How many people are registered as victims of a crime in Mexico’s National Registry of the disappeared?
In mid-2021, WOLA consulted Mexico’s National Registry of the disappeared to see how many of the more than 23,000 people disappeared from 2018-2020 were registered as crime victims (information that prosecutors’ offices should provide to the Registry). The result: less than a third were recognized as victims of any specific crime in the Registry and far fewer were recognized as victims of crimes defined in the General Law against disappearances.
This raises concerns not only about deficiencies in the data sent to the Registry, but about the actual investigation of disappearance crimes.
National Registry* of the disappeared 2018-2020: Out of more than 23,000 currently disappeared people, all presumed to be crime victims, how many are registered as victims of a crime in the public version of the Registry? (Consulted June 22, 2021)
*The public version of the National Registry is available here for consultation by categories.
While a variety of crimes could be involved, the General Law, which came into force in January 2018, defines the two main crimes meant to capture the phenomena of disappearances in Mexico: enforced disappearance (committed by state agents and/or with their authorization, support, or acquiescence) and disappearance by private actors. Yet only 811 people had been reported to the Registry under these two crimes combined.
Additionally, as we noted by expanding our search backwards in time, even some of the country’s most well-known enforced disappearance cases were not reported as such in the Registry.
The disappearance by police of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa shown in the Registry
Forcibly disappeared Ayotzinapa students, Sept. 26, 2014
Enforced disappearance victims, National Registry, Sept. 26-27, 2014
The 2014 enforced disappearance by police of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training school in Guerrero has become an internationally-known face of Mexico’s disappearance crisis. For the two days spanning the initial events of the case, in mid-2021 the Registry showed 50 disappeared people in Guerrero but only a single victim of enforced disappearance. The 43 students were not classified as victims of any crime in the Registry.
Another emblematic case is the enforced disappearance by soldiers of three members of the Alvarado family in Chihuahua in 2009, subject of the 2018 Alvarado Espinoza et al. Inter-American Court judgment. They, too, were not registered as victims of any crime in the Registry.
UNDERSTANDING THE DISAPPEARANCE CRISIS
While this under-representation of crimes in the National Registry does not necessarily dictate how prosecutors investigate, it is a barrier to understanding the disappearance crisis and suggests serious under-reporting of data to the National Registry–preventing this instrument from living up to its potential as foreseen in the General Law.
To see how prosecutors’ offices were investigating disappearance crimes, WOLA asked the National Prosecutor’s Office (FGR) and the 32 state prosecutors’ offices how many investigations they had opened for disappearance crimes under the General Law from 2018-2020. The General Law establishes that federal authorities (the FGR) have jurisdiction to investigate disappearance crimes in certain circumstances, including when federal agents are involved in the crime or when the suspects include known members of organized criminal groups. The disappearances shown in any given state in the public version of the National Registry may include both state-jurisdiction crimes and cases that should be investigated by the FGR.
Ten states provided clear data on the number of investigations they had opened for both enforced disappearance and disappearance by private actors. Several of these states reported opening far fewer investigations under the General Law than the number of people reported as disappeared in their territory.
Disappearances registered and investigations opened under the General Law against disappearances in certain states 2018-2020
While one disappearance investigation may include multiple victims, this is not sufficient to account for the significant gaps seen in multiple states. Adding in the federal investigation data reported to WOLA (covering 640 cases opened by the FGR’s Special Prosecutor for Disappearances) also fails to fill these gaps, especially considering that the federal investigations do not correspond only to these states. The foregoing is all the more striking because the number of disappearance victims should have decreased during this time due to some of them being found, meaning that it would not be surprising for investigations to outnumber current disappearance victims–yet most states show the opposite tendency. Thus, the discrepancies seen above suggest that many disappearances–whether corresponding to state or to federal jurisdiction–were either classified as a different crime when the investigation was opened or did not lead to criminal investigations at all.
It is important to point out that families and witnesses may not file criminal complaints out of fear of retaliation by perpetrators–a fear that can be well-founded. Victims’ collectives and civil society organizations with whom WOLA partners in Mexico identify the need for prosecutors’ offices to ensure protective measures are in place for families, complainants, and witnesses in order to create conditions for safe reporting of disappearances.
