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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
El Chapo Arrested, Again: Is Mexico Getting a Grip?
El Chapo Arrested, Again: Is Mexico Getting a Grip?
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.

Recaptured drug lord Joaquin El Chapo Guzmán escorted by soldiers in Mexico City on 8 January 2016. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

El Chapo Arrested, Again: Is Mexico Getting a Grip?

The story of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera – better known as “El Chapo” or “Shorty” – has all the elements of a Hollywood drama: humble beginnings to enormous wealth, business genius combined with cold-blooded cruelty, high-security prison escapes, culminating in a months-long manhunt, a gunbattle that killed five of his bodyguards, a desperate attempt to escape through a sewer, a carjacking and then arrest by the Mexican marines.

But capturing another drugs kingpin does not solve Mexico’s security crisis, nor does it dent the international drug trade. Narcotics trafficking – and its many auxiliary enterprises, such as migrant smuggling, stealing petroleum, illegal logging, kidnapping, extortion – will continue to flourish, with or without El Chapo. Guzmán’s 8 January re-arrest may have little or no impact on the Sinaloa cartel’s status as the world’s largest transnational drug organisation. 

In order to address Mexico’s severe violence, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Government must speed up its efforts to strengthen justice. The president’s proposal for major police reform should re-examine its strategy for “unified commands”, devising an integrated program to make local law enforcement more professional and accountable, and evaluate and reboot its violence prevention strategy, especially programs aimed at disadvantaged youth. Only then can the president repeat in good conscience his words after El Chapo’s capture: “mission accomplished”.

Behind the Myth of El Chapo

It seems that Guzmán, nearly 60 years old, got entangled in his own life story. His attempts to produce his own biopic left a trail that led to his recapture. He got sloppy and cocky, confident that he could outwit authorities and eager to live up to his own myth. But El Chapo himself is no Robin Hood. His Sinaloa cartel is one of the last big drug trafficking organisations in Mexico. Like many of rival bands (the Zetas, the Beltran-Leyva clan, the Juarez cartel), Guzmán’s hitmen have much blood on their hands.  

Behind the El Chapo drama are some sordid realities in Mexico. Over the past nine years, tens of thousands have died from drug-related violence in the country, many never identified. There are an estimated 26,000 missing persons in Mexico, some of whom may have been dumped in the clandestine graves found in states like Guerrero, Tamaulipas or Chihuahua. The manhunt for El Chapo was in itself violent, with hundreds of people forced to flee their homes as Mexican troops stormed through towns and villages in the northwestern states of Durango and El Chapo’s home territory of Sinaloa.

Guzmán is now back at the Altiplano prison, kept in solitary confinement within a supposedly tunnel-proof cell with steel-reinforced concrete flooring. “My holidays are over”, he reportedly said on his arrest.

Peña Nieto’s Attempts to Fight Organised Crime

Mexican officials seem committed to extraditing him to the U.S., where he faces charges of smuggling vast amounts of drugs into the country. But don’t expect the Mexican government to hand him over any time soon. Extradition could take months, with lawyers filing multiple petitions for constitutional protection (known as amparos), each of which requires a court hearing.

Getting Guzmán is a “moral victory”, according to a former U.S. counter-narcotics official, and a boost for Peña Nieto, even though it won’t blot the embarrassment of his brazen prison break in July along a mile-long tunnel after 16 months in his maximum security jail.

A poll taken by La Reforma shortly after the recapture reveals a public that remains deeply skeptical. 63 per cent of those surveyed said Guzmán’s mistakes led to his re-arrest; only 29 per cent credited the authorities. Most said their view of the government remained the same or worse (73 per cent). Confidence in security forces is also low, which suggests that police reforms won’t restore trust without concerted efforts to purge and professionalise law enforcement at all levels.

This is not all the president’s fault. In the past, Mexican authorities have nabbed or killed dozens of drug bosses, without significantly reducing the drug trade despite decapitating criminal organisations as notorious as the Zetas, the Knights Templars, the Juárez and Gulf cartels. Peña Nieto took office in 2012 determined to distance himself from his predecessor Felipe Calderón, who waged war on the drug cartels in close collaboration with the United States. He was more interested in pushing through an ambitious program to spur the economy, including measures to privatise the state-run oil industry, break up telecommunication monopolies and improve education.

The linchpin of his security policy was supposed to be violence prevention and citizen participation, based on social programs in vulnerable communities, including promising experiments in cities such as Ciudad Juárez. The national crime prevention program is now in disarray, however, following budget cuts and the resignation of the undersecretary in charge to face accusations of electoral irregularities.

Much of Peña Nieto’s November 2014 security plan – including the proposal to merge municipal and state forces into “unified commands” – has stalled in the face of opposition or indifference on the part of Congress, the governors and local authorities. The country is in the midst of a sweeping justice system reform, changing federal and state courts from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system, which is scheduled for completion in 2016, though many states are unlikely to meet the deadline.

Strengthen Institutions

Authorities have demonstrated their ability to capture or kill top mafiosos, but they haven’t shown they can investigate mob-related crimes, convict the perpetrators and then keep them in jail. No country should have to send in the marines to catch a mobster.

In areas where the criminals have penetrated local police or municipal governments – and where gangs routinely charge shopkeepers, public employees, workers and even street vendors for “protection” – citizens face little choice: remain a victim or become a perp.

For youths without a decent education or marketable skills, dealing drugs, working as lookouts, bagmen or even sicarios may seem the only way to get ahead and win respect. In rural areas of Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and other states, growing opium poppies, farming marijuana or operating a meth lab, may seem the best way to feed a family.  

Controversy surrounds the investigation into the September 2014 disappearance of 43 college students in Ayotzinapa in Guerrero state, blamed on police allegedly acting in league with gangsters. Despite the deployment of federal police and soldiers, Guerrero suffers from the country’s highest – and rising – homicide rates. Meanwhile, human rights groups are demanding further investigation into the killing of 42 alleged traffickers by federal police in Tanhuato, Michoacán, and of 22 suspected kidnappers by soldiers in Tlatlaya, Mexico state.

The potential rewards of crime outweigh the risk of capture or conviction. Only a fraction of Mexico’s homicides, to cite only the most notorious crime, are investigated, much less solved.

Given the strength of organised crime and the weakness of Mexican institutions, President Peña Nieto and his counterparts at the state and local levels need to understand that the arrest of leaders alone is unlikely to significantly weaken organised crime. In the long run, it will be much more important to develop police forces and a justice system capable of enforcing law and order.