For more than a decade, Mexico has been grappling with an extraordinarily high number of murders and disappearances. What's particularly alarming is how many victims are children and youths, writes Anabel Hernandez.
Every crime committed against a person is reprehensible. But crimes against children and youths are particularly abhorrent. A person losing their life or freedom because of their age, because they couldn't defend themselves, destroys hope of a future worth living.
In Mexico, brutal violence is commonplace. The news about crimes in my country makes headlines around the world. On Tuesday, for example, authorities said they'd disovered a mass grave on the outskirts of Guadalajara, where 119 plastic bags containing human remains were found.
The image is dismal. But the darkest and most gruesome side of violence in Mexico is reflected in the number of crimes against children and youths. No one hears the voices of these young victims.
In the last 12 years of the drug cartel war, thousands of children and youths have disappeared or been killed. This is a war where state officials, politicians, police and the military are often part of organized crime and have committed serious human rights violations, including violent disappearances and murders.
List of horrors
In November 2012, before the end of President Felipe Calderon's six-year term in office, an informant sent me a list. It was a data file, whose contents at that time had not been made public.
As I opened the document on my computer, a cold shudder ran down my back. I could not believe what I was seeing: a list of names of all the missing persons from 2007 until July 2012, which the outgoing government had swept under the carpet. There were more than 20,000 victims in all. Another document, also from the government, mentioned of a total of 25,276 victims.
The informant knew that the list was supposed to have been destroyed. He sent a copy to me, to The New York Times, and to The Los Angeles Times. I published the list in a Mexican weekly magazine.
In order to hide the primary victims of the war against the "Narcos," as Calderon referred to drug cartel members, the government maintained that the victims were criminals, who one might say had deserved to die. They kept the list secret, not only because it would draw international attention, but also because it would have destroyed the legend of the "Narcos" and the "villains" killing each other.
The list included the name of the victim, the place where the victim vanished, the name of the family member who informed the authorities of the incident, their telephone number and in some cases the circumstances of the disappearance. I read one case after another:
- Number 16: On December 23, 2010, 13-year-old Juana Berenice Chavez disappeared in Irapuato, Guanajuato.
- Number 15: Paula Carina Garcia Ortega, 15 years old, disappeared in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.
- Numbers 777 and 779: on January 26, 2011 in Tlaltizapan, Morelos. "Four armed gunmen have taken three persons, including two minors." That's how the circumstances were described. They were Joel Martinez Perez, four years old, and Dulce Ivette Cardenas, 16 years old.
- Number 12,565: On September 15, 2011, 15-year-old Hokusai Kendy Mejia Martinez disappeared in Oaxaca, Oaxaca. The last sign of life was a telephone call with her sister. She said she was stopped at a police control point and asked to show her identity documents.
- Number 769: Disappeared on January 23, 2011 in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, after a joint operation by the local, state and federal police. Noel Jurado Duarte was 17 years old.
- Number 753: On January 18, 2011 in Mazatlan, Sinaloa at a crossroads, 13-year-old Sergio N. was kidnapped.
Although the number of missing people has long been rising in the country, the Mexican government did not pass a law until September 2011 requiring all 32 federal states to adhere to universal criteria for the registration of "non-localized" persons. And yes, a significant number of the listed persons, who disappeared in Mexico on highways, at road blocks, in their homes or on the sidewalk, were children and youths.
The existence of the list was disputed for several weeks by the then-new government of President Enrique Pena Nieto. At the end of 2013, the authorities admitted that there was such a list. During Pena Nieto's time in office, the list was institutionalized and the government was obliged to update and publish it on a regular basis. Cases of missing persons and disappearances were differentiated. In the case of disappearances the victim is violently kidnapped and the legal circumstances are completely different when compared to those referring to missing persons.
The most recent official statistics from the Mexican Secretariat of Public Security showed that from 2007 until April 2018 a total of 8,195 children and youths disappeared in the country. That is 682 per year, nearly two per day. Of the 37,435 people kidnapped during this same timeframe, roughly a quarter were children and youths. According to official government sources, 27,173 people under the age of 19 were murdered in that roughly 12-year period. That is 2,264 per year, or six per day.
There has been a significant spike in violence in Mexico since 2006. Above all, it's because civil servants and authorities at the highest levels of government became accomplices of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, and helped it reduce the influence of other drug cartels. This was the catalyst for the war between the cartels.
No peace is possible as long as children and youths are used as cannon fodder for a war waged by adults. The violence Mexico has experienced during the last 12 years is unprecedented.
Journalist and author Anabel Hernandez has reported for many years about drug cartels and corruption in Mexico. Following murder threats she was forced to leave Mexico and has lived in Europe since then. She was awarded the Freedom of Speech Award at the 2019 DW Global Media Forum in Bonn.