In 2011, Israel Arenas Durán disappeared in northern Mexico. Why can’t the government find him — and the thousands of others who’ve gone missing in the country’s drug war?
On Dec. 1, 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated as Mexico’s 57th president in the midst of a horrific wave of drug violence. More than 100,000 people had been killed in the six years since his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had declared a “war on drugs” and deployed the Mexican Army to tackle the country’s powerful drug cartels.
Peña Nieto’s victory marked the return of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed uninterrupted for over 70 years until it was unseated in 2000. During its reign, the PRI had perfected a model for controlling virtually every aspect of Mexican life, including drug trafficking. Peña Nieto — young, polished, and Ken-doll handsome — pledged to end Calderón’s war without returning to the PRI’s old “pact,” which had allowed Mexico’s cartels to operate as long as they played by certain rules and gave the government its cut. Yet Peña Nieto offered few details, during his campaign and his first months in office, as to how his approach to the cartels would be different.
Nor did Peña Nieto offer a plan for dealing with one of the most nefarious aspects of Mexico’s drug war: disappearances. This omission was particularly troubling given that, on Nov. 29, 2012 — two days before Peña Nieto was sworn in — a government list had been exposed showing that more than 25,000 people had been disappeared or had otherwise gone missing during Calderón’s term. (The list was leaked to the Washington Post by a government analyst who suspected that neither Calderón’s nor Peña Nieto’s administration would ever release the staggering number.)
“Disappearing” people, which involves abducting them and then concealing their whereabouts, was one of the most sinister tactics used by governments in Latin America’s “dirty wars,” beginning in the 1960s. At that time, disappearances were aimed at eradicating guerrilla movements and their suspected sympathizers — leftist intellectuals, trade unionists, student leaders. Augusto Pinochet’s government in Chile disappeared more than 3,000 people; Argentina’s military junta disappeared 10,000, by official count. During Mexico’s dirty war from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the PRI government disappeared an estimated 500 people — some of whom were thrown alive from Air Force planes over the Pacific Ocean. If even half of the cases on the leaked 2012 list were real, they would constitute one of the worst waves of disappearances in the Americas in decades.
But unlike the dirty-war disappearances, which followed a sinister logic in targeting specific sectors of the population, there is no single explanation for why so many people have gone missing in Mexico’s drug war, or for what has happened to them. I have spent over three years investigating more than 300 disappearances across 11 Mexican states for Human Rights Watch. I’ve found that, if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing. And it has consistently failed to pursue the obvious lines of evidence that, in case after case — including Israel Arenas Durán’s — point to collusion between the cartels and the very soldiers and police sent to combat them.
The Peña Nieto administration initially refused to confirm the existence of the list of victims’ names. Months later, under pressure, it pledged to take rudimentary steps to address disappearances. Yet today, more than one year into his administration, few if any of Peña Nieto’s promises have been fulfilled. Thousands of Mexicans are still unaccounted for. Their families are still searching for them, often with little help from the government. And more people are disappearing.
Excerpt, read: Vanished – By Nik Steinberg | Foreign Policy
Related: Missing Emerge in Mexico | El País