Today, August 30th, is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. My summer in Tenosique, Tabasco, México has illuminated the abhorrent nature of these atrocities committed against people all over the world. The United Nations defines the disappeared as “persons (who) are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law” (Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).
These enforced disappearances target various groups but they disproportionately affect those who are poor and vulnerable, whether Central American migrants, Syrian refugees, LGBT, Filipino suspected drug traffickers, or human rights advocates who dare to challenge injustice and oppression. These disappearances are a major human rights violation and point to a systemic violence that is levied on those who are the most vulnerable among us.
The nature of global migration today means that individuals and families become separated from their loved ones because of violence, crime, poverty, political, social, and economic oppression, and a whole slew of other reasons. Those who are left behind, or those who await with baited breath the arrival of loved ones often have no means or recourse to determine the location or safety of migrants and refugees during their journey. The danger and risks of the migration journey often ends in death or tragedy, especially when those who are migrating encounter brutality and violence at the hands of organized criminals, drug cartels, and even state governments and police.
Perhaps the most glaring examples of these disappearances were the mass murder of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, México in 2010 and the kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, Guerrero, México on September 26, 2014. The 72 migrants who disappeared in San Fernando were killed by the Los Zetas drug cartel when they refused to work or pay their ransom, while the 43 teachers were kidnapped in Guerrero with the complicity of Mexican police and military personnel. To date, they have not been found.
My work this summer with the team, volunteers, and migrants of La72 – Hogar y Refugio Para Personas Migrantes alerted me to the cries of those who have been disappeared, los desaparecidos. In fact, the chapel at La72 is littered with 72 wooden crosses representing the migrants who were disappeared in San Fernando. In the center of the chapel hangs a large San Damiano crucifix, but rather than a Romanesque Christ surrounded by saints, we are given a glimpse of the mangled feet and bound hands of the anonymous los desaparecidos. Their silenced voices, mouths gagged, cry out, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading!”
And yet, despite the news we often hear coming from Mexico and Central America, enforced disappearances are not solely a Latin American problem. These crimes occur all over the world. For instance, in the United States, individuals are “disappeared” in subtle but devastatingly effective ways. The mass incarceration of Black men places people of color behind bars at unconscionable rates and tear families apart, depriving children of fathers and brothers. Immigrant families live in fear of being disappeared from their communities in the next ICE raid, of being held in detention centers without recourse to aid or options to stay in the country that they have called home.
“Enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole” (Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s war of drugs is an easy excuse for the government to torture, coerce, and kill – in other words to “disappear” – with impunity. These extra judicial killings target the poor, those who need assistance rather than violence. They respond to a valid social concern, not with compassion and effective, lasting change, but with fear and viciousness. Duterte’s enforced disappearances cloak criminality, violence, and murder with a false understanding of justice and social concern.
As Franciscans, as Catholics, as Christians, as human beings, we are called to respect the sanctity of all life, the inherent dignity of the whole human person, and the rights of all people to a life of peace and security. The enforced disappearances that occur all over the world are a violent affront to our shared humanity, which is rooted in the presence and love of the Divine within all. After the disappearance of the 43 teachers of Ayotzinapa, people have pleaded, “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos.” They were taken alive, we want them back alive. May God hear our prayer.
For more information on Enforced Disappearances, please visit the United Nations’ website and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the links below: