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Mexico’s federal authorities continue to overlook key lines of investigation into the disappearances of 36 people in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, while failing to protect the victims’ families who have alleged the Navy’s involvement in the disappearances, Amnesty International said today.

“The Federal Attorney General’s Office is losing crucial time in its investigations into these disappearances, which gives those suspected of criminal responsibility the chance to cover their tracks. The investigators must step up their efforts to find the victims while they’re still alive,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

“The authorities must urgently activate effective protection measures for witnesses and victims’ family members, who often see little option but to risk their safety, jobs and livelihoods in the desperate search for their loved ones.”

On 22 July, the Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) announced 150 measures that it had taken in the investigations into the disappearances of 36 people between January and May in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state.

Although the PGR update showed that the investigations accelerated since the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Enforced Disappearances took charge of the investigation in early June, nearly all the 150 measures taken consisted of letters sent to other officials. Thus far, the investigators have conducted very few interviews, site visits or search missions. 

Many of the victims’ families have denounced the involvement of the Navy, based on witness testimony and audio-visual material collected during the events, but the Special Prosecutor’s Office has not inspected any of the military naval bases in Nuevo Laredo to date. The investigators gave advance warning of planned inspections of naval bases, thus alerting any potential suspects stationed there, but later said the visits were aborted due to violence in the area.

On 29 July, the PGR announced that the Mexican Army had discovered an arsenal of firearms alongside 137 banners that blamed the Navy for disappearances and killings in Nuevo Laredo. The banners, which bore generic images and did not feature the names of specific victims, did not resemble those that Amnesty International has observed victims’ families using in public protests.  

“In recent months, the Navy has repeatedly sought to undermine the legitimacy of victims of grave human rights violations in Nuevo Laredo. The Federal Attorney General’s Office must approach this recent discovery with objectivity to avoid inflicting further damage on the victims’ families,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas. 

Witnesses and family members have reported suffering threats, harassment, assaults and abductions after filing complaints with the authorities. The PGR said it requested federal police protection for at least seven of the victims’ families in early June, but a number of families, including several of those cited by the PGR, told Amnesty International they have not received police protection to date.

In its recent public announcement, the PGR did not state whether it had reviewed several key pieces of evidence, including fingerprints, videos of abductions carried out by uniformed men, and other information requested by the victims’ families.

One available video shows the events surrounding the arrest of 32-year-old José Luis Bautista Carrillo in front of dozens of witnesses in a car parts junkyard on 16 May. Amnesty International’s weapons and forensic experts analyzed the footage and concluded that the suspects appeared to be professionally trained and equipped with vehicles, uniforms and weapons – including Sig516 rifles – that strongly resemble those used by the Navy.

In another case, surveillance camera footage shows armed and uniformed men enter the house of José Daniel Trejo García in Nuevo Laredo on 27 March, before emerging with two men and loading them aboard their vehicles. Amnesty International verified that the date and the address of the footage matched the information in the criminal complaint his wife filed with the PGR.

While criminal gangs are reported to sometimes disguise themselves as state security forces, Amnesty International believes there is sufficient evidence for the authorities to conduct thorough, independent and impartial investigations into the Navy’s alleged involvement in these disappearances.

Amnesty International researchers visited Nuevo Laredo in June and spoke to state and federal authorities, victims’ families, lawyers, human rights ombudsman and other experts.