International human rights legislation defines “enforced disappearance” as the action of state agents, or people or groups acting with the state’s authorisation, support, or acquiescence. The immediate perpetrators abduct their victims and take them to clandestine detention sites; the authorities refuse to give information on their whereabouts if they have it, and even protect the perpetrators.
In the 21st century this crime against humanity is still horrifically common, and it’s incumbent on us to grapple with the full reality of it.
Enforced disappearance is identified with governments such as the Nazi state, which first explicitly embraced forced kidnapping in the Night and Fog Decree (1940), as well as the military dictatorships in Guatemala and the Southern Cone, which carried out enforced disappearance on a massive scale from the 1960s to the 1990s.
In these cases, the involvement of the state could be documented and proven, but it’s not always so simple. In places such as Colombia, responsibility for enforced disappearance is lost in a complex web of government forces, paramilitary groups, and private citizens. Many enforced disappearances around the world now follow this pattern.
Many states have renounced responsibilities to their citizens to such an extent that they have created, or have failed to prevent, conditions that leave particular sectors of the population vulnerable to such crimes.
The case of the 43 students abducted in Guerrero, Mexico is a perfect example.
On September 26 2014, police and three gunmen attacked a group of teacher training students from Ayotzinapa in the city of Iguala. They killed six people, wounded 20, and the police kidnapped 43.
Mexican civil society – which has a long history of civic mobilisation and organisation, and is highly skilled at both – responded to the mass abduction with huge protests. Mexicans demanded that the truth be revealed, the students returned alive, and those responsible brought to justice.
People and groups around the world came out in solidarity with the students, all partaking in the effort to hold the Mexican government responsible. Governments, in contrast, have shied away from making a ruckus, keen to protect their profitable relationships with Mexico.
The physical violence of the crime resonates terribly in a region that faces huge, complex social and political struggles. The college is in an extremely socially deprived area, rich in natural resources such as water and gold, home to a very politically and socially organised population on the one side, and a reactionary elite of powerful land – and powerholders on the other, and ravaged by organised crime – which in turn involves local officials
The pedagogical ethos of this college nurtures rural cultural identities and ways of life, and views the teacher’s job as not simply as to impart knowledge, but also in terms of facilitating civic empowerment and the autonomous development of local communities. This puts the students in resistance to those who want to create a dispossessed, disempowered and malleable rural population that provides cheap labour for the exploitation of natural resources.
In keeping with that ethos, the college’s students have supported local community struggles against a hydroelectric dam project and open-air mining by transnational companies, as well as communitarian attempts to taking control of security where the state had abandoned it to organised crime.
The internal organisation of the college, were the students’ syndicate takes many important decision, pitches them against the government’s highly controversial neoliberal educational reforms, which greatly centralised the way education is regulated.
The 43 students’ abduction has sent shockwaves along all these faultlines. More shocking yet was the display of impunity and state irresponsibility throughout the government’s investigation.
In January 2015 the Mexican authorities closed the case, presenting what they refer to as the “historical truth” and what is otherwise known as the “official story”. As they tell it, corrupt police officers handed the students over to a drug gang who killed those who had not yet died, incinerated the bodies in the pouring rain on a rubbish dump, and threw the students’ remains into a river.
The evidence for this consists of one tooth and a bone fragment from one of the students, which were found in the river, and of statements from the arrested individuals (among them, police officers) who are charged with crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, and drug traffic related offenses.
No-one has been charged with “enforced disappearance”, which could be investigated by international courts, thereby breaking through the impunity so characteristic of contemporary Mexico.
National and international Human Rights groups have criticised almost every aspect of the investigation and its outcome, and have made detailed recommendations to the Mexican government – none of which have been implemented.
The symbolic violence that so often accompanies enforced disappearance was on full display too. The victims are smeared in mainstream media and by officials as a social nuisance, rioters, vandals, and maladjusted teenage rebels who, because of their “deviant” behaviour, are somehow partly to blame for what was done to them.
The official story not only provides no credible motive for the attack on the students, it slanders their reputation by imposing an incredible one: that they disturbed a public event organised by the former corrupt mayor of Iguala, and were then abducted and killed by people engaged in organised crime.
This farcical version of events insults the commitment of the students, their networks and their families, and undermines a basic pillar of the law – namely that everyone must be protected from enforced disappearance.
The Guerrero case is but one of many similar, largely unreported cases in Mexico and across the world. Yet it show us just how enforced disappearance works in a context that has been described as the apotheosis of neoliberalism. To remove the conditions that permit these atrocities, we have to challenge them on every possible level.
Cornelia Gräbner, lecturer in Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature at Lancaster University.