on the political gravity of a word
A slightly different newsletter from me today…
I’ve been waylaid by a number of long investigations, both for my staff job and for some freelance gigs, and I’ve also been putting finishing touches on my next book, which I’ll be announcing in more detail soon, all of which is why I’ve been slightly delinquent with these newsletters. And, instead of a book review and reflection, here is an exploratory article for a longer project I’ve been circling about enforced disappearances as a political tool.
Basically, I’m thinking through the connection between disappearance and mass surveillance, how surveillance so over-exposes us, so appears us, that it has opened up room for authoritarian actors to wield its opposite: to disappear.
(Note: this article was written in collaboration with America Bañuelos, an intern I worked with who studied this past semester at Earlham College’s Border Studies Program in Tucson.)
The woman was standing under the hot Sonoran sun, toeing at a large black plastic bag. “There’s something in here,” she said. “I think it’s a body.”
Bodies are what the woman was looking for. Two bodies in particular: that of her first son, Alejandro, who was last seen in 2015 when he was 21 years old; and her second son, Marco Antonio, who was last seen in 2019 when he was 32 years old.
The woman is Cecilia Patricia Flores, the founder and leader of Madres Buscadoras de Sonora. The group of predominantly women — mostly mothers — is dedicated to searching for sons, daughters, husbands, and other loved ones who have been disappeared.
“I ask myself the same question every night, every morning, and there is no response,” Flores told me. The question: “Where are my sons?”
In an age of blanket cellphone coverage, constant connectivity, and mass surveillance, it might seem hard for someone to go and stay missing. Yet, in Mexico alone, nearly 100,000 people have been disappeared since 2006, the year the Mexican government launched the latest iteration of the so-called drug war.
To disappear, in popular parlance, is to seemingly vanish into thin air — visible one moment and then gone the next. Politically, according to Article Two of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance — adopted the same year, 2006, that Mexico launched its Drug War — a disappearance is the deprivation of freedom of a person by or with the support of the State or a political organization, along with refusal to acknowledge the disappearance or give information on the fate or whereabouts of that person.
While the situation of someone whisked away (in whatever manner) so that their loved ones cannot ascertain their whereabouts may seem like it simply is what it is — a disappearance — not all such circumstances rise to the threshold of officially constituting an enforced disappearance. Distinctions between types of disappearances are important, even if they’re not always clear. According to the UN, enforced disappearances involve “gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law," thus differentiating them from kidnappings and abductions, even when they result in the victim being irrecoverably lost.
Attorney and researcher Natalie Cadwalader-Schultheis describes the different categories of disappearances:
voluntary disappearance (someone, for whatever reason, ducks out of their world)
forced disappearance (think: kidnappings)
enforced disappearance that are not a crime against humanity (differentiated from kidnappings as they’re perpetrated systematically or by state or state-adjacent actors)
enforced disappearance that are a crime against humanity.
But the lines blur. And researchers and officials frequently mischaracterize and fail to count disappearances.
Consider two examples.
First, taken from a list of harms inflicted on migrants after being expelled from the US to Mexico under recent anti-asylum provisions:
In 2021 a migrant woman from Honduras was kidnapped and sexually assaulted after federal police agents in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez abducted her and handed her over to a criminal group in the early morning hours of June 10.
Second, from a 2018 report written by No More Deaths about migrants going missing in the US-Mexico borderlands:
A man contacted the Missing Migrant Crisis Line in August of 2015 to report that his brother, Cirilio, had been crossing through the South Texas desert in a group when, according to another group member, they were pursued by a helicopter. This group member had called to tell Cirilio’s family that he had been left behind in the “middle of the desert” with symptoms consistent with heat exhaustion. The group left him with food and water. Eight months later, Cirilio has not been found.
Neither of these incidents, that of the Honduran woman or Cirilio, are officially counted as enforced disappearances. What are they counted as? In the first case, a kidnapping. In the second case, there’s no tallying or even official recognition.
Such miscategorizations of the disappeared are, in effect, disappearing disappearances.
The terrenos baldíos, or brownland lots, that Ceci and the other mothers were searching the day I accompanied them were dry fields flecked with garbage and thornbushes.
Next to a sandy arroyo were a couple long abandoned buildings, gutted and fire-torched. I walked into a once-grand room with walls covered in graffiti, rubble on the floor. After climbing a crumbling staircase I found a series of ceiling-torn offices specked with signs of human desperation: body-liquid-soaked cushions lined up for sleeping, piles of women’s underwear, syringes, feces, shattered glass.
