A U.S.-Mexico Pledge to End Disappearances Fails to Grapple With the Complicity of the State

The promise was a little-noticed outcome of Vice President Kamala Harris's recent meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

A girl looks at pictures of missing persons hanging from a rope in front of the National Palace during the commemoration of the International Day of the Disappeared in Mexico City, on August 30, 2019. - More than 40,000 people are missing in Mexico, which has been swept by a wave of violence since the government declared war on the country's powerful drug cartels in 2006. (Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman looks at pictures of missing persons hanging from a rope in front of the National Palace during the commemoration of the International Day of the Disappeared in Mexico City, on Aug. 30, 2019. Photo: Roodrigo Arangua/AFP via Getty Images

Buried in the news of Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Mexico this month was a binational vow to end one of the Western Hemisphere’s most daunting human rights crises: the ongoing and unsolved disappearance of tens of thousands of people south of the Rio Grande.

In a fact sheet circulated after Harris’s June 8 meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the two countries promised expanded forensic capacities in the years ahead, “potentially bringing closure to tens of thousands of families and ending impunity for offenders” responsible for Mexico’s epidemic of disappearances. The State Department, together with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Justice Department, would continue to train Mexican lab technicians and police to work disappearance cases, the Biden White House said, while the FBI “will train genetics experts on a new system to track forensic information and improve capacity.”

The scale of Mexico’s crisis is immense. At the very minimum, nearly 90,000 people and counting have disappeared in the past 15 years, a tally that exceeds the Cold War totals of desaparecidos in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala combined. And those are just the reported cases of mostly Mexican nationals. Add in unreported cases and those involving Central American migrants who have vanished — by some estimates as many as 120,000 people in a single decade — and the picture turns staggeringly grim.

In Mexico, the emotional and psychological weight of not knowing what’s become of a disappeared loved one is typically borne by family members, often mothers, who have become a political force unto themselves. With at least 120 collectives now led by mothers of the disappeared spread out across Mexico, the most urgent question that arises from the recently announced binational collaboration is whether it is sufficient to address to the crisis.

Experts say that accomplishing that goal would require a fundamentally new approach to security and insecurity in Mexico.

While the vow to solve the disappearances was the closest the two governments came to acknowledging the fact that Mexico has been battered with world historical levels of violence over the course of nearly two decades, the plan offered little in the way of a new approach to the complex and dire human rights conditions that allow disappearances to persist. Though the collaboration gestured at ending impunity, experts say that accomplishing that goal would require a fundamentally new approach to security and insecurity in Mexico, one that moves away from a story of drug traffickers battling the state and toward a view that recognizes the role Mexican security forces routinely play in perpetuating impunity and violence. So far, scant evidence has emerged from the Biden and López Obrador administrations to indicate that either government is prepared to have that conversation.

“We’re still very far away from actual movement in policy terms,” Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst at the global think tank Crisis Group, told me. “We’re still stuck on superficial formulations of policy, in which a clearly delineated enemy — the stereotypical bad guys, the cartels, the guys who actually hold the Kalashnikov — is being produced as a perfect enemy that can be combated by clear means of force, by military means.”

The reality on the ground, he argued, is far more complicated. Sources in in the ascendant Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación have made it clear to him that security forces occupy key roles in Mexico’s ongoing violence, he said. “They take sides, they make deals, they actively engage in fighting on one side or the other.” These same institutions cloak themselves in secrecy, making it extraordinarily difficult to gain deeper insight into their operations, let alone to pursue accountability in so-called enforced disappearance cases, those that involve the participation or acquiescence of government security forces.

On paper, the plan to address disappearances laid out this month seems largely a continuation of past practices. A Congressional Research Service report published in October noted that the State Department, the FBI, and USAID had all provided support to Mexico on addressing enforced disappearances, including through forensics assistance, supporting the creation of a national genetics database in Mexico, and USAID assistance to the Mexican government in drafting a 2017 law on enforced disappearances. USAID doubled its assistance to Mexico on the intertwined problems of disappearance and torture last year, with a five-year grant of $24 million.

The State Department did not respond to interview requests to explain how the Biden administration’s posture on security and human rights in Mexico breaks with its predecessors, if at all.

“Multiple drivers for the conflict haven’t been really touched so far — neither from the U.S. side, nor from the Mexican side.”

Despite the collaborations, the disappearances have continued all the same, with more than 600 people vanishing in the first five months of 2021 alone. Though the official tally is fast approaching 100,000 people, Ernst said, the figure nonetheless reflects a “severe undercount.” In southern states like Guerrero and Michoacán and in northern states like Tamaulipas, conditions can border on war-zone levels of insecurity. The existence of mass graves may be well known in such areas but searching for the disappeared is hampered by the sheer dangerousness of the work.

