Since Mexico launched its ‘war on drugs’ in 2006, nearly 39 000 unidentified bodies have been found in the country. Although the government has made efforts to identify them, relatives of missing people and other activists are fighting for access to better information.

 The disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in 2014, and the impunity for the perpetrators, shone a spotlight on Mexico that drew attention in the international arena to the serious human rights abuses and crimes against humanity committed in the country. In 2017, the government sent a signal of hope to thousands of people with disappeared family members.

Then president Enrique Peña Nieto enacted a law that would lead to a centralized system to search for, locate and identify missing people – and to investigate and pursue the perpetrators. The new law provided for the development of a digital tool that would allow users to access, sort and extract information that would help families find their disappeared ones.

This opening up of access to data on disappearances emerged in the context of the country’s commitments to transparency and accountability, and in response to demands from a national citizen advisory board made up of families of the disappeared.

Expectations were incredibly high. A wide range of civil society organizations and search groups participated in the legislative roundtables that set out deadlines to comply with the commitments outlined in the law. The new digital tool was one of many that was to lead to a change in how disappearance-related human rights violations would be handled.

This centralized system promised to overcome the flaws of the previous digital system, which was riddled with technical problems, such as duplicate records and profiles of victims who had already been found. This new tool was to offer data that was standardized, validated, interconnected and public. It would allow people to locate disappeared individuals by searching through databases administered by public- and private-sector institutions, including jails, shelters and hospitals across the country.

However, it was not to be. Although the new tool, the Registro Nacional de Personas Desaparecidas y No Localizadas (national registry of disappeared and missing people), was launched in 2017, a number of obstacles stand in the way of consolidating the information housed in the system. For example, there is no open-format version of the database available to the public, which restricts the repurposing of that data and therefore limits the possibility of analyzing information.

Another problem is the omission of the names of missing people in the government’s public records. The national registry shares data in such a way that each individual’s identity is concealed. According to civil society organizations working in the fields of human rights and transparency, this is a major obstacle, as including the victims’ names would potentially allow family members to locate them and verify the information reported by state prosecutors to the centralized digital platform. Moreover, the new platform does not display additional information about the victims, such as recent photographs, videos or other media.

It is only possible to obtain justice, discover the truth and protect the public’s right to information with high-quality data that can help locate and identify those who are still missing. Lack of standardized criteria for gathering and organizing data on victims infringes on the right of thousands of families to learn the fate of loved ones who have tragically disappeared and stands in the way of justice, the act of remembrance and ensuring that history will not be repeated.

What is needed is access to public databases and standardized criteria for collecting and organizing information. This is key if Mexico wishes to fulfil its promise and allow for open information on enforced disappearances. The database’s limitations call into question the Mexican government’s real commitment to confronting and investigating this crime and punishing those responsible.

With the support of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Mexican civil society organization Iniciativa Sinaloa has published a new report documenting the obstacles that stand in the way of consolidating data in the only centralized system tracking information on disappeared and missing people in Mexico.