The Search for Mexico’s Disappeared
Draft in Progress, Full Manuscript December 2020
Since 2006, more than 65,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. These disappearances remain largely unsolved: the Mexican state rarely investigates or prosecutes those responsible, especially in cases where state agents themselves are accused as perpetrators. Despite this, people not only continue to report disappearances – but many mobilize, publicly demand accountability, and risk their lives demanding to know “where are they?” Given the risks and institutional barriers, why and how do people mobilize for justice? How does this mobilization affect the individuals involved, the cases they advocate for, and the institutions they interact with? And what do these movements and outcomes teach us about what it will take to disrupt entrenched patterns of impunity in states struggling with grave human rights violations and weak rule of law?
Bootstrap Justice: The Search for Mexico’s Disappeared leverages nine years of mixed methods research to make the novel argument that victims of crime, both individually and collectively, take advantage of legal and political opportunities opened by the divided loyalties of state officials in their pursuit of justice. The book addresses three related questions: Why, how, and to what effect do individuals and collectives mobilize for justice when faced with grave human rights violations?
By tracing the life histories of individuals, I show how the disappearance of a loved one is a critical juncture in each person’s consciousness and daily life. A homemaker transforms herself into a strategic negotiator and meets with the president about her son’s disappearance; a struggling single mother leads a hunger strike which spawns the creation of a new “Search Unit” within the Attorney General’s office; a traveling gold salesman trains himself to lead forensic search parties for victims’ remains. I explore how each person’s previous experiences with their family, institutions and the state equipped them with both the skills and self-perception to enable their transformations. I argue, however, that their individual trajectories were highly contingent on their interactions with the state after the disappearances of their loved ones. I probe how each understands “justice” - which swings dramatically between punishing those responsible, collective reparations, and recognition of their loss by powerful actors - and trace how their decisions about how and when to mobilize individually and collectively are shaped by these understandings. Finally, by situating these individuals within social movement organizations and following them as they work to hold the state accountable, I illustrate how individual trajectories reshape judicial processes and institutional outcomes.
By examining the collective organizations which represent and are made up of family members of people who have disappeared, I show how activists (using more confrontational tactics) have named and shamed the state into engaging with victims’ organizations, and I argue that advocates (using more conciliatory tactics and building relationships with strategic state allies) have used the resulting political space to generalize the practice of participatory investigations.. These participatory investigations, in which state investigators and victims’ organizations meet regularly in order to move the investigation of a disappeared person forward by sharing information and coordinating investigatory activities, now exist in most of Mexico’s 32 states and have resulted in some notable cracks in the wall of impunity. I analyze the conditions under which these participatory investigations are established and succeed, and find—counter to what most literature on democratic quality would suggest—that corrupt officials and fragmented institutions can present political and legal opportunities for those seeking justice. “Justice” is at times deployed by officials as a legal weapon against other officials or against criminal non-state actors in long-standing struggles for local control over state institutions. At other times, modicums of “justice” are granted as clientelistic goods to constituents who have earned favor through belonging to an organization which has built relationships with officials or through personal connections. When the politics of investigations are closed, I show how victims’ organizations have pioneered non-state approaches in their search for the disappeared by conducting their own forensic investigations and establishing independent DNA databases.
Bootstrap Justice contributes broadly to the study of political participation and citizen-state relations, and to explorations of institutional change and democratic deepening. It offers a unique window into how citizens respond to weak and corrupt institutions. In so doing, the book argues for the crucial and under-appreciated role of individual and collective action in generating both the political will and investigative capacity to activate reticent judicial bureaucracies; and highlights pioneering independent and creative work-arounds to compensate for the state’s inaction. While top-down efforts, such as judicial reforms, technical assistance, and changes in political leadership are all undoubtedly important parts of addressing impunity, policymakers and scholars alike have much to learn from the bottom-up - and by following the path that citizens themselves have worn within the labyrinth of state judicial bureaucracies.
Other Recent Research:
Gallagher, J (2019). The Judicial Breakthrough Model: Transnational Advocacy Networks and Lethal Violence. In A. Alejandro & B. Frey (Eds.) Mexico’s Human Rights Crisis (pp.250-271). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hilbink, L. & J. Gallagher (2019). State and Law in Latin America: A Critical Assessment. In K. Ansolabehere & R. Sieder (Eds.) Handbook of Law and Society in Latin America. Routledge Press.
Gallagher, J. (2017). The last mile problem: activists, advocates, and the struggle for justice in domestic courts. Comparative Political Studies, 50(12), 1666-1698.