MEXICO CITY -- Mexico said Wednesday that it had records of more than 27,000 cases of âdisappeared peopleâ that it would make public soon in an effort to clarify the circumstances under which they vanished.
Lia Limon, the countryâs deputy interior secretary for human rights, acknowledged the cases hours after Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report that called Mexico the Western Hemisphereâs hot spot for âenforced disappearances,â in which police or the military arrest citizens who are never seen again.
The advocacy group said it had documented 149 cases throughout the country in which witnesses saw police or soldiers take someone into custody only to have the person vanish without a trace. But the group said the number of people whoâd disappeared since 2006 was enormous, noting that a provisional list compiled by the attorney generalâs office indicated that more than 25,000 people had gone missing during the administration of former President Felipe Calderon, who left office Dec. 1 and is now a visiting fellow at Harvard Universityâs Kennedy School of Government.
Limonâs comments, which were made shortly after she met with Human Rights Watch representatives, seemed to confirm that assertion, though it was unclear whether the number she cited comprised only people whoâd vanished during the Calderon administrationâs frontal assault on drug trafficking or whether it might include some of the 3,000 people who vanished during the countryâs so-called dirty war against Marxist guerrillas in the 1960s and â70s.
Limon described the 27,000 records as a database that contained information about each case. She said it was in the custody of the countryâs Center for Analysis, Planning and Information and that that department had promised to pass the information on, according to an account by the newspaper Milenio.
Like many countries in Latin America, Mexico has long faced allegations that its security services often detained people who were never brought to trial and whose detention was never officially acknowledged. When Calderonâs predecessor, Vicente Fox, took office in 2000, he promised to launch a âtruth commissionâ to detail what had happened during the countryâs âdirty war,â but such a commission was never formed.
The Human Rights Watch allegations renewed attention on the role of security agents in a significant number of disappearances. The advocacy group called it âthe most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decadesâ and urged President Enrique Pena Nietoâs 11-week-old administration to create a database of missing people to address it.
The group said it had probed 249 cases in depth, and found that 149 of them implicated security and law enforcement agents in the disappearances.
âThese crimes were committed by members of every security force involved in public security operations, sometimes acting in conjunction with organized crime,â the report says.
The Calderon administration âignored this mounting âdisappearanceâ problemâ and Mexican authorities âfailed to take serious steps to address it,â it says.
Neither Pena Nieto, who was traveling in Costa Rica, nor his top security aides offered an immediate response to the 176-page report, titled âMexicoâs Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored.â Calderon has argued that his attack on drug gangs helped restore order to the country.
Human Rights Watch said the disappearances it had investigated usually followed the same pattern:
âIn many cases, these detentions occur in victimsâ homes, in front of family members; in others, they take place at security checkpoints, at workplaces or in public venues, such as bars,â the report says. âWhen victimsâ relatives inquire about detaineesâ whereabouts at the headquarters of security forces and public prosecutorsâ offices, they are told that the detentions never took place.â
Adding to the agony of family members, the prosecutors who are asked to investigate routinely blame the victims, suggesting that they had connections to organized crime or simply ran off for romantic liaisons, the report says. Then they tell the families to conduct searches on their own, sloughing off investigative responsibilities.
When prosecutors do pursue cases, their work is often sloppy. They fail to interview witnesses and suspects, the report says, and donât bother to visit crime scenes.
Investigators routinely âdo not trace victimsâ cellphones, track their bank transactions, obtain security camera footage (which is often automatically deleted at regular intervals) or take other time-sensitive actions,â the report says.
Such inaction causes âirreparable loss of informationâ that could save lives and bring culprits to justice, it added.
âA mother whose son was abducted outside of her home in March 2011 told Human Rights Watch that whenever she met with the investigator in charge of the case, he began their conversation the same way. âHe asks me, âWhat new info do you have for me?â â the report says.
For relatives of the missing, the searches for their loved ones become âperpetual anguishâ that doesnât end for months or years, or simply remains a wound that doesnât heal.
The report notes that in at least 20 disappearances of Mexicans in June and July 2011, naval personnel were implicated. The United States works closely with the Mexican navy on drug cases.
In another 13 cases, the Federal Police made the initial arrests. State, local and army units were fingered in the remainder.
In more than 60 cases, security forces appeared to be working in tandem with organized crime groups, it said.
The group cited an incident in late 2011 outside Juarez, in Nuevo Leon state, in which two brothers in the used car business were detained at a police checkpoint. Less than a week later, prosecutors arrested three police officers who âsaid they had carried out the detention âunder ordersâ of a local crime boss,â the report says.
Human Rights Watch called on Mexico to create âunified, accurate databases of the disappeared,â catalog âunidentified human remainsâ and try to match the DNA of the remains to those who are missing.
The advocacy group also asked Congress to enact a law that any military or law enforcement agent involved in a disappearance be tried in civilian courts and that suspects not be remanded to military or police holding cells.