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Latin America’s history of forced disappearances continues today

. Dec 29, 2020
disappearances latin america Popular protest led by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo against house arrest to the responsables of the genocides during military dictatorship. Photo: Maria Rocio de la Torre/Shutterstock

Every year since 2011, the United Nations has observed the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Unlike kidnapping or human trafficking, the specific crime of “disappearance” is typically an instrument of terror, carried out by authorities such as criminal gangs, law enforcement, or even governments. The procedure remains largely unchanged, people are not imprisoned, kidnapped for ransom, or even necessarily murdered, they simply vanish without a trace, leaving their loved ones without any notion of where they may be, or what may have happened to them.

</p> <p>While the UN points out that the phenomenon is &#8220;not restricted to a specific region of the world,&#8221; Latin America is in the throes of an epidemic of forced disappearances, dating back to the 1970s when <a href="https://brazilian.report/guide-to-brazil/2017/10/15/brazil-military-dictatorship/">military dictatorships</a> ruled large parts of the region with an iron fist. Today, roughly 200,000 people in Latin America are deemed as &#8220;disappeared,&#8221; according to estimates from several human rights organizations.</p> <p>Though it is difficult to reach a precise measurement of disappearances, individual countries share their own data based on national human rights violations and crime reports. Mexico is by far the worst-affected country, with at least 73,000 people considered &#8220;disappeared&#8221; as of August 2020. There, the wave of disappearances is intrinsically linked to the Mexican drug war, which is becoming more and more violent each year.</p> <p>In 2019, Mexico recorded 34,582 homicides, the highest number since the National Institute of Statistics began collating data in 2000. In the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz — one of the most affected by the drug war — the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances is marked by street demonstrations with mothers carrying photographs of their missing sons.</p> <p>International organizations complain that the phenomenon of disappearances is still &#8220;insufficiently recognized&#8221; across Latin America. According to Susana López, missing persons coordinator of the Red Cross, the biggest challenge is that &#8220;the total magnitude of disappearances is still unknown.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;While we know there are thousands of people in this situation, it is an insufficiently recognized problem. And without centralized bodies [to address disappearances] we cannot develop public policies to reverse this trend,&#8221; she told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <h2><strong>The Ayotzinapa 43</strong></h2> <p>The most emblematic case of Mexico&#8217;s wave of disappearances occurred in 2014, when a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers&#8217; College were attacked and kidnapped on their way to a protest in the city of Iguala. Eight were killed, but 43 of the students simply disappeared.</p> <p>The state&#8217;s official version of events was that the students&#8217; bus had been detained by municipal law enforcement and they were handed over to a local syndicate and murdered. The victims&#8217; families, however, contest this conclusion, claiming that members of the Federal Police and Army were involved in the kidnapping.</p> <p>After taking office in 2018, President Andrés Manuel &#8220;AMLO&#8221; López Obrador ordered the opening of a truth commission into the Iguala kidnapping. Arrest warrants were issued for forty-six state employees, including Prosecutor General Tomás Zerón, accused of planting evidence. He is currently a fugitive from justice.&nbsp;</p> <h2><strong>A legacy of dictatorship</strong></h2> <p>During the mid-1970s, as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay were each ruled by military dictatorships, forced disappearances of &#8220;subversives&#8221; were the norm. United by the U.S.-backed Operation Condor, military leaders around South America joined forces to trade intelligence and work to exterminate their enemies around the world. Operation Condor was largely influenced by the dictatorship in Brazil, which in turn took its inspiration from the CIA-supported mass killings in Indonesia in 1965.</p> <p>The tactic of disappearances was a simple and effective one: instead of imprisoning opponents of the regime, or slaughtering them in the street, disappearing them and denying any knowledge of their whereabouts produced widespread fear and panic in society. The objective was to create an environment of uncertainty where no-one is safe, and toeing the line becomes a matter of survival.</p> <p>Truth and human rights commissions in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay estimate that around 30,000 people are still missing from the days of Operation Condor, with at least 50,000 &#8220;subversives&#8221; being murdered during South America&#8217;s years of lead.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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