Migration and the Political Aspect of Enforced Disappearance

Enforced Disappearances and the State

When Gabriel García Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, retells the story of the massacre of striking banana plantation workers at the hands of the Colombian military, he invokes the long history of enforced disappearances in Latin America. The massacre in the novel, which is based on a historical event that took place in 1928, ends with delegates of the United Fruit Company conjuring a cyclone that destroys the workers’ remains, physically and symbolically erasing any memory of the massacre. The metaphor of a whirlwind obliterating the past captures a specific dimension of a crime that has stalked Latin American with “exceptional intensity” through the 20th century and beyond — the crime of enforced disappearance.

Marquez’s magical realist evocation of the disappeared banana workers might, at first glance, appear unrelated to the crime of enforced disappearance that plagues the migration corridor between Central America and the United States. While the former was an act of targeted violence commissioned by a transnational company with the express consent of the Colombian government, migrants today are disappeared by a disparate array of actors. What unites those two instances of enforced disappearance, however, are the acquiescence of state actors and the political consequences of the disappearances.

Signatories to the 2006 Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Disappearance, which followed the Inter-American Convention. Party Countries (dark blue); Signatories (light blue); No Action (orange).

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines an enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups…acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State.” This initial crime, the deprivation of liberty, must be further compounded by a “refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.” That the crime of enforced disappearance must be state sanctioned, either explicitly or implicitly through state acquiescence, illustrates the political aspect of the crime. The political dimension of enforced disappearances connects the disappeared laborers in Marquez’s story with the undocumented migrants that disappear in the southwestern deserts of the United States today.

What Distinguishes Enforced Disappearance from other Human Rights Violations?

The disappeared are not just robbed of one single right, such as the right to life or the right to the security of person. What distinguishes the crime of enforced disappearance from, say, an abuse to the right life, is the compounded refusal to acknowledge the whereabouts of the victim; their fate or whereabouts is hidden. The disappeared are meant to be removed from the political fabric so thoroughly that they are expunged from a society’s collective memory. The crime of enforced disappearance produces a state of limbo for the victim’s community. Simply killing (or detaining, abducting, arresting) someone silences that person but can create unintended political consequences for the regime. Witness the protest movements that ensued after the public murder of George Floyd, for example. By enforcing a disappearance, on the other hand, states create a shroud of mystery that undermines political action. After all, a victim’s family and friends might be less likely to protest when they are uncertain whether a loved one is still alive and held captive by the regime (this strategy has faltered when confronted with innovative protest techniques, such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina). In the context of the United States, the public is less likely to push for immigration reform when the exact death toll or cause remains a mystery. In this way, enforced disappearances attack both the human rights of the individual and the integrity of the collective. States are responsible for or ignore their complicity in enforced disappearances when they feel emboldened not only to silence political opponents, but to stifle the public sphere itself. Enforced disappearance, therefore, is motivated by the thoroughly political goal of removing any space for political opposition.

Map of migrant deaths on the Arizona-Mexico border as of 2016. Concentric black lines show walking distance from border in days. Source: https://nacla.org/blog/2018/02/23/case-dismantling-us-border-patrol

The Enforced Disappearance of Migrants

The circumstances causing enforced disappearances in the Americas have evolved since the 1920s, but the political nature of the disappearances remains. The Southern Cone dictators of the 1970s and 80s, engaged in a regional chapter of a global Cold War, used the disappearance of left-wing “subversives” as a tool to quash dissent without provoking domestic or international backlash. And while, on its face, the continued disappearance of migrants in southwestern United States might seem like the inevitable cost of a long, perilous journey, those disappearances also fall under the definition of ‘enforced’ by state acquiescence. The enforced disappearance of migrants in the United States is the result of inhumane immigration policies. The Border Patrol’s policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence” uses (relies on?) natural elements of southwestern states to kill migrants. By equipping settled, urban areas across the southwest with the technology and manpower to detain and deport undocumented migrants, the Border Patrol effectively pushes undocumented migrants to walk for days through terrain where the hazardous conditions put them at grave risk. The policy has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths and thousands of disappearances.

The disappearances of migrants today are frequently attributed to conditions beyond any state’s control, from narco-syndicates below the border to harsh landscapes above it. However, this narrative obscures the continued political dimension of enforced disappearances in the United States. Even when a state does not directly execute a disappearance, it participates in the enforcement of that disappearance by creating conditions that ensure they will occur, or refusing to provide information regarding the whereabouts of the disappeared. Masking the death toll of immigration, thereby enforcing the disappearance of perished migrants, means that the United States government remains unaccountable for the staggering human cost of anti-immigration policies.

A number of civil society organizations have mobilized to mitigate the deaths and disappearances caused by our government’s immigration policy. NGOs across the southwest participate in search and rescue missions, help identify remains, and coordinate with families searching for their missing loved ones. They do so in the face of inhospitable conditions and harassment from Border Patrol. Here at the Boston University School of Law, the International Human Rights Clinic is conducting a project to comprehensively survey the obligations the United States government owes to undocumented, disappeared migrants under international, federal, and state law. This work will assist the strategic litigation efforts of practitioners both in the United States and in the Inter-American System of Human Rights. BU’s Clinic plans to produce a report that will supplement its extensive report on the legal obligations owed by El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to disappeared migrants as a small step to provide answers to the families and clarify governmental obligations towards them.

Author Bio: Jake Palmer is a second-year law student Boston University School of Law, participating in the migrant disappearance project of BU’s International Human Rights Clinic. Jake hopes to practice strategic litigation within the Inter-American system of Human Rights after graduating.

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.