The places seemed settings for rapine, screaming, unutterable violence, maybe occasionally moments of reprieve or the transcendence for lost souls. As I poked around, I could hear one of the mothers outside sifting through ashpiles for bones. Another cracked her shovel trying to pry up a hunk of fallen concrete.
People have gone missing for as long as there have been people. But only after the rise of modern technologies have people been systematically disappeared. Before we expected to be able to stay in ready contact with each other, when you lost touch with someone the problem could have been a simple breakdown in communication or record keeping. Then, beginning in the 20th century, once we all began to be so abundantly accounted for — through civil registries and mass communication — not hearing from someone you expected to hear from took on a different weight. And oppressive and authoritarian governments began wielding and exploiting that assumption of connectivity by disconnecting select people.
Forced disappearances, as a political tactic, have been carried out only since Adolf Hitler issued the Nacht und Nebel, or Night and Fog, decree in 1941, targeting those guilty of “offenses against the Reich.” Explaining that merely forcing offenders into penal servitude would be a sign of weakness, Heinrich Himmler instructed the Gestapo: “An effective and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by taking measures which will leave the family and the population uncertain as to the fate of the offender.”
That uncertainty is the axehead, the cable-cutters, of disappearances.
In the decades after Nacht und Nebel, forced disappearances became a recognized tactic, used against populations in Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.
The clear difference between these more notorious disappearances (whether government thugs dropping people out of helicopters or burying them in the high Atacama desert) and the migrants (abducted by Mexican police and sold to criminal groups or pushed into the desert’s oblivion by US border policy) does not make the latter not disappearances.
Cadwalader-Schultheis has collected at least 24 case examples of migrants (from data published by Human Rights First) who were forcibly removed from the United States to Mexico under anti-asylum programs that, despite meeting the definition of enforced disappearance set by Mexican statues, the Inter-American Convention on forced disappearance of persons, and the UN convention, have not been categorized as any kind of disappearance.
Here there are three key questions that are knotted together: why are these disappearances happening, how are they happening, and why are researchers, politicians, and the media not recognizing them for what they are? Starting not with answering but more precisely considering the first two questions proves revealing.
In Romania in the 1950s and 60s, the beginning of a series of forced disappearances — including that of my great uncle — were carried out by the Securitate, the secret police organization tasked with spying on the general population.
Mexico, where more disappearances are carried out today than in any other country in the world, was the first country to acquire the powerful surveillance software, Pegasus, according to a recent New York Times article. Mexico bought the spyware in 2011, sealing the deal with the Israeli company at a stripclub in Mexico City. According to the Times, since then, “Mexico’s military is not only Pegasus’ longest-running client… but it has also targeted more cellphones with the spyware than any other government agency in the world.”
In one disturbing case, according to a group of experts who spoke to the Times, the Mexican military was using Pegasus to spy on people involved in the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School.
“It is not clear why the military was spying, but the intelligence was not used to help find the students,” experts told the Times
As recently as 2022, the Mexican government used Pegasus to infiltrate the cellphones of two of the country’s leading human rights defenders, both of whom have provided legal representation to the victims of the 43 disappeared students. In at least this case, invasive surveillance seems to have aided the government to affect the disappearance.
Surveillance along the US-Mexico border — another location with proliferating state-sponsored persecution — has similarly been used to implement disappearances.
According to a new surveillance map of the border, there are at least 300 surveillance towers along the US-Mexico border, as well as about 50 more to be installed in the near future. The towers are in addition to surveillance blimps, predator drones, and ground sensors. Geographers Geoff Boyce and Sam Chambers mapped surveillance towers, as well as walls and checkpoints, which combine to create a “corral apparatus” that funnels migrants into more remote areas, pushing them into areas of the desert that they don’t come back from.
As Chambers put it to Context: "Out here, surveillance equals death." 2022 was the deadliest year on record along the US-Mexico border, with at least 853 migrant deaths and an unknown number of disappearances.
Surveillance, whether in the Reich, Romania, Mexico, or the US–Mexico borderlands, is an essential component of disappearance.
“Enforced disappearances are a compound crime, involving both an act and a failure to act, as well as an omission of information,” according to a study conducted by Boston University law students, Kaitlin Ostling and Jacob Palmer, who were supervised and edited by Clinical Professor Susan M. Akram.
There are multiple levels of compounding omission. The first omission is enacted by the initial perpetrator: the person or agency conducting the disappearance and then obfuscating the whereabouts of the victim. The second omission is perpetrated by investigative or law enforcement officials, as well as (in what could be called a third omission) by researchers and politicians when they do not call a disappearance a disappearance.
That is, using terms like kidnapping, abduction, or missing persons is more than just imprecise. Such misclassifications minimize the gravity of the crimes and provide cover for their perpetrators — further burying the disappeared under a cloak of political and linguistic dereliction.
