Posted on November 15, 2018

‘It’s a Crisis of Civilization in Mexico.’ 250,000 Dead. 37,400 Missing.

José de Córdoba and Juan Montes, Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2028

One recent day, a line of grieving mothers armed with picks and shovels worked their way across a muddy field looking for Mexico’s dead and missing, their own children among them.

“It smells bad here,” said Lizbeth Ortega, a member of Las Rastreadoras de El Fuerte, or the Trackers of El Fuerte, a group of mothers who look for missing people.

The mothers literally wear their pain. Some don white T-shirts, like Ms. Ortega’s, which has a blown-up photograph of her daughter Zumiko, kidnapped almost three years ago and still missing. On the back, her shirt says “I’ll search for you until I find you.”

Other mothers wear green shirts with the words “Promise Fulfilled.” They are the ones who have found the bodies of their missing children.


Some 37,000 people in Mexico are categorized as “missing” by the government. The vast majority are believed to be dead, victims of the country’s spiraling violence that has claimed more than 250,000 lives since 2006. The country’s murder rate has more than doubled to 26 per 100,000 residents, five times the U.S. figure.

Because the missing aren’t counted as part of the country’s official murder tally, it is likely Mexico’s rate itself is higher.

The killing and the number of missing grow each year. Last year, 5,500 people disappeared, up from 3,400 in 2015. Mexico’s murders are up another 18% through September this year.


The sheer numbers of the disappeared now rival more famous cases of missing people in Latin American history.

The Disappeared, or Desaparecidos, became a chilling part of Latin America’s vocabulary during the Cold War, when security forces kidnapped, killed and disposed of the bodies of tens of thousands of leftist guerrillas as well as civilian sympathizers. The most infamous case is Argentina’s “Dirty War,” where at least 10,000 people vanished from 1976 to 1983. In Buenos Aires, mothers of the missing organized weekly vigils in front of Argentina’s presidential palace, gaining world-wide prominence.


{snip} Many of the disappeared in recent years are believed to be the victims of violence unleashed by criminal gangs fighting to control drug routes and other lucrative businesses such as extortion, kidnapping and the theft of gasoline from pipelines, often with the complicity of police forces, government officials say.


Since 2007, more than 1,300 clandestine graves have been discovered, according to Mexico’s human-rights commission. On Monday, a group of investigative journalists said the government number was far too low. Based on data obtained through freedom-of-information requests from 24 of Mexico’s 32 states for the years 2006 to 2016, the group said at least 1,978 clandestine graves had been discovered.

A complex of graves located last year near the Gulf Coast port of Veracruz has so far yielded the remains of 296 people. In September, at least 174 cadavers were found in another clutch of graves in the same state. Images of children’s clothing found on the gravesite, including that of a 6-month-old infant, were put online, clues for parents searching for lost ones.

While most victims are young, male and poor, anyone can be disappeared in Mexico. Central American migrants hoping to illegally enter the U.S. are targets. At a recent protest to raise attention to the issue at Mexico’s independence monument, relatives of a federal tax collector stood shoulder to shoulder with relatives of businessmen, a baker, and college students, each holding up large signs with photographs of their missing relatives and phone numbers where they could be reached.


No one knows with certainty how many Mexicans have disappeared. Victims’ families as well as outside experts and government authorities all say the number is probably much higher than the official tally of just over 37,400.

Nancy Gocher, spokeswoman for Serapaz, a group that helps coordinate survivor and search groups throughout the country, said they believe only four in 10 disappearances are reported to authorities. Michael Chamberlin, who consults for several human-rights organizations, said the total number of disappeared could be four times the official figure.

The main reason for not reporting is fear of reprisals by judicial authorities, criminals, and police, especially municipal police, who in many parts of Mexico collude with criminal gangs. The entire municipal police force in Acapulco was recently suspended on suspicion of cooperating with local gangs. Mexico’s navy now patrols the port city.

“In more than a third of all disappearances, the perpetrators are identified as agents of the state,” said Karina Ansolabehere, a researcher at México’s National Autonomous University, citing studies of some 1,500 disappearances in the border states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. The studies draw from testimony by relatives of the victims who were able to identify the kidnappers.


In 2016, Human Rights Watch produced a study that documented the involvement of security forces on 149 cases of what are known as “enforced disappearances” where the armed forces and Mexican police were involved.

Earlier this year, the U.N. accused Mexico’s navy, whose marines work closely with U.S. counternarcotics intelligence and are often on the front lines of the drug war, of disappearing at least 23 people in the state of Tamaulipas, including five minors in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. The bodies of at least six of the disappeared were later found.

Residents say many of the disappearances and killings took place when the marines went on a rampage after cartel gunmen attacked three navy patrols, killing a marine captain and wounding 12 marines in the predawn hours of Palm Sunday.


In response to the allegations by the U.N. and Mexico’s human-rights agency, the navy said in a statement it had brought all the 257 officers and men who were based in Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City. It said it would cooperate with all investigations and proceed “rigorously.”

The most notorious case of disappeared in Mexico laid bare the links between local security forces and criminal gangs. In 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in violent, heroin-producing Guerrero state were detained by police in the city of Iguala. A government investigation determined that the police turned the students over to gunmen from a local cartel who killed them, burned their bodies and threw the ashes into a nearby river.

After an independent probe, an international group of experts theorized that the students, who were taking part in an annual protest against a 1968 student massacre, unwittingly commandeered a local bus containing heroin bound for the U.S. Local police, meant to protect the shipment, believed the students were members of a rival cartel.

Until that case, Mexico’s disappeared were mostly ignored. But the mass abduction shocked the nation, and gave them a public face. Since then, a loosely knit network of more than 50 colectivos — searchers’ groups mostly composed of grieving mothers — has cropped up around the country.


Only one bone fragment belonging to a missing student has been positively identified. In the months following Ayotzinapa, searchers looking for the lost students found remains belonging to more than 130 people who had previously disappeared, including a Ugandan-born Catholic priest.

The scandal forced Mexican authorities to enact a new law on disappearances in late 2017. The law orders the creation of a national registry of forensic data, which would include DNA information from unidentified and unclaimed bodies as well as DNA from relatives of the missing. The law prohibits the incineration or burial of unidentified bodies. A government-financed national search commission is supposed to search for the missing, a task that relatives have done, almost alone.

The new law is largely unfunded and barely operating. Advocacy groups say at least $250 million is needed to implement it, but this year’s budget grants only $25 million. Some $15 million of that sum was transferred to Mexico’s 32 states.

So far, Mexico’s government has managed to put a name to only 340 out of the 35,000 unidentified corpses in morgues and public cemeteries across the country, according to top government officials.

In September, residents found an 18-wheeler refrigerator truck rented by Jalisco state stuffed with 157 cadavers parked in an unused field. The morgue in the state capital of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, was crammed with unclaimed bodies that, under the new law, couldn’t be buried. Bad smells and dripping blood from the truck led to the neighbors’ gory discovery. Officials later acknowledged that a second truck was also being used to store bodies.