Commissioners: Felipe González, Dinah Shelton, Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Elizabeth Abi-Mershed (Assistant Executive Secretary)
Petitioners: Fundación Nydia Erika Bautista para los Derechos Humanos (FNEB); Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (ASFADDES); Asociación Familiares de Desaparecidos Forzadamente por el Apoyo Mutuo (Familiares Colombia); Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado (MOVICE); Corporación Reiniciar; Corporación Desarrollo Regional (CDR); Grupo Interdisciplinario de Derechos Humanos (GIDH); Corporación Jurídica Libertad (CJL); Equipo Colombiano Interdisciplinario de Trabajo Forense (EQUITAS); Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (CIJYP); Equipo Colombiano de Investigaciones Antropológico Forense (ECIAF); Comité Cívico del Meta; Corporación AVRE; Corporación Social para la Asesoría Capacitación Comunitaria (Cosspac); Mesa de Trabajo sobre Desaparición Forzada CCEU-Estados Unidos; Observatorio de la Coordinación Colombia-Europa Estados Unidos; Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos de Guatemala (FAMDEGUA); Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Social (ECAP); Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG); CPR-SIERRA; Centro de Análisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas (CAFCA); Comité de madres y familiares con hijas desaparecidas; Fuerzas Unidas por nuestros desaparecidos en México (Fundem); Hasta Encontrarlos (Michoacán); Integrantes de la coordinación de la Campaña Nacional contra la desaparición forzada; Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz (Serapaz); Comité Monseñor Romero México; Red Mesa de Mujeres de Ciudad Juárez; Comité Cerezo México; Ciudadanos en Apoyo a los Derechos Humanos, A.C (CADHAC); Red para la Infancia y la Familia, Perú (REDINFA); Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH); Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (EPAF)
Civil society organizations from Colombia, Guatemala, México, and Peru raised concerns at a March 16, 2013, hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the frequently addressed issue of forced disappearances and asked the Commission to address the issue in their countries and the Americas as a whole.
The organizations, dressed in shirts bearing the faces of disappeared people who could not attend the hearing, asked the Commission to include the issue of forced disappearances as a priority within the IACHR, specifically requesting creation of a working group or rapporteurship as well as publication of a public report in 2014 that would include recommendations. They asked that such recommendations consider searches for persons who have been disappeared, impunity for those who carry out the disappearances, and access to justice for victims and their families.
Of the four states discussed, Colombia has the most legal tools for finding disappeared persons, but they are not accessible to victims’ families and state mechanisms have not been effective at finding people alive. Additionally, there is no instrument for immediately identifying a body while providing dignity for the deceased, who are often stored unidentified in warehouses. Colombia’s official registry of disappeared persons contains 20,000 names, of which 18,000 qualify as forced disappearances under the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons. The Colombian organizations said that both de facto and de jure impunity exist in the country and must be combatted.
Domingo Alvarez, speaking on behalf of a Guatemalan organization, alleged that Guatemala has not assumed its responsibility to search for disappeared persons and that despite an agreement to support victims, only human rights organizations conduct searches. He argued that the Guatemalan government must meet this responsibility. Representatives acknowledged that some progress has been made through convictions of direct perpetrators of forced disappearances, but said that impunity continues for the leaders. Additionally, petitioners said Guatemala has been backsliding on this progress, resulting in slow searches and lack of comprehensive reparations. They also stated that the current government has denied the truth of the disappearances and the involvement of military officers, noting three statements by President Otto Pérez Molina: (1) these crimes did not exist because at the time they were not defined as crimes, (2) the statute of limitations has run on the forced disappearances, and (3) those who perpetrated the crimes are protected under amnesty.
The Mexican petitioners stated that from 2006–12, under President Felipe Calderón, there were more than 20,000 disappearances and the Truth and Justice Network has documented thousands more disappearances of migrants in northern Mexico. They listed four frequent types of perpetrators: (1) military members, (2) persons in uniform, (3) paramilitary troops, and (4) persons who are highly armed and can maintain control over an area through violence and intimidation. Complete impunity for perpetrators allows the government to cover up and refuse to recognize these crimes, the petitioners said. The cases are not adequately investigated and thousands of people remain unlocatable. Additionally, the petitioners said there is no urgent search protocol or national registry of disappeared persons. Further frustrating search efforts, no mechanisms exists to share data, making it impossible for investigating organizations to organize a nationwide search effort.
The Peruvian petitioners said that it is very difficult to calculate an exact number of those who have been disappeared in the state because most victims are indigenous people who come from the poorest sectors of Peruvian society. From 2002–12, the petitioners testified that bodies were located for 1,500 persons disappeared and killed by the state as well 833 victims from forces. Of these, Peru has managed to identify only 5% of the remains—meaning it would take two hundred years to finish the process. Because many of the families of the victims are very poor, even when a person’s remains are identified, it can be nearly impossible for them to afford an exhumation and funeral. The Peruvian government, the Red Cross, and civil society organizations cover only parts of these costs. When families are unable to pay for these services, they often must choose to abandon the exhumation and funeral, a decision, the representatives insisted, that they should not be forced to make.
The commissioners were especially interested in whether there were any good practices in terms of prevention of, or reparations for, the forced disappearances. The Colombian organizations reiterated that Colombia has many resources, including cross-referencing databases of people who have been disappeared, but that it is not enough. They highlighted the fact that seven laws have been written, promoted by family members of victims of forced disappearances, and approved. However, the petitioners said the laws have not been applied, nor are they effective. The Guatemalan organizations acknowledged the partial opening of government files but noted that the army denied opening many under a claim of state secrets. In Peru, the government had formed a specialized prosecutor’s office for terror. However, with too many cases and too few prosecutors, the office fell apart. Each of the organizations requested that the Commissioners visit the four individual countries to witness the problem of forced disappearances firsthand.
Written by: Christa Elliot on March 18, 2013.