. WOLA condemns the government’s insistence on using the term “missing” that implies that the nature of disappearances is “voluntary”, that is, unrelated to any crime, and argues against the creation of several local search commissions instead of a centralised National Commission that could coordinate work more efficiently.

The ongoing story

Judicial and police reforms were among the main campaign promises of current president Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in 2012. However, such promises haven’t been maintained and human rights violations have been exacerbated, further dividing the already-fragile society. With the upcoming elections in July 2018, the question of forced disappearances and human rights more generally will be central for those choosing the country’s next leader.

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