The disappearances and other human rights abuses persist because the “multiple drivers for the conflict haven’t been really touched so far — neither from the U.S. side, nor from the Mexican side,” Ernst said. “You’re stuck with cosmetic features as long as you don’t go down to the root causes and actually do something about those.”

Activists, relatives and mothers of missing people, march to demand the Mexican government answers about their loved ones whereabouts, as part of the commemoration of Mothers' Day in Mexico City on May 10, 2018. - Mexico, a country ravaged by the violence of drug trafficking cartels, recorded 33,513 missing persons until 2017, according to official figures. One of the most emblematic cases was the disappearance and presumable massacre of 43 students from Guerrero (south) in 2014, in hands of police colluded with drug traffickers. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)        (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Activists, relatives, and mothers of missing people march to demand the Mexican government provides answers about their loved ones whereabouts, as part of the commemoration of Mother’s Day in Mexico City on May 10, 2018.

Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

The issue of disappearances in Mexico, particularly enforced disappearances, burst into the international spotlight in September 2014, when Mexican police attacked a group of students from a rural teachers college in the city of Iguala, in northern Guerrero. Six people lay dead in the street when the sun rose the next morning. One student was found with his face removed. Forty-three others, last seen in police custody, disappeared in the night. The searches that followed uncovered one mass grave after another, none of which contained the students’ bodies. When I arrived at Ayotzinapa a few weeks after the students’ disappearance, their parents were still hovering around the school’s campus in a state of unending shock. Their pain became a symbol of Mexico’s crisis of disappearances and sparked massive protests across the country. “Fue el estado” — “it was the state” — was spray-painted on buildings and chanted in the streets.


We Need to Reverse the Damage Trump Has Done in Latin America. Biden’s Plans Don’t Cut It.

In 2017, following the national indignation over the still-unsolved case, it seemed possible that substantive change might be coming on one of Mexico’s nation’s most difficult issues. Mexico created a National Search Commission dedicated to locating the disappeared and supporting their families. López Obrador, who took office the following year, received praise from some human rights groups for his efforts to combat the crisis but has faced increasing criticism for falling short on his vows. “This agenda is completely abandoned,” Jacobo Dayán, a specialist in crimes against humanity at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, recently wrote. Dayán pointed to the fact that with more than 88,000 people currently missing, the specialized search commission has closed a mere 35 cases.

In the Ayotzinapa case, a growing body of evidence has pointed directly at Mexican military involvement — a claim that the students’ parents advanced from the beginning. Last week, a world-renowned team of Argentine forensics experts confirmed that they had positively identified a portion of vertebrae belonging to 19-year-old Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz; his was the third such identification made since the students disappeared nearly seven years ago. In an interview in his living room weeks after his son’s disappearance, Margarito Guerrero told me the story of how he had rushed to the medical examiner’s office the morning after the students were attacked, how he was presented with the body of young man whose face had been cut from his skull, and how he lifted the corpse to determine if he felt the weight of his son — he did not.

Though López Obrador has identified the solving of the Ayotzinapa case as a key priority and Mexican authorities have made several advances in the investigation, the students’ ultimate fate remains unknown. Conditions in Guerrero, meanwhile, have only worsened.

The current iteration of disappearances in Mexico is linked to former President Felipe Calderón’s 2006 deployment of thousands of troops into the streets in a supposed war on drug trafficking organizations. The following year, the Bush administration threw its support behind the campaign through the Mérida Initiative, a security program that to date has provided more than $3.3 billion in assistance to Mexico. From vehicles and equipment to the training of a Mexican security forces, Mérida has comprised a “majority of U.S. foreign aid” to Mexico since 2008.

U.S. government involvement in the drug war substantially deepened once the program was in place, a trend that continued with the Obama administration, as Mexican special operations teams staged cross-border raiding operations on U.S. soil, U.S. marshals joined on said raids dressed as Mexican commandos, and U.S. drones flew deep into Mexican territory to support counternarcotics operations.

Intelligence shared from U.S. agencies to Mexican counterparts was key to the collaboration, used in a war-on-terror-style campaign of high-value targeting focused on the heads of drug trafficking organizations. The so-called kingpin strategy fractured larger organizations into smaller ones with disastrous effect. The 2009 military raid that killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, for example, was based on U.S. intelligence. Though touted in U.S. embassy chatter as “a clear victory,” the killing splintered Beltrán Leyva’s organization into smaller, warring outfits; among them was Guerreros Unidos, the organization widely believed to have collaborated with Mexican security forces in the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa.

It was evident from the beginning that state violence, including enforced disappearances, was a feature, not a bug, of this new war.

