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Relatives of disappeared migrants seek answers and justice

02 February 2024

Women of the Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas (Caravan of Central American Mothers) hold up photos of missing migrants. © REUTERS/Edgard Garrid

Carlos Manuel González León left his village in the heart of Guatemala in search of a life with dignity in the United States.

Carlos travelled for days on foot and by bus, joining other fellow migrants in the long and perilous journey northward through Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the U.S. border.

But somewhere along the route something went wrong. A distressed Carlos called from an unknown place to say he had been abducted by armed men who were beating him up and demanding ransom. The family tried desperately to call back several times to settle the payment, but the call went unanswered.

It’s been 12 years since then, and Carlos’ family is still looking for answers.

“All my brother wanted was a better life for his family,” said Juana, who belongs to a Mayan community. “When we were growing up, sometimes we had to go barefoot and there wasn’t enough money for all of us. He didn’t want that for his children. We still hope to find him alive.”

Every year, thousands of migrants are killed or disappear attempting the hazardous trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, making it one of the riskiest and deadliest land routes for migrants worldwide, human rights groups say.

Many are compelled to migrate to flee poverty, violence and human rights violations. Because of increasingly restrictive migration policies and limited pathways for safe and regular migration, many resort to precarious and irregular routes. Too often they fall victims to extortion, kidnappings, sexual abuse, forced labour and executions at the hands of criminal gangs or State agents.

Families of disappeared migrants have the right to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.


Claudia Interiano, from Fundación para la Justicia, an NGO that supports the human rights of relatives and disappeared migrants from Central American countries, said the real numbers behind this human tragedy is unknown as many families don’t report the cases of the missing because they lack access to adequate services and State assistance.

Interiano said that besides the profound emotional trauma that comes with the disappearance of a loved one, many families don’t have the financial means to start a complicated administrative case or come from indigenous communities and do not speak Spanish, the official language of government.

“States have legal obligations to find disappeared people, regardless of their nationalities,” Interiano said. “We are talking of international standards. Access to justice needs a transnational approach.”

Protecting human rights

UN Human Rights works with Member States, civil society organizations, national human rights institutions, migrants, families and other stakeholders to ensure access to justice and the human rights protection of all migrants.

The Office also supports independent experts from the Human Rights Mechanisms, such as the Working Group on Forced and Involuntary Disappearances and the Committee against Forced Disappearances, which recently adopted a General Comment on enforced disappearances in the context of migration.

With headquarters in Mexico, Fundación para la Justicia has offices in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and also works with civil society groups and advocates in the United States. Assisted by Fundación para la Justicia, in 2018 Carlos’ family reported his disappearance to the Foreign Search and Investigation Support Mechanism, under Mexico’s Attorney General's Office, since it is in Mexico where Juana believes her brother disappeared.

The family also provided DNA tests to independent forensic experts working with Fundación para la Justicia, which allows for the identification of remains of missing migrants from mass graves found in Mexico and in the United States.

“My mother does not speak Spanish and my father became too old and frail to do the search, so I joined the Association of Relatives of Missing Migrants of Guatemala,” said Juana, 30, who lives with her two children near the village of Chichicastenango, in Guatemala’s Mayan highlands.

“We know of cases of disappeared migrants who had been kidnapped for 10 years before turning up alive, so maybe my brother is among them,” she said, adding that Carlos was 27 at the time.

Family anguish

For every missing migrant, there is a family living in pain and uncertainty.

Luis Alberto López Martínez, from the Association Committee for Dead and Missing Migrants of El Salvador, said families of missing migrants struggle with feelings of guilt, health problems and financial burdens, and have no access to government social benefits or special programs, which pushes families deeper into poverty.

Luis is still searching for his brother, who went missing after leaving El Salvador for the United States in 2001, when the family lost their home in an earthquake. He is also supporting other families find their loved ones.

In the absence of State support, relatives and victim committees have taken the lead in pushing for the creation of forensic data banks for missing migrants and mechanisms of access to transnational justice for migrants and their families, working with Foreign Ministries and Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office.

Luis said the journey through Central America and Mexico toward the U.S. border has always been dangerous, but that violence has worsened in recent years as drug cartel started using the same routes as coyotes, or smugglers. But people continue migrating, pushed by a myriad of reasons, including economic instability, insecurity, gender-based violence or family reunification.

“Many people in El Salvador who migrated in the past used to say: ‘If I am going to get killed anyway in El Salvador I would rather get killed on the way to a better future in the United States’,” he said. But their dream would become the family’s nightmare, he added.

Juana, who makes a living embroidering and struggles to pay for her electricity and water bills, said her 13-year old son has told her that he plans to migrate to the United States one day despite knowing what happened to his uncle.

Interiano, from Fundación para la Justicia, participated this week in the 5th Annual Meeting of the UN Network on Migration in Geneva as part of Migration Week, which discussed the protection of migrants’ rights, among other topics.

“It is important that civil society, governments, human rights mechanisms and U.N. entities, along with the families of missing migrants, work together to provide answers and demand justice,” she said.