Families of missing migrants painted their experiences on a collective mural to highlight their need. Families of missing migrants painted their experiences on a collective mural to highlight their need. Photo credit: Delmer Membreno/ICRC
Armed violence and the missing in Mexico and Central America
by Olivier Dubois and Rocio Maldonado de la Fuente June 2017

We would like to see him soon, for him to come back, we want to see him, but we don’t know if he lives or not, we are not fine, we are old and we want to see him or at least to know about him, if he lives, if he is alright. – Relative of a missing migrant, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Latin America has a long history of forced disappearances. During the last decades of the twentieth century, dictatorships in America’s southern cone used forced disappearance as part of a strategy to weaken opposition to their regimes. In Argentina at least 9,000 people disappeared, and in Chile over 3,000 are still unaccounted for. A hundred thousand people disappeared during the decades-long conflict in Colombia. More recently, high levels of armed violence and organised crime in Central America and Mexico have seen thousands of disappearances. The precise number in Mexico is hotly disputed. In November 2016, the National Registry of Information for Missing or Disappeared Persons counted 29,917 people unaccounted for, but civil society organisations claim that the actual number may be higher because not all cases are reported. According to the National Civil Police (PNC), more than 25,000 people disappeared in Guatemala between 2003 and 2014.+Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) (2016), Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala: Diversity, Inequality and Exclusion, OEA/SER.L/V/II. Doc. 43/15. The commission observed that violence and insecurity in Guatemala have ‘favored the resurgence of disappearances, associated with the activities of criminal organizations’.+Ibid., p. 66. In El Salvador, the Attorney-General has said that around 23,200 people went missing between 2010 and April 2017.+‘Cifras de desaparecidos en El Salvador ya supera los 23 mil’, 2017, http://www.elsalvador.com/articulo/nacional/mas-23000-desaparecidos-los-ultimos-siete-anos-144310. In Honduras the figure is unclear and there is a lack of reliable information. As such, reports by human rights institutions ‘merely illustrate the issue and do not measure it’.+IACHR, Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala.

Missing persons, violence and migration

Massive migration flows related to armed violence compound the problem of missing persons. Migrants are vulnerable to extortion and kidnapping, or may perish along the way and remain unaccounted for. Although there is no precise data, the NGO Mesoamerican Migrant Movement estimates that over 70,000 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua have gone missing crossing Mexico during the past decade.+Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, Central American Migration, 2016, https://movimientomigrantemesoamericano.org/2016/07/13/central-american-migration. According to the Committee of Disappeared Migrant Families (COFAMIPRO), around 400 Honduran migrants have gone missing on their way to the United States.+IAHCR, Situation of Human Rights in Honduras. Unidentified human remains of victims known to be migrants killed between 2010 and 2012 have been found in clandestine graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, and Cadereyta, Nuevo León, both in Mexico. Hundreds of mass graves have been found since. Thousands more have been placed in storage by the authorities across the region. Most are unidentified and remain so for a very long time, despite tireless inquiries by their families, highlighting the urgent need for proper forensic management and capacity and appropriate mechanisms to search and recover bodies and to obtain, process and compare information. While some forensic services in the region have begun compiling data on the unidentified bodies that reach them, this information is not always made public or centralised to give us an idea of the scale of the problem.

Clarifying the fate and whereabouts of the missing: challenges and mechanisms

Disappearances in Mexico and Central America are likely to continue for years: a substantial reduction in organised violence in the region or in risky migration flows will not happen soon. In this environment, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has had to adapt its approach to missing persons and their families. Contrary to how it operates in many armed conflicts, for example in Colombia, the lack of political and operational space and security guarantees means that the ICRC is not in a position to have a direct dialogue with those responsible for disappearances and obtain answers on the location and fate of missing persons. Unlike other countries where the ICRC operates, concerned states have institutional and financial capacity – they should not depend on humanitarian actors to respond to this crisis. Hence, the ICRC has privileged technical assistance in forensic human identification, information management, attention to families and the adoption of legal and administrative frameworks for clarifying the fate of the missing.

