Notes From the Margins…

The Sorrows of Mexico

  • October 19, 2014
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There aren’t many countries in which the discovery of a mass grave believed to be the known victims of a known massacre turns out to be the mass grave of an unknown massacre, but Mexico is one of them.   Three weeks ago 43 teaching students disappeared from the town of Iguala, in the southern state of Guererro after they were attacked by local police and unidentified gunmen during a protest.

Even by Mexican standards, Guererro is a rough place, outside its capital Acapulco anyway.    This was the state depicted by the Mexican director Francisco Vargas Quevedo in his bleak depiction of military violence, poverty and oppression El Violin.   In 2013 Guerrero was the most violent state in Mexico, with 2,087 homicides and 207 reported cases of kidnapping, and the US Embassy advises its citizens not to even travel by daylight on certain roads.

The state is a lot more dangerous for Mexicans.     The students are believed to have been attacked while returning home on buses by local police acting in collusion with the local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, who are also believed to have been linked to the local mayor.

When a number of mass graves were discovered last week, the Mexican media originally reported that they contained the bodies of the missing students.     Now the Mexican attorney general has said that DNA tests on the first 28 bodies do not match the students after all, which leaves the question of who these new victims are, and also the still unanswered question of what happened to the students themselves.

This outcome will not surprise anyone,  in a country in which thousands of people vanish every year.   In 2012 Mexico suffered an estimated 105,682 kidnappings; only 1,317 of which were reported to the police.   An estimated 26,000 people disappeared during President Felipe Calderon’s catastrophic ‘war on drugs’ between 2006 and 2012.     Today the number of missing people is estimated by the government at more than 34,000.

That figure doesn’t include the 100,000 murders that have taken place during the wars between Mexico’s savage drug cartels.  To put these figures in perspective, up to 30,000 people may have been ‘disappeared’ during the six-year dictatorship in Argentina – in what is rightly remembered as one of the great state crimes of the 20th century.

In Mexico people disappear so frequently and for so many reasons that the phenomenon has acquired a depressing normality.   They might be Mexican and Central American migrants, murdered, raped or enslaved during the dangerous journeys from Chiapas and across the US-Mexico border that Oscar Martínez described in his journalistic masterpiece The Beast; unacknowledged casualties of Mexico’s drug wars; trafficked women or slave workers; victims of extortion – and students protesting the corruption of the local state authorities.

Some of them can be found on government and non-official websites, with photographs and brief biographies and descriptions, their last whereabouts and sometimes grim messages of last conversations with unnamed kidnappers who didn’t call back.

Too often they disappear without any explanation and their disappearances remain unexplained,   because the police and state authorities have no interest in finding them, and may actually have colluded in their disappearance.  As Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch has written “if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing.”

Back in the 1970s that the Latin American ‘national security states’ gave rise to a new semantic term los desaparacidos – the disappeared – to describe the people who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the security forces, whose disappearances the state refused to acknowledge.     The term was often accompanied by the transformation of the verb desaparacer – to disappear – into a sinister new transitive verb, as in ‘to disappear someone’ or ‘he/she was disappeared’.

From the point of view of the security services, this strategy had various advantages;   It enabled them to terrorize their political opponents or critics, while disclaiming responsibility  for the murders.   No bodies, no paper trail, no trial.

The ‘ disappeared’ were a key component in the concept of ‘impunity’ that so many human rights and civil society organizations struggled against in Brasil, Argentina, Guatemala and other dictatorships that used such methods.   The regimes that did this claimed that they were fighting a ‘dirty war’ against ‘international communism’ that required such methods – a defense that was rejected out of hand during some of the trials and investigations that followed the collapse of these regimes.

Mexico was also part of this tradition.   To this day it has never revealed the names of the students killed by security forces during the October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.     With their range of motives and perpetrators, Mexico’s new desaparacidos do not even have the flimsy pseudo-justification of the Cold War but their perpetrators enjoy the same impunity.

In a state that is corrupt from top to bottom, and which has shown staggering indifference to the welfare and safety of its own citizens,  the struggle against impunity has been waged by civil society and NGOs like Fundem (Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparacidos en Mexico – United Forces for Our Disappeared in Mexico) and H.I.J.O.S Mexico ( Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio – Children for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence).

But they shouldn’t have to fight it alone.   The world ought to wake up to the horror that has been unfolding in Mexico’s narco-democracy and put some serious pressure on the government to act more like a democratic government and less like Pinochet. It’s become a truism of the new ‘humanitarian’ school of international relations that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to act when governments are perpetrating serious human rights violations against their ‘own people’.

The Mexican state may not be ‘killing its own people’, but the ‘missing’ students in Guerrero are one more reminder that it has very little interest in stopping them from being killed.

Too often the world has only shown any interest in the sorrows of Mexico, when they can be translated into violent popular entertainment like No Country for Old Men or Breaking Bad.  But Mexico deserves better than that,   and the men and women who are beating against Mexico’s institutionalised corruption and impunity deserve our recognition and support.

They want to know where the disappeared have gone, and the world should help them find out.




  1. Nik

    20th Oct 2014 - 10:00 am

    There’s a little repetition in paragraph 5:

    “In 2012 Mexico suffered an estimated 105,682 kidnappings in 2012”

    Very good article!

    • Matt

      20th Oct 2014 - 11:15 am

      Removed! Thanks Nik!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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