Mexico: Letter to Interior Minister on Disappearances
October 8, 2014


Mr. Miguel Angel Osorio Chong

Secretary of the Interior

Mexico City - MEXICO

Dear Minister Osorio Chong,

I am writing to express Human Rights Watch’s concern regarding the limited progress that Mexico has made in addressing the problem of enforced disappearances and abductions in the country. Even though this human rights crisis began during the previous government, thousands of cases have occurred during the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, and it continues to take a major toll on the lives of many Mexicans today.

In February 2013, Human Rights Watch published “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” a report documenting nearly 250 “disappearances” that occurred during the administration of President Felipe Calderón. As you may recall, we found compelling evidence of enforced disappearances in 149 of those cases, involving the participation of state agents from all branches of the security forces—including the Army, the Navy, and the federal and local police. We also documented the routine failure of authorities to investigate these disappearances, locate the victims, and prosecute the perpetrators.[1]

To its credit, the Peña Nieto administration responded to the release of the report by recognizing the seriousness of the problem and launching a series of initiatives aimed at locating people who have gone missing and providing assistance to the victims and their families.

Since then, however, the administration’s efforts have been plagued by inexplicable delays and contradictory public statements, and the measures it has pursued have produced only very limited results.

To better assess the government’s response, Human Rights Watch recently conducted a fact-finding mission to Mexico, meeting with a wide range of senior government officials, as well as with victims’ lawyers, public security experts, civil society leaders, and members of the international community.

We found that—while some officials, particularly in the Attorney General’s Office, are clearly committed to making progress in locating the whereabouts of people who have gone missing and providing assistance to victims—the administration as a whole has failed to ensure that Mexico is fulfilling its obligation under international law to address this human rights crisis.

Assessing the Magnitude of the Problem

Following the release of our 2013 report, your office acknowledged the existence of a list, compiled by the previous administration, of over 26,000 people reported disappeared or missing.[2] Given that this list was flawed and incomplete, your office committed itself to examining the cases, removing those that no longer belonged in it, and determining more precisely the scope and nature of the problem of disappearances in Mexico.

But then more than a year passed without any news of progress on the list. And when this prolonged silence was finally broken, it was with a series of contradictory statements by government officials that created more confusion than clarity.

Last May, you said that the number of people missing or disappeared had dropped to 8,000. Then in June, the deputy prosecutor for human rights at the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) stated that the 8,000 number only included people who had gone missing during the Peña Nieto administration. Later that month, you announced in a press conference that the whereabouts of 16,000 people remained unknown in Mexico.[3] Finally on August 21, your office and the PGR announced that the actual number of “people not found” (personas no localizadas) in Mexico was more than 22,000, including people who had gone missing during both the Calderón and Peña Nieto presidencies.[4]

This most recent tally would appear to be the most reliable one to date. Yet it is very difficult to know for sure, based on the information that the administration has made public. For starters, the full list of cases has not been released. Instead, the administration has merely provided an online database that allows people to determine whether specific cases are on the list, but tells them virtually nothing about the cases themselves, beyond the date on which and location where the person went missing, and minimal identifying information such as gender or age.[5]

Crucial questions remain unanswered. For example, the administration reported that the number of people who were still missing from the Calderón years had dropped to 12,000. But how did this figure drop so dramatically? According to the administration, most of the cases removed from the list involved people who had been found alive. Yet it has not made public a list of names of those who had been found alive, nor provided information on these cases that would make it possible to corroborate this claim.

The database also provides no clue as to how many of the cases of people who remain missing or were found dead involved victims of disappearances (i.e., people who were taken involuntarily). Of particular concern, it provides no way of assessing how many of the cases involve victims of alleged “enforced disappearances” carried out by agents of the state, such as members of the security forces, for which the Mexican state bears direct responsibility. According to government authorities interviewed by Human Rights Watch, only a small minority of the thousands of cases of people “not found” are alleged cases of enforced disappearances.[6] While this may be true, the evidence collected by the National Human Rights Commission and a unit within the PGR that investigates disappearances, in addition to Human Rights Watch’s research, suggests that the number could still be very large.[7]

Finally, the database provides no information regarding the progress of efforts to investigate and prosecute cases in which crimes—including serious human rights abuses—may have been committed, making it difficult to assess to what extent Mexico is fulfilling its obligation under international law to bring perpetrators of abuses to justice.[8]

In short, the information released by the government has raised as many questions as it has answered regarding the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of the government’s response to it.

