University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Vanished

More than 30,000 people have disappeared in Mexico over the past decade. Researchers at the U are helping human rights advocates and others figure out what happened.

Photo Credit: Pacific Press/Alamy Stock Photo

On the night of September 26, 2014, a group of male students from a rural teachers college in the Mexican state of Guerrero seized several buses in the city of Iguala with the intent of attending a protest in Mexico City. On their way out of town, however, they were stopped by local police, who opened fire on the buses. Many of the students fled; three were killed. Forty-three others were herded into police cars and vanished into the night, never to be seen again.

What exactly happened to the students has never been established. A local mayor may have been involved in the abduction. The military may have been complicit. Or, the students could have been turned over to a gang and burned in a pit with gasoline, wood, and plastic—the fate of a different group, whose charred bodies were unearthed not far from the disappearance site. Despite widespread protests, an international investigation, forensic analyses, and arrests, neither authorities nor family members have gotten to the bottom of what exactly took place that night.

According to official estimates, more than 30,000 people have disappeared in Mexico over the past decade or so, caught in the crossfire of a violent war between the nation’s drug cartels and militarized police forces. The vanished are mostly men, but women and children have gone missing too. They may have been on their way home from work, or eating at a restaurant, or inside their houses when they were abducted, leaving grief-stricken families to take up their cause. Sometimes they have the help of advocates, priests, or even psychics. Often, they are assisted by no one at all.

Paula Cuellar and Barbara Frey are working to understand the disappearances in Mexico in order to hold the right people accountable.
Photo by Mark Luinenburg

Determining who took the tens of thousands of people missing in Mexico and whether they are alive or buried in any of the country’s all-too-plentiful mass graves—last year, a site containing 250 human skulls was found in Veracruz—may be an uphill battle. But, a project called the Observatory on Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico, or simply “the Observatory,” aims to document and find patterns among the cases of the disappeared. A collaboration between the University of Minnesota, the University of Oxford, and Mexico’s Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, the Observatory’s end goals are to hold the right people accountable, change a culture of impunity, and lessen the frequency of abductions in the future.

For their part of the project, U researchers are dissecting the media and social media accounts of hundreds of disappearances, as well as conducting interviews with journalists, advocates on the ground, and family members. The information is fed into a database, which allows researchers to compare factors in apples-to-apples fashion, such as an abducted person’s age, sex, level of schooling, occupation, marital status, and sexual identity. Other variables include the location from which a person was taken, the time of day, and known perpetrators.

The interviews are wrenching. “The first family member I spoke with in Coahuila was a father” whose son had vanished from the state capital of Saltillo as a teenager, says Paula Cuellar, a U Ph.D. candidate in history and human rights, who was in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leòn last summer collecting information for the Observatory. “He had these Terminator glasses, these tinted black glasses. He came and never took them off. I couldn’t see his eyes.”

Cuellar is empathetic toward these relatives and moved by their circumstances; her own family fled El Salvador for Mexico City in the 1980s, when she was 3 years old, to escape a bloody civil war. Still, the limits of being a researcher can be humbling. “I said I came from the University of Minnesota and I was there to let him know we were conducting a study to see how the press was looking at the cases of disappearances,” she explains. “He told me, ‘OK. OK. But, how are you going to help me look for my kid? Are you going to come with me to the desert and help me look for my kid?’”

Cuellar spoke to dozens of people in Mexico last summer, including mothers lugging files as thick as briefcases and relatives of the disappeared who celebrate holidays with each other because they no longer relate to their own families. At a conference, she buttonholed journalists who were heading to the restrooms and asked them to talk with her in private; they told of being threatened by the cartels. These are serious threats. In 2010, a gang killed journalist Valentín Valdés Espinosa in Saltillo, leaving his bound body in front of a motel with a note that read: “This is going to happen to those who don’t understand.”

“Our project is to try to look for pockets of information,” says Barbara Frey, professor, lawyer, and longtime director of the College of Liberal Arts’ Human Rights Program. “Disappearance is inherently a difficult violation to investigate. The information disappears with the person. You realize this stuff is happening as we sit here and nobody is documenting the cases on a granular level. Civil society has to do that.” More often than not, Frey says, the Mexican government lays disappearances at the doorstep of the cartels, chalking them up to a crime problem and implicating the disappeared by association. “The state is obfuscating.”

Already, after looking at cases in the Texas border states of Nuevo Leòn, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila, the Observatory has come up with findings that counter the government’s storyline, says Frey. In Nuevo Leòn, where the team held a press conference last June, researchers discovered that of the 548 cases examined, 92 percent of the disappeared had no evident connection to organized crime. And many of the abductions were conducted with the participation of local, state, or federal officials. “What we found in Nuevo Leòn, even though the government has these narratives that it’s all drug cartels,” says Frey, “is that in almost half of the cases in which there was a perpetrator identified, it was a state actor. Half of that 50 percent were municipal police.”

That means systemic involvement, which puts these offenses in the realm of human rights violations rather than simple crime. “The law of human rights is directed at how states treat their citizens,” Frey says, noting that few crimes are reported to police in the first place due to mistrust of the justice system, which is compromised by corruption and patronage. “We can poke a hole in that myth that it’s just the drug cartels.”

In Coahuila, the Observatory works in conjunction with a diocesan human rights center called Fray Juan de Larios, which advocates for the rights of the families of the disappeared. The group has successfully pushed the government to release assets and bestow rights and benefits to family members without declaring that the missing are actually dead. Officials have even “found the will to look for the disappeared among the unidentified bodies found and registered in the state,” says the center’s deputy director Michael Chamberlin, reached in Mexico via Skype. But, examining the circumstances surrounding the disappearances is another matter. “They want to make believe that the perpetrators and victims are all dead,” he says.

Chamberlin and others at the center began investigating the disappearances themselves. “We needed to understand and got to know the way the criminal cartel was organized,” he says. “And how they bribed and took control over the municipal police in the whole state . . . And how government officials were profiting from this. We understood that terrorizing the whole state by these means—by disappeared people and mass killings and dissolving people and burning them to ashes—was a way to make the population comply with the demands of this group.

“We’re doing what the prosecutor’s office is not doing,” he says. “With no resources.”

The rate of impunity for disappearances in Mexico is believed to be over 90 percent, a rate Amnesty International calls “almost absolute.” In other words, very few people who commit these crimes are ever held accountable. And without accountability, there is no impetus to change. That’s why Chamberlin is trying to draw the world’s attention to the problem by testifying before U.S. Congress and filing a report with the International Criminal Court claiming crimes against humanity, using data from the Observatory to buttress his case.

“This type of analysis helps us understand the phenomenon of disappearances and answer the question of why it happened,” Chamberlin says. “For us, it’s really important to work with the University of Minnesota and others. Because we can do many more things that we can’t do alone. And that is of a great help, and I think it’s going to make a change.”

In the meantime, the families search. When the father wearing the Terminator glasses asked Cuellar for help, she gently explained that the Observatory’s goal is not to look for stolen boys in the desert but to gather information, build empathy for victims, and, in the end, bring accountability. He responded by telling her he’d gone to a psychic, who sent him out with a device bearing a needle that could supposedly point to his son’s whereabouts. He said his wife had died from heartbreak.

The father asked, “At least are you going to call me sometime and ask how I’m doing?” Cuellar promised she would. “And then he started shedding tears and I understood why he hadn’t taken his glasses away. He didn’t want me to see him crying.”

Jennifer Vogel (B.A. '92) is the editor of Minnesota Alumni.

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