In HAT DANCE, the latest Emilia Cruz novel due out later this summer, Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz is on the hunt of a missing local girl. The plot line is straight from the headlines coming out of Mexico. These headlines have reported—but struggled to actually document—the high numbers of the missing in Mexico as a result of the country’s drug war.
During the last years of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s administration most commentators were saying at least 60,000 were missing due to drug violence over the past six years. Most of the news about Mexico focused on drug violence.
But the administration of new president Enrique Peña Nieto is trying to create a different narrative, it seems to me, one that highlights Mexico’s emerging economic power, focuses on the country’s rich cultural offerings, and emphasizes reform and stability rather than cartel arrests.
In an interview in the May edition of my favorite magazine, Monocle, President Peña Nieto—or EPN as pundits call him—discussed drug violence and Mexico’s disappeared by saying he was focusing on “the root causes [of violence which are] inequality, poverty and the absence of opportunities for the population.”
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written before about how Mexico’s unequal social system keeps people from being able to move up in society and encourages youth to look to the drug cartel lifestyle as a way to obtain the goods and respect that they cannot get in Mexico’s formal economy. I think EPN and his team have been fairly successful so far in getting attention away from drug violence and on to economic and cultural issues. Heck, when Thomas L. Friedman writes glowingly about your economic prospects, you know the message is getting out.
But what about the missing and the continuing unacceptable levels of violence? In late May the new Interior Secretary reported that a new review suggested that there aren’t as many as everybody thought and that drug violence-related deaths have dropped significantly since December 2012 (when EPN was inaugurated). Non drug violence-related deaths are up, however, leading some to wonder if this is a convenient whitewash.
Not to worry. Shortly after announcing that there might not be as many disappeared as thought for years—and after families of the missing camped out in front of his office continued a hunger strike–EPN’s attorney general formed a federal missing persons unit. The unit will include 12 federal investigators and a unit of the federal police.
As things stand now, many families conduct their own investigations to find out what happened to missing family members. The cost to find missing family members is high, however, both in terms of danger and monetary costs. Local authorities are either fearful of cartel reprisals or simply too overworked to vigorously pursue cases. A notable exception is Nuevo León. It is “one of the only states where you see prosecutors actually doing the due diligence of conducting investigations, meeting with families, going to the crime scene, taking common-sense steps to advance the investigation,” according to Nik Steinberg, an investigator with Human Rights Watch.
As a mystery author one of the things I do best is to ask questions:
1. How successful can EPN’s new unit be? The federal police have been implicated in many disappearances, according to a report released in February by the Human Rights Watch. “President Peña Nieto has inherited one of the worst crises on disappearances that have occurred in Latin America throughout history,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of the international watchdog organization. The report details numerous cases directly tied to Mexico’s military and law enforcement agencies.
As long as the unit stays clean, they’ve got a chance to restore faith in government institutions. But their numbers are a drop in the bucket when it comes to the manpower needed to tackle the problem.
2. If there aren’t as many disappeared as initially thought and drug related violent deaths are on the wane, is this unit just lip service? Given the continuing drumbeat of headlines such as: Cancun Drug Murders: 6 Strangled, 1 Decapitated In Mexico Resort Town and No Clues Yet in Case of Mexico City’s Missing 11, I’m wondering if the new statistics won’t be quietly revised upward at some point. Keep in mind that these are headlines from a US national level news outlet–how much more of Mexico’s news stays local?
It remains to be seen if this new unit will help local investigations that are closest to the locus of crimes and could be much more effective. Local authorities need to be both honest and protected so they can pursue investigations.
As long as this new unit honestly and vigorously pursues the cases of the disappeared I’ll keep the faith. Meanwhile, Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz will keep looking for the women she calls las perdidas.–the lost ones.
Finally, may all those who seek the missing in Mexico find what they seek. While they may not find their loved ones, I pray they find answers. And peace.
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