After coming under pressure from a human rights group, the Mexican Navy seems close to accepting responsibility for a number of disappearances that occurred along the US-Mexico border in 2018, confirming what locals had long suspected.
In a recent report, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos -- CNDH) “managed to attribute” to Mexico’s Navy (Secretaría de Marina -- SEMAR) 27 cases of people “arbitrarily detained and disappeared” in the city of Nuevo Laredo in northern Tamaulipas state between March and May 2018. Twelve of these individuals were later found dead.
Those behind the crimes reportedly kidnapped people driving or walking on the street, and even entered businesses and homes without arrest or search warrants before taking the victims away, at times without any identification and using official vehicles, according to the report.
The CNDH found the Navy’s official reports of some of these incidents were also manipulated.
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Local human rights activists said the victims came from all sectors of society: a housewife, a baker, a 16-year-old, among others, and that authorities may have targeted them to "gather intelligence," according to a Univision report.
Among other recommendations, the commission asked the Navy for “full compensation" for those affected by the forced disappearances, to continue searching for the other 15 individuals still missing and requested that criminal investigations be initiated.
The Mexican Navy “accepted” the recommendations in a July 21 tweet and vowed to show their “commitment” to defending human rights. Shortly after the original complaints were made, the Navy said “in all cases in which Navy personnel are likely responsible for human rights violations, they will act with strict adherence to the law, proceed with rigor and ... await the resolution,” according to a September 2018 press release.
In 2018, however, the Navy “denied [they] had participated in the events, criminalized the victims [and] attributed these disappearances to an organized crime group,” according to statements from a local human rights leader.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite being Mexico’s most trusted security force, the Navy's role in allegedly disappearing and murdering innocent civilians serves as a stark reminder of the severe abuses that too often come with the country’s militarized crackdown on organized crime.
The use of deadly force by Mexico's marines in alleged clashes with armed groups shot up considerably between 2012 and 2019, raising concerns about a lack of oversight, training and accountability for such forces.
The Navy’s potential admission would be a welcome step. But evidence suggesting that Mexican marines were involved in the dozens of disappearances along the US-Mexico border more than two years ago had been present from the onset.
The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in a May 2018 press release that they had received testimony strongly suggesting the disappearances were “perpetrated by a federal security force.”
But despite there being "ample information and evidence," Mexican authorities had at the time -- and since -- made "little progress in locating the disappeared persons and investigating what happened to them," according to the OHCHR.
Months later, Amnesty International said in a July 2018 press release that the victims' families had implicated Mexico’s Navy in the disappearances based on “witness testimony and audio-visual material collected during the events."
Weapons and forensic experts at Amnesty International concluded then that video footage of one of the victims’ arrests showed the suspects appeared to be “professionally trained and equipped with vehicles, uniforms and weapons -- including Sig516 rifles -- that strongly resemble those used by the Navy.”
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But at the time, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office was instead said to be investigating a splinter faction of the feared Zetas criminal group, known as the Northeast Cartel, which is led by Juan Gerardo Treviño Chávez, alias “El Huevo.”
Authorities said the group was involved in the disappearance of at least 35 people between February and May of 2018 in Nuevo Laredo, El Universal reported.
Mexican officials alleged that members of the group were often seen wearing Navy-style uniforms and brandishing weapons that are “used exclusively” by the country’s armed forces, according to El Universal.
They offered no explanation as to how the group may have obtained such materials.
Amnesty International stressed that while criminal groups have at times disguised themselves as security forces, there was “sufficient evidence” to conduct an independent investigation into the Navy’s alleged role in the disappearances in 2018.