As Mexico plunges further into its war against drugs, death tolls have climbed above 40,000.
Increasingly, the military has been called upon to keep order in the most dangerous locations. Recently, violence swept the touristy state of Veracruz.
And the area surrounding Acapulco has become one of the most murderous in the country, adding to the woes of the traditionally violent state of Guerrero.
The Mexican government has responded by launching military operations in both states.
While the army retains a fairly positive image in Mexico, it also stands accused thousands of human rights violations.
In the state of Guerrero, a few hours inland from Acapulco, one of these cases has torn six families apart.
It’s late afternoon as Laura Garcia Orozco arrives at a nightclub in the town of Iguala. Her brother, Francis Alejandro Garcia Orozco, used to run this club.
But on a Monday night in March last year, she arrived here, just as a military convoy was pulling away. She hasn’t seen her brother since.
“It’s incredibly sad to be in this place, to remember the disappearance, to remember his face, the last time he looked at me that day,” Orozco said. “It’s horrible, horrible. The only thing I want is that, in one way or another – that they bring him back.”
Francis — and five other men who worked there — disappeared from the club that night. According to checks done by the families, none had criminal records, nor were they under any official investigation.
After the men went missing, all six families say they went straight to military base 27 in Iguala. “Our sons have gone missing, they demanded,” “where are they?”
The soldier allegedly replied, “no tenemos los del disco” – “we don’t have those guys from the club.” The families looked at each other. They hadn’t said anything about the club.
35-year old Laura sits at her computer, reviewing footage taken that night by a security camera across from the club. The video appears to show the missing men as they’re taken from the club by a convoy that includes soldiers in military vehicles.
“The families say the army originally admitted it had an operation there that night — then backtracked,” Orozco said. “Later, military officials told the families they’d launched an investigation. The families say they’ve yet to see any proof of that.”
Most disappearance cases rely on hearsay, and are difficult to prove. This case stands out because there’s some formal evidence. But Laura’s older sister Rosario says it hasn’t helped.
“We’ve asked everyone,” Rosario Garcia Orozco said. “The federal prosecutor’s office, the defense department, the national human rights commission – all say they have no idea or that they are unable to help.”
In the last five years, more than 6,000 official complaints of human rights abuses have been filed against Mexico’s security forces. But according to Nik Steinberg, Mexico investigator for the group Human Rights Watch, convictions are rare.
“No matter whether the case is investigated in the military justice system, or the civilian justice system, there is almost never a solider or police officer held accountable for these crimes,” Steinberg said. “So no matter how much evidence there is, and how clear it is that security forces have perpetrated these horrific abuses, they’re never held to book.”
A Human Rights Watch report released this month says Mexico’s security forces enjoy ‘total immunity’ from a legal system that stops short of challenging military jurisdiction. Steniberg argues these injustices violate some key conditions governing US financial support for Mexico’s drug war.
“One of them, for example is that all soldiers, who commit human rights abuses, must be prosecuted in a civilian court, because the military justice system in Mexico has proven to be completely biased, and unable to punish soldiers who commit abuses,” Steinberg said. “Mexico, year after year, has failed to meet these conditions, and year after year the United States has given them these conditional funds anyways.”
This patrol is part of a new security operation in the state of Guerrero, where the six men from Iguala disappeared.
State Spokesman Arturo Martinez Nunez says an additional 2,000 soldiers and federal police have been deployed in the last few weeks to improve safety in Guerrero. And he says respecting people’s rights is a top priority.
“The Mexican Army is extremely attentive and respectful of the human rights of the local population,” Nunez said. “The proof of that is that during this operation we have not had a single complaint. If there was one, we would be the first to address it, because we need the people on our side.”
Back in Iguala, the Garcia Orozco family doesn’t feel entirely safe. They say they’ve been followed, intimidated, threatened and repeatedly told to stop pursuing the case of their son and brother. Four of the other five families involved have already given up.
But Rosario, echoing the rest of her family, says that for the sake of her brother and the other missing men, they will not stop, despite the risks.
“You know what, a lot of people are scared – I am also scared,” Rosario Garcia Orozco said. “But it makes me more scared to think that tomorrow it would be my kids, or my grandkids, that they take away, if I don’t open my mouth and say “today, this is happening, this is a reality, and that this is how they are hurting many families.”