As relatives await the ruling, the country faces one of the deadliest periods in recent history and a newly empowered military in charge of fighting it. Official statistics show that last year the murder rate was the highest on record, surpassing the bloodshed experienced during the peak of the drug war in 2011.
In December, when Mexico passed a security law cementing the military’s role in fighting the drug war, it outraged the United Nations and local and international human rights groups. They warned that the measure would lead to abuses, leave troops on the streets indefinitely and militarize police activities for the foreseeable future.
The armed forces declined to comment, but the secretary of defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, has publicly defended the military, saying it is the only institution effectively confronting organized crime. As drug violence rocketed in recent years, he has repeatedly asked the federal government for a legal framework that protects the forces, saying the need for it is greater than ever.
“Today the crimes we are dealing with are of another level and importance, they involve a lot of people, sometimes entire families, and we are acting without a legal frame,” said General Cienfuegos in a public event in March. “Without it our help is impeded.”
Other supporters of the law, including President Enrique Peña Nieto and federal government officials, have argued that the legislation would guide and regulate military operations offering legal certainty to both the armed forces and the population by clarifying the soldier’s tasks, limits and obligations. Such a framework, they said, had long been absent.
According to government estimates, 32,000 people have been reported missing in Mexico since 2006, disappearances that have caused an indelible wound on families across the country. Members of the security forces are suspected in some of the disappearances, but many more are presumed to be the work of drug gangs.
Mexico’s failure to investigate these cases has left families such as the Alvarados desperate for answers but with nowhere to turn.
The court’s ruling in the Alvarado case, expected later this year, could influence another case being considered by Mexico’s Supreme Court. That case is evaluating challenges to a law that critics say strengthens the military’s role in policing the country’s streets.
Under the past two Mexican administrations, the army’s role has been expanded to include operations against drug gangs as well as policing duties. At the same time, formal complaints filed by civilians with different government agencies about allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have surged.
And yet as allegations of serious crimes by soldiers and police officers piled up, the military remained largely untouched, protected by governments keen on enforcing the rule of law through the only force seen as able to stand up to the drug gangs.
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The three members of the Alvarado family were snatched from Ejido Benito Juárez, a small town south of El Paso. At the time, the drug war was raging in a particularly fierce way in the northern state of Chihuahua. The state now has one of the highest numbers of missing people in Mexico — more than 2,000 cases opened since 2007.
In the eight years of the investigation, the Mexican authorities have not prosecuted a single person in the Alvarados’ case nor offered any information on where they could be.
During a hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Friday in San José, Costa Rica, members of the Alvarado family testified that they had been told by at least three investigators from different government agencies that their relatives had been held for questioning in nearby military headquarters after soldiers raided Ejido Benito Juárez in search of criminal suspects. One investigator even assured relatives that by the next day, those held would probably be free.
When questioned, all the investigators later denied to the family that they had made such claims, Mexican prosecutors said.
Feeling the doors of justice were being slammed shut by the Mexican authorities, the family had turned to international courts, where they are represented by the Center for Women’s Human Rights, a Mexican advocacy and legal aid organization.
At the two-day hearing that ended Friday, Mexican prosecutors testifying before the court argued that they were dealing with a “very complex case” that probably involved “several actors.” Lines of investigation are continuing to be followed, they said.
Although the prosecutors asserted that they had investigated the role of the military, they said they did not find enough evidence to confirm it was responsible. Instead, noting that it was common for criminals to dress in military uniforms to trick the authorities, they suggested that the Alvarados might have been targeted by drug gangs.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, one of the two legal arms, along with the court, that police human rights in the Americas as part of the Organization of American States, first urged the Mexican authorities in 2010 to find the Alvarados and ensure protection for the rest of the family. Six years later, the commission concluded that the military was responsible for the disappearances, based on evidence, including witnesses’ testimony and reports by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and other experts who analyzed the context of violence in the area.
In its report, the commission refers to a context of chaos during military operations around the time the Alvarados where taken. People were snatched from their houses regularly and taken to military headquarters for illegal questioning. The Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, the report says, had gathered hundreds of allegations of torture, illegal searches, cruel and degrading treatment, threats, intimidation and forced disappearance.
If that is also the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it could push Mexico to further investigate the armed forces’ role and prosecute members of the military, pay the family reparations, issue a public apology or take further measures to ensure such disappearances do not happen again.
Mitzi Alvarado and her twin, Nitza, were only 14 years old when their mother was taken away. For the past eight years, they and their younger sister, Daisy, have moved from one city to another. They lived with one set of relatives and then another, fearing that the agents they believed took their mother would come after them.
Heightening their anxiety, soon after the disappearances another relative received phone calls warning the entire family to leave the state of Chihuahua within 24 hours or they would all be killed. Eventually, most did flee.
The three sisters are now studying at El Paso Community College in Texas, where they live after being granted political asylum. Eight other family members are still awaiting word on their applications for political asylum in the United States.
“The state orphaned us and that’s not fair,” said Mitzi Alvarado, weeping.