In Mexico, funding cuts that are a part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic threaten efforts to search for the over 61,000 disappeared persons in the country. The government body known as the Commission for Assistance to Victims (CEAV) faces significant cuts, which could be as high as 75 per cent of its budget. They have warned that these cuts will halt their work and that the National Victims Registry, which has information of more than 34,000, will be lost. Efforts dedicated to searching for the missing people have been greatly affected by cuts to governmental supports. They are no longer recovering bodies from mass graves, as the risks of such activities are considered too high without government protection.
Movement for Our Disappeared (an organization consisting of over 60 collectives of families from across 22 Mexican states as well as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) suspended search activities on April 2nd in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it did call on authorities to continue efforts. The largest number of disappearances are linked to Mexico’s war on drugs, launched by then-president Felipe Calderon in 2006. The high number of disappeared people is in addition to the over 250,000 killed.
Karla Quintana Osuna, head of the Mexican government’s National Search Commission (CNB), said that the agency is continuing to search databases and respond to immediate disappearances. The CNB is tasked with coordinating the government’s role in the search efforts. However, others, including Virginia Garay Cazares, feel enough is not being done.
Garay Cazares, founder of the Warriors Searching for our Treasures collective, has been searching for her son since he disappeared in February 2018. She said, “For all of those with disappeared people, this compulsory isolation means lost days until our loved ones return home.” She also commented, “We need to stay active. We can take this as a physical break, but not mental. We’re continually thinking about how we can create new ways to search, for example using social media and all the media possible.”
Social media platforms, including Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Zoom, have become pivotal for families of victims to continue to communicate and organize. They also push for greater public awareness of the issue of disappearances. Garay Cazares commented, “We need them to see us. To hear us. So that the disappeared don’t disappear permanently during this emergency.”
Another concern that has been raised by advocates in the search for the disappeared is related to the toll of the COVID-19 crisis in Mexico. According to data from the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, Mexico has over 200,000 cases and over 26,000 deaths. Morgues are already saturated, and the crisis and its death toll could further overwhelm it. This could potentially lead to the destruction of unidentified bodies. The National Human Rights Commission stated in 2019 that there were over 30,000 unidentified remains across Mexico’s morgues.
Quintana Osuna said, “In Mexico – due to the crisis of disappearances, the forensic crisis and the law regarding disappearance and victims – it’s very clear that you can’t cremate anyone who is unidentified, or who has been identified but unclaimed, even if they died, or are thought to have died, from COVID.” She added, “We have to preserve these bodies in order to have the possibility of identifying them afterwards.”
The Mexican government, in response to concerns raised, promised not to cremate COVID-19 victims. However, families are concerned that unidentified bodies will be placed in mass graves as the death toll from the pandemic increases. The CNB has called for the creation of forensic cemeteries, to make future identification easier.
Earlier this year estimates of the number of disappeared persons in Mexico, since 2006, were at about 40,000. Yet more recent revisions place these figures at over 61,000. There were 31,000 murders in 2019, as violence remains a significant issue in the country. The murders and disappearances are attributed to various actors, including drug cartels, mafia groups, and even state security forces. And now in the midst of the pandemic, violence is still a major concern. March had the highest monthly number of homicides, at 2,585, since 1997, while the homicide numbers were down slightly in the next two months. June 7th had the most homicides in a day in 2020, with 117.
The widespread disappearances as a result of the high degree of violence in Mexico are very important to investigate, in order to provide support and closure to affected families. The task of finding the truth is in itself dangerous in Mexico. It is also vitally important for the safety of advocates to be of the highest priority, currently and going forward. Cuts to efforts to seek truth and justice threaten these cumulative efforts. While responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is essential, resources must continue to be provided to other issues, which are still critically important to address. Moving to scale up efforts over time is important to support the continuing efforts to find the disappeared persons of Mexico, which includes ideas such as establishing forensic hospitals. Cutting funding to these initiatives, as well as a lack of security protection for groups finding remains, imposes further hardships and pain upon the families of the many thousands who have disappeared.