There aren’t many countries where bodies are discovered in a mass grave believed to be the known victims of a known massacre, only for it to turn out that the bodies were actually the unknown victims of an unknown massacre, but Mexico is one of them. Three weeks ago 43 teaching students disappeared from the town of Iguala, in the southern state of Guererro after they were attacked by local police and unidentified gunmen during a protest.
Even by Mexican standards, Guererro is a rough place, outside its capital Acapulco anyway. This was the state depicted by the Mexican director Francisco Vargas Quevedo in his bleak depiction of military violence, poverty and oppression El Violin – a must-see film for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Mexico. In 2013 Guerrero was the most violent state in Mexico, with 2,087 homicides and 207 reported cases of kidnapping, and the US Embassy advises its citizens not to even travel by daylight on certain roads.
The state is a lot more dangerous for Mexicans. The students are believed to have been attacked while returning home on buses by local police acting in collusion with the local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, who are also believed to have been linked to the local mayor.
When a number of mass graves were discovered last week, the Mexican media originally reported that they contained the bodies of the missing students. Now the Mexican attorney general has said that DNA tests on the first 28 bodies do not match the students after all, which leaves the question of who these new victims are, and also the still unanswered question of what happened to the students themselves.
The range of victims and possible perpetrators will surprise no one with any familiarity with Meixco. This is a country in which thousands of people simply vanish every year. In 2012 Mexico suffered an estimated 105,682 kidnappings; only 1,317 of which were reported to the police. In 2013 it was reported that 26,000 people had disappeared during President Felipe Calderon’s catastrophic ‘war on drugs’ between 2006 and 2012. Today the number of missing people is estimated by the government at more than 34,000.
That figure doesn’t include the 100,000 murders that have taken place during the wars between Mexico’s savage drug cartels. To put these figures in perspective, up to 30,000 people may have been ‘disappeared’ during the six-year dictatorship in Argentina – in a merciless slaughter that is rightly remembered as one of the great state crimes of the 20th century.
In Mexico people disappear so frequently and for so many reasons that the phenomenon has acquired a depressing normality, both nationally and internationally. They might be Mexican and Central American migrants, murdered, raped or enslaved during the dangerous journeys from Chiapas and across the US-Mexico border that Oscar Martínez described so brilliantly in his journalistic masterpiece The Beast; unacknowledged casualties of Mexico’s drug wars; trafficked women on slave workers; victims of extorsion…and students protesting the corruption of the local state authorities.
Some of them can be found on government and non-official websites, with photographs and brief biographies and descriptions, last whereabouts and sometimes grim messages of last conversations with unnamed kidnappers who didn’t call back.
Too often they disappear without any explanation and their disappearances remain unexplained, because the police and state authorities have no interest in finding them, and may actually have colluded in their disapperance. Writing of his research into 300 disappearances in 11 Mexican states, Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch noted that ‘if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing.’
Back in the 1970s that the Latin American ‘national security states’ gave rise to a new semantic term los desaparacidos – the disappeared – to describe the people who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the security forces, whose disappearances the state refused to acknowledge. The term was often accompanied by the transformation of the verb desaparacer – to disappear – into a sinister new transitive verb, as in ‘to disappear someone’ or ‘he/she was disappeared’.
The Latin Americans borrowed this strategy from the French army in Algeria and implemented it with such devastating effect that as many as 100,000 people may have been disappeared during the Cold War. From the point of view of the security services, this strategy had various advantages; It enabled them to terrorise their political opponents or critics with an image of implacable and omnipresent power, while avoiding any political or legal consequences for the murders they carried out. No bodies, no paper trail, no trial.
The ‘ disappeared’ were therefore a key component in the concept of ‘impunity’ that so many human rights and civil society organizations struggled against in Brasil, Argentina, Guatemala and other dictatorships that used such methods. The regimes that did this believed, or claimed to believe, that they were fighting a ‘dirty war’ against ‘international communism’ that required such methods – a defense that was rejected out of hand during some of the trials and investigations that followed the collapse of these regimes.
Mexico was also part of this tradition. To this day it has never revealed the names of the students killed by security forces during the October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. With their range of motives and perpetrators, Mexico’s new desaparacidos do not even have the flimsy pseudo-justification of Cold War exceptionality, but they do share in common the wall of impunity that the ‘national security states’ of the Cold War attempted to build around themselves.
Not only are the disappeared not found, but the people who ‘disappeared’ them are not revealed or charged, and indifference has become the entrenched principle of a state that is corrupt from top to bottom, and which has shown staggering indifference to the welfare and safety of its own citizens.
In this context, the struggle against impunity has been fought by a handful of courageous civil society and local family groups and NGOs like Fundem (Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparacidos en Mexico – United Forces for Our Disappeared in Mexico) and H.I.J.O.S Mexico ( Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio – Children for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence).
But they shouldn’t have to fight it alone. The world ought to wake up to the horror that has been unfolding in Mexico’s narco-democracy and put some serious pressure on the government to act more like a democratic government and less like Pinochet. It’s become a truism of the new ‘humanitarian’ school of international relations that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to act when governments are perpetrating serious human rights violations against their ‘own people’.
This is a principle of faux-solidarity and faux-human rights, which western governments like only when it can used as a justification for the latest war du jour. Because the Mexican state may not be ‘killing its own people’, but the ‘missing’ students in Guerrero are one more reminder that it has very little interest in stopping them.
Too often the world has only shown any interest in the sorrows of Mexico, when they can be translated into violent popular entertainment like No Country for Old Men or Breaking Bad. But Mexico deserves better than that, and the men and women who are beating against Mexico’s institutionalised corruption and impunity deserve our recognition and support.
They want to know where the disappeared have gone, and the world should help them find out.