This factor cannot explain disparities like those seen above, however. Indeed, even if families do not report cases directly to prosecutors, prosecutors’ offices are still notified of disappearances by other authorities who receive the information, such as search commissions.
Another possible explanation for these disparities is that a large number of disappeared people’s cases are not being classified by investigators as crimes under the General Law, at least not initially.
Jalisco’s disappearance victim registry 1995-2021
Initially classified as disappearances
Initially classified as missing persons
An example is Jalisco, the state with the most disappearance victims recognized in the National Registry. Jalisco maintains its own public disappearance victim registry. At the time WOLA consulted the state registry in mid-2021, it showed 10,328 people whose whereabouts remained unknown in state investigations from 1995 through April 30, 2021. However, according to the state registry, only 2,421 cases were initially classified as disappearances in state-level investigations, with the other 7,907 classified initially as missing persons (that is, no crime was presumed to have occurred). Comparing these data suggest that most disappearances in Jalisco were not initially recognized or classified as such by authorities.
To try to understand better how disappearance cases were being classified, WOLA sent follow-up questions to the FGR and the 32 state prosecutors’ offices requesting data on the current state of a broader range of investigations opened from 2018-2020. While no single explanation emerged, multiple offices reported cases from 2018-2020 that are classified as missing persons files rather than disappearance crimes. Guanajuato’s state prosecutor’s office responded in June 2021, reporting 26 investigations for disappearance crimes (one more than originally reported above) and citing 8,677 files for missing or disappeared persons, of whom 87.72% have been located. Assuming most files are for one person each, this would leave over 1,000 people missing. It is unclear how these cases are being investigated, with the prosecutor’s office clarifying that such cases “would not necessarily constitute crimes” unless the search and investigation revealed a crime.
By contrast, in Tamaulipas, a state with more than 2,000 disappeared people from 2018-2020 according to the National Registry, as of June 2021 the state prosecutor’s office reported no case files classified as missing persons from those three years, reporting instead six open investigations for disappearance crimes (two for enforced disappearance and four for disappearance by private actors). However, the prosecutor’s office also reported bringing charges for disappearance crimes in exactly six cases, suggesting that the foregoing numbers might include only investigations in which charges have been brought.
Other offices did not provide data on missing persons, but did provide data on investigations, although without specifying whether their answers referred to cases originally opened or currently open. The Chiapas state prosecutor’s office reported 104 investigations for disappearance crimes between 2018-2020 (all for disappearance by private actors); the National Registry shows over 200 people disappeared in Chiapas during this time. Campeche’s prosecutor’s office reported six investigations for disappearance crimes from 2018-2020 (also all for disappearance by private actors); the National Registry currently lists six disappeared people in Campeche during these years.
Our follow-up questions also uncovered contradictions. Nuevo León’s state prosecutor’s office had originally reported opening 1,293 investigations for disappearance by private actors from 2018-2020. However, in follow-up responses regarding investigations opened from 2018-2020, the same office reported only nine investigations open for disappearance by private actors as of June 2021, along with three open cases of enforced disappearance, for a total of 12 open cases for disappearance crimes. (This much lower number also matches more closely the monthly statistics published by the state prosecutor’s office.) For context, as of June 22, 2021, the National Registry showed a total of 1,318 people who remained disappeared in Nuevo León from 2018-2020.
According to civil society partners, prosecutorial agents in some states prefer to classify potential disappearances as other crimes, such as illegal deprivation of liberty, because they view these as easier to prove in an eventual trial. However, classifying disappearances as other crimes means that:
- The advanced legal standards and investigative tools mandated by the General Law may not all be applied (keeping in mind that even a correctly classified case may not be handled as foreseen in the General Law).
- The legal theory of the case may fail to capture the true nature of the facts.
- If brought to trial, the classification may impact the eventual sentence for the crime.
- There may be (greater) fragmentation of disappearance investigations within a given prosecutor’s office.
In short, available data show that many people disappeared from 2018-2020 were not initially or are not now recognized as victims of disappearance crimes. Ensuring the prompt recognition and correct classification of disappearance cases, as well as complete and updated information in the National Registry, are important steps to maximize the success of investigations and the understanding of regional and local disappearance patterns.