The missing and murdered Indigenous people movement in Canada has been gaining increasing awareness in the past few months. More and more groups are lobbying the federal government to call a national inquiry into the disappearances and murders of thousands of First Nations men and women.
The total numbers are shocking. But is this a new phenomenon? By looking at the plight of other Indigenous peoples of the Americas, we can gain a better understanding of how to deal with this issue. Although people go missing and are murdered in every society and in every culture, Indigenous peoples around the globe face higher mortality, violence and ‘forced disappearance’ rates then that of non-Indigenous people.
Prominent human rights activist Bertha Oliva was at Six Nations last Thursday to draw attention to the plight of thousands of people in Honduras who have been the victims of forced disappearances in the past few decades. Oliva is the General Coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained (COFADEH) in Honduras and just wrapped up a speaking tour in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
Oliva spoke about the common struggles that all Indigenous people of the Americas face including high rates of murders, violence, and disappearances as well as struggles with displacement and pipelines. Through an interpreter, Oliva spoke about the human rights situation in Honduras where entire communities are being exploited and environmental degradation is a huge problem.
COFADEH, Oliva explained, was created in 1979, in response to a 10-year government war on its citizens where, “people were detained, tortured and killed as a result of state policy.” Oliva said that when COFADEH was first created, “Our intentions were to find people alive but we realized we weren’t going to find anyone alive. So finding truth was the only thing that could provide us with any sense of justice and a sense of peace.” She also stated that none of the crimes of the past have been recognized and the perpetrators have never been brought to justice. “It’s like we went 40 years backwards,” said Oliva.
Honduras has one of the highest rates of homicide in the world, averaging around 19 murders a day. “It’s important that we tell the story about our work and coordinate with international solidarity efforts,” explained Oliva.
Many countries in Central and South America have experienced civil wars and endured government and military corruption for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people have gone missing as a result. Mass graves have been found in many of these countries in the past few years and many more people remain unaccounted for.
Disappearances work on two levels: they create uncertainty and fear in the wider community and secondly, they silence those who have disappeared.
During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, over 45,000 people disappeared, all at the hands of soldiers and paramilitaries. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons website, “Almost all the victims are believed to have been killed, often after being raped, tortured or both, then buried in mass graves, ditches and wells. Many were hurled from helicopters into the sea or volcanic craters.”
According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Mexico’s Disappeared, from 2006-2012 more then 60,000 people perished when Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico, launched a full-scale attack on drug cartels operating in Mexico. Even people who were simply accused of being involved with drugs were killed. In a document leaked to HRW by the Ministry of the Interior and Federal Prosecutor’s Office, more then 25,000 people went missing during the Calderon years and their fates remain unknown. The result was the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades.
The plight of missing Indigenous people in North America is not an isolated case. By comparing the circumstances around missing people of Central and South America we can gain some common ground and begin to understand why and how so many Indigenous people are disappearing at alarming rates in Canada and why the government is doing next to nothing to locate these people.