Mexico's Forgotten Disappeared--The Victims of the Border Narco Bloodbath (1)
- FNS: Mexico's Forgotten Disappeared--The Victims of the Border Narco
Bloodbath (Part I)
Date: 3/3/2004 9:46:00 AM Pacific Standard Time
This month's two-part feature article has a gruesome title but with 16,000
killings alone in Sinaloa over the past two decades and thousands more in
other states that are joined by the border dynamic of supplying illegal
drugs to the US at any human cost, the notion of a bloodbath is not an
Added to the horror of tens of thousands of lost lives is how the drug
murders and violence of the past twenty years are linked to a previous cycle
of political violence in Mexico during the 1960s and 70s. During that time
so-called Dirty Warriors abducted, tortured and murdered Mexican citizens
that were calling for political reform and economic justice. Today, some of
these same human rights abusers have taken their sick talents into Mexico's
A topic that FNS has been following closely for years--the serial
rape-murders of young women at the border--also relates to this
drug/political violence as law-enforcement officers related to some
investigations of the women's slayings are now themselves suspects in
kidnapping and drug rings. Indeed, many victims' families have been saying
for years that police must be involved with the crimes at some level because
of the impunity that the rapist-murderers have enjoyed for over a decade.
Reading about this type of violence is never pleasant but perhaps increased
awareness of the conflation of drug, political and gender crimes in Mexico
can help lead to the reform and police cleanups that Mexico's attorney
general and president have themselves stated to be of the highest importance
for the nation.
Mexico's Forgotten Disappeared: The Victims of the Border Narco Bloodbath
by Mark Getty
Ciudad Juárez's endemic violence generated new world headlines in late
January 2004 when federal Mexican police recovered the bodies of 12 tortured
and murdered men from a "narco grave". In a stunning declaration, Santiago
Vasconcelos, the head of the federal anti-organized crime unit known as
SIEDO announced that members of the Chihuahua State Judicial Police (PJE)
had carried out the forced disappearances and executions of the victims at
the behest of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel.
Calling the revelations "extremely serious", Vasconcelos pledged to combat
drug-related police corruption. Thirteen PJE agents were arrested, four
more are wanted (including a regional PJE commander) and ten city police
officers have not reported to work since the day excavations began in search
of bodies. Other unit commanders have also resigned rather than face
investigations by Internal Affairs.
Not lost on anyone in Cd. Juárez is the fact that the PJE is the same police
agency charged with investigating murders and kidnappings throughout the
state as well as the sex-related serial slayings of young women in that
Unearthed Bodies: Solace for Some, More Agonizing Questions for Others
Located in the backyard of a home in a normally quiet residential
subdivision, the macabre unearthing of the clandestine cemetery drew dozens
of anguished people from as far away as Torreón, Coahuila. These people
were searching for loved ones who had earlier vanished into the cracks of
the border city's streets.
One weeping woman, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals,
described the pained uncertainty of not knowing for two months the fate of
her nephew. "We found out through the news that they had found these
bodies," she said while waiting outside the death house situated just off
Ciudad Juárez's busy Tecnológico Avenue. "We still had hope that he wasn't
one of them but we had to identify [the bodies] and he was one of them."
In Cd. Juárez, many still wonder what really happened to their missing
relatives. Just ask Professor Ernesto Ontiveros, who still holds out hope
his son will turn up alive. Abducted in 1996 in Cd. Juárez, Victor Hugo
Ontiveros was a former Mexican Army lieutenant who was working as a firearms
instructor for the PJE when he was stopped by several carloads of gun-toting
men and whisked away into the darkness. He has not been seen since then.
"If you have a dead loved one you can go with flowers and speak with that
person," says Ontiveros. "But with a disappeared person you can't do that."
On the US-Mexico border, where powerful drug cartels hold sway, the retired
schoolteacher's words resonate a bitter echo. During the last 10 years,
hundreds of people from Tijuana to Matamoros have been forcibly carted off
by heavily armed men sometimes sporting police insignias and uniforms. They
are the victims of a style of violence known in border lingo as the
"levantón," which could be literally translated as the "lift" or "pickup."
Occasionally the "levantados" turn up murdered baring signs of torture but
frequently they are transformed into memories of agony for distraught
The International Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared
El Paso accountant Jaime Hervella, whose godson Saul Sanchez Jr. disappeared
in 1994, helped found the International Association of Relatives and
Friends of Disappeared Persons (AFAPD) in 1997, a group which attracted
Ontiveros and others to its ranks. The binational organization has lobbied
Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials, passed out leaflets at the El
Paso airport and international bridges and conducted vigils in an effort to
keep the memory of the disappeared alive. While AFAPD members concede that
many of the disappeared on AFAPD's list were probably involved in criminal
enterprises, they insist that others were simply in the wrong place at the
wrong time, or knew too much about organized crime. Hervella is quick to
add that everyone has a human right not to be subjected to forced
AFAPD maintains a list of 196 disappeared persons, mostly men but a few
women too, who disappeared into the lethal fissures of Cd. Juárez.
