Crimes Go Unpunished In Mexico Every Day — How Do You Get More People To Care?

By Jorge Valencia
Published: Friday, December 6, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, December 6, 2019 - 8:12am

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Thousands marched on Mexico City’s central square on September 26, demanding answers into the investigation of 43 college students who vanished from the southern state of Guerrero
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Thousands marched on Mexico City’s central square on Sept. 26, 2019, demanding answers into the investigation of 43 college students who vanished from the southern state of Guerrero five years earlier.

Major cases of crimes that have gone unpunished are, in the United States, common enough to occasionally make headlines: In 2014, the Obama administration said it would not pursue charges after an U.S. Senate committee documented the CIA’s post-Sept. 11 torture of terrorism suspects. And in 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union documented the U.S. Border Patrol’s practice to “stop and frisk” border residents. 

In Mexico, though, government and criminal impunity has become so ubiquitous during the country’s decade-long war on drug cartels that unpunished crimes make headlines on a daily basis, and many people have begun seeing them as a fact of life. 

That seeming indifference is the target of a recent study led by two Mexican policy analysts who study human rights violations in their country. Paty de Obeso, a consultant, saw organized crime rattle her hometown of Monterrey during the beginning of the drug war, and Alejandro Anaya, a political science professor at the ITESO University in Guadalajara, first saw the human rights violations of migrants while he was doing field work in southern Mexico in the 1990s. 

In 2017, de Obeso and Anaya began a project they hoped would draw renewed interest on an issue they see at the heart of many of Mexico’s ailments: a lack of accountability. Multiple studies have found that as violence has increased in Mexico since the beginning of the drug war in 2007, more than 98 percent of crimes have gone unpunished. 

"The justice system in general in Mexico doesn't work,” Anaya said. “It doesn't work for regular crime, and it doesn't work for human rights violations, either.”

Anaya and de Obeso set out to quantify the economic costs of the country’s near-perfect rate of impunity, hoping that attaching money figures to the problem would get the attention of government and business leaders. 

“If we talk in terms of economic costs, more people are interested than if we only talk in terms of the suffering of people,” Anaya said. “That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.”

Sonoran Searchers
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
The Guerreras Buscadoras said the Lord's Prayer before starting their search for missing loved ones in Hermosillo.

Anaya and de Obeso partnered with social scientists, including economist Eva Arceo Gómez, who calculated the economic cost of unpunished crime estimating the lost wages of people who were reported killed or forcibly disappeared in a seven-year period. The conclusion: Impunity costs Mexican society more than $20 billion in lost economic activity every year, or about 0.5% of the country’s gross domestic product. 

Meanwhile, another section of the study looked at the relationship between impunity and the recurrence of crime. It concludes that if the rate of homicide convictions increased by one percent every year, it would represent a reduction of about 10 fewer forced disappearances every year. 

“When you put into perspective how much it’s costing and how you can invest that money into solving other issues in the country, then maybe people will pay more attention,” de Obeso said. “Maybe more people will be interested in learning how to fight impunity.” 

The economic figures grabbed headlines when the report was published in October, though not everyone believes it’s best to view crime through the lens of impunity. Patricio Estevez Soto, a native of Arizona’s border state of Sonora, is completing a doctorate in crime science at University College London and says many factors make it difficult for authorities in any country to follow up on all crimes. Estevez Soto, instead, proposes approaches to, for example, improve local police’s ability to use crime statistics. 

"I'm not sure if it would be desirable, or even possible to have a society where every single crime goes punished or prosecuted," Estevez Soto said. “I think the main goal should be to reduce crime itself, rather than simply reduce the impunity of those who commit crime."

Maria Isela Valdez Chaidez kneels before President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and asks for help finding her missing son.
Office of the President, Mexico
Maria Isela Valdez Chaidez, whose son was kidnapped from their home across the border from McAllen, Texas, kneels before President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a public hearing in June, asking for help finding her son.

In the immediate, a discussion on the best ways to reduce crime and human rights violations is of little consolation to Mexico’s victims and survivors. Maria Isela Valdez Chaidez, whose then-28-year-old son was kidnapped in 2014 from their family home across the border from McAllen, Texas, knelt before President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a public hearing in June, and asked him for help finding her son. (Lopez Obrador told her he would, she said.) 

Valdez Chaidez has led search parties along with other women whose spouses or relatives have gone missing from their home state of Tamaulipas. In 2018, they found a mass grave in the town of Miguel Aleman, less than 20 miles from Laredo, Texas. They found more than 500 bodies and reported them, but local authorities have yet to figure out their identities, she said. 

The search party spent about $10,000 on the search, Valdez Chaidez said. After her son was kidnapped, she said, she was fearful the people who kidnapped her son would return to take her as well, so she fled her hometown for the relative safety of Mexico City. She said the real cost of impunity is something that no amount of money can fix. 

“You lose your home, your business, your life plan. You’re in danger, and the authorities won’t listen to you,” she said. “More importantly, my son is still kidnapped. He is still in the hands of delinquents.”

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