“Migrant disappearances at the southern [US] border constitute enforced disappearances,” Ostling and Palmer write, “because of the critical role U.S. border policy plays in deliberately engineering and maintaining conditions designed to cause their deaths and disappearance.” While Department of Homeland Security officials may not be relying on jackboots, zip-ties, and helicopter rides, the effect of their policies “foreseeably exposes migrants to mortal peril, and then provides no effective mechanisms to remedy that disappearance.”
It would be inaccurate to call these disappearances anything but.
Gilman Llanlouy Agrámon Tello, the son of another mother I met with, Guadalupe, was disappeared in northern Sonora in 2021. Despite repeatedly seeking help from Mexican authorities, there has been no real official effort to find him. "It's a constant search,” Guadalupe said. “You never finish because that's all you have. You lose friends, you even lose family because there's nothing else you can talk about and people get annoyed constantly listening to you because there's never anything else on your mind."
“My world,” she says, "has become so small."
That world-shrinking, that narrowing of the realm, is one of the key attributes of disappearances. In this way, too, surveillance and disappearance are related. In their efforts to spy on and to infiltrate the ongoings of its citizens, the state can only ever achieve a keyhole view of a subject, target, or objectiv. Through the tactic of forced disappearances, the state imposes such a keyhole view on the family of the victim. Both surveillance and disappearance weaponize emotional and physical distance.
In that hot and shattered brownland lot outside of Hermosillo, Ceci stopped struggling at the fat knot in the plastic bag, and asked if I would help.
I wondered about gloves: was I potentially tampering with evidence or contracting some invasive bacterium? But there was Ceci, looking at me, and she’d already been handling the bag. I squatted down and started fussing at the knot. The plastic was hard and hot, the knot tight, and after a bit of struggle, with the weight of whatever was inside anchoring the bag to the desert dirt, I asked if I should use a knife.
I bladed open a small slit in the bag and we both leaned in to peer. “More,” Ceci said. I pried apart the plastic.
“Dog,” Ceci said flatly. “Es un perro.”
I squinted an eye and could see the matted white fur. I asked who would dump a dead dog in a plastic bag, and Ceci shrugged again. We would find two other dogs in bags that day.
At one point, a dog in training to sniff out dead bodies — Milagro was his name — started pawing at the dirt in a corner outside of a broken building, and one of the volunteers got out a shovel to start digging. Another mom, wearing a black-and-blue keffiyeh with sparkles, pulled a long, thick rebar pole, with a T-handle, out of one of the trucks and began impaling the littered dirt where Milagro had picked up a scent. She stabbed, twisted, and then pulled the pole’s tip up to her nose to sniff. She said the smell of a buried body is unmistakable, but struggled to explain it: “It’s like old dead body,” she said. “You can see the fat dripping off the pole if it’s a recent burial,” she said.
The whole day, a bevy of state police officers, hot in their all-black uniforms, laconic and lazy, sauntered along behind us. Their commander, or whatever his rank was, never got out of the truck. One of the police women draped a black shirt over her head to protect herself from the sun. Ceci’s third son, Jesús, frequently checked in with the officers, asking if they wanted water or oranges. The police were tasked with protecting Ceci, but, she said, “I fear the authorities more than the cartels.”
“The authorities are not doing their job, so that leaves us to do it. If they were looking, we wouldn’t have to look.”
After getting too much sun, the moms leaned against the open trunk of the SUV, ate oranges and drank down mini-bottles of trunk-warmed water. Ceci said she was hungry and started thumbing through culinary TikToks. She cackled at a young woman loudly slurping noodles through her chopsticks.
When we got back to the Madres Buscadoras office, one of the women who had stayed behind was “almost done” with making a huge pot of fish stew. As the broth steamed next to them, the women sat down on sofas and lost themselves into their phones.
The office was a tiny two-room apartment. A mattress sagged against a wall in the back room next to a leaning stack of recently donated shovels, picks, and rakes.
An hour or so later the soup was ready and we went outside and sat at a long plastic table in the hot shade. The red-broth flounder-and-shrimp stew was spicy to begin with, but all of the women sprinkled in more chiltepín from an old Pringles can. It was deeply delicious, tasting like our souls were being scraped clean. There were four tall stacks of tortillas on the table, and Ceci served Coke from a three-liter bottle. We ate with plastic spoons, sweating over our bowls, fingers sticky with shrimp parts.
With my bowl empty and sinus-cleared from the chiltepín, I started saying goodbyes. As I stepped around a chair to reach Ceci, I almost tripped into a hole in the ground.
“We checked,” Ceci said, laughing. “You never know where they’ll bury a body.”