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Forced Disappearances on the Rise in Mexico

Thursday 24 March 2011, by Comité Cerezo México

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By Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Mar 24, 2011 (IPS) - Malena Reyes, her brother Elías and his wife Luisa Ornelas were kidnapped Feb. 7 in the municipality of Guadalupe in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Their bodies were found two weeks later, in a case that is among those drawing international scrutiny.

The U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is gathering and analysing information about some 30 activists who have been forcibly disappeared, to include the cases in their 2012 report.

Malena and Elías are the sister and brother, respectively, of human rights activist Josefina Reyes, who was murdered in January 2010 in Ciudad Juárez, also in Chihuahua, a state on the border with the United States.

The family tragedy does not stop there. In 2009 Josefina’s son, Julio César Reyes, was murdered, and in August 2010 another of her brothers, Rubén Reyes, was killed.

The three people in Guadalupe were the first documented case of forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution in Mexico this year.

As a result, the Mexican state can expect a sharp rebuke for its virtual inaction on what is considered a crime against humanity by the U.N., which has a mission of experts from the Working Group on an official visit to the country Mar. 18-31.

"We hope the Working Group will determine that enforced disappearance has again become a government policy for controlling social organisations and human rights defenders," Héctor Cerezo, one of the promoters of the National Campaign against Enforced Disappearance, told IPS.

The Cerezo Committee of Mexico, formed in response to the Aug. 13, 2001 arrest of Héctor Cerezo and his brothers Alejandro and Antonio and their subsequent mistreatment, including torture, met on Monday with five other human rights organisations and the members of the U.N. team of experts, led by Jeremy Sarkin of South Africa.

At the meeting, the Mexican activists handed over a 33-page report analysing the phenomenon of forced disappearance in the country and describing 30 specific cases.

Human rights organisations estimate that more than 3,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in this Latin American country since 2006. During this period, the state National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) has received 283 complaints, 124 of them last year alone.

According to the CNDH, 532 people disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s during the "dirty war" against leftwing guerrillas, activists and social leaders. Legal action seeking to hold accountable former presidents and other high-ranking officials has failed.

"An extremely worrying phenomenon that encourages this practice is the impunity enjoyed" by those responsible for the crimes, Alberto Herrera, head of the Mexican chapter of Amnesty International, told IPS.

Activists say the "war" against drug trafficking that Mexican President Felipe Calderón began to wage in December 2006, a few days after he took office, has contributed to the rise in disappearances.

Calderón, of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN), has deployed over 60,000 troops to combat the cartels engaged in violent turf wars over drug routes into the United States, the world’s largest market for drugs. So far, some 36,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

In the northern city of Saltillo, the Human Rights Defenders Network has documented 118 cases of disappearances since 2007. The security forces are alleged to have been involved in 25 of the cases.

The 2011 report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 12 cases of forced disappearance in the northeastern state of Nuevo León in which soldiers, naval personnel and police officers were implicated.

Human rights organisations are asking the Mexican state to create a national register of disappeared persons, with the input of civil society, and to establish agencies to search for their whereabouts and to take custody of a bank of DNA samples from relatives.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicted Mexico in November 2009 of the 1974 disappearance of community leader Rosendo Radilla in the southern state of Guerrero.

Out of 18 clauses in the sentence passed by the court, Mexico has only fulfilled one: publication of the verdict in the official gazette.

The rise in disappearances is associated with "the government’s incapacity to guarantee citizens’ safety by legal means," Cerezo stressed. "We see the problem as a serious, ongoing danger."

According to a Supreme Court resolution, the charge of forced disappearance remains open as long as the victim has not been found, dead or alive. But the criminal code only refers to possible authors of the crime as "public servants," without specifically mentioning possible parties such as members of the armed forces and paramilitary groups enjoying state protection.

In August 2010, a network of human rights groups launched the National Campaign against Enforced Disappearance, and distributed a guide for relatives about what action to take in such cases.

From 2001 to late 2009, the military prosecutor’s office (Procuraduria General de Justicia Militar) had not prosecuted a single case in which armed forces personnel were implicated in forced disappearances, according to the Defence Ministry.

For years, activists have been pressing for reform of the controversial military code of justice dating to 1933, which shields soldiers from prosecution for crimes. The Inter-American Court has ordered the reform.

"The heart of the matter is not only about access to justice, but about an institution (the military) that violates human rights," Herrera said.

Gabriel Cruz and Edmundo Reyes, of the leftist guerrilla Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), and 38 workers of the state oil firm Pemex have been reported as disappeared since 2007. Twelve journalists have also disappeared since 2000, according to the CNDH.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the U.N. in 2006, came into effect in December 2010. The states party, including Mexico which ratified the convention in 2008, are required to submit an annual report on the situation in their country, with hard data and details of legislative and judicial measures to combat it. (END)

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