UN calls on Mexico to do more to find missing students, asks permission to help

A protester holds up a poster with a photo of one of the 43 missing students who disappeared nearly a month ago in Iguala, Mexico, on Oct. 22, 2014.
A protester holds up a poster with a photo of one of the 43 missing students who disappeared nearly a month ago in Iguala, Mexico, on Oct. 22, 2014. McClatchy

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday admonished Mexico to “step up” efforts to locate 43 students who went missing nearly a month ago, a sign that Mexico faces increasing heat over its human rights record.

In a statement issued in Geneva, the U.N. agency also urged Mexico to permit the United Nations a greater role in the drama of disappeared persons in the nation.

The office of the high commissioner noted its “concern” about the “enforced disappearance” of the students, who were last seen Sept. 26, when municipal police in the city of Iguala rounded them up, apparently in collusion with a criminal gang.

The U.N. spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, said the human rights agency acknowledged that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto had deplored the disappearances and that Mexico had “activated mechanisms to search for the disappeared students.”

But she noted that the students have yet to be found. “We regret that these mechanisms have not yet been successful in finding the missing students, and we urge the authorities to step up their efforts to find them,” she said.

The U.N. agency also voiced impatience with Mexico’s inability to quickly identify victims buried in a series of mass graves found on the outskirts of Iguala, calling for “effective, prompt and impartial investigations so as to identify those who were buried.”

A political crisis sparked by the Iguala disappearances took its first victim on Thursday when Guerrero state Gov. Angel Aguirre Rivero left his post. The mayor of Iguala, his wife and his public security chief have all gone underground.

The government says it’s arrested 52 people in relation to the disappearance of the students, including 36 local police officers. Officials say they still don’t know where the students were taken or if they are alive, even with the passage of several weeks to interrogate detainees.

The missing students are all enrolled at a rural teachers college.

Disappearances plague Mexico. Thousands of people have vanished at the hands of criminal groups, some victims of botched kidnappings for ransom. Others have gone missing as victims of sex trafficking or while traversing Mexico in an effort to migrate to the United States.

Mexico’s last two governments have balked at creating a public national registry of the missing, keeping estimates largely secret, and authorities have offered wildly different estimates of the number of disappeared.

Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said May 23 that the Pena Nieto administration, which came to office in late 2012, had received a list of 26,121 missing people but had weeded through the registry and come up with 8,000 who remained unaccounted for. Some three weeks later, Osorio Chong revised the estimate, saying “around 16,000” people were disappeared.

Confusing matters further, a senior official in the Attorney General’s Office on Aug. 20 said 22,322 people were categorized as “not locatable” – or missing.

The government is working on a “national plan of systematic search” for the missing, the official, Mariana Benitez Tiburcio, told reporters then.

Mexico has signed and ratified the 2007 International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, a U.N. accord ratified by about 40 nations. But it has not yet permitted the United Nations to take a more direct role in the matter of disappeared people.

Shamdasani called on Mexico to allow the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances to make direct contact with families of the disappeared.