Mexico’s Disappearances Point to Ongoing Institutional Crisis

Latin America and the Caribbean

Following the recent disappearance of dozens of students outside the town of Iguala, in Guerrero State, Mexico, a mass grave was uncovered containing dozens of bodies - burned so badly the government has said it would take weeks to complete full forensic analyses. The discovery has spurred thousands of Mexicans to take to the streets across the country to protest, showing the extent of the widespread corruption riddling Mexican institutions.

While it is unclear exactly what happened in Iguala, soon after the events 22 police were arrested on murder charges related to the deaths of three of the students, who were apparently protesting the government's unpopular plans for education reform before things turned deadly. The fact that the town's mayor has apparently fled, and that he and his chief of security are being investigated in connection with the crimes, serve as a strong indication that local government officials may have been involved in whatever took place.

Human Rights Watch released a harsh report on October 8 "documenting nearly 250 'disappearances' during the administration of [former] President Felipe Calderón, including 149 cases in which there was compelling evidence of enforced disappearances involving state agents from all branches of the country’s security forces."

Under the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, who replaced Calderón in 2012, the number of missing persons in Mexico stands at roughly 23,000 and according to the Mexican government, there has not been a single conviction for a case of forced disappearance since 2006.

In addition to forced disappearance, many Mexicans face a wide array of threats to their security on a daily basis. According to a recent poll, more than two-thirds of Mexican citizens feel insecure in their communities. To make matters worse, Mexican security forces are deeply distrusted by the majority of the public. A recent study from the Wilson Center found that 90% of Mexicans have little or no confidence in their local police.

Mexico is one of the United States’ oldest and closest security partners. Since 2010, the United States has trained more than 5,000 of Mexican police and military personnel and provided more than $1 billion military assistance to the country. Colombian trainers supported by the United States have also been deeply involved in training Mexican personnel. But these dire human security problems and the apparent impunity of  some of the Mexican police officers call into question how effective this assistance has been in helping Mexico address systemic governance issues.   

The Mexican government's response to the events at Iguala - as well as to recent revelations about an apparent massacre committed by army soldiers in June - has been the focus of many recent conversations about the country's security situation. The federal investigation into the mayor and the prosecution of the officers are important signals from the Mexican government that it intends to pursue justice in this instance but, as the protests show, this is part of a larger, insidious problem.

As Mexico continues to fight organized crime and the United States continues to help fund that effort,  both countries should consider keeping a sustained focus on shoring up Mexico’s shaky law enforcement institutions (particularly at the local level)  and reforming police forces and judicial systems to root out corruption and abuses for traditional U.S. train and equip assistance to make its intended impact.