Mexico & Colombia Dig Out The Dead

By Juan Andres Misle

The end of July 2015 marked a milestone for the development of transitional justice in Latin America. Two countries, Mexico and Colombia oversaw efforts in literally digging out the truth for what accounts for some of the darkest cases of State violence and neglect. The two nations share very particular characteristics: for years they have experimented as microcosms for the escalation of the Drug War, and by a partial result of such, legacies of vigilantism and bloody lawlessness stain the pages of their histories.

However, there are differences to consider. Amidst a polarized political environment, one of these countries prepares for a blossoming truth-commission to investigate the multidimensional atrocities committed over half a century of internal armed conflict. The other country, Mexico, by contrast, reflects an alienated populace breaking from the polarization at the top of its political structures, demanding justice for those perpetrated by violence.

On the last week of July 2015, Colombia and Mexico met at the crossroads of their violent histories by digging out those murdered in complicity of the state.

The case of the 43 disappeared college students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero has sparked international condemnation, after it was revealed that local police authorities had turned in protesting students to a local drug cartel that allegedly incinerated them in a garbage dump. By any definition, this entails a serious case of state crime.

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Blame has since been widespread and distributed across all institutions. The local mayor was imprisoned. His centre-left PRD party has since lost credibility and any chance of one day aspiring presidential power. Meanwhile, the reaction and response from the national government led by President Enrique Peña Nieto could not have been more aloof and disengaged. The president initially tried to shrug off the incident by focusing instead on his economic reforms only to have his feet held against the fire for neglect. After all, the missing students came from a school notoriously known for its extensive network of teacher organizations that protested Peña Nieto’s educational reforms. But it wasn’t until Peña Nieto told the parents of the disappeared, 33 days later, to “move on”, and consequently had then-attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam prematurely declare the case closed, that an explosive national outrage was ignited.

Recent investigations now show that up to 60 clandestine mass graves have been located with a total of 129 bodies found, none of which have been identified as any of the missing students. The new findings presented by the country’s new attorney general suggest that the number of bodies and mass graves could be higher than reported. The findings also speak volumes of the state’s ability and willingness to administer justice.

Simultaneously, a team of forensic experts on July 27th identified in a landfill known as ‘La Escombrera’ on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia, what is believed to be a mass grave dumping ground of up to 300 corpses. Human rights activists claim ‘La Escombrera’ to be the largest mass grave ever to be found in Colombia.

The origins of the dumping ground dates back to 2002, when then-president Álvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion aimed at fighting off Marxist insurgents in the surrounding Comuna 13 district. Soon after, residents of the impoverished slum began complaining that the void left by the military surge was quickly filled by violent paramilitary militias who would indiscriminately attack and disappear residents. The New York Times reports that “many of the paramilitary crimes were carried out in an alliance with U.S.-trained security forces.”

The forensic investigation could take approximately 5 months to completely dig out the roughly 31,000 cubic yards of debris. Meanwhile, an independent truth-commission agreed by the negotiating parties of the current peace talks has rekindled hope that justice is right around the corner for the many families whom the state has turned a blind eye on securing justice for their loved ones. Should the commission move forward, crimes committed by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and armed forces could go public. The political implications of such revelations could completely turn around and expose the skeletons in the closet of Colombia’s political classes. Opponents of peace have much to fear from a transparent transition towards truth and reconciliation.

The similarities between the Mexican and Colombian cases are astonishing. Why are these similar revelations coming out in the open at the same time? Why have these governments allowed organized crime to infiltrate institutions that guarantee their impunity? Could it be a mere symptom that the Drug War has created far too many lucrative perks for the murky structures of political life in these countries? It will be the responsibility of journalists, human rights activists, NGOs, forensic experts, and international governing bodies to continue asking questions about the nature of these social phenomenons in order to tackle the root of the problems that have condemned these great nations to a culture of fear and violence.  

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Latino Giant.