According to Hervella, the FBI has identified 32 of the victims as being
U.S. citizens. AFAPD members say that the actual number of disappeared in
Cd. Juárez is higher but many people are frightened to report cases to the
authorities. Estimates of Cd. Juárez's disappeared surpass 700 individuals
if both men and women are counted. One group of the disappeared includes 12
men and women who are still missing in Chihuahua state from the so-called
Dirty War of the 1970s, when the Mexican government employed brute force to
stamp out both armed and peaceful opposition.
Not mincing his words, Hervella vents frustration at the lack of media
cooperation in Cd. Juárez in publicizing the cases of disappeared men, and
expresses irritation at what he describes as an exclusive national and
international focus on the cases of young women and girls who have been
victims of sex crimes. "What the hell are you telling me, human rights have
an age, a sex?" questions Hervella.
Retired school teacher Ontiveros, who belongs to Hervella's group and also
serves as the national president of the Relatives Association of the
Disappeared, Political Detainees and Victims of Human Rights Violations
(AFADEM), says he would like to see the movements around the disappeared men
and murdered women converge in 2004.
"It's great that the international organizations are pressuring the
government to give a high priority to the cases of murdered women. This is
correct, we are not against it," he says. "Let our cases be known in the
United Nations, in Switzerland, and representatives from many countries
should come here to apply strong pressure on Mexico."
Hervella and Ontiveros trace the upsurge in border disappearances to 1993,
the first year of the administration of Chihuahua Governor Francisco Barrio.
Incidentally, 1993 is the also the first year that the mass rape-serial
murders of young women in Cd. Juárez became widely publicized. But Judith
Galarza, a former Cd. Juárez resident and current director of the
Venezula-based Latin American Federation of Relatives Associations of
Disappeared Persons (FEDAFEM), reports similar sex-related killings in the
border city occurring in earlier years.
In any event, 1993 was a milestone year, which featured Amado Carrillo
Fuentes taking over the reigns of power in the Cd. Juárez drug organization
after eliminating its former boss, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, and setting off
the city's worst and ongoing bout of criminal violence. Soon victims were
being gunned down in restaurants and bars and disappeared from public
streets, private businesses and homes.
Narco-slayings dipped briefly in 1999 ( the same year women's serial murders
reportedly declined ) after a new governor, Patricio Martínez, took office.
However the number of killings climbed again in 2000 (as did women's murders
and disappearances) to reach record levels by 2001. In that year a new PJE
squad, Grupo Zeus, was created to ostensibly investigate killings and
disappearances by organized crime. Also after 2000, the murder of men as
well as the serial killing of young women and girls spread from Cd. Juárez
to other parts of Chihuahua.
A Border-wide Bloodbath
Along the border, violence is damaging communities as crime-syndicate purges
and gangland retaliations swirl around a multi-billion dollar per year drug
Alma Díaz, the coordinator in Calexico and Mexicali for the three-year-old,
non-governmental Esperanza Association, has knocked on many doors to learn
the fate of her son Erick Díaz. Then 20-years old, Erick Díaz vanished from
Mexicali on June 7, 1995 after leaving a party attended by policemen. The
young man left behind two children, a girl and a boy, now 11 and 9 years
old, who wonder what happened to their dad. "It's very sad when they ask,"
Díaz's journey mirrors those of people with a similar predicament in Cd.
Juárez. Criticizing a lack of official interest, Díaz says that family
members have become investigators themselves while being forced to cope with
children left behind by a vanished parent or parents.
The activist says that her organization has formally documented 140 cases of
disappeared people-mainly men but women too-in Sinaloa and Baja California.
However, she estimates that as many as 800 people might be missing from Baja
California. As in Cd. Juárez, the wave of disappearances in Díaz's locale
commenced in 1993, with Jose Luis Avalos being the first missing man
documented by the Esperanza Association.
Nuevo Laredo: Another Flashpoint of Narco-killings and Disappearances
Once a sleepy town, Nuevo Laredo is a place where caravans of armed men
speed off with kidnapping victims, where automatic weapons crackle in broad
daylight, and where assassins utter insults and death threats over police
radio frequencies. Emerging in the wake of the North American Free Trade
Agreement as the largest entry point into the United States for
Mexican-produced goods, the growing city of about 320,000 people is the
vaunted prize for competing drug cartels from throughout Mexico.
In late 2001, PGR official Santiago Vasconcelos, declared that the arrests
of 16 Gulf Cartel members had delivered a "heavy blow" to the narcotics
syndicate. Instead, things were only starting to heat up.
Press reports compiled by CEFPRODHAC, a non-governmental human-rights
organization in Reynosa, list 479 murder victims of narco-violence in 10
Tamaulipas municipalities from 1993 to 2001. In 2002, 93 narco-related
kidnappings were reported in the state and 67 of the victims are still
In 2003, CEFPRODHAC reported 189 people, including 14 women, kidnapped in
the same 10 Tamaulipas municipalities-more than double the previous year's
number. 150 of the victims were tallied in the main battleground of Nuevo
Laredo alone, a figure that represented nearly a 400 percent increase over
the toll of 2002. For the first month of 2004, CEFPRODHAC documented 11
cases of forced disappearances.
The frequency of "levantones" in Nuevo Laredo shot up after the arrival of
federal officers from the Agency for Federal Investigations (AFI) in
mid-2003, some of whom have been accused by some family members of missing
men as being behind their detentions and disappearances.
In early 2003, violence also affected the U.S. side of the border. Masked
gunmen invaded homes in Texas' Rio Grande Valley and murdered several men.
In the small town of Mercedes, Texas gang members sprayed with automatic
gunfire a car carrying 5 "ficheras" (barwomen who sell their company for
drinks), killing four and wounding one. To cap it off, former Mexican
federal police chief Guillermo Calderoni was shot dead point-blank in
McAllen. No one has been arrested for his murder.
Violence has also increasingly unhinged the neighboring state of Nuevo León.
The bodies of nine severely tortured men were found there in early 2003
after the men were kidnapped from nearby Nuevo Laredo. A January 2004 gun
battle between poorly-armed rural police and presumed, well-armed narcos
left three dead and at least ten wounded in the town of Anahuac.
Blamed for much of the bloodletting in both Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon is a
well-organized, sophisticated death squad in the service of the Gulf Cartel
called Los Zetas. Los Zetas is formed in part by deserters from the Mexican
Army's Airmobile Special Forces Group (GAFE)--some of whom received training
at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. The group is also
reputed to threaten protection money out of junkyards, used-car dealerships
and prostitution-linked businesses including nightclubs, massage parlors and
The Cold, Hard Numbers: 16,000 in Sinaloa alone over Two Decades
To roughly gauge the scope of narco-violence in the border region, it is
perhaps useful to compare the killing with armed conflicts in other parts of
the world. In Chiapas, about 150 people died during the 1994 Zapatista
uprising. More than 600 U.S. soldiers have died so far in Iraq and
Afghanistan. From 1969 to 2003, approximately 3,348 died in Northern
Ireland's political troubles.
In contrast, 790 murders-many of them drug-related-were reported in Tijuana
from 2000-2002; official Chihuahua state government figures reported in the
Cd. Juárez's El Diario newspaper registered a total of about 343
narco-murders in Cd. Juárez from 1995 to the end of 2003. In Sinaloa state,
the birthplace of important border cartels, the press has reported close to
16,000 murders from 1980 to July 2002. During the first three weeks of
2004 alone, 45 murders were registered in the conflictive state, a place
where rival bands of gunmen kill for control of the drug-producing Sierra.
Analysts who 10 years ago once warned about the "Colombianization" of Mexico
now appear to have been not far off the mark. From secure mountain
strongholds in the interior to the coveted distribution points on the
border, armed gangs possessing assault rifles, grenade launchers and
bazookas, wage war with each other, police forces sometimes in the employ of
rivals, and the Mexican Army.
Federal Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha rejects notions that the
power of the drug cartels has surpassed that held by the Mexican state.
President Fox's top cop attributes the upsurge in narco-violence to the
break-up of mega-cartels into a plethora of desperate mini-syndicates
engaged in a no-holds-barred territorial slugfest.
Macedo de la Concha's office also points to recent, large cocaine seizures
and the detention of a Sinaloa marijuana kingpin as evidence that the
authorities are making progress in their drug war. Nonetheless, control over
wide swaths of the nation is up for grabs in a multi-fronted war that casts
regional caciques, drug kingpins, and corrupt policemen and prosecutors in a
bloody conflict that shows no signs of abating.
END PART ONE
Greg Bloom, Outreach Coordinator
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico
Email address: gbloom@...
Phone: (505) 646-6817
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