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The disappeared people of Mexico's drug war

Sandra Weiss
August 30, 2021

August 30 marks International Day of the Disappeared. In Mexico, thousands of people vanish every year. Relatives and human rights activists accuse the state of failing to act.

Demonstrators hold up placards with photos of faces
Protesters take to the streets in Mexico City for missing loved onesImage: Marco Ugarte/AP Photo/picture alliance

Cacti, rock, mountains and gray desert sand, dotted with the remains of abandoned, gutted buildings. That's all there is to see at the foot of the Picachos del Fraile mountain outside the northern Mexican industrial city of Monterrey. Perhaps that's why the drug cartels chose this place to kill and bury their opponents and why the drug war raged particularly fiercely there in 2010. Hundreds of people disappeared.

More than 4,000 mass graves

Some were abducted to work for the cartels or smuggle drugs. Others were arrested by security forces, then their trail was lost.

In July, ten members of the Yaqui indigenous ethnic group disappeared in Sonora state while driving cattle to an auction 85 kilometers away. Relatives suspect their disappearance is connected to Yaqui resistance to mining projects.

An anonymous tip revealed that some of the victims were buried in the desert sands just outside Monterrey. Now a forensic team from the regional prosecutor's office is searching for the bodies. Yellow plastic tape marks an area the size of a soccer field. Officers in white coveralls dig up the ground with picks and shovels. When they find a bone, they pass it on to colleagues who clean the finds with brushes under a plastic tarp and put them into numbered, transparent plastic bags. Then the bones are shipped to the prosecutor's office for DNA testing. The results are then compared with a database of relatives.

Men and women outdoors wearing face masks
Often it's the families who search for the bodies Image: María Ruiz

In a country almost six times the size of Germany, the search for the 90,000 people who have disappeared in the last 15 years is a Sisyphean task. Often relatives are the ones to find crime scenes. Almost 100 private search brigades are underway in Mexico — bakers and farmers, workshop owners and mothers searching for missing relatives. Foreign forensic experts have taught them to appraise witness testimony and properly recover human remains. More than 4,000 secret mass graves have been found, and more than 6,900 bodies recovered.

Shattered relations

Mexico has had three governments since the drug war began in 2006, each from a different political camp. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador likes to refer to the "legacy" of his predecessors, but in 2020 alone, 4,960 disappeared persons were added to the list. In his 2018 election campaign, he promised to help the victims of the drug war and stop the bloodshed. He has not succeeded.

Secretary of State for Human Rights Alejandro Encinas boasts of successful search operations and training for regional investigative agencies, and is quick to point out that in the pandemic year of 2020, reports of disappearances fell by 22%.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was voted into office in 2018Image: Jose Mendez/Agencia EFE/imago images

But the relationship between the relatives and the government is shattered. In April, the ruling Morena party decided to reform the prosecutor's office — a reform that disregards recommendations from human rights activists and the UN, and exempts the General Prosecutor's Office (FGR) from the obligation to coordinate the search for the disappeared. The Citizens' Council to the National Prosecutor's Office, which was only introduced in 2018, has been diluted, as has the obligation to allow relatives to inspect files or the possibility of requesting independent expert opinions, Volga del Pino, advisor to the National Movement for Our Disappeared organization, told the Animal Politico portal. Observers suspect parts of the state security forces are in cahoots with the cartels and are involved in the disappearances.

Drug wars: Mothers searching for their sons

'Don't put the burden on the families'

Investigations are once again the responsibility of regional prosecutors' offices — the very authorities that have always been the focus of criticism. Of the 23,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2018, prosecutors have registered only one out of three as victims of a crime (which entails an obligation to investigate), according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a US human rights organization. According to WOLA, the majority of minors who disappear are girls, but not a single authority is looking into trafficking of women.

"Families have the right to be involved in the investigation and search," said WOLA's Stephanie Brewer. "But that doesn't mean the state should be putting the burden of the investigation on the families, putting them at high risk."

This article has been translated from German.