Finding and identifying victims cannot simply be seen as a tool for dealing with past atrocities in processes of transitional justice, as happened with the military regimes in South America. One lesson from past practice is that search mechanisms should be driven by the need for information, accountability and acknowledgement of victims, and must recognise families’ right to know the fate of their loved ones and the circumstances of their disappearance.+International Committee of the Red Cross, The Missing and Their Families: Summary of the Conclusions Arising from Events Held Prior to the International Conference of Governmental and Non-Governmental Experts, 19–21 February 2003, 2003, https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/report/5jahr8.htm As well as respecting
victims and their families, this will help fight impunity and build accountability. Confronted with on-going disappearances, states should reinforce their immediate search capacities in order to locate victims alive, and ensure immediate access to registries, for instance of hospitals and prisons. The traceability and future identification of bodies that have been legally buried should be guaranteed. The burden of this work does not lie with the kind of special institutions created to deal with the past (truth and search commissions, for example) – instead, it falls on ‘ordinary’ police officers, prosecutors and state forensic services. Creating effective mechanisms to search for and locate missing persons and satisfy families’ need for answers about the whereabouts of the disappeared also requires the political will of states and state institutions. Establishing such mechanisms should be done in conjunction with strategies to fight corruption, impunity and insecurity, otherwise efforts will be in vain. It requires targeted investment in investigative bodies and forensic services, and effective collaboration between the authorities and civil society. More fundamentally, the families of missing persons must be allowed the opportunity to participate in the creation of these mechanisms if they are to respond to their need to know.

While past efforts were essentially at individual state level, disappearances during migration have led to several initiatives aimed at enhancing transnational cooperation among states, and between states and NGOs representing victims. For example, the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology (EAAF) is establishing genetic databanks of families of missing migrants from Central America. These banks are jointly managed by families’ representatives, the Central American authorities and the EAAF. The scope of initiatives such as this could be extended significantly if bureaucratic and legal obstacles were removed to allow for the systematic matching of data provided by the families with information on unidentified bodies found in Mexico and the United States.

Experience working in the region has shown that mobilising civil society actors is key to sustaining political commitment. The ICRC has been promoting and joining initiatives where victims and state actors meet, not only to discuss individual cases and grievances but also to elaborate an agenda for change. Humanitarian, human rights and development actors can all help the families of missing persons have their problems recognised and needs attended to. When planning responses to the consequences of violence in the region, humanitarian actors should consider the specific needs of families of the missing. As they are largely invisible, these families may simply be left out of assistance programmes. An education support programme targeting orphans may exclude children whose parents are ‘only’ disappeared. Livelihood assistance to widows may leave out the wives of people who are not accounted for. Humanitarian actors could also build on their experience of working with victims to enhance families’ participation in institutional responses developed or to be developed in each concerned country.

A special mention should be made of actors managing psychosocial and mental health programmes. Psychosocial support is generally included in programmes for victims of violence in the region, and humanitarian actors should ensure that their programmes and those of state institutions recognise the specific situation of emotional ambiguity and protracted uncertainty faced by families of the missing.+ICRC, Accompanying the Families of Missing Persons: A Practical Handbook, 2013, https://www.icrc.org/en/publication/4110-accompanying-families-missing-persons-practical-handbook. Ignoring this situation of ‘ambiguous loss’+P. Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Harvard University Press, 1999. and approaching families of the missing as if they were like other victims of violence may be counter-productive and could do more harm than good. The ICRC is currently supporting an initiative by the Guatemala-based NGO ECAP (Equipo de estudios communautarios y apoyo pscicososial) aimed at adapting existing recommendations on psychological support to victims of enforced disappearance to the specific situation of disappeared migrants and their families.

Olivier Dubois is Coordinator for Missing Persons, ICRC Mexico. Rocío Maldonado de la Fuente is Legal Advisor, ICRC Mexico. This article is written in a personal capacity and does bnot necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC.