Mexico’s Search for Disappeared Migrants Has Evolved, but Challenges Remain
Mexico has one of the highest rates of disappeared persons in the world. Comprehensive data are difficult to collect, particularly about migrants who often transit the country illegally. The migrant-rights group Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano has estimated that between 72,000 and 120,000 migrants went missing or disappeared in the country between 2006 and 2016. Over a six-month period in 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported that more than 11,000 migrants had disappeared due to kidnappings.
This high disappearance rate is primarily due to the presence of organized criminal networks, high levels of violence, and corruption. Given its proximity to the United States, Mexico is the most common migratory route for north-bound travel from South and Central America, is a pathway for many migrants from outside the continent, and is also a sizeable destination country. Traffickers often prey on migrants who pay to sneak them across borders, at times holding them ransom for larger payouts, forcing them into drug cartels, or engaging them in other dangerous activities. Migrants are also common targets of robbery or kidnappings by criminal groups that try to extort money from their families abroad. On certain occasions, state authorities have allegedly supported organized criminal networks’ activities by handing migrants over to them, offering protection to criminal groups, or detaining migrants in places these groups can access.
Mexican law creates a distinction between “disappeared persons,” whose vanishings are believed to be linked with a crime, and those who are “missing,” which refers more broadly to anyone whose whereabouts are unknown, including those who fall victim to heat, thirst, and other factors. A formal declaration that a migrant has been disappeared entitles them and their family to benefits such as financial compensation and medical and psychological support.
In practice, however, it is often impossible to distinguish between missing and disappeared migrants, since the reasons for someone’s disappearance are frequently unknown. Migrants also often decline to report being victimized because of fears they could be detained or deported, exposed to greater harm by their perpetrators, or because of lack of faith in the Mexican justice system.
To respond to the situation, the government in 2015 established specialized institutions to investigate the disappearance of migrants and offer assistance to their families, whom authorities intended to place at the heart of the effort. This milestone caught worldwide attention and was praised as an example for other countries to follow, particularly those in Europe, where the number of dead and missing migrants is also alarmingly high.
This article examines the main challenges faced by those institutions, known as the External Mechanism of Support for Search and Investigation (MAE) and the Investigative Unit for Migrants. While Mexico has made progress combating migrant disappearances, such as by making it easier for their families to report possible disappearances, there remains room for improvement. The country continues to face challenges related to cooperation, bureaucratic and procedural hurdles, and ensuring families’ rights, including to reparations such as financial compensation, which remain hard to obtain. In addition, authorities often fail to keep the families informed on investigations and guarantee their access to support such as psychological and medical assistance.
History of Disappeared Migrants in Mexico
Disappearances of migrants and others have been a persistent problem in Mexico. Since 1964, more than 214,000 people have gone missing or disappeared, according to government figures. But the situation has worsened significantly at times, especially since the beginning of a sustained campaign starting in 2006 to eradicate the production and trafficking of drugs, which was accompanied by militarization and increased violence.
Migrants are a frequent target. In recent years as many as 400,000 migrants have been estimated to irregularly cross Mexico’s southern border annually. Many of them are from Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where they face poverty, lack of employment opportunities, weak state institutions, high levels of corruption, and widespread violence. According to a 2017 Investigative Unit for Migrants report, migrants from these three countries were the most frequently targeted by criminals in Mexico. Most crimes against migrants were reported in the eastern and western border states of Tamaulipas and Sonora, which are the ends of two major migratory routes through Mexico. Partly to protect themselves, migrants have at times formed large caravans that provide strength in numbers. Given that they often enter and transit Mexico illegally, seeking to avoid authorities, migrants have also taken more dangerous routes such as on freight trains known as La Bestia, potentially exposing them to violent gangs and organized criminal groups.
Families and civil-society organizations have long pushed for a specialized mechanism to investigate missing and disappeared migrants. Before the Investigative Unit for Migrants and the MAE were created, a Forensic Commission was established after more than 310 people were brutally killed in massacres in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León from 2010 to 2012. Many—and in some cases all—of the victims were migrants. The commission’s mandate remains limited to identifying bodies associated with these incidents, although advocates have sought to broaden its scope.
Reforms of 2015: Creation of the Investigative Unit for Migrants and the MAE
Mexico marked an important and promising achievement in 2015, when it created the Investigative Unit for Migrants and the MAE. They became operational the following year. The Investigative Unit for Migrants, which sits inside the Federal Attorney General’s Office, is entrusted with investigating federal crimes committed by and against migrants. Other units of the Federal Attorney General’s Office also sometimes investigate these crimes, especially if the investigation was opened prior to 2016 or if there is evidence the case relates to organized crime.
The MAE, meanwhile, was created to assist the families of missing and disappeared migrants outside Mexico and enable them to approach Mexican institutions from abroad. Families can turn to the MAE to report crimes, request an investigation, and file evidence, among other things, without having to travel to Mexico. The MAE also assists families’ access to reparations, which may include financial compensation.
Other aspects of migrants’ disappearances in Mexico are addressed by state-level authorities and agencies such as the National Institute of Migration, the National Commission for Human Rights, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2017, when Mexico adopted a new legal framework for certain crimes related to disappearances, the list of agencies involved has also included the National Search Commission, the Executive Commission for Victim Assistance (CEAV), and the whole Federal Attorney General’s Office.
Challenges Investigating Migrant Disappearances
Creation of these new institutions was an important first step. Yet the mission of investigating and delivering justice for disappeared migrants remains incomplete. Mexico continues to face multiple challenges in these cases, which can be broadly categorized as related to cooperation, bureaucracy, and families’ rights.
Authorities have struggled with two major challenges in the area of cooperation. The first is that there is no transparent rule regarding how information is exchanged between the MAE, the Investigative Unit for Migrants, state authorities, and other institutions. The consequences of this lack of cooperation are mostly borne by migrants’ families, and can include difficulties related to receiving humanitarian visas (which should be granted to families when they are asked to travel to Mexico to participate in searches for their relative; in practice, families often end up using tourist visas, which have limitations). It is also difficult at times for families to receive reimbursement for expenses to cover their travel to Mexico when necessary, access psychological assistance, and get clear and updated information on an investigation’s status.
The second cooperation failure relates to international efforts. There is no regular and transparent exchange of information about missing and disappeared migrants between Mexico and El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, due to a lack of rules governing such exchange or a method to enable the constant flow of information, such as a real-time register. Furthermore, authorities in disappeared migrants’ origin countries have showed little interest in conducting their own or parallel investigations, which could significantly speed up the case. Information about whom a migrant last spoke to; when and why they left the country; and other key details could be beneficial in determining how they disappeared.
Bureaucratic and Procedural Challenges
Since migrants disappear far away from their countries of origin, it is not uncommon that their disappearance goes unreported by their families. In some cases, this has led national authorities to delay opening an investigation or fail to conduct one altogether, even when clear evidence of a disappearance emerges, such as in the course of a separate investigation or from journalists’ accounts. Migrants in many cases have no contact with authorities, so officials may claim the migrant never entered Mexico but instead went missing or disappeared in their country of origin or transit. This is clearly problematic with respect to Mexico’s international obligations under Article 12(2) of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which Mexico is a party; the convention requires the investigation to begin ex officio, or without receiving any complaint.
Unnecessary delays in conducting investigations and searches have posed a problem. Impediments to starting the search are particularly troubling because the chances of finding a victim alive decrease significantly with the passage of time. Furthermore, institutions from different countries may need to coordinate when authorities examine blood samples, exhume bodily remains, and return migrants’ remains to their families abroad. Multiple Mexican institutions must approve a request before it can be sent to the family’s country, a procedure can take months or even years. This results in decreased chances that the migrant is found alive or that their remains can be returned if not.
There are also challenges in defining the roles of Mexico’s federal and state governments. Deciding which authority is responsible for conducting the investigation depends on precisely when and where the migrant disappeared, which is usually hard to determine. Since Mexico is a federation with 32 autonomous states, this process is complex, time-consuming, and can trigger jurisdictions to try and circumvent their obligations by attributing responsibility to authorities elsewhere. Authorities in Sonora, for instance, have been accused of evading their obligations by referring cases to other jurisdictions.
Until recently, there had also been no protocol for state authorities regarding the search for missing and disappeared migrants, however a harmonized protocol corrected this oversight in August 2020. While it is too early to say whether the changes have improved matters, a positive sign is that many institutions have demanded trainings on the protocol’s implementation. In any case, the protocol seeks to resolve an issue that has been often neglected.
The new agencies have also struggled with lack of personnel, including the number of MAE representatives and others assisting families of missing and disappeared migrants outside Mexico. At the time of this writing, there is only one attaché in charge of assisting families, based in Guatemala. In addition, Mexican consulates in El Salvador and Honduras are supposedly responsible for accepting reports from families from the entire Central American and Caribbean region. Additionally, the forensic technicians who identify bodily remains, at least in some states, often lack autonomy and are poorly managed. Furthermore, Mexico has no centralized register for missing or disappeared migrants.
Challenges to Families’ Rights
In theory, missing and disappeared migrants’ families in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras should be able to raise cases directly with MAE representatives in their countries, who should then transfer the complaints to relevant authorities in Mexico. Relatives’ obligation to report cases to Mexican representatives abroad is not problematic as such, and might be a good practice to provide families an active and supportive role in the investigation.
In reality, it can take weeks or months for these complaints to reach authorities in Mexico. It is unclear why there is such a lengthy delay, but one possibility is that bureaucracy plays a significant role. This both limits the trust that families may place in these mechanisms and renders them of limited use, because complaints might arrive when it is already too late to save a migrant’s life.
This is assuming families even know to go to their local MAE office in the first place. Under Mexican law, the families of missing and disappeared migrants are entitled to truth, to participate in criminal investigations, and to access information about investigations. However, they are not always informed of these rights. Even in cases where families are aware of certain rights, they are not always able to invoke them.
Lessons from Mexico’s Experience
Despite its shortcomings, Mexico has shown it is determined to work towards bringing justice to missing and disappeared migrants. Perhaps most significantly, it has acknowledged the vulnerability of migrants and their families, and policymakers and authorities have started to genuinely search for ways to assist them.
Further reforms could build on Mexico’s progress. One could recognize the need to investigate disappeared migrants on a transnational basis. Doing so would speed up the identification of victims and discovery of facts linked to their disappearance. Ultimately, it would increase the chances of finding disappeared migrants, identifying the perpetrators behind their disappearances, and allowing families to participate in the investigation.
As part of this response, countries should be able to smoothly and regularly exchange information about cases. One way to encourage this would be to require different countries’ institutions to collect and share a minimum amount of information with each other, such as victims’ fingerprints, documents, and other personal records. Another would be to create a common register on disappeared migrants that countries could access, update, and consult. Yet transnational mechanisms must not sacrifice speed. Slow and bureaucratic procedures are detrimental to the goal of identifying disappeared migrants and capturing perpetrators—areas where time is critical. The capacity to react fast, flexibly, and without unnecessary formalities should be at the core of the work of such institutions. The public should also be kept aware of specialized mechanisms as they are set up, since such processes can only function effectively if they are widely known and perceived as trustworthy.
In addition to transnational cooperation, countries could also take steps individually to address the issue. One possibility would be for Mexico to create a strong new forensic institution or transform its forensics operations to provide them with sufficient technical and financial capacity, and also guarantee families’ access to information. Forensics officials should have an open mandate and be able to work without encountering administrative obstacles such as requiring authorizations from investigative agencies at each step.
Another step forward would be centralizing data within a single institution on migrants reported as missing or disappeared in Mexico, be it an ad hoc mechanism, a governmental body, or some other office. This would reduce bureaucracy and make investigators’ job easier.
Importantly, Mexico could ensure that families of disappeared migrants are informed of their rights and able to invoke them without hindrance. At least under certain conditions, for example when national authorities are slow to transfer complaints between countries, relatives should be able to directly contact Mexican authorities to receive updates about the investigation. This would also allow families to continually provide information to investigative authorities, and disclose any new evidence. Eliminating unnecessary intermediate steps would ultimately speed up the whole process. Additionally, families should receive psychological assistance throughout the investigation.
Other countries could learn from Mexico’s experience. Creating institutions specifically to deal with disappeared migrants is important, but it is also critical to empower them appropriately. Moreover, these mechanisms must work with a country’s broader policies, including the legal and justice system at all levels, to be able to perform effectively. Finally, even if all this is accomplished, risks to migrants will likely remain if policies are designed primarily to halt movement and prevent people hoping for a better life from safely and legally entering and traveling through Mexico.
In all, in order to swiftly, effectively, and humanely respond to a migrant’s disappearance anywhere, countries need a firm will and serious commitment to investigate. In the long run, this could strengthen justice systems overall.
The author is immensely grateful to Irene Manganini for her extensive support, guidance, and revision. This article could have not been written without her help. A sincere thanks also to Daniel Zapico for his always punctual and reliable feedback.
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