On 12 March, Mexico’s Federal Police announced that they had arrested a man known as ‘La Rana’ (‘The Frog’) in connection with the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, a province of Guerrero state, on the night of 26 September 2014.
The students were part of a 100-strong group from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who were travelling up to Mexico City to take part in an annual demonstration, ironically, to commemorate the student massacre in Tlatelolco in 1968. Three and half year on, the details of what happened to the students remain unclear.
In the months after the attack, the government released its version of events – the ‘historical truth’ – but this has been widely disputed by independent investigators, journalists and NGOs.
Presumably, the government intends this latest arrest to reassure the public of the government’s commitment to thoroughly investigating the case, but it comes against a backdrop of renewed criticism from the families of the disappeared of the government’s handling of the case, and findings from the UN human rights office of “a pattern of committing, tolerating and covering up torture in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case”.
In the face of the government’s repeated failure to tackle human rights violations, Mexican civil society groups are organizing. In the case of the 43, the Centro Prodh human rights centre and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team have been notable among the many national and international civil society groups that are pushing for answers and accountability in the Ayotzinapa case.
But while Ayotzinapa has been the landmark case that has shone a light on human rights violations in Mexico, unfortunately, it is anything but unique.
As of September 2017, the official number of disappeared persons in Mexico was 32,277, and it is assumed that this number is a wild underestimation. People are unlikely to report their crimes for fear of reprisals (journalists and human rights defenders are routinely persecuted in Mexico), and in many cases the line between organized crime and the authorities has blurred to such an extent that reporting the crime is simply impossible. When prosecutor becomes persecutor, where is there to turn?
As is often the case, undocumented migrants are among society’s most vulnerable. Violence-driven refugees from Central America (particularly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) are fleeing their countries in extraordinary numbers.
Once in Mexico, they are “perfect victims”: undocumented and therefore fearful of authorities and unlikely to report crime, and likely to have relatives in the United States who can be extorted for ransom payments.
As in the case of Ayotzinapa, more than incompetent, the Mexican authorities are often found to be complicit, sometimes actively involved, in human rights violations amongst migrants. Under the auspices of the Southern Border Programme (PFS by its Spanish initials), Mexican officials detain, abuse and traffic migrants into criminal networks across the country.
Antagonism from north of The Wall
The actions of the Mexican government, far from addressing the problem, serve to aggravate the situation. As the Trump administration ramps up its hostile rhetoric towards migrants from Mexico and other “shit hole countries”, so it applies pressure on Mexico to sure up its borders in the south in the hope that fewer migrants will make it into Mexico, let alone the US.
Unquantified US resources have ploughed into the PFS, ultimately tipping the balance in the favour of its propagation. Once again, in the face of government incompetence, civil society groups have stepped into the void.
Over a month in Mexico City, I interviewed representatives of national and transnational organisations that are supporting migrants’ plight and rights across Mexico as they journey tirelessly to the US (many migrants embark on the journey multiple times, despite its dangers). One of the most influential is the Meso-American Migrant Movement (MMM).
The MMM’s principle initiative is its Caravan of Madres Centroamericanas. Each year for the past 13 years, the Caravan’s mothers have traced the migration routes across Mexico in search of information about the disappeared migrants’ whereabouts, staging protests, marches and demonstrations along the way that demand that the government respect migrants’ human rights.
In 13 years, the Caravan has successfully reunited 277 children with their mothers and the MMM has become a well-established transnational movement with meaningful connections with Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran movements and organisations.
“When we started working with the mothers the discourse was about crying for their children; now the discourse is about identifying the causes of their situation and who is to blame. All they needed was some confidence and the right environment for expressing themselves.
They return absolutely transformed. They turn from victims in to activists. The whole journey is very powerful.”
Marta Sánchez Soler, Caravan de Madres Centroamericanas
Civil society fills vacuum of state presence
The MMM is one of many movements supporting Central American migrants and the disappeared in Mexico. FUNDEM, the Red Jesuita and SERAPAZ are just a few of the groups organising and collaborating in order to defend some of the most vulnerable in Mexican society.
The vast network of civil society groups offering investigative, legal, medical, logistical and emotional support to migrants and their families points directly to the failings of the Mexican state. But on a more positive note, in the process whole swathes of Mexican society are becoming politicised and arming themselves with the tools to effect real change.
Societal attitudes must change
A good proportion of the activists involved in these movements are women. This is especially significant in a country, indeed an overwhelmingly machista region, in which women have never generally occupied a public role.
Women are often seen as mothers and caregivers, and are confined to the private sphere. They are presented as emotional beings, respected and revered, too sacred to be dirtied by the nitty gritty of politics. Their roles are self-sacrificing, expected to give up their own wants and needs in favour of those of their husbands and children.
In some respects the women in these movements do conform to this image. They are, after all, on the streets, sacrificing their daily routines, safety, prepared to sacrifice even their lives for the sake of their children’s. But it goes beyond this.
More than searching for their sons and daughters, these mothers have tapped into Latin America’s history of women’s movements, beginning with the Argentine Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Across Central America and Mexico, women have socialised motherhood, and expanded their demands to include both the respect of rights for their children and for themselves as activists.
Over the course of their activism, women learn technical, investigative and legal skills. They become public figures and leaders of movements. When asked in a recent interview what she had learned over the course of her activism, Luisa Díaz replied, “I have got to know more people, to draw strength from where before I had none, and most of all I have learned to overcome fear”.
Although these movements are born from desperation – and certainly no mother would wish to exchange places with a women forced into activism by a disappeared child – they empower a whole cross-section of civil society to stand up and be heard.
If, as a UN report suggested, Ayotzinapa was “a test case of the Mexican authorities’ willingness and ability to tackle serious human rights violations”: then the Mexican government is failing this test.
In its place, civil society groups are stepping up and calling attention to their demands that human rights are respected; and empowering and educating activists along the way. As members of the international community, we have a duty to listen.