Fault LinesSunday 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Víctor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

Searching for answers in Mexico's disappearances

Fault Lines talks to one of the few human rights workers still operating in the dangerous Mexican state of Tamaulipas

This week marks a month since 43 young students disappeared in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Outcries and protests are becoming more frequent as time drags on with no trace of them. And the government is unable to answer the most pressing question: Where are they?

The last time the students were seen was after they were detained following clashes with police in the town of Iguala on September 26. Mexico’s Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam says that police then handed the detained students over to the Guerreros Unidos cartel—on orders from the mayor and his wife, both of whom are now fugitives.

Fault Lines heard several allegations of authorities carrying out disappearances while filming “The Disappeared” (which airs Saturday, November 1, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America). But since investigations into kidnappings are extremely rare, much of the work—and risk—falls to families and human rights defenders.

After years of unrelenting violence, few civil society human rights groups remain to help families investigate disappearances in Tamaulipas, one of Mexico’s most dangerous states. Raymundo Ramos Vázquez, the director of the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo, is one of the last people in the region offering those services to otherwise helpless families.

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of Fault Lines’ conversation with Ramos.


Fault Lines: How did the allegations of human rights abuses by the marines and other security forces start here?

Ramos: In May 2011, marines began to arrive in this region—Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. It began with the army and special forces, then the federal police and finally the marines. The three institutions came in as if the whole population was criminals—raiding homes, detentions, checkpoints, operations in different parts of the city.

At the beginning of June, there were reports of detentions and people disappearing. Families observed that personnel from the armed forces—marines, army, federal police—would arrive at their homes and ask to speak with certain family members. They would have a list of the people, and they would interrogate them.

If these initial interrogations weren’t enough, they would take them by force, if necessary, and tell the family that they would return soon. But that didn't happen. So the families in some cases followed the operations, even outside of the city. The cases began to accumulate, and we began to find similarities. In the case of the marines, they would take the people to their camps, interrogate them and torture them.

Raymundo Ramos Vázquez, director of the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo, one of the only civil society human rights group remaining in the state of Tamaulipas.
Víctor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

What has been the government's response to your demand for an investigation?

They never responded to these illegal procedures. And the federal public ministry did not use the authority it has under the law to fulfill its mandate. So the disappearances and abuses continued until international groups, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International,  became aware of what was happening.

We have documented six enforced disappearances that show the participation of the marines [in June 2011]. But, three years later, not one marine has been prosecuted, not one is in jail, not one has been sanctioned. This is evidence of the impunity that they act with, as well as the protection they receive and a total disregard for human rights.

What is the answer you get every time you call the attorney general's office or any government office in charge of investigating these crimes?

Authorities doubt us—not just with me, but with the families. They don't treat the accusations seriously. Our human rights group and the families are the ones who regularly carry out the investigations, find witnesses, evidence, photo, videos—all of which are obligations of the public ministry.  

And when we go to their offices, we receive jeers, false promises, altered information that doesn't match up with reality and, above all, authorities accuse the disappeared, as well as their relatives, of having some kind of relationship with organized crime. This is the worst that can happen. We have demonstrated that this isn't true. We've shown that these are people who are not criminals, but rather fathers, minors. But for the authorities, this is insufficient.

This makes us believe that it's part of a strategy by the government to discourage any kind of investigation. That's why we've gone to international groups as impartial and more objective entities to investigate why so many people are disappearing. On a regular basis, authorities serve the interest of the government and have no interest in helping families.

What is the objective by the security forces or by authorities to disappear people?

It's a policy of the state to create terror, to create a psychosis, so that citizens are submissive, live locked up in their own home and don't complain—despite having economic problems, corruption amongst officials at the highest levels and so much social inequality.  

We live in the middle trying to keep ourselves safe from criminals but also from authorities. It's not evident either that this is a strategy just to combat organized crime because, at the end, the biggest seizures of drugs don't happen in Mexico. The biggest seizures of weapons don't happen in Mexico. And the finances of organized crime remain intact.

So this is what we have concluded: Detain and disappear the greatest number possible of young people, of adults, in order to create terror. A terror of the state.

In Mexico, the press here doesn't publish interviews like this. They don't give a voice to families of the victims.

Raymundo Ramos Vázquez

human rights activist

Much of the war on cartels that began in 2006 was fought under former president Felipe Calderón. Now with Enrique Peña Nieto in power, has anything changed?

A lot has changed. We feel less protected, less safe, and we're waiting for more aggression against human rights defenders and more abuses by the state against civil society. When Felipe Calderón's term finished, we believed that the violence would finally be over, that maybe the disappearances would decrease and that there would be justice. Peña Nieto promised, since the beginning of his term, that he would serve and respect human rights. But in Mexico, there simply is no justice. It doesn't exist.

More abuses have been documented and more disappearances than from the previous administration. We're receiving all types of cases committed by the armed forces—rapes, teenagers being detained, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. We're worried. Social leaders are being persecuted, especially journalists and human rights activists.

It’s necessary on our part to call upon international bodies so they know the truth of what’s happening here. Because in Mexico, the press here doesn't publish interviews like this.  They don't give a voice to families of the victims, despite the fact that we have demonstrations. That doesn't appear on the biggest television channels here. It's like we don't exist.

Do you think that the marines are working with organized crime?

The investigations that the we and families did, as well as information obtained from functionaries of the government who we asked for testimony, show us that if the marines weren't working for some cartel or a criminal group, they were facilitating their work. The six men that disappeared in June 2011 were taken by the marines to the town of Miguel Alemán, where they were abandoned. And then later, the marines say that a criminal group came and took them—and they don't know their whereabouts.

We believe that the responsibility is not with the commander who carried out the operation. The responsibility is with whoever gave the order from the highest level of the government to combat some group and protect another.

A small memorial for Roy Rivera, who disappeared in January 2011 in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. He was 18 years old. The words in Spanish translate to, "I'm still alive. Find me."
Kavitha Chekuru for Al Jazeera America

They could have let them go in Nuevo Laredo and not Miguel Alemán?

They themselves said in their report that they had not found any evidence that tied the people they interrogated to criminals, and they took them to Miguel Alemán. So if they weren't criminals, why did they hand them over to criminals?  How much did they get paid for this work? Or in exchange for what? It is an answer that the marines and the federal government should give.

You're the only human rights organization left in Tamaulipas, why do you continue to do this?

Despite the risks, we feel a strong commitment to the families. We've advocated on cases of extrajudicial killings and cases of enforced disappearances. We feel we have an obligation because these families don't have someone that listens to them, someone to orient them and someone who advocates for them.  

Unfortunately we are alone in Tamaulipas. If we didn't have this office, the families in Tamaulipas would be helpless because officials have shown that they won't help and that they're not interested. We know the risk that this means, we play with our lives everyday. I don't have bodyguards, my only protection is God and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Outside of that, I have no other protection. But I feel a strong commitment to these families.   

Personally, I have a niece that is missing and I feel that the families deserve an explanation. They want their loved ones to come back alive or, at the very least, to have their remains. Until that happens, we're going to continue to fight—we'll continue protesting, knocking on doors, until there is an answer.  We're prepared for the long haul—10, 15, 20, 30 years. Someday there will be a change. We don't know who will be in the government then, but hopefully someone who understands this a human tragedy.

In "The Disappeared," Fault Lines examines the disappearances of thousands of citizens in Mexico, one of the worst humanitarian crises in Latin America. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, November 1, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, November 2, at 2 a.m. Eastern.   

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