Finding the Missing

In meetings with Human Rights Watch, representatives from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the PGR stated that the government’s priority, in line with requests they had received from victims and their families, was finding alive people who had gone missing.[9]

Toward that end, the government has pursued several potentially promising initiatives. One is the “Amber Alert” system, established originally by the Calderón administration in May 2012.[10] Under this system, when a child or woman is reported missing, the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Crimes of Violence against Women and Human Trafficking (Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia contra las Mujeres y Trata de Personas, FEVIMTRA) analyzes the complaint and may activate the alert by sending information on the missing person to relevant authorities at the state, national, and international level.[11] Through this procedure, FEVIMTRA was able to find 214 children and women who had gone missing since 2011, all but two of them alive.[12]

The current administration has also been developing an “urgent search” mechanism to look for any person (not just children or women) immediately after a complaint of disappearance is filed. According to government plans, it would be carried out within the first 48 hours by specialized agents based in the country’s state prosecutors’ offices.[13] While the government has created a national network of 160 government officials to implement this mechanism, as of August it had not yet finalized the mechanism’s design.[14]

A more ambitious initiative was the creation, in June 2013, of a special unit of the PGR specifically dedicated to investigating disappearances and searching for the missing (Unidad Especializada de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas).[15] As of mid-August 2014, there were approximately 190 people working at the unit, including 30 prosecutors, who have a workload of around 15 cases each.[16] As of July 9, 2014, the unit had found 86 people (29 who were dead and 57 alive).[17]

While the creation of this unit is an important step, officials within the unit told us that even though the attorney general had prioritized this area of work, they do not have sufficient resources to handle the unit’s workload.[18] Rather than provide these resources, the administration recently decided to slash the unit’s budget.[19]

Finally, in February 2013, the PGR and Interior Ministry signed an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to elaborate a comprehensive database with standardized information on unidentified remains and on cases of individuals whose whereabouts are unknown.[20] This “Ante-Mortem – Post-Mortem Database” consists of an electronic platform donated by the ICRC, which has the capacity to cross-reference information in it, and determine if any of the unidentified bodies could belong to those individuals reported missing.

This new database could play a fundamental role in determining the fate of many of the disappeared, allowing families to retrieve the remains of lost loved ones, and facilitating criminal investigations that could lead to the prosecution of the perpetrators of these crimes.

Yet, as of August 2014, only six jurisdictions had signed a follow-up agreement for the ICRC to donate them the required software, and in none of them is the system operative at the time of writing.[21] Authorities are currently working on finalizing protocols on what information should be collected to fill in the database, training officials, and carrying out a census of cemeteries and clandestine graves in the country.[22] They have also elaborated a diagnosis on the existing infrastructure of local forensic services in all states, and deployed 95 “mobile laboratories” of the PGR all over the country to provide support to local prosecutors.[23]

While PGR authorities hope that the platform with information on some of the states will be up and running by December 2014, there is no fixed date for the entire system to be operative nation-wide.[24]

Support for Victims

In January 2013, the government enacted a Victims Law to provide justice and reparations for victims of crime. The law created an Executive Commission on Attention to Victims (Comisión Ejecutiva de Atención a Víctimas, CEAV) with the mandate of providing legal and psychological assistance to victims of crime, establishing a National Registry of Victims, and administering a fund to provide them with adequate reparations.[25]

The CEAV was formally established in January 2014.[26] As of August, it was handling approximately 4,000 cases, out of which 1,712 were cases of disappearances, and it was still working on the National Registry of Victims, which it expected to be ready by mid-2015.[27]

Yet, CEAV members told Human Rights Watch that they are unable to provide reparations to victims because the government has failed to adopt the Victims Law’s implementing regulations, which were due a year ago. Without those regulations, the CEAV is unable to execute a budget of approximately 500 million Mexican pesos (approximately USD 38 million), already approved by the Mexican Congress in the federal budget for this purpose.[28]

