“Disappeared” on the U.S.-Mexico Border

How U.S. border policies constitute a new kind of state-led “disappearance.”

Gabriel Schivone 3/9/2017

Memorial coffins on the US-Mexico barrier for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México (Tomas Castelazo/ Wikimedia Commons)

I’m looking for a disappeared person,” says the troubled voice on the other line. Many times the voice is that of a family member who hasn’t heard from their loved one since attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border — loved ones like a man named José, who went missing in southern Texas. Tucson-based human rights group Derechos Humanos commonly receives these sorts of desperate calls, typically in Spanish, on their Missing Migrant Crisis Line maintained in southern Arizona.

José, referenced by Derechos Humanos only by his first name, “disappeared” after U.S. Border Patrol had “fallen upon” his group in brush-lands near Falfurrias, Texas, dispersing the group and their guide in different directions. José’s story is one of 544 Missing Migrant Crisis Line cases documented by the group.

A term like "disappearance" may seem inappropriate in the context of migrant disappearances, as it immediately draws a parallel to the "dirty wars" of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. But the comparison fits. The recent report, “Disappeared: How the U.S. Border Enforcement Agencies Are Fueling a Missing Person Crisis, co-authored by Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths, makes a powerful case that the missing persons in the borderlands are in fact “disappeared.”

The "disappeared" in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the authors assert, are “a direct consequence of U.S. border enforcement policies and practices.” In other words, it is state violence—perpetrated by the U.S. government and its apparatus of exclusion—that explains the growing number of people like José whose whereabouts are unaccounted for after attempting to cross the border.”

To “disappear” is a controversial term, especially when all the facts are not in. The authors don’t say so in their report—certainly the present-day focus is more pressing—but it’s useful to review the historical background of the term to understand its applicability today.

In the 1981 publication, ‘Disappearances’: A Workbook, Amnesty International explains that “the term ‘disappearance’ was first used (as desaparecido in Spanish) to describe a particular government practice applied on a massive scale in Guatemala after 1966.”

In 1966, an extensive counterinsurgency campaign erupted against members of the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo (Guatemalan Worker’s Party, led by Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, who was known as the “Butcher of Zacapa.” One of the first instances of the “disappearance” strategy occurred in March 1966, when security forces abducted, tortured and murdered 28 members of the party. Though confirmations of their demise came from participants in the mass arrest, the victims’ bodies were never discovered.

The Amnesty authors, who enclose every use of the term “disappearance” in quotations, contend that the term itself is a misnomer when discussing political crimes like the Central American dirty wars because, firstly, many have actually been murdered, and because the perpetrators are not really unknown: “At its outermost boundaries the word conjures up images of a magical intervention by mysterious forces, but even without this otherworldly sense the word suggests the unexplained, irrevocable, and universal loss of knowledge of something or someone.” However, “living or dead, each is in a very real place as a result of a real series of decisions taken and implemented by real people. Someone does know and, more importantly, is responsible.”


Even in 1981, as Amnesty notes in the report, “understanding of ‘disappearances’ is evolving constantly.” Today, in the case of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, border enforcement policies amount to no less than “a campaign of state violence against migrating peoples.” This violence, has resulted in deaths and “disappearances” since dramatic shifts in U.S. border and immigration policing strategy initiated in the mid-1990s.

The main policy shift during this time was known as “prevention through deterrence,” explicitly designed by lawmakers to establish “tactical advantage” over them. By harnessing the “mortal danger” of the “geographically harsher,” more “remote and hazardous border regions” along the U.S.-Mexico boundary—where the “geography would be an ally to us,” in the words of former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) commissioner Doris Meissner—the predictable consequences for many have been mass death by “deterrence.”

The policy rationale, expressed in a 1994 U.S. Border Patrol planning document, anticipates that by heavily escalating security resources and infrastructure throughout the “traditional entry” points of urban border areas, border crossers “will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” Such conditions have invited mass death and “disappearance.” At least 6,000 human remains have been recovered, but the actual number of death and “disappearance” is surely much greater.

One way to “disappear” in the desert borderlands is due to U.S. Border Patrol’s harsh “chase and scatter” tactics. Using an arsenal of military helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, attack dogs, and blunt force beatings and tackles, U.S. agents inflict psychological and physical injury upon their “targets.” These “commonly result in the disorientation and dispersal of individuals and groups into life-threatening terrain.” Of the 544 cases reported to the Missing Migrants Crisis Line, the Border Patrol’s “chase and scatter” practices account for 84 cases as the causal event of their “disappearance.” According to the authors, in 36.9% of these cases (31 out of 84), death was the result.

There is more than one area that the “disappeared” like José may turn up. “If found,” the report authors say, “the disappeared turn up in detention centers, in morgues, or skeletonized on the desert floor; many human remains are never identified. Thousands more are never located. With each passing day, another father, sister, aunt, brother, partner, or child goes missing while attempting to cross the Southwest border.”

As the report indicates, the growing web of migrant detention facilities is another source of “disappearance.” Institutional knowledge of and responsibility for such “disappearances,” is a matter of policy: in fact, James Pendergraph, the former Executive Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Office of State and Local Coordination, one said to attendees at the 2008 Police Foundation Conference, “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear,” according to a 2009 Amnesty International report.

“Disappearances” also affect those, especially loved ones, who desperately search for the missing. As anthropologist Robin Reineke, co-founder and executive director of Colibri Center for Human Rights, and former coordinator of the Tucson medical examiner’s Project on Missing and Unidentified Migrants, explains: “Families experience what psychologists term ‘Ambiguous Loss,’ which means that the status of a loved one is in question—unresolved. The grief process cannot start because the person is neither dead nor alive. Families often report debilitating fear and inability to focus on daily tasks. At any point in their ‘normal’ day, their loved one could be suffering somewhere without help. The search often becomes all-consuming.”

Deterrence-based enforcement policies have “ripped holes in families and communities that will last for generations,” write the Derechos Humanos report authors. “These cases are not just statistics—each is connected to a network of family and friends, entire worlds thrown into crisis by the phenomenon of disappearance.

Such “ambiguous losses” have haunted tens of thousands for the survivors of Guatemala’s Civil War, when the term “disappearance” was first used. Javier Alvárez’s father was “disappeared” in Guatemala in 1982, when Javier was ten years old. “You can imagine—in life, you miss your father, your mother. I would have liked to have enjoyed being with him, from the time I was small to when I grew up,” Alvarez told KPCC public radio. Recently, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), Colibri’s Guatemala-based counterpart, has gathered DNA samples from survivors like Javier to try to match them with the countless human remains still being unearthed in Guatemala.

Using a heavily charged term like “disappearance” is ultimately an accurate description that encompasses the devolved state of U.S. immigration and border enforcement strategies over the last two decades. Given the gravity of the term and its accompanying grief and suffering that haunts both the living and the dead, the missing and their loved ones, state-induced “disappearances” in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands stem from strategies that promise a fate worse than death.

Trump’s threats to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border would certainly increase the dangers of deterrence-based policies. But another less-discussed part of President Obama’s border enforcement legacies likely earmarked for expansion in the Trump era could be the continued militarization of Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, which then-senior DHS staffer Alan Bersin called “now our southern border,” in 2012. Without greater national concern, the crisis of death and disappearance presages worse fates to come for migrants, their families and immigrant communities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Gabriel Schivone is a writer from Tucson, Arizona, working on a book focusing on U.S. immigration and foreign policy in Guatemala.

This piece was adapted from an earlier article on Huffington Post.

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