It was evident from the beginning that state violence, including enforced disappearances, was a feature, not a bug, of this new war. A 2012 Amnesty International report examining five years of the Calderón campaign “documented a sharp increase in grave human rights violations, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force and torture by federal, state and municipal public officials” in every state in Mexico with “almost total impunity.” A Human Rights Watch report the following year documented nearly 250 disappearance cases, more than 140 of which involved Mexican security forces.

López Obrador campaigned, in part, on closing this painful chapter of Mexican history, declaring an end to the drug war in 2018 and calling for Mérida Initiative funding to be shifted from security to development. He created a new security force, the National Guard, to replace the military on the streets. The U.S., in the meantime, pursued high-level trafficking cases against some of its former drug war allies. In December 2019, prosecutors in New York brought federal drug trafficking charges against Genaro Garcia Luna, formerly the top federal cop under Calderón. A year later, former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, the man in charge of the military when the students of Ayotzinapa were disappeared, was arrested on drug trafficking charges in Los Angeles. In a stunning reversal the following month, however, the Trump administration dropped the charges and the former general returned to Mexico, where López Obrador defended him as the victim of a political prosecution.

Despite the president’s pledges of demilitarization, the power of the Mexican military has only deepened in the years since López Obrador took office. Already made up predominantly of military personnel, López Obrador recently announced that the ostensibly civilian National Guard will be folded into the defense department. Violence, including the more than 90 political assassinations that preceded recent national elections, and disappearances have continued virtually unabated. Just two days after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, a U.S.-trained police special operations unit in Tamaulipas massacred 19 migrants near the border. In an interview with the Mexico Violence Resource Project, Carlos Manuel Juárez, co-founder of Elefante Blanco, an independent news organization based in Tamaulipas, said the elite unit is part of a wider ecosystem of security forces, politicians, and organized crime that protects government agents involved in crimes such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances — including those of American citizens.

“It is territory that is so contested that a different security strategy is desperately needed,” he said. “The soldiers, the members of the National Guard, the Marines who are there are exposed to tremendous stress, and they are not prepared for it, and the result is that they only create more chaos. But the question is whether that is why they are really there: to create chaos. That is the question.”

View of the facade of the Government Palace in Mexico City on September 26, 2020, following a protest to mark six years of the disappearance of the 43 students of the teaching training school in Ayotzinapa who went missing on September 26, 2014. - The students, who had commandeered five buses to travel to a protest, were stopped by municipal police in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. Prosecutors initially said the officers delivered the 43 teacher trainees to drug cartel hitmen, who killed them, incinerated their bodies and dumped the remains in a river. However, independent experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have rejected the government's conclusion, and the unsolved case remains a stain on Mexico's reputation. (Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP) (Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP via Getty Images)

View of the facade of the Government Palace in Mexico City on Sept. 26, 2020, following a protest to mark six years of the disappearance of the 43 students of the teaching training school in Ayotzinapa who went missing on Sept. 26, 2014.

Photo: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP via Getty Images

Carlos Spector has had an uncommonly close relationship to the disappearances that the López Obrador and Biden administrations have committed themselves to solving. As the founder of Mexicanos en Exilio, an organization that specializes in asylum cases involving human rights defenders, journalists, and others persecuted in Mexico, the El Paso-based attorney represented Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, a nationally known human rights crusader who was assassinated outside the governor’s office in Chihuahua while protesting her daughter’s disappearance and murder in 2010.

“With Marcela Escobedo the movement for the disappeared begins, nationally,” Spector told me in an interview in his office last month, weeks before the Harris-López Obrador meeting. A dual citizen, Spector grew up on the border, spending his summers in Mexico. He vividly recalled the waves of human rights abuses that followed the Mexican military’s incursion into the state of Chihuahua in 2008. “It was massive. And it was indiscriminate. And it was the Army,” he said. Violence skyrocketed. The state’s most populous city, Ciudad Juárez, was labeled the most dangerous city in the world.

State involvement was not a prerequisite in the asylum cases Spector’s office took on. “It just happened that way,” he said. “Without wanting it, it was always there.” At morning meetings at the police station in Juárez, there might be three to four representatives from various cartels on hand, Spector said: “It was just that open.” The more cases he worked, the more unsatisfying the story of narcos at war with the government became. In recent years, Spector, along with Samuel Schmidt, a Mexican academic and research fellow at the University of Texas, have put forward the idea of “authorized crime” as framework for understanding violence in Mexico and the conditions that Mexicans are often fleeing.

“The bottom line was that most of the crime was being conducted by cartels and criminal organizations, but with the acquiescence and participation of the state.”

“The bottom line was that most of the crime was being conducted by cartels and criminal organizations, but with the acquiescence and participation of the state,” Spector said. “Authorized crime, I think, breaks the schematic of this myth of organized crime. This binary choice between organized crime and the good guys, cops and robbers, night and day, Indians and cowboys — that was easier to sell.”