In addition to CEAV, in April 2013, the government also created an office within the Interior Ministry, which reports to the Undersecretary of Human Rights, with the specific mandate to provide support to victims of crime.[29] As of August, the office was providing psychological, legal, and social work support to victims of crime, including approximately 700 family members of victims of disappearances.[30]

The Victims Law explicitly provides that the government should ensure that family members of disappearance victims can “exercise in an expedite manner patrimonial and family rights of the missing person to safeguard essential interests of the family.”[31] Yet the legal process by which a missing person is formally declared “absent” and subsequently “presumed dead” is ill-suited to formally recognizing cases of disappearances and responding to the needs of victims’ families.[32] The CEAV, PGR, and the Interior Ministry all recognize the urgent need to modify existing norms, but as of August, none had publicly presented a legislative proposal to do so.[33]

Accountability for Abuses

Human Rights Watch’s 2013 report demonstrated that the government had routinely failed to conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into cases of alleged enforced disappearances. According to the National Human Rights Commission, prosecutors regularly fail to carry out basic steps during the investigation to ensure that victims have access to justice.[34]

As of April 2014, no one had been convicted of an enforced disappearance committed after 2006, according to official statistics provided by the government of Mexico to the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The government report states that, between 2006 and 2013, authorities initiated 99 criminal investigations (averiguaciones previas) for the alleged crime of enforced disappearance at the federal level, and 192 at the state level.[35] At the federal level, there have been six judicial rulings condemning six individuals for the enforced disappearance of seven victims – but all the disappearances were committed prior to the Calderón administration.[36]

Crime Prevention

In August 2014, Roberto Campa Cifrián, Undersecretary for Prevention and Citizen Participation at the Interior Ministry, told Human Rights Watch that the government’s crime prevention strategy aims at “diminishing levels of violence” and having “no disappearances.”[37] Yet the government’s National Program on Social Prevention of Violence and Crime (Programa Nacional para prevención social de la violencia y la delincuencia), published in April 2014 with the purpose of outlining its strategies and goals on crime prevention and citizen security for the following four years, does not even mention the problem of disappearances.[38]

In the meeting with Human Rights Watch, Undersecretary Campa expressed interest in reaching out to civil society organizations working on this issue. On August 26, Human Rights Watch provided him with contacts of leading organizations. At the time of writing, the groups have not yet been contacted by his office to discuss this issue.


In conclusion, while the Mexican government has taken some steps in the right direction, much more needs to be done to address this human rights crisis.

The highest priority should be promoting accountability for enforced disappearances. Specifically, the government should prioritize the criminal investigation of alleged cases of enforced disappearances, by ensuring that the special unit of the PGR and other competent prosecutors have the resources and personnel they need, and that investigators receive full and active cooperation from all federal and state institutions.

Another top priority should be to accelerate the nation-wide implementation of the Ante-Mortem – Post-Mortem database, which, once implemented, could play a pivotal role in providing information necessary for families of the disappeared to find their loved ones, for prosecutors to pursue criminal investigations, and for policy makers and Mexican society to understand the true nature and scope of the human rights crisis that Mexico is facing.

Other crucial steps that the government should take include:

Release the names of the 30,000 people who were missing and have been found, as well as the 22,000 who remain missing;
Recognize the jurisdiction of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive complaints of enforced disappearances submitted by individuals and states, and inviting its members to carry out an official visit to Mexico;
Ensure that the definition of enforced disappearance in federal and state criminal codes is consistent across jurisdictions and includes all conduct included in the definitions established by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons. This should include, in particular, ensuring that the definition includes disappearances committed by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support (direct or indirect), consent, or acquiescence of state officials;
Modify the definition and the process by which a person is formally declared “absent” (declaración de ausencia) in the Federal Civil Code to prevent the loss of basic social services by families of disappeared persons, and pushing for similar reforms at the state level;
Adopt implementing regulations of the Victims Law;
Adopt a clear crime prevention strategy to curb the existence of disappearances, including a detailed analysis of the modus operandi by security forces in cases of alleged enforced disappearances;
Elaborate clear indicators to measure progress in the implementation of the National Human Rights Program’s lines of action related to the problem of disappearances; and
Take the leadership to ensure effective collaboration between state and federal authorities, and between different federal authorities with similar mandates.

We sincerely hope that you will take these recommendations into account as you undertake the necessary effort to address this human rights crisis.