May 21, 2017
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Georgina Aranda Contreras, 55, and Julio Sánchez Pasillas, 62, are still searching for their daughter, Thania Sánchez Aranda. She disappeared Jan. 21, 2012, with her boyfriend on their way home from a late-night party in Coahuila, a state in northern Mexico.
They don’t want to admit it, but it’s possible that Thania is no longer alive. They still hold out hope, although they spend each weekend looking for signs of their daughter in clandestine graves with members of Grupo Víctimas por sus Desaparecidos en Acción (VIDA), a support group for family members of the disappeared. Grupo VIDA is part of the Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México, an umbrella group of more than 70 collectives of the family members of the disappeared.
The government’s human rights commission reported that the number of missing persons tallied 32,236 as of December 2016 but stated it did not know how many of those persons might have been located. Despite acknowledging the number, the government has tried to minimize the problem, says Amaya Ordorika Imaz, a researcher from the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, a civil organization promoting human rights in Mexico. But due to international pressure, she says, authorities have begun to acknowledge it.
Families like Thania’s in Coahuila are searching because they are unhappy with authorities’ investigations and responses to their reports of missing relatives. In April they succeeded in having one chamber of Mexico’s legislature pass a bill designed to punish those found responsible for abductions and forced disappearances. The measure goes next to the lower legislative house, which reconvenes in September.
The families want to ensure that authorities are required to search for someone who is reported missing immediately upon receiving the report. Currently, authorities begin searching for someone only after 72 hours. This needs to be rectified, the families say, because those first hours are often crucial in discovering what has happened, says Grace Mahogany Fernández Morán, a representative of the Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos, a network for the family members of the disappeared.
The families came together in 2015 after hundreds of clandestine graves had been unearthed, and because many believe the perpetrators are going free. A report by the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH), the national human rights commission, reported that between January 2007 and September 2016, 855 secret graves were found, in which 1,548 cadavers were buried.
The CNDH found inconsistencies and deficiencies in Mexican authorities’ investigations, and recommended the government create a comprehensive registry to fully assess the magnitude of the problem of disappearances.
Thania’s parents at first trusted the authorities to investigate, but found deficiencies in the investigation.
“The authorities didn’t let us see the investigation documents, or have a copy of them, until one year after we told them she was missing,” says Thania’s mother.
“In those offices you only become angry and lose very valuable time,” says Thania’s father.
Lost time and a distrust of authorities are two reasons why families don’t always come forward to report crimes as disappearances, according to the Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública 2016, a national poll on public security carried out by the government’s statistical institute.
Families suspect that authorities sometimes commit or are complicit in disappearances, or are too afraid to fully investigate the cases, says Sen. Angélica de la Peña Gómez, president of the Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Senado.
“I don’t know how we could allow such a grave situation to grow to the magnitude that we face today,” she says.
Fernández says it is criminal when authorities abandon their responsibilities and fail to fully investigate.
“Is it that they don’t know how to search, or that they don’t want to search?” she asks.
Sen. de la Peña says the authorities’ lack of responsiveness forced families to begin their own investigations, even putting their own lives at risk in doing so.
In March 2015, the families met to push for laws to force the government to fully investigate disappearances and to prosecute those responsible. This mobilization of families of the disappeared has enabled them to build national networks with a common demand, so they are not alone in the search for justice.
“We have to monitor the work of the authorities to feel confident ourselves, and to be able to comfort the other families that something is being done,” Fernández says. “If we don’t have a way to penalize authorities who do nothing, it will be difficult to make the law work.”
Gabriela Reyes Sánchez, GPJ Mexico
Acting on a 2015 decree mandating that Congress pass legislation to address the issue, the Cámara de Senadores, the upper legislative house, April 27 passed a bill that would punish both civilians and public servants involved in abductions and forced disappearances and would define disappearances as a continuing crime without a statute of limitations. If the law passes in Mexico’s lower legislative house when it reconvenes in September, the punishment in some cases could be up to 60 years in prison.
The bill also would create a national search commission, Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda, and a citizens’ council, Consejo Ciudadano, which together would be tasked with establishing general policies and procedures between authorities and citizens to search for and identify missing persons. A national registry of missing persons also would be established.
Fernández hailed the upper house passage as an important step in establishing a law to recognize and punish perpetrators of disappearances, even though some of the families’ requests were not included. For instance, she says they disagree with terms such as “not located” instead of language that consistently uses the term “disappeared.”
Fernández says she believes the bill provides a path to require authorities to begin searches when absences are first reported. This is one the key requests by the families of the disappeared. Details remain to be worked out as the bill moves to the Cámara de Diputados, Mexico’s lower house.
She says families of the disappeared will continue to push for the legislation because without their voices they fear the bill will bounce between the representatives and senators and fail to become law.
“The families have been very patient, but we won’t wait for another legislative session,” Fernández says. She notes the most important step after a law’s passage is “the government’s responsibility to guarantee that the law works.”
Danielle Mackey, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.