Mexico’s crisis of enforced disappearances requires an analysis that begins long before Calderón declared war on drug traffickers, argues Alexander Aviña, an associate professor of Latin American history at Arizona State University. Aviña’s work focuses on state violence in Mexico in the late 20th century, particularly the dirty war of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Mexican military and its political patrons embraced torture and extrajudicial killings in an effort to stamp out leftist guerrillas and dissident student movements. Enforced disappearances were key to the offensive. In Guerrero, Mexican troops carried out a “genocide plan”: killing, kidnapping, and torturing suspected dissidents by the hundreds. Whole villages were razed to the ground in a counterinsurgency campaign targeting Lucio Cabañas, a prominent guerrilla leader and, in a grim foreshadowing of state crimes to come, an Ayotzinapa graduate.

Unlike other Latin American countries that carried out Cold War atrocities, Mexico has never fully addressed the violence and trauma that defined those decades, Aviña noted, nor has it rid itself of the systems of impunity that allowed them to persist. “There’s no U.N. Truth Commission Report,” he told me. Instead, the apparatus of state violence and impunity entrenched itself with the end of the Cold War, just as increasingly belligerent policies of drug prohibition in Washington were fueling an expansion of the drug economy in Mexico. The particular flavors of violence carried out by the state in the name of counterinsurgency — disappearances and torture — soon began turning up in the arena of counternarcotics. With Calderón’s declaration of war in 2006, they went into overdrive.

“The dirty war against guerrillas and against insurgents, against dissidents, created this infrastructure that then facilitated a broader level of impunity that was required for a political economy of cocaine,” Aviña said. “The government through a variety of different ways was intimately involved in fostering, protecting, and allowing it to flourish.”

The conflict in Mexico, and the disappearances it creates, calls out for deep histories and new analytic frameworks. “It’s pretty hard to find a consistently bloodier conflict for a longer period of time than in Mexico,” Jeremy Slack, author of “Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border” and an associate professor of geography in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas, El Paso, told me. Slack has testified as an expert witness in more than 100 Mexican asylum cases in federal courts across the country over the past six years. Despite the extremely well-documented patterns of violence, disappearances, and insecurity in their home country, Mexicans in the U.S. asylum system have historically been at the top of the list of nationalities least likely to receive protection. Part of the reason, Slack explained, is geopolitical.

“The United States does not want to do that for numerous reasons,” he said. “One of the big reasons being we have a very strong relationship with Mexico. We have our trade there. The U.S. doesn’t want to sort of ‘open floodgates’ to people applying for asylum.” Mexico, he said, is a sophisticated state that knows “how to make things appear the way that they want them to appear,” Slack said. On issues of human rights, such as enforced disappearances, the Mexican government has proven itself adept “at giving these impressions of activity,” he added, “even if the reality is more like a shuffling of cards.”

“The asylum process is a product of a binational agreement, or conspiracy, between two countries with the same goal in mind: the status quo.”

Spector, with his decades of experience representing Mexican asylum-seekers, knows this dynamic well. “The asylum process is a product of a binational agreement, or conspiracy, between two countries with the same goal in mind: the status quo,” he said. That status quo is bound up in the massive economic interests that come with sharing the busiest border on the planet, and it requires that Washington not dig too deep into the evidence that its most important trading partner is presiding over systemic human rights abuses.

The current combined posture of the López Obrador and Biden administrations suggests more of the same, Ernst, from the Crisis Group, argued. With its own domestic political interests in seeing Mexico serve as a militarized buffer to Central American migrants trekking north, the White House is unlikely to press Mexico on its human rights and security problems. “They’re not going to go all out, especially if the experiment, the ongoing experiment, in Central America backfires,” Ernst said. The security mindset and logic of the drug war is still alive and well north of the border, he added, “in spite of 15 years of extreme backfiring.”

Forging the language to more accurately describe the conditions created by interlocking U.S. and Mexican policies over multiple decades is not simple. Even as a historian who studies violence in Mexico, Aviña at times finds himself struggling to define the conflict in his parents’ home country — though, he suggests, the answer might lie with the disappeared. “The vast majority of those folks are just average everyday poor Mexicans,” he said. “We can focus on the drug aspect of it. We can focus on the Mexican president in 2006 unleashing the military against different narco trafficking organizations, but I think that the real war is coming from a particular political position,” he said. “It’s a war on poor people that’s being characterized as a war against narco trafficking and drugs.”

In conducting his early research on Cold War disappearances in Mexico, Aviña would encounter totals running as high as 1,000 people. At the time, he found the figures shocking, but then would recall where Mexico is at today. “It’s frightening,” he said. “We’re talking about close to 100,000 now.”

Join The Conversation