According to Mexico’s National Search Commission, which has been keeping track of disappearances since 1964, about 100,000 people have vanished in the country.
The majority of them are believed to have been murdered by drug gangs, and their remains are strewn throughout the desert in secret graves, mingling in communal pits, or hacked to bits and left on arid hillsides.
Death can feel pervasive in a country racked by an unending drug war. Murder rates have been steadily increasing and now exceed 30,000 each year. Since the peak of Mexico’s drug war in 2006-2012, searchers have discovered that gangs frequently use the same locations, creating grisly killing fields.
However, disappearance can be the most devastating blow. Families are deprived of even the simple certainty and consolation of death.
“Disappearance is perhaps the most extreme form of suffering for the relatives of victims,” Angélica Durán-Martínez, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and an expert on violence in Latin America, told The New York Times.
According to Ms. Durán-Martínez, Mexico’s missing people crisis reflects the prevalence of organized crime and the willingness of state security officers to participate in the violence.
Karla Quintana Osuna, a Harvard-trained lawyer who previously worked at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, leads the effort. In 2019, when she began working for the search commission, there were approximately 40,000 people who had been officially reported missing.
“The challenge is abysmal, it’s titanic,” Quintana said. “As long as there is no justice, a clear message is being sent that this can continue to happen.”
According to César Peniche Espejel, the attorney general of Chihuahua, one of Mexico’s most violent states, improved forensic technology and search equipment such as drones have aided in discovering the bodies.
“Every day, every day across the country, disappearances continue to be reported,” César Peniche Espejel said. “That’s what the federal government has been unable to tackle.”
The most recent data shows an additional 6,453 people were reported missing or disappeared between September 2020 and the end of July.
For a long time, searchers and the police have focused on finding graves and identifying remains rather than gathering evidence of how they died or who killed them. Sometimes search groups receive anonymous suggestions regarding where bodies are buried, information that is likely only available to the killers or their accomplices, Fox News reported.
Noemy Padilla Aldáz, for example, has been searching for her son, Juan Carlos, for the past two years.
“If I knew he was dead, then I would know that he’s not suffering,” she said. “But we don’t know, and it’s like torture, that not knowing.”
Aldáz also refuses to give up the search for her missing son.
“Sometimes I think that he could still be alive, other times I tell myself he’s not,” she said. “But I still have hope.”