Mexican Disappearance, U.S. Incarceration

Dawn Marie Paley

Where jobs vanish, the drug war follows.

In the early hours of March 28, 2018, Mexican Marines broke the lock on the door of the house where Jéssica Molina Rodríguez was sleeping together with her husband, José Daniel Trejo Garcia. The Marines forcibly detained Trejo Garcia along with a friend of the couple who had traveled from Oaxaca and was resting with them before crossing to the United States. In an interview with Mexican newspaper Milenio, Molina Rodríguez said she waited until morning and then searched for him at the police station and the Attorney General’s office, thinking that he had been detained for a crime. “They never said why they were taking him,” she told the newspaper. “They just took him from my house. We were surprised that we couldn’t find him anywhere and instead of paying bail, I ended up filing a report of enforced disappearance.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), between February and May 2018, Mexican state forces disappeared twenty-one people in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, often in the early morning hours. The Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee puts that number much higher, claiming to have documented fifty-one “enforced disappearances” by Mexican Marines over the same time period. In international law, enforced disappearance refers to situations where the state is either directly responsible for or complicit in disappearance. In the case of Mexico, separating disappearances from enforced disappearances is akin to splitting hairs. Regardless, the distinction is used by government officials to silo victims of the same crime into different categories.

Jan Jarab, who represents the OHCHR in Mexico, said last spring that the disappearances in Nuevo Laredo “are part of an immense universe of cases. We know the official registry of disappearances already has more than 35,000 cases . . . We don’t know, nobody knows, what percentage of disappearances are carried out by authorities and how many are carried out by individuals. But it’s a very big phenomenon.” The official number of disappeared, according to a January 2019 announcement, has risen to 40,180. Family and victims’ groups claim that the real number of disappeared could be six to nine times higher, since many do not come forward to report an enforced disappearance for fear of reprisals. Nor do the tallies properly measure non-Mexican migrants disappeared in Mexico, who are much more difficult to trace.

Too often in Mexico, we are told that the victims of disappearance deserved their fate, that they must have been involved in criminal activity. If the media or the state determine that the victims of a massacre or a disappearance are innocent, we’re told to believe that they were caught in the crossfire, that there was confusion that led to their killing, or that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. These interpretive approaches to violence in Mexico categorize victims of violence as either deserving or undeserving, depoliticizing killings and disappearances, even when they occur on a massive scale.

Sometimes, as in Nuevo Laredo, eyewitness testimony implicates state security forces. But state responsibility for disappearance doesn’t end if paramilitary groups or other individuals were the direct perpetrators. “While the police use guns, patrol vehicles, roads, radios, mobile phones and other tools to disappear people, the legal administrators of forced disappearance employ computers, the mass media, government office space, public funds, laboratories, maps, graphs, texts and all manner of legal documents to do the same,” as John Gibler points out in the afterword to his book I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us.

The literature on enforced disappearance in the Americas is vast. The disappearance of forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero in September 2014, and the grassroots efforts to find them (or their remains) inspired dozens of local, victim-led collectives to begin
their own searches for the disappeared. That same fall, I began a PhD program at the Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico; my initial dissertation proposal involved researching clandestine mass graves. Instead, I ended up searching for human remains with Grupo VI.D.A. (Victims for our Rights in Action Group).

Grupo VI.D.A. is an autonomous collective, mostly comprising parents of disappeared children, who began land searches in the Laguna region (spreading across parts of the northern Mexican states of Coahuila and Durango) in early 2015. In addition to walking with Grupo VI.D.A, I read intensively on disappearance, especially its use in Latin America during the twentieth century.

Eventually, two broad types stood out to me: Cold War disappearance and neoliberal disappearance. Cold War disappearance, as practiced by military juntas and dictatorships in the Southern Cone and Central America (and some formal democracies, as in Mexico and Colombia) was a form of political terror against activists, those deemed insurgents, and their networks, perpetrated by state forces or associated death squads. Guatemalan sociologist Carlos Figueroa Ibarra describes the three main functions of disappearance during this period (from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s) as aimed at attaining “information, liquidation and intimidation” of political opponents or those labelled subversives.

In Argentina, for example — where the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, an organization of mothers of the disappeared, claims thirty thousand people disappeared during the 1976–1983 military junta — there were six hundred clandestine prisons. In Pinochet’s Chile, there were more than a thousand detention camps, holding thirteen thousand people; three thousand people were disappeared according to a 2011 report. In Guatemala, security forces set up a complex intelligence system for the interrogation and torture of the disappeared. In these conflicts, the majority of those disappeared were union members, activists, Indigenous community members, members of leftist parties and guerrilla groups, or their associates and families.

