Mexico: Protect human rights activists working against enforced disappearances


Mexico must do more to engage families, protect activists and allow peaceful protests regarding enforced disappearances in the country, says ISHR after meeting with human rights defenders in Geneva

(Versión en español aquí) (Geneva)- In the context of last week’s first review of Mexico before the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED), ISHR and other Geneva based organisations met with Mexican NGO Tlachinollan and families of victims of enforced disappearances who travelled to Europe to make formal accusations against the Mexican government for its handling of the case related to 43 disappeared students in Iguala (Guerrero). Human rights defenders reminded the CED, in its first special two-day hearing about Mexico, that this case comes in the context of 23,000 other reported cases in the country. 

During the meeting, parents of the victims emphasised the on-going repression and risks faced by activists working on and protesting against enforced disappearances all over the country, as well as the defamation[1] many of them face due to misleading or false governmental declarations.

‘It is apparent that rather than ensuring a strong level of dialogue for families, protection for human rights defenders and safe spaces for protests, the Mexican authorities have been insensitive in their attention to victims, have failed to respond to threats against activists and have been heavy-handed in their policing’, said Ben Leather, Advocacy and Communications Manager at ISHR. ‘Enforced disappearances represent a nationwide human rights crisis yet this response appears to be equally widespread and on-going’.

For instance, last July members of victims group “Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos de México” (Fundem) denounced that masked policeman in Queretaro confronted peaceful demonstrators in a march against enforced disappearances, injuring and threatening people.[2] 

In November eleven demonstrators were detained and charged with felonies in a major march held in Mexico City. All of them have testified to have been poorly treated - some even tortured - and sent to high-security prisons, limiting their possibility to contact families or attorneys.[3] They were only released nine days after, when charges where dropped due to the lack of evidence.[4]

In December, family members and colleagues of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Guerrero were allegedly attacked by drunken federal police officers while preparing the “Light in the Darkness” concert. According to eyewitnesses, the police arrived at the location where family members and students were working and verbally assaulted them, pointed firearms at them, threw rocks and other objects and sprayed them with tear gas. The police left hours later, having caused injuries to a number of persons present.[5] ‘What happened here if proof that the federal government is trying to silence the voices of families and people peacefully protesting for the missing students’, said one of the parents during the concert.[6] Last month, colleagues of the disappeared students alleged fresh abuses by federal police who intervened to prevent protesters from occupying a roadside tollbooth.[7]

During the same month, newspaper Reporte Indigo published an article based on leaked information suggesting that Mexican State intelligence agency CISEN had the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center under surveillance, had alleged that the centre has links with ‘subversive groups’ and considers their internationally respected staff, Abel Barrera and Vidulfo Rosales, to be ‘radical and dangerous to the governability’ of the country.[8] Furthermore, interim Guerrero Governor, Rogelio Ortega, has made public statements questioning the legitimacy of the organisation, which has previously won awards from Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center, amongst others.[9]

In the same context of defamation, on December 10, the Secretary of the Marines (SEMAR), Vidal Francisco Soberón stated during a public interview that the organisations that accompany the family members of the disappeared in Ayotzinapa are manipulating them and seek benefits for themselves in order to reach their own objectives.[10]

Moreover, in last week’s meeting, Hilda Legideño and Bernabé Abraján, - whose sons are amongst the 43 disappeared students - told ISHR that the fact that the Mexican authorities have failed to implement the commitments to a regular high-level dialogue, agreed with President Peña Nieto last October, has left them with no option but to continue protesting. However the response, they say, has been to repress those protests and to misinform through the press. ‘We ask them to find our children, but they just send us more police, more army and more riot squads’, said Ms Legideño.

The problem is not limited to this case. Peace Brigades International (PBI) has previously documented how victims and activists have suffered re-victimisation, harassment and mistreatment by the authorities who ought to be searching for their loved ones,[11] whilst human rights defenders supporting the families of enforced disappearance victims have faced physical attacks and threats, as well as surveillance and raids by the security forces.[12]

The CED’s session coincided with the release of a new document demonstrating the range of problems with the implementation of Mexico’s Protection Mechanism for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders.[13] ‘The passing of the Mexican law represented a huge step towards the legal protection of defenders, emblematic internationally’, said Mr Leather. ‘Yet almost three years on from its approval it is high time the Mexican State guaranteed the Protection Mechanism has the resources, capacity, coordination and transparency to function in practise’.

In response to the allegations by defenders working on enforced disappearances, ISHR demands that federal and state authorities take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of those protesting and working around the issue. ISHR also urges the authorities to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of the family members of the disappeared students, thus permitting them to continue with their search for justice and fight against impunity.

For more information, contact Ben Leather, +41787794859,

Photo: Sofia Gonzalez, flickr



  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Human rights defenders
  • NGOs
  • United Nations
  • Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED)
  • UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies
  • Mexico