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Ten Years On, The Pandemic of the “Disappeared” Still a Global Concern

In honor of this year's International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, we reflect on how this human rights issue impacts migrants in Central America and around the world.

By Lindsey Hoemann on August 28, 2020

It may sound strange to say that a person is “disappeared,” as though by force of magic or their own will, they simply and quietly vanish. The term, however, obscures its inherent violence as a practice that goes hand-in-hand with torture, repression, or organized crime. In 2018, the International Red Cross estimated that 100,000 people were missing worldwide, while acknowledging that there are likely many more.

One of the most horrifying examples of the dangers facing people in migration occurred 10 years ago this month near the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, 150 miles from Brownsville, Texas. While the Mexican government still hasn’t fully investigated the case, what is known is that 72 people were executed: 58 men and 14 women from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Brazil.  Although Mexico repatriated remains it claimed to have identified, they were returned in coffins sealed with a warning not to open them and no further proof of positive identification; to this day nine people remain unidentified.

UUSC partner Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho (FJEDD) has been accompanying the families of the San Fernando victims in their search for truth and justice.  Though it seems clear that in this and other cases, Mexican authorities have directly or indirectly collaborated with organized crime, no Mexican authorities have been charged.  At a meeting last year with Mexican government officials to discuss the progress of the case, Orlin Euceda, who lost his brother Marvin, said: “we’re really not here for all of you to see us crying, what we want to see is justice…we want to go back home with answers.”

Photo Credit: FJEDD

In 2011, the United Nations declared August 30 the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Victims aren’t just the people who disappear—they are also their families and communities. Disappearance leaves people without answers and at risk of suffering retaliation if they ask too many questions.

There are strong links between disappearance and migration.  The Associated Press counted 56,800 people in migration reported dead and missing between 2014 and 2018, with almost 4,000 of those people en route to the United States. In the Western Hemisphere, Mexico and the U.S. border are the most dangerous places to migrate: in 2020, of 362 recorded migrant deaths in all of the Americas, 233 of them have been along the U.S.-Mexico border. For more than 15 years, the Central American Mothers’ Caravans have travelled through Mexico searching for their children and answers from the government.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that this region is somehow naturally dangerous.  As the UN Working Group noted: “…rigid migratory policies focused on deterrence exposes migrants to heightened risks of becoming victims of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances.” Indeed, U.S. migration policies create a territory of death and violence where people in migration are easy prey for corrupt government officials and organized crime.

Even so, the United States continues to force thousands to wait at crowded and dangerous refugee camps. In June, Human Rights Watch lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General detailing 32 separate instances of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of asylum-seekers between November 2019 and January 2020.

Photo Credit: FJEDD

As part of a series of events last weekend to remember the victims and mark 10 years without truth or justice, the families and FJEDD placed an “anti-monument” along Reforma Avenue in Mexico City.  The phrase “Migration is a Human Right” adorns a large metal “+72” on the sidewalk: “72” for the 72 of San Fernando, “+” for the thousands more whose names we will never know. Reforma Avenue is one of the most important spaces for business, tourism, and the Mexican national image.  Although it stretches for miles through the heart of Mexico City, the anti-monument sits specifically in front of the United States Embassy, because, in FJEDD’s words, “that country is also responsible for this story.”

Their powerful statement (in full here, in Spanish) during dedication of the anti-monument invites us to reflect on migration, disappearance, and the role we all play.

Photo Credit: Lindsey Hoemann

“…there are maybe hundreds of thousands of people who have disappeared or been murdered on their journey through Mexico.

Most of them want to reach the United States, where they imagine having a better future. They are fleeing violence, a lack of opportunities, poverty, a system that forces them out of their own countries.

But the United States government has put up a despicable wall, built over years. It persecutes and criminalizes them…Another wall is the one we put up as a society, when we make migrants invisible, when we don’t offer them help, when we accuse them and discriminate against them.

With this anti-monument we say that we need them.  That we do not want to be the wall.”

UUSC humbly and deferentially honors FJEDD, the families of the San Fernando victims, and all victims of violence against people in migration, no matter where they are. We are committed to defending the right to migrate, the right to stay home, and the right to a life free from violence.

We join our voices to theirs and say: “We do not want to be the wall.”

A UUSC, las y los 72 de San Fernando, y miles más, también nos faltan.


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Photo Credit: Lindsey Hoemann

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