Neoliberal disappearance in Mexico differs from the reign of enforced disappearance during the Cold War for various reasons. There are no known clandestine, state-run detention centers, though victims are often last seen entering military bases or police stations. The number of unidentified bodies, bone fragments, and clandestine graves discovered in Mexico indicates that many of the disappeared in Mexico appear to have been killed. Perpetrators include state forces as well as members of criminal groups and paramilitary organizations. And unlike during the Cold War, victims of neoliberal disappearance are not as a type involved in political organizing or connected to the left. Disappearance is depoliticized: direct victims are stigmatized by the state and the mass media through references to criminal involvement.

Those disappeared are often men, and young, but according to Mexican think tank Data Cívica, the key factor in disappearance in Mexico at present is geography: “50% of the people reported disappeared in the National Registry of Disappeared and Missing People were disappeared from 28 of 2,547 municipalities, and one out of three disappearances occurs in Tamaulipas or Guerrero.” Disappearance has mostly been stripped of the political character it possessed in previous conflicts, and is now applied en masse in specific regions of the country, often areas that are resource rich or located along the US–Mexico border.

The frenzy of disappearances, the criminalization of victims, the confusion of perpetrators, and the drumbeat of the drug war obscure the political nature of neoliberal disappearance. But if we look carefully, the widespread practice of disappearance in Mexico over the last thirteen years nonetheless tells a political story. To hear it, we need to recognize that disappearance in Mexico is intimately linked with the US-backed War on Drugs, and that there are striking similarities between the structure and function of disappearance in Mexico and War on Drugs–era incarceration in the United States.

The drug war in Mexico was declared at the end of 2006, following a year of heightened rebellion throughout the country: in the state of Oaxaca; in the village of Atenco in the state of Mexico; through the Zapatista-led Otra Campaña. There were massive protests against credible allegations of large-scale election fraud that sidelined then-candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and led to Félipe Calderón’s inauguration in December of that year. In the first ten days of his mandate, Calderón sent troops into the state of Michoacán under the premise of fighting organized crime. In other words, the militarization of Mexico in the mid-2000s came on the tails of a period of popular power. Comparably, in the US, writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “the exponential growth of imprisonment and the turn towards hyper-punitive prison terms began after the Black Power uprisings of the 1960s had ended.”

Anti-drugs programs have operated in Mexico since the 1970s. Why, then, the forty-year delay in the national-level application of the drug war
as a means of social control? For starters, the demographic and economic trajectories of Mexico and the United States in the late-twentieth century are entirely different.

Though the Mexican economy grew quickly alongside the US during the so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism” from 1945–1973 — the “Mexican Miracle,” locally — in the latter half of the century their paths diverged. The Mexican government continued to make ample use of Cold War strategies of repression against popular and revolutionary organizations until the 1990s, as documented by historian Alexander Aviña in Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. Further, out-migration from Mexico slowed the formation of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls, following Karl Marx, a “relative surplus population,” which in her words comprises “workers at the extreme edges, or completely outside, of restructured labor markets, stranded in urban and rural communities.” An abolitionist prison scholar, Gilmore’s landmark work, Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, details how the War on Drugs and the expanding prison industry was a response by the US state to a crisis of relative surplus population.

The War on Drugs in the United States is often described as a project of control over particular segments of the population, primarily Black, Indigenous and racialized communities. Angela Davis used the language of disappearance to describe the function of the prison system in US society when she wrote that prisons “do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” As she continues: “the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business.”

In order to grasp the extent of the prison system in the US, consider Marie Gottschalk’s observation that “more than eight million people — or one in 23 adults . . . are under some form of state control, including jail, prison, probation, parole, community sanctions, drug courts, immigrant detention, and other forms of government supervision.” By comparison, the Mexican penal system is skeletal. The total prison population in Mexico grew from around 75,000 prisoners in 1988 to about 250,000 in 2011. Last year the US incarceration rate was four times that of Mexico’s.

The Mexican state is, as yet, without the resources to erect and manage a sprawling, revenue-hungry prison complex. While new prisons are being built and a new bill threatens to further expand pretrial detainment, there is still not enough carceral infrastructure to imprison and exercise “state control” over as large a population as the US does. Mexican government spending on police, military, and prisons in 2016 was nearly nine times what it was in 2006, boosted by the Washington-backed Mérida Initiative. Nonetheless, Mexico isn’t even in the same league as the US when it comes to prison spending.


In Golden Gulag, Gilmore’s choice to concentrate on prisons in California is linked to the women-led resistance to prisons she encountered as an organizer. She points the way towards an application of her project to disappearance in Mexico and elsewhere when she compares the work of Mothers Reclaiming our Children in Los Angeles, an organization formed by the mothers of incarcerated Angeleno children and adults, to that of Argentina’s Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, formed by mothers of the disappeared in the 1980s.

