Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

Enforced disappearance, a very present-day crime

Some 107,000 cases have been recorded in Colombia, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico. Civil war, Army, Para-Militars and  guerrilla conflicts are the principal causes of this affront to human dignity.


Desapariciones forzadas 04O. Briasco


Victoria Montenegro was 13 months old when she was snatched from her family home. A group from the military intelligence service forced their way into her home in Buenos Aires  and killed her biological parents.

She was taken to a police station and from 13th February 1976 she became María Sol Tetzlaff Eduartes, born on 28th May 1976 to Hernán Antonio Tetzlaff and Maria del Carmen Eduartes.

It took 25 years for her to discover her true identity, and another ten to see seven high-ranking military officials brought to trial. They were sentenced to between 10 and 15 years behind bars for their participation in the systematic plan to abduct babies during military rule in Argentina (1976 – 1983).

Desapariciones forzadas 14Victoria’s story and struggle may be seen in the context of the ‘Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo’ (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) movement – the organization that has led the search for Argentina’s ‘stolen babies’. As a result of their perseverance, 105 men and women have recovered their identity.

This achievement is echoed by groups in other Latin American countries. Such is the case in Chile, where the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (Association of the Families of Missing Detainees) is fighting for the same cause: justice and recognition for the victims.

One of these victims is Viviana Elisa Díaz Caro, the first recipient of the National Award for Human Rights in 2012. Her life was turned upside down by the arrest and disappearance of her father (on 12th May 1976), who was the former national leader of the Underground Communist Party (CUT). He was abducted along with the general sub-secretary, Victor Manuel Díaz López.

Desapariciones forzadas 15These two men dedicated their lives to collecting information and evidence that would help them to reconstruct the destiny of their loved ones, who – like so many others – had been victims of enforced disappearance.

According to CIDH (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos – the Inter-American Human Rights Commission), enforced disappearance may be defined as ‘depriving one or more persons of their liberty when committed by agents of the State, those acting on the State’s authority, or with the support or acquiescence of the State’.

This includes hiding key information relating to a person’s parentage, thereby depriving them of the opportunity to exercise their rights fully.

Over 42,000 people

According to data compiled by the United Nations, in March 2012 42,759 people were still listed as missing in 82 countries in the world.

Desapariciones forzadas 09The latest statistics from the UN Working Group suggest that the ten countries with the highest number of reported cases since 1980 are Iraq (16,548), Sri Lanka (12,460), Argentina (3,449), Guatemala (3,155), Peru (3,009), Algeria (2,987), El Salvador (2,662), Colombia (1,254) and the Philippines (782). If it is ten countries where is number 10 ?

In the opinion of the UN, a large proportion of the high figures in these countries may be attributed to specific violent periods of history, except in Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Morocco and Pakistan, where the number of cases per year has remained constant over 30 years of study.

Desapariciones forzadas 01In fact, the total number of missing persons in Colombia, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico add up to approximately 107,000 cases.

Guatemala passes judgement on its civil war

The armed conflict that tore Guatemala apart between 1960 and 1996 left 200,000 people dead and between 40,000 and 50,000 missing according to report by the Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico de Guatemala (Guatemalan Truth Commission).

Only General Efraín Ríos Montt – the former Guatemalan dictator accused of genocide and crimes against humanity – is being brought to justice for having orchestrated the massacre of over 1,750 indigenous Ixil Mayans. He could be sentenced to half a century behind bars.

Mexico and its dark decade

Desapariciones forzadasThe situation is equally alarming in Mexico. According to data from Amnesty international, between 2006 and 2012 over 26,121 people were registered as disappeared or missing.

The figures given by the organization also include those which didn’t conform to the definition of ‘enforced’ because, in the opinion of Amnesty International, ‘this issue should not be generalized in this way’.

Of those who disappeared during the rule of Felipe Calderón, preliminary enquiries were not carried out or there was only a written report in 40% of cases, meaning that full investigations to locate those individuals are still necessary.

Desapariciones forzadas 12The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, for its part, has stated that it still lacks information regarding the whereabouts of approximately 3,000 people who were kidnapped by criminal groups or fell victim to enforced disappearance at the hands of the security forces.

According to the report presented by Human Rights Watch, agents of the State were directly involved in 149 cases of enforced disappearance over the course of this six-year Mexican parliamentary term. The investigations indicate that members of the army, navy and police force collaborated directly with organized crime syndicates.

This crime against humanity and human rights is only recognized as such in eight of the 32 Mexican states.

Justice for the victims

Desapariciones forzadas 03It is for this reason that organizations for families of missing persons and human rights organizations claim that there is a high level of impunity in this area due to the actions of civil servants in many cases. They also cite the fact that governments deny the existence of this phenomenon and therefore do not take responsibility for looking for the missing or following up their cases.

These aspects of this issue have also been highlighted by CIDH, which has denounced the ‘invisibility’ which continues to mask this situation: the direct result of the ‘absence or ineffectiveness’ of public policies on this issue at a governmental level and the ‘denial of the existence of the phenomenon’ in some cases.

Desapariciones forzadas 06In the case of Mexico, the organizations involved suggest that in spite of the gesture of the government of publishing a list of 26,121 people who disappeared during the previous parliamentary term, there was still a ‘lack of political will to resolve these cases’ in the words of Nadin Reyes from the Comité Hasta Encontrarlos (Until We Find Them Committee).

The situation is similar in Colombia. Yanette Bautista from the Fundación Nydia Erika Bautista para los Derechos Humanos (Nydia Erika Bautistta Foundation for Human Rights, FNEB), reports that this on-going issue is characterized by the ‘presence of assassins in the region who send messages to families so that they won’t speak out’; furthermore, ‘the regional public prosecutors continually lose official records’.

Uruguay, an example to follow

Desapariciones forzadas 02The United Nations Commission for Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was created to supervise progress in this area, by analysing whether countries are taking steps to avoid disappearances and investigating unresolved cases.

The first country to volunteer to be examined was Uruguay, and in mid-April 2013 a report was published about the situation.

This document clearly stated that there had been no recorded cases of this crime since the Convention came into force.

However, it did state that the Comisión para la Paz de Uruguay (Uruguayan Peace Commission) established that 28 Uruguayan citizens and 8 Argentinians were victims of the practice of enforced disappearances during the ‘predictatorial’ period and the last military dictatorship (1973-1985).

Desapariciones forzadas 11Similarly, the report documented the enforced disappearance of 178 Uruguayans as part of the joint repressive operations of the Cono Sur dictatorships (those of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay during the 70s and 80s), which was known as the Plan Cóndor. In light of this report, the UN committee criticized the fact that those with administrative or judicial power were not given specific training regarding the crime of enforced disappearance.

Furthermore, the report condemned the fact that Uruguayan legislation does not include abduction or enforced disappearance of a minor as a separate crime, even though it is regarded as an aggravating factor.

Efforts are being made by organizations within our societies and by the international community to ensure that this crime against humanity does not continue to be committed. However, many people may now be given the information they need and told of the whereabouts of their loved ones.


(Translated by: Roz Harvey)

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