Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State
Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Want to Tackle Violent Crime in Mexico? Then Start in Veracruz State
Want to Tackle Violent Crime in Mexico? Then Start in Veracruz State
March in Mexico City on 26 September 2015, marking the first anniversary of the 43 students’ disappearance. CRISIS GROUP/Martha Lozano
Report 55 / Latin America & Caribbean

Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State

Violence is up but impunity remains the norm in Guerrero, where the lines between organised crime and legitimate authority are often blurred. President Peña Nieto’s government must turn a new leaf and embrace new investigative bodies and international expertise capable of regaining the trust that Guerrero’s corrupted institutions have lost.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Horrific, unpunished human rights violations have blurred the lines between politics, government and crime in Mexico’s south-western Guerrero state. Drug gangs not only control the illegal heroin industry and prey on ordinary citizens through kidnapping and extortion, but have also penetrated, paralysed or intimidated institutions obligated to uphold democracy and rule of law. The disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teaching college in September 2014 by police allegedly acting in league with gangsters was no anomaly. To break the cycle of violence, ensure justice for the disappeared and bring rule of law to an impoverished, turbulent region, the federal government must give prosecution of unsolved disappearances and other major human rights violations in Guerrero to an independent special prosecutor backed by an international investigative commission empowered to actively participate in the proceedings.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has recognised that his country faces a crisis of confidence. Despite an extraordinary expenditure of resources and personnel, the investigation into the Ayotzinapa disappearances has been riddled by mistakes and omissions, according to the September 2015 report of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Nearly two-thirds of the public nationwide does not believe the government’s version, and three-fourths disapproves of federal prosecutors’ work. Victims and human rights defenders have demanded a probe into possible obstruction. Distrust of authorities is so profound that these and other investigations into major human rights violations in Guerrero require the credibility conferred by international expertise.

The federal government on 19 October took an important step by agreeing to put a new team of prosecutors in charge of the case that is to work with the IACHR experts to incorporate their findings and recommendations into the investigation and jointly plan the inquiry going forward. The gravity of violence and corruption in Guerrero, however, calls for further action to assure the public that authorities are ready and willing to investigate and punish criminals who terrorise civilians and any government officials whose acts or omissions help or encourage them.

First, the Ayotzinapa cases should be given to a special prosecutor’s office led by a top attorney from outside government with experience in human rights litigation. It should also take over inquiries into other enforced disappearances and major human rights violations in Guerrero, with authority to open new lines of inquiry.

Secondly, these investigations should be assisted and monitored by an international commission, under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) and/or the UN and composed of experts in criminal law and human rights. This commission should have authority to participate in criminal proceedings, with full access to evidence and witnesses. It should also work with victims and human rights groups to develop plans to assure accountability for abuses committed during counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1970s and compensation for survivors.

Most crimes still go unreported, and polls show that a majority of citizens distrusts both prosecutors and police. By holding inept, complicit or corrupt officials accountable, authorities can start to regain the citizen trust that is essential for effective law enforcement. Additionally, federal and state authorities should make ending impunity for serious human rights violations an integral part of Mexico’s ongoing effort to reform the justice system while purging and professionalising federal, state and local police forces.

The Ayotzinapa tragedy is not an isolated incident. The discovery of mass, unmarked graves in Guerrero, especially around Iguala, where the students disappeared, laid bare a gruesome pattern of more extensive unsolved killings. Nor is the problem limited to Iguala. The May 2015 abduction of more than a dozen people in Chilapa, where state and federal forces had taken security responsibility, showed that months after the students disappeared authorities remained unwilling or unable to act decisively to prevent and resolve such crimes.

Disappearances cast a long shadow over the justice system, an essential pillar for rule of law in any stable country. Mexico has more than 26,000 unsolved missing person cases, according to an official registry. The president has proposed a special prosecutor’s office to investigate these cases. This is positive, but unlikely to win public confidence given the magnitude of the issue. Mexico should open a debate about creating a national mechanism for resolving these cases and other major human rights violations, drawing upon the expertise and experience of both Mexican and foreign human rights defenders to uncover the truth, punish the perpetrators and support or compensate relatives of the victims.

Federal officials cite declining homicides over three years as an important achievement. But violence remains intense in states such as Guerrero, which in 2014 had the country’s highest homicide rate and where bloodshed is rising. Despite deployment of more federal police, homicides in the state rose 20 per cent in the first half of 2015. And official statistics may not reflect the true insecurity level in a state where some 94 per cent of all crimes go unreported. Impunity, even for homicide, is the norm. Over a decade, a recent study found, only about 7 per cent of Guerrero homicides have resulted in convictions. Nationally, another report said, about 16 per cent of registered homicides end in convictions.

