Violent Disappearances Continue At The Mexican Border

On March 25th, 2018, in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican Marine helicopter opened fired from above killing a mother and two of her daughters. The Marines initially denied their involvement in the deaths, but when experts determined that the wounds could have only be inflicted from overhead, they admitted to accidentally firing at the family. Just 2 days later, Jessica Molina and her husband Jose Daniel Trejo Gracia were lying in bed late one evening when 6 men, all dressed in Marine uniforms, knocked down their door and stormed inside. When the men found the couple, they proceeded to interrogate them, asking if they knew anything about this helicopter incident. Without an arrest warrant nor a reason for his arrest, Trejo, the 41-year-old car mechanic, was then violently pulled from his home and has not been seen since. After Trejo was taken, Molina’s first instinct was to talk with Navy officials who told her they had never arrested her husband. Trejo is just one of many that have gone missing since February in Nuevo Laredo, and it has many people questioning the Marines and their authority. President of the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo, Raymundo Ramos, who has provided support for the families of missing people for over 23 years, said “[t]hey tell us that it is not them — they tell us it is criminals that dress up as the navy. They have not proven that it is not them. In four months they have not arrested anyone for impersonating law enforcement,” according to the New York Times.

The UN Human Rights Office has received several testimonies stating that the disappearances were at the hands of uniformed personnel as they walked or drove along public roads, often late at night or at dawn. There have also been several burnt out and bullet-ridden vehicles by the roadside. As of May 16th, the UN has documented 21 men and 2 women that have disappeared since the beginning of the year in Nuevo Laredo and that there are “strong indications that these crimes have been committed by federal security forces,” according to Business Insider. Even more alarming, the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee (CDHNL) who documents abuse from security forces, actually counted 56 missing people, including 16 who have been found dead, mostly by gunshots wounds according to the New York Times. This number is almost double to what the UN had reported. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that “it is particularly horrific that at least five of the victims are minors, with three of them as young as 14. These crimes, perpetrated over four months in a single municipality, are outrageous,” according to Business Insider. There have also been several reports of torture, kidnapping and death threats against witnesses and relatives of the disappeared as a way to prevent them from making complaints to authorities.

Nuevo Laredo is a northern border city of nearly 400,000 in a state called Tamaulipas, known to be one of the most violent states in Mexico. For a long time now Tamaulipas has been plagued with ongoing drug gang wars for control of drug trafficking routes, extortion schemes and exploitation of migrants. The war is primarily between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas cartel, which formed from the armed wing of the Gulf in the late 2000’s according to Business Insider. Both groups are believed to have close ties with government officials and security forces. The Navy, which includes the Marines, is the primary source of security in the city and have continued to clash with these cartels and other criminal groups, resulting in innocent civilians caught in the crossfires as we saw with the Helicopter incident. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of people have gone missing, many of which people suspect have had official involvement according to Business Insider. Suspicions about the government’s involvement have grown significantly since 2014 after 43 college students were kidnapped by officers and handed to a criminal gang for execution. Since 2007, when Mexico really began the crackdown on organized crime, more than 200,000 people have been killed according to Business Insider. Furthermore, over that same period, more than 30,000 people have gone missing, of which 6000 were recorded in Tamaulipas, which is more than any other state in Mexico according to Business Insider. As was the case for Molina, the government generally does not provide details of the case to family members, leaving them desperate for answers.

Earlier this month, in response to the UN’s call for an investigation, the Attorney General’s office issued a statement saying it had begun investigations into the possible forced disappearances in Tamaulipas and would be sending its National Commissioner for missing persons to Nuevo Laredo. They also said they would continue to coordinate with the UN Human Rights Office and interview witnesses, search for victims and punish all those responsible. Interestingly enough, this response comes just after Mexico’s federal government passed the General Law on Disappearances, which is national commission to track and investigate such crimes. Ramos said to Business Insider “What has been happening in Nuevo Laredo is a litmus test of whether this new law actually represents the change its adoption promises or whether enforced disappearances, followed by impunity and a lack of reparation to the victims, will continue.” The High Commissioner has made it a point that despite the accumulated information and evidence supporting the notion that federal forces have had involvement, there has been little to no progress made by local authorities to conduct a formal investigation. On May 10th, the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico issued warning to the Navy and Marines to protect the population of Tamaulipas, but at least 3 disappearances have been reported since then according to the OHCHR.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has called upon Mexican authorities to increase urgency in investigating and ultimately ending the continuous disappearances in the city of Nuevo Laredo. Zeid said that “It is vital the Mexican authorities carry out an effective search for those whose whereabouts are still unknown and to conduct a diligent, independent and complete investigation to find out what happened, identify those responsible and ensure they are brought to justice. They must also grant protection to witnesses and defenders, and assistance to victims’ relatives,” according to the OHCHR. The state has the obligation to protect its people and guarantee their security, but this just has not been the case. They need to demonstrate that they will not tolerate violations of any state officials including the participation in disappearances and extrajudicial killings.