CAMILA RUIZ SEGOVIA
Night had fallen at the coastal state of Veracruz, Mexico, when a group of men kidnapped Luis Guillermo, 29. He was an independent businessman by day and a DJ by night, according to Lucía, his mother. The date was June 28, 2013. Nearly seven years after he went missing, his whereabouts remains unknown. Facing state negligence and incompetence, Lucía has carried out the search for her son ever since – and became a central voice of Mexico’s victims’ movements in the process.
Luis Guillermo’s story is one among many thousands of cases– 61,367 to be precise- of individuals who have gone missing in the context of Mexico’s Drug War (2006-present). Lucía’s searching efforts, meanwhile, are an example of the multiple initiatives that the families of the missing are carrying out to determine the whereabouts of their beloved ones.
For years now, the families of missing persons have organized what they call National Search Brigades. These consist of searching missions in prisons, in local states’ databases, and in the field, aimed at accelerating the finding of missing individuals. The absence of an effective response by the Mexican state has led to the grim scenario by which families have to carry out these missions by themselves–which sometimes include the recovery of bodies through exhumations. It goes without saying that the search for missing persons is a duty of the State and that the lack of thereof violates human rights standards. Both the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights have determined that States must carry out investigations to fulfil the families’ right to know the truth.
In the comfort and privilege of my home at Geneva, far away from my mother’s native Veracruz, I am left wondering what the imposition of quarantines due to the coronavirus pandemic means for these families. Something is clear: the health emergency does not stop the critical situation of human rights in Mexico. In spite of the government-mandated lockdown since mid-March, the country experienced its most violent month in recorded history. Against this background, it is not surprising that the families of the missing will not be suspending their searching efforts because of the coronavirus.
But indeed, the health crisis has added new challenges to the precarious conditions in which these families carry out their searches. Most evidently, the imposition of quarantines means that the families are limited in their ability to go outdoors to conduct searches in the field. They are also running short in supplies. For obvious sanitary reasons, families wear gloves and face masks when conducting body exhumations. But in Mexico, as in many countries worldwide, the pandemic has led to a severe shortage of these goods. Further, in the context of the lockdown, many government agencies have suspended their activities, reduced their working hours, or gone into remote work. This negatively impacts the families’ ability to access information, such as updates regarding criminal investigations and other judicial proceedings. It also makes it harder to report new cases of missing persons to authorities and conversely, it limits the authorities’ ability to respond promptly and to act efficiently.
Around the globe, the coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has also overwhelmed the news cycle. Mexico is no exception. What this entails is that the advocacy efforts of the families of the missing, and other human rights issues by extent, have lost visibility. Given that the search for missing persons is oftentimes dangerous as it takes place in sites controlled by drug cartels, families intentionally publicize their searching brigades as a means to mitigate security risks. The logic is that the more news reporters and human rights observers know about the searches, the more accountability mechanisms will be set in place in the case these families face reprisals. But expectedly, all eyes and media attention are focused on the development of the coronavirus crisis, considering its unprecedented nature and broad impact. And yet, the lack of visibility towards the issue of the missing means that the families are facing heightened risks when carrying searches. Moreover, the health crisis is likely to shift the priorities and agendas of donors funding civil society, including the advocacy initiatives of these families. If losing funding, searching brigades will become even more precarious.
Having foreseen these circumstances, an organized front of families released a call to action on April 6th. “In the face of the health crisis due to COVID 19, the search for missing persons must not stop” the press release reads: “Evidently, we have adapted our operations to the circumstances” and yet “every day that passes is another day without our beloved ones”.
To this end, the families are reminding the Mexican government that the procurement and delivery of justice are essential activities, even in the face of the crisis. As I stay indoors and enjoy the privilege of working from home, I am reminded that human rights defenders, including the families of the missing in Mexico, are also at the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Camila Ruiz Segovia (@CamRuizS) is a Mexican human rights advocate. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from Brown University and is a graduate student of Transitional Justice and Human Rights at the Geneva Academy. Her research interests include the situation of missing persons and human rights defenders in Latin America, as well as drug and militarization policies in the region.
The author would like to thank Coletivo Solecito (@SolecitodeVer) for sharing their input and images for this piece. She would also like to acknowledge the families of the missing who released their call to action on April 6.
Photo 1: Colectivo Solectivo, a collective of families searching for their missing family members, at a rally in Veracruz, Mexico, before government-mandated lockdowns
Photo 2: Colecito Solecito conducts a search for missing bodies in the open field, wearing face masks and gloves, now in shortage due to the COVID 19 pandemic
Photo 3: Many of the advocacy activities of Colectivo Solectico require face-to-face contact, which is restricted during the COVD19 pandemic
All photos sourced from here, with the authorization of Colectivo Solecito
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