The Disappearance Of 43 Mexican Students Is An Atrocity. But It's No Isolated Incident

A university student is reflected in a glass display case containing the photos of the missing 43 students of the Rural Norma
A university student is reflected in a glass display case containing the photos of the missing 43 students of the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa, Mexico, at the Central American University, UCA, in Managua, Nicaragua, Monday, Nov. 18, 2014. The 43 teachers-school students disappeared at the hands of a city police force on Sept. 26 in the town of Iguala, Mexico. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we look at the case of 43 missing students in Mexico and other disappearances in the country.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans hit the streets of the capital on Thursday evening, angered by the government's response to the case of 43 students who went missing in Guerrero state in September.

The group of students in a rural teachers' college disappeared on Sept. 26 on a trip to the town of Iguala. Prosecutors allege the students were killed by a local gang after police had handed them over to the criminals. Gang members told investigators they had killed the students and buried their bodies.

The case of the missing students has put the high number of unsolved disappearances in Mexico once again in the spotlight. "It is not just them," housewife Nora Jaime told the Associated Press during Thursday's demonstration, referring to the missing students. "There are thousands of disappeared, thousands of clandestine graves, thousands of mothers who don't know where their children are."

The WorldPost spoke with Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, about the disappearances in the country and the many Mexican families who live in insecurity about their fates of their sons and daughters.

The disappearance of 43 students in Mexico's Guerrerro state has made headlines around the world, but hundreds of others are missing across the country. What is the extent of the problem?

This is one of the worst atrocities we’ve seen in Mexico in many years, but it is not in any way an isolated incident. There have been many other cases of disappearances and forced disappearances -- when state agents are involved in disappearing people.

At Human Rights Watch, we issued a report in early 2013 in which we documented 250 cases of disappearances, and 149 of them were forced disappearances -- involving state agents -- in various parts of the country.

The full extent of the problem is hard to know. The government has acknowledged that there are more than 20,000 people who have disappeared or gone missing since 2007. How many of those cases are forced disappearances? How many of those people went missing the way people go missing in any country? It’s impossible to know. We do know from our own investigations and investigations by other organizations that a large number of those are forced disappearances.

What we do know, too, is that there has been a consistent failure on the part of the authorities to investigate and prosecute these cases.

How are these disappearances related to the drug violence ravaging parts of the country?

This is definitely all happening in the context of the violence that has broken out since the previous government of President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drugs, and undoubtedly, a lot of the violence and the abuses have been committed by members of criminal organizations that are extremely violent. But again, it’s difficult to know because the crimes are so rarely investigated in a serious fashion.

When we issued our report with 149 cases of forced disappearances, the attorney general's office promised to investigate. Now almost two years later, they have yet to obtain a conviction in a single one of these cases. It’s hardly surprising then that people would think they could get away with such a crime because the norm is impunity in cases of abuse by police and security forces.

Why has the case of the missing students sparked so much outrage across Mexico?

First, this case stands out because of the large number of people disappeared at one time. Second, it was carried out in such a flagrant manner -- with the students being attacked by police in the streets of the town of Iguala and then taken off. Third, these are students at a teachers’ college. The government often dismisses victims by saying they were probably involved in drug trafficking or crime, but this case cannot be dismissed that way. Finally, the frustration, the discontent and in many cases the desperation of people throughout Mexico who over the last few years have been seeing this incredible level of violence and abuse and impunity has perhaps reached a breaking point, and this was the case that crossed the line and tapped into this broader sense that something is fundamentally wrong and has to change.

Mexico’s President Peña Nieto vowed at the start of his presidency to change the government’s approach to the war on drugs. Has this had any effect on the number of disappearances and the government’s approach to investigations?

Peña Nieto promised change, but the change ended up being little more than changing the topic of conversation. He approached the issue of public security as a PR problem, and the strategy was little more than to stop talking about it. Clearly, that hasn’t worked. It has blown up in their faces and now they’re forced to respond in a way they haven’t been.

In the case of the missing students, the president initially claimed it was not his problem, but rather a problem that had to be addressed by local officials in Guerrero state. He eventually had to backtrack, but it’s revealing that that was the initial attitude.

If there's one aspect about disappearance you think our readers should know to understand the crisis, what would it be?

It’s important to understand the nature of the crime. Disappearing someone is one of the cruelest acts that can be committed against people -- not only against the immediate victim but also against the family. Families are put in a situation where they have no idea what happened to their sons or daughters. It makes it very difficult to begin the process of mourning and puts them in a state of perpetual anguish, doubt and despair.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.