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Enforced Disappearances: A Pending Challenge for Latin-American Democracies

By Juliana Cano Nieto*

Latin America will always be remembered by the thousands of enforced disappearances that took place during the military dictatorships in the 60s and through the mid-80s. At the time, it was the preferred method for political control used by military dictatorships in Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Twenty years after the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) and the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons (CIDFP), it is unthinkable that governments, many whom call themselves democratic, continue to use one the most serious human rights violations against those who dare to dissent.

Under both treaties, the elements of an enforced disappearance include: i) a lawful or unlawful deprivation of liberty; ii) the direct intervention of state agents or their acquiescence or tolerance of the acts; and iii) the refusal to acknowledge that the detention took place or to reveal the situation or the whereabouts of the person (Art. 2, ICPPED and CIDFP).

The latest episodes of enforced disappearances by state agents in Latin America run through the region. They include instances of repression in the context of political upheaval, but also repression in the context of COVID-19. Disappearances carried out by non-state actors have also become a day-to-day problem. Both have one thing in common, the lack of truth and justice for family and friends.

Since the beginning of the human rights crisis in Nicaragua in April 2018 human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents, and victims of human rights violations and their families have been imprisoned and harassed. In the light of upcoming elections in the country, the government of Daniel Ortega has pursued a new phase of its repressive strategy detaining people, concealing their whereabouts, and holding them incommunicado to the point of constituting enforced disappearance. This is exactly what happened to defender Víctor Hugo Tinoco in Nicaragua. Amnesty International reported that Tinoco was in the parking place of a city shopping centre when 10 people wearing National Police uniforms and balaclavas in a private vehicle violently detained him without showing an arrest warrant. Despite a number of petitions filed to ascertain his whereabouts, they remain unknown.

Similarly, in the wake of peaceful demonstrations across Cuba in July 2021, authorities under the leadership of President Díaz-Canel used repression and criminalization against those seeking freedom and liberty. In the specific case of José Daniel Ferrer García, an activist and leader of the unofficial political opposition group “Patriotic Union of Cuba,” this amounted to enforced disappearance. On 11 July, José Daniel tried to attend the demonstrations in Santiago de Cuba with his son. Law enforcement officials stopped him detained him and his son. Since then, his family has been unable to communicate with him and there is no formal record of his whereabouts. This practice is common in Cuba.

Following suit in silencing those who speak out, the Venezuelan government continues to target political opponents, independent journalists, human rights defenders and activists. The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela created by the UN Human Rights Council to assess alleged human rights violations committed in this country since 2014 found in its 2020 report, that the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service and the Directorate General of Military Counter-intelligence government routinely arbitrarily detained people based on their political affiliation, views, and opinions and enforcedly disappeared them. Their whereabouts remained unknown for periods that ranged from a few days to several weeks. During that time many were tortured or ill-treated.

Earlier in the beginning of the pandemic, 22-year old Facundo Astudillo Castro also went missing in Argentina. Police officers detained him in April 2020 accusing him of violating the mandatory confinement imposed by the national government due to COVID-19. He remained missing until a few months later when an independent forensic team positively identified his body. A year later Facundo’s family is still searching for justice.

The above are but a few examples of the continuous practice in Latin America of using enforced disappearances to repress, exercise control, and foster fear regardless of the country’s political context.

Leading by example

Given the lack of response by the State in cases like the ones mentioned above, families of those gone missing have taken to advocating for justice and finding truth on their own. It has been their perseverance that has managed to change laws, identify bodies, and move governments to take action.

The organizing of families of the disappeared in Colombia during its long-lived internal armed conflict has led to the creation of a robust institutional framework and public policies that today aim to find justice for more than 120,000 victims and their families. These collectives became even more active in light of the Democratic Security Policy in the early 2000s. This policy contemplated granting benefits and privileges for military personnel who reported deaths of members of guerrilla groups. In fact, many of the reported deaths were not guerilla members, but rather young, marginalized men. This came to be known as 'false positives'. As a response, a number of organizations, such as Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad y la Justicia, took to the streets to stand up against the military operations taking place in Medellin and 13 years later continue to lead their fight for truth and justice.

In 2005, following the demobilization of paramilitary forces, other groups came together for the disappeared. The Movimiento de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado (MOVICE) was born that year and today it brings together more than 280 organizations, including those of enforced disappearances. During the peace negotiations in 2016, it was thanks to these and others that the Colombian government created the Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Dadas por Desaparecidas (UBPD) which started to operate in 2018. Today, this unit has the mandate to find those that have gone missing.

In Mexico, the National Commission for Missing Persons states that there are currently 82,667 registered disappeared persons, 68,267 are men. Families of missing persons began to organize in the northern part of the country around 2009. They were led by women, despite the structural inequalities that many of them had to grapple with and the interrelated economic, social and psychological harms. Since then, women within the movements have become stronger and more present in collectives such as the Movimiento por Nuestros desaparecidos en México, which brings together more than 60 family collectives across the country.

Women collectives have gained ground and support, but they are not devoid of danger. They enter into land controlled by illegal armed groups or organized crime, making them more vulnerable to gender-based violence. In some regions raising one's voice is also standing up to traditional gender roles and can bring with it stigma. Despite this, they continue to organize their own searches. In 2019, the Red de Enlazos Nacionales brought together over 200 family members in the IV Brigada Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas. New collectives continue to pop up. Most recently, family members created on in Quintana Roo.

Despite the efforts of collectives, organizations, and movements in denouncing enforced disappearances or looking for their missing family members across Latin America, one thing is true above the rest: as long as these cases go unpunished this phenomenon will continue even in countries that call themselves democracies.

*Juliana Cano Nieto is a lawyer and human rights activist.

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