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Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State
Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
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.

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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.

As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On

Originally published in Open Society Foundation

In August of 2016, Aarón Valencia and his family fled to the United States amid the violence of Mexico’s drug war. Gangs had threatened to force two of his children into organized crime in his home state of Michoacán, and seeking refuge in the United States seemed his only option.

Today, Aarón, a former member of a vigilante militia disarmed by the Mexican government, and his family are being held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. They are among the millions of victims of the drug war that rages in Mexico to this day.

Over the past decade, several U.S. states have moved to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, a shift that has improved the lives of countless Americans. But while legalization is an important component of righting the wrongs of the drug war, it is not the only component—especially for the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families who have already been victimized by a century of prohibitionist policies.

Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs.

Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs. Two decades ago, California made history by regulating the medicinal use of the plant. That same year, Mexico doubled down on the punitive model by criminalizing narcomenudeo, the small trade of marijuana.

While in the United States, decriminalization has boosted local economies and decreased mass incarceration, in Mexico the presence of the army in the streets has only demonstrated the country’s fragile institutional framework. Homicides, disappearances, forced displacement, human rights violations of people who use drugs, and the diversification of criminal activities have all increased, especially since 2006.

When California legalized recreational marijuana on 8 November 2016, drug policy reformers in Mexico received the news with cautious optimism. Legalization in California would boost Mexican initiatives to reform prohibitionist and punitive drug policies that have cost the country a third of its GDP growth and stalled the life expectancy of Mexican men, who live up to five fewer years than average in drug war–addled states like Chihuahua.

Last December, the Mexican Senate legalized the medical use of marijuana; it now awaits approval in the Chamber of Deputies. In the beginning, however, only imported medical marijuana will be allowed. Recreational consumption will continue to be prosecuted, self-cultivation will remain illegal, and authorizations for local production will only be possible, perhaps in the future, if the Ministry of Health determines their feasibility.

This incongruity between California’s progressive approach to marijuana laws and Mexico’s continued prohibition is creating acute problems for Mexico that will only grow worse.

For one, Mexico’s negative trade balance will continue to widen. As criminal organizations decrease their exports from Mexico in response to falling demand for black market marijuana in the United States, Mexico’s domestic supply of marijuana will rise, driving down prices and boosting domestic consumption, with costs for both the health and penal systems.

While legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico.

Further, as the Mexican cartels diversify their criminal activities away from marijuana, the costs of maintaining a war against them will also rise. Ironically, even as these costs go up, the government will justify intensifying this war as the cartels ramp up their trade of other substances, such as heroin and methamphetamine, and pursue activities like extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

Meanwhile, the peasant communities and migrants that cultivate cannabis will lose their source of income, leaving them more susceptible to recruitment for other criminal activities. And Mexican migrants working on legal, semilegal, and illegal marijuana farms in California will continue to be exploited.

These specialized migrants, coveted for their unique skills, are often unfairly compensated because of their immigration status. One engineer at Chapingo Autonomous University who specializes in agroecological techniques worked for six months at California marijuana farms. He said in a recent interview that he earned less than $15,000 for $100,000 worth of work.

It’s becoming clear that, while legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico. Legalization in the United States will not give comfort to the grieving Mexican families of the thousands disappeared and forcibly recruited by criminal organizations. It will not provide security to Mexican regions that were once marijuana providers for California. It will not return security to the communities displaced by the violence of Mexico’s drug war. And it absolutely will not provide minimal conditions of security, peace, and justice to the victims of this war, such as Aarón Valencia and his family.

Legalization in the United States can, however, encourage Mexican activists, researchers, and other members of the drug policy community to develop new solutions with renewed intensity now that legalization is becoming a more accepted approach around the world. While the benefits of legalization in the United States may not immediately reach the Mexican people, they could serve as motivation to redouble efforts to bring about positive drug reform that leads to peace and stability in our country.