Aug. 30 is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, a heartbreaking commemoration of people abducted by the state whose whereabouts remain unknown. To date, at least 100,000 people in Mexico have disappeared under such circumstances. Despite positive steps recently taken by the Biden administration, the United States has the power and obligation to do more for the victims and their families.
Every year, people around the world “disappear” after being abducted or detained by repressive governments or other violent organizations. Ripped from their families and communities, victims are frequently imprisoned in unimaginable conditions, tortured, and killed. Their captors hide their whereabouts or deny responsibility altogether, leaving the victims’ families to live in agony without knowing the fate of their loved ones. Enforced disappearances are often used against journalists and activists to silence dissent and intimidate others, but they can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Enforced disappearances are a global problem. This month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) made an official visit to Bangladesh, where more than 600 people have been disappeared since 2009. Bangladesh security forces are behind many of those cases, earning the condemnation of 10 U.S. senators. This month also marks 10 years since the disappearance of U.S. journalist Austin Tice in Syria. The Biden administration reportedly knows “with certainty” that Tice has been held by Bashar al-Assad’s barbaric dictatorship. And, of course, there’s Mexico.
People exercising their right to move freely make up a significant number of disappeared in Mexico. In an infamous 2014 case, 43 teaching students were abducted and disappeared as they traveled to Mexico City; the remains of only three students have been identified. Just this month, a government commission declared that this disappearance was a state-sponsored crime involving a cover-up that reached the highest levels of power, leading to the arrest of Mexico’s former attorney general.
In June, Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz — a Baptist minister who provides food, shelter, and basic necessities to asylum-seeking migrants on the border — disappeared at the hands of a human trafficking cartel, along with several migrants he was sheltering. Thankfully, the victims were released the next day. But human rights defenders like Ortiz and the migrants he protects remain at high risk. Many have not been fortunate enough to escape with their lives.
The situation is so severe that, in November 2021, Mexico became the first country in the world to receive an official visit from the UN to investigate enforced disappearances. The UN found that an unthinkable 100,000 people have been officially disappeared by the Mexican government since 1964. This is in contrast to only 36 convictions. The UNHCHR has called this “a human tragedy of enormous proportions.” We agree, and we also recognize the way the United States has played a part in this tragedy.
The “Remain in Mexico” program (also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols) was a dangerous policy that began under the Trump administration requiring asylum-seeking migrants at the border to stay in Mexico to await their hearing in U.S. immigration court. Under this inhumane practice, people trying fleeing violence were knowingly placed in peril of daily violence, including disappearance. Reports indicate that migrant disappearances quadrupled in Mexico in 2021 alone.
Just this month, the Department of Homeland Security finally ended “Remain in Mexico” following a long overdue decision by the Supreme Court. But given the U.S. complicity in enforced disappearances in Mexico, simply ending “Remain in Mexico” is not enough.
The United States can and must lead with common sense and compassion in response to this global crisis. Most urgently, the federal government must end Title 42, which allows the rapid expulsion of migrant families at the border before they can even seek asylum. Resources are needed to provide adequate housing and accommodation for migrant families so they can safely navigate the asylum process without fear of violence.
The federal government must also get off the sidelines and join the 98 other nations that are part of the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Finally, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the United States must hold foreign governments accountable when they violate fundamental freedoms through enforced disappearances and other human rights abuses.
Urgent action is needed if the United States is going to ensure truth and justice for victims of enforced disappearances. As the fight between democracy and tyranny plays out worldwide, we cannot deny that these disappearances have a devastating effect on civil society and human rights. We must do all we can to bring victims home, provide answers to families, and ensure nobody is disappeared in the future.
[Photo by UNIC/Mexico]
Ana Lorena Delgadillo is the director of Fundación para la Justicia, and Rev. Mary Katherine Morn is the president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.