As the number of missing Mexicans rises, López Obrador seeks reprisals

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MEXICO CITY – A year ago, Mexico reached a terrible milestone: 100,000 people were missing, according to an official count – a stark symbol of the violence that has ravaged the country since the government declared war on drug traffickers there in 2006.

Now, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says the real number is much lower than officially reported. And he tries to prove it. In what he calls a “new census,” he has sent officials to find out if people who were initially reported as missing have returned to their families.

The effort has sparked a backlash from the families of the disappeared and their advocates, who fear it is trying to artificially lower the numbers ahead of an election year. On Wednesday, the head of the government commission responsible for the official count suddenly resign “due to the current context.”

The commissioner, Karla Quintana, did not provide details. But as a sign of her alarm, she sent the entire database of missing persons to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “just to be safe,” according to an email she wrote that was re- an investigation by the Washington Post. There are over 110,000 cases in the registry. (Quintana declined an interview request).

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Her departure raised questions not only about the future of Mexico’s search for the disappeared, but also about Washington’s investment of tens of millions of dollars in the effort. US officials have called that cooperation a bright spot in a bilateral security relationship that is often strained over the countries’ differing approaches to combating drug trafficking.

“She was serious and committed,” said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. “She was a great spokesperson for the job. That moves millions of dollars, in terms of support.”

The dispute is the latest in several human rights disputes for López Obrador. The longtime leftist took office in 2018 promising to investigate some of Mexico’s darkest mysteries, including the disappearance of 43 rural college students from the town of Ayotzinapa in 2014, and the exodus of hundreds of students and leftist guerrillas from the “Dirty War” beginning in the 1960s.

But the agenda has largely collapsed in the face of resistance from the powerful military, the instability of the legal system and politics.

International experts investigating the Ayotzinapa case left Mexico in frustration in July, protesting what they said was a military crackdown. Independent members of a government-led truth commission on the Dirty War complained this month that they, too, were being stonewalled by the armed forces. “We feel alone,” said Carlos Pérez Ricart, one of the investigators.

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Adding to the pressure has been a fairly recent parade of extinctions. On August 14, authorities announced that they had found the body parts of at least 13 people in freezers in the eastern state of Veracruz. The next day, a video went around the internet of a young man cutting another person’s throat with a knife, on the orders of his captors. It appears that the couple who disappeared in the western state of Jalisco belonged to a group of five young people.

Santiago Aguirre, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, said the scandals showed the government’s poor performance in security, justice and human rights.

“In the face of this fact, it seems that the federal government is more focused on attacking the idea than taking responsibility for the bad results,” he said.

López Obrador named Quintana, a lawyer without Harvard training, to head the National Commission of Inquiry in February 2019. There were about 40,000 names in the official register of those who disappeared at the time, but the information is inconsistent and poorly organized. Almost a year later, Quintana provided a revised, updated record with more than 61,000 cases.

“The record is the first truly professional instrument” for tracking Mexican disappearances, Claudio Lomnitz, an anthropologist from Columbia University who contributed research to the commission, he said in an interview Thursday.

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But as the list grew, it became clear that López Obrador was likely to leave office in 2024 with the highest number of disappearances recorded in the database.

The president has pushed back, hard.

“These phones say that more has disappeared now than in Calderón’s term,” he told reporters this week. Felipe Calderón was the president who started the offensive against the drug cartels in 2006. López Obrador said he was trying to set the record straight. “Now we’re investigating, and we’re finding a lot of people.”

When asked about Quintana’s departure, he said: “Whoever disagrees with the strategy we are carrying out, well, the honest thing is to say: ‘I am resigning .’”

López Obrador announced in June that he had sent state governments and prosecutors as well as federal workers to go door-to-door to the families of the disappeared, with the goal of “counting create new” of those that were missing.

Long before then, Quintana’s National Commission of Inquiry had begun updating his registry, examining databases of voter registrations, marriage licenses, coronavirus vaccine recipients and other records for people who were also listed as disappeared. The commission often referred such games to state authorities for verification. It turned out that thousands of people were still alive or had been marked as dead.

The president’s effort did not seem so organized. Some families were surprised that bureaucrats appeared to say that their long-lost relatives had received coronavirus vaccines but did not provide more information. Mario César González, an outspoken leader of parents looking for their son in the Ayotzinapa case, was surprised when a government employee appeared and asked if his child had returned.

“He was angry,” said Aguirre, the director of the human rights center, who is also a lawyer for the parents of the missing students.

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In recent weeks, López Obrador has repeatedly questioned the number of people in the record. When Quintana blocked the president’s efforts for change, she was asked to resign, according to a government official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive issue.

“She was afraid they would force her to change the data,” said a diplomat from a European country that provided funding to the commission, speaking on condition of anonymity. Three of Quintana’s top deputies have also resigned.

The UN human rights office in Mexico warned that Quintana’s appointment “should not lead to the regression, or put in jeopardy, what has been achieved in public policy, institutional planning, databases and records needed to find people. “

The head of Quintana Alejandro Encinas, a human rights official in the government ministry, on Friday rejected any attempt to replace the record or pressure anyone to hide “a phenomenon like the disappearance that is so serious and sensitive to the country .”

López Obrador has defended his commitment to the families of those who disappeared, revealing that he has greatly expanded the budget for search efforts. Indeed, on his watch, the commission grew from a handful of employees to 240. He funded state-level investigative committees and launched a program to identify more than 50,000 unsavory organizations across the country.

Despite that, the numbers continue to disappear.

Many analysts blame the ban. The Mexican justice system has only solved a small percentage of the cases of the disappeared.

In addition, López Obrador has not been able to prevent criminal groups from controlling more and more of the country’s territory. As they have prospered, the extinctions have increased. Now, those disappearing include land rights activists, victims of extortion and people kidnapped for forced labour.

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Even as the record has been clearing people who have been found alive or dead, the total number of people who have disappeared has hardly decreased this year. Cases are constantly being added.

“They take 25 off the list, and almost at the same time, they get 25 more,” Santiago Corcuera, a former member of the United Nations Committee on Forced References, told a program Aristegui Noticias radio.

It’s hard to say whether the actual disappearance will lead to a record under López Obrador. It is easier to register a missing person today than in the past, thanks to the Quintana commission and the proliferation of mothers’ groups. So it seems that more people are reporting such cases. However, an unknown number still do not file complaints, often because they fear retaliation from those responsible for what has been lost.

“In my town, no less than 100 people have disappeared,” said María Herrera from the state of Michoacan and mother of four missing sons. She helped found a national network of agencies that looked for the disappeared.

“And do you know how many complaints there are? Only my own,” she said.

Not all disappearances reflect violence by the cartels or the army. The record includes migrants who disappear while crossing broil deserts, individuals looking for parents who have abandoned them, elderly people with dementia who ‘ leave home.

Although human rights groups have expressed dismay at Quintana’s departure, she had her critics. She went against the federal attorney general’s office. Families who are the backbone of the search for the disappeared complained that she did not give them enough resources.

“The truth is, I’m disappointed,” Herrera said. But she aimed her harshest criticism at López Obrador, who has generally refused to meet the families of those who have disappeared.

“He always says he has other numbers,” Herrera said. “But we’re the ones with the real numbers, the mothers. Our families are the ones suffering from this tragedy. “

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