Similarly vibrant organizations led by women, like Grupo VI.D.A., have appeared throughout Mexico, demanding the return of their children and transforming the search process into collective action. Apart from its location along the US–Mexico border, Coahuila state, where Grupo VI.D.A. operates, appears to have little in common with Gilmore’s California: it has less than 10 percent of the population, approximately one third the landmass, and a tiny economy. There are some parallels, however, between the rise and fall of the cotton and assembly industries in the Laguna region and the decimation of cotton farming in Kings County, California in the 1980s. In Gilmore, the collapse of the cotton industry prompted area leaders to turn to prison-building as a fix to the region’s problems; in the Laguna, collapse of industry in the 2000s lead to an analogous militarization of the region and a spike in disappearances.

The terminal crisis of cotton farming in Mexico’s Laguna region after WWII prompted a reconcentration of land and water rights by rich cattle ranchers. The ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, in 1994, punished the rural smallholders who remained, many of whom held collective title to the land, but did bring the region a surge in denim manufacturing (maquiladoras).

The moment of export-oriented manufacturing was extremely short-lived, however, as companies quickly took flight at the prospect of lower wages elsewhere. “120,000 jobs were created in the 1990s related to the maquila, and nearly all of those jobs were lost, the bottom fell out, only about 10,000 of them remained and they were very badly paid,” according to Daniel Gonzales, an economist I interviewed in Torreón in 2017. Unemployment runs high in the region, and over half of the economically active population works in the informal sector.

In the Laguna, the repressive neoliberal response by the state began in earnest in 2008, four years after the total collapse of the maquila sector. This is the crossroads at which Gilmore’s framing of prisons, as locations through which to control and discipline surplus populations ejected from the economy, lends a crucial insight into what is taking place in Mexico.

As mentioned, after the collapse of the maquiladoras, prison building and mass incarceration weren’t on the agenda. Instead the metropolitan area of the Laguna was militarized and paramilitarized in the name of the drug war. Youth, low-wage workers, and those forced into the illegal or informal economies by straitened circumstances were made killable, and thousands were subsequently exterminated or disappeared. Homicides and disappearances, often carried out by state and paramilitary forces (drug cartels), confirmed a judgment already rendered by the labor market.

In July 2008, thousands of Federal Police and soldiers were deployed to the Laguna, followed by subsequent police deployments in 2011 and 2012. The metropolitan area was effectively under military occupation. As security forces flooded in, homicides in Torreón, the most populous city in the Laguna, with over six hundred thousand residents, climbed from 26 in 2007 to 792 in 2012, equivalent to a homicide rate of 88 per 100,000.

While the number of prisoners in the state did not increase sharply over this time, the number of disappeared did, indicating the shifting strategies of state power. According to Memoria Coahuila, 516 people were reported disappeared in Torreón and adjacent municipalities of Coahuila between 2008 and 2016. Extra-officially, however, that number could be over three thousand.

Grupo VI.D.A.’s land searches are a form of direct action in the search for their loved ones but also put pressure on state and federal governments to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of people from around the city. The government of Coahuila initially tried to stop Grupo VI.D.A. members from carrying out their searches — threatening them, luring them into futile negotiations, and attempting to turn them against each other.

The government “is trying to tire us out, to irritate us,” Silvia Ortiz, the leader of Grupo VI.D.A., told me in an interview in 2017. Ortiz, whose teenage daughter Stephanie “Fanny” Sánchez Viesca Ortíz disappeared in Torreón in 2004, said of the government: “They want us to stop what we’re doing, to disband, that’s what they’re after.” Describing their work at first, she says:

We were out there all alone, one of us searching here, another one searching over there; we met and someone suggested “hey, you know what, what do you think, let’s do this together” and we all said “yes.” Is it painful? Yes, it’s painful, but at the end of the day we’re doing something, something for us, for all of us.

Exposing these crimes can be extremely dangerous: over the past eighteen months at least two women participating in searches have been murdered.
Washington’s War on Drugs does not exist in isolation, but rather forms one part of a network of state strategies for managing the global crisis that capitalism imposes upon the poorest, and for fending off the possibility of popular and communitarian resistance. Though the US prison system remains a powerful vortex of suffering, we cannot ignore other forms of coercive violence: police-involved homicides and white supremacist massacres, for example. Indigenous women in Canada and the US, importantly, have called attention to disappearance, using the language of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to expose the connection between disappearance and an ongoing process of genocide throughout the Americas.

Given the flow of repressive knowledge and practices, it is not impossible to imagine the US state taking an increasingly eliminationist turn. Nor is it impossible, conversely, to imagine the bulking up of the Mexican penal system, in response to the ongoing crisis of the drug war. This is why it is so important to struggle against the depoliticization of disappearance, and to bring these struggles into conversation with prison abolition in the US and elsewhere. Alongside Jéssica Molina Rodríguez, Silvia Ortiz and Grupo VI.D.A., alongside Indigenous women, alongside people everywhere, we must make every disappearance visible.