The Men Vanish, the Women Insist on Finding Them

For the Rangel family, 10 November will always be a day of sorrow. On that day four years ago, Héctor Rangel Ortiz phoned his family from a hotel in Monclova, Coahuila, to say that the municipal police had stopped him and his two companions. He intended to find out why the police had impounded one of their cars. He has not been seen since.
 
Eight-year-old Brandon Esteban Acosta was riding in a car with his father and two uncles outside the city of Saltillo when armed men abducted them in the summer of 2009. More than four years later, Brandon’s mother Lourdes still has no answers about where they were taken, who committed this crime and even whether they are still alive.
 
Dan Jeremeel, a 32-year-old insurance agent and father of four young children, disappeared in December 2008. He left the house according to his normal routine. But he never returned.
 
The number of people who have disappeared in Mexico – whether abducted by criminal gangs or subjected to en­forced disappearance by public officials – has increased dramatically since December 2006 when the previous administration launched a large-scale military and police operation to combat organized crime.
 
This is an ongoing human-rights crisis that almost defies belief, yet the government has only recently acknowledged it. In Febru­ary, newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto published a list of more than 26,000 people who had been reported missing or dis­appeared since 2006.
 
The government has partly recognised the gravity of the situ­a­tion, but not the scale of involvement of public officials in enforced disappearances and their consistent failure to conduct proper investigations.
 
All branches of the security forces have carried out enforced disap­pearances, and state agents have collaborated directly with organized crime groups to “disappear” people and extort pay­ments from their families. Criminal gangs sometimes abduct young men to use as forced labour. The police and military kidnap and torture to ex­tract bogus confessions of criminal behaviour.
 
The victims come from a wide range of backgrounds and professions, and the majority are boys and men between the ages of 17 and 50. Many were on routine journeys when they were stopped by armed men or at security force checkpoints. Some had merely gone to a nearby store or to visit a friend. Some happened to stumble across criminal activity, sometimes involving public officials. Some were themselves police officers and soldiers. A few of the victims are women and young girls. Still others were Mexican and Central American migrants trying to reach the United States.
When victims' families report their disappearance, the authorities deny the detentions, or instruct them to look for their loved ones at police stations or army bases. Rupert Knox, Amnesty’s Mexico campaigner, says police often dismiss the reports by claiming the missing were involved with drug cartel.
The families “are stigmatized, they are treated with disdain, and the typical thing is to say the victims were members of criminal gangs," Knox said. "That is a demonstra­tion of the negligence that has allowed this problem to grow into a national scandal and a human rights crisis."
 
Since the police won’t investigate, it has been left to the families to act. Women especially are at the forefront of this movement to find their loved ones. Dan Jeremeel’s mother Yolanda, Hector Rangel’s sister, Brenda, and others are joining together to press for results. In May 2012 relatives of the disappeared organised a national march in Mexico City.
 
Their efforts have forced the government to make some important commitments, such as creating a special unit to search for the disappeared. But these are isolated measures which are insufficient to address the magnitude of the problem, the degree of involvement of public officials, and the ongoing failure to conduct proper investigations.
 
Even the small-scale actions by families seem to be making the authorities uncomfortable. More than 30 heavily armed police officers recently showed up at Brenda Rangel's house and pointed guns at her.
 
But she didn’t let the intimidation stop her. On Sunday she and her supporters held a silent march through the family’s hometown of Querétaro to draw attention to her brother’s disappearance.
 
“Even if it costs me my life, I will not rest until I find my brother.”

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