President Peña Nieto vowed in November 2014 that “after Iguala, Mexico must change”. He can still make good on this, but only with decisive action to restore confidence by investigating and prosecuting emblematic cases, starting in Guerrero and continuing in other vulnerable states. By creating a hybrid investigative entity, the government would not only ensure an impartial inquiry, but also encourage transfer of skills from foreign specialists to Mexican prosecutors.

Guerrero’s tragedy is more than the failure of Mexican institutions. The criminals who terrorise its citizens derive much of their wealth from producing and transporting illegal drugs across the border. The U.S. has a clear interest in strengthening law enforcement and justice in the state that supplies much of the heroin that fuels its growing epidemic. Supporting strong, independent prosecutors with money and technical aid would bolster rule of law by demonstrating that neither violent criminals nor corrupt officials will go unpunished.

Want to Tackle Violent Crime in Mexico? Then Start in Veracruz State

Originally published in Miami Herald

Decades ago, while training for U.S. Peace Corps service in El Salvador, I traveled into the rain forest of the state of Veracruz to the tiny village of Zongolica. Most of the men and all of the women and children spoke only Nahuatl, survived on subsistence farming and faithfully maintained their culture despite four centuries of Spanish influence. There was little crime, much less violence, in the state — and a strong sense of community, particularly in Zongolica, where adobe bricks were made cooperatively for each other’s homes.

Today, Veracruz is a battleground where five major cartels and multiple smaller criminal gangs kill for control over lucrative cocaine drug routes, oil pipelines and human trafficking networks — with the Zetas and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación emerging as the most dangerous and successful organizations. The state apparatus, far from preserving law and order, has been warped to protect criminal interests. Veracruz state, rich in natural resources, could be an economic powerhouse but is instead near bankruptcy. In 2016, homicides here increased by 123 percent — the second highest in the country.

There is a better way to help fix rampant crime and terror in Mexico, starting with Veracruz.

President Donald Trump reportedly proposed sending over the U.S. military to take care of “bad hombres” south of the border, according to a leaked excerpt of his recent telephone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Trump’s unilateral offer — coming alongside demands that Mexico pay for a border wall to stop illegal migration, a wave of deportations, and a threat to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement—has revived memories of U.S. gunboat diplomacy and prompted “Gringo go home” sentiments south of the border. In any case, most knowledgeable observers agree that a military response to the cartels will backfire.

There is a better way to help fix rampant crime and terror in Mexico, starting with Veracruz. The state’s new governor, Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares, has promised to clean house and prosecute those responsible for criminal atrocities. He will need serious national and international support to deliver.

Yunes’ election in 2016 marked the end of 80 years of state rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). His predecessor, Javier Duarte Ochoa, fled amid charges against his administration of embezzling around $650 million and of having links to the cartels. Yunes, of the National Action Party (PAN), may have the political will to root out crime and corruption, but he has few state or federal resources to address the crisis.

Since the transition, more than 100 mass graves have been discovered in one site alone, and human rights groups and the new Veracruz Truth Commission allege state complicity in the disappearances of 5,000 individuals, many times the official government count. A new report by International Crisis Group, based on interviews with families of the victims and human rights groups, estimated that the total number of disappearances could be as high as 20,000.

The United States should recognize that its own economic and security interests would be well served by cooperation, not confrontation, with Mexico...

Veracruz reflects the nationwide epidemic of violence and corruption weighing down Peña Nieto’s administration.

The country’s much-heralded transition to a more open democracy at the end of the 1990’s was undermined by the establishment of drug trafficking routes from the Andes converging in Mexico as the last stop before the U.S. market. Mexico’s civilian police were no match for the firepower of the cartels, who were happy to pay whatever it cost to smuggle weapons from the United States.

The country’s “war on drugs” has resulted in an explosion of violence, as the cartels fought back against Mexican authorities and against each other, at times with the complicity of rogue security forces. There have been at least 65,000 victims since 2006, with no end in sight.

The United States should recognize that its own economic and security interests would be well served by cooperation, not confrontation, with Mexico to tackle organized crime and corruption.

A more effective response in Veracruz, and the rest of Mexico, depends on providing carefully vetted federal technical support and redirecting U.S. counter-drug aid to strengthen local law enforcement, the state attorney’s office, and civil society organizations like the Truth Commission. They can start by investigating the thousands of disappearances and bringing those responsible to justice.