MEXICO CITY — More than 60,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico, authorities announced Monday, sharply raising their estimate of those who have vanished in more than a decade of extreme violence by and among organized-crime groups.
The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador released the new figure after an exhaustive analysis of data from state prosecutors. Previously, authorities had estimated the number of victims at 40,000. Most have gone missing since 2006, when Mexico launched an all-out offensive targeting organized-crime groups.
Karla Quintana, head of Mexico’s National Search Commission, which coordinates the effort to find the missing, said at least 61,637 people had disappeared since the 1960s — but the vast majority vanished after the government launched an all-out “war on drugs” in 2006.
The numbers confirm that Mexico is suffering one of the worst crises of “the disappeared” in Latin American history.
In the 1970s and 1980s, forced disappearances in the region became a global human rights concern, as governments systematically detained and killed opponents — most suspected of involvement in leftist insurgencies.
Around 40,000 people went missing in Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. An estimated 30,000 disappeared during Argentina’s “dirty war,” which lasted from 1976 to 1983.
Unlike those countries, though, Mexico has not been at war — at least, not officially. And while militaries were behind most of the Cold War disappearances, narcotraffickers and other criminals are the likely culprits in the majority of the Mexican cases. Authorities suspect many of them worked with corrupt police and politicians.
The announcement highlights the toll of more than a decade of extraordinary violence in Mexico, which shows no sign of abating. Last year, homicides through November topped 31,000, a record. In some regions, organized-crime groups openly battle police and soldiers.
But the updated figure also indicates how López Obrador’s leftist government has given more priority to the issue of the disappeared, after years of official indifference. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has praised National Search Commission, which coordinates the effort to find the missing, even as it has warned that the country faces “enormous challenges” in other areas.
The commission set up a team in the spring that pored over records from state prosecutors’ offices to update the national registry of the disappeared, officials said. The previous official estimate was released in April 2018.
The announcement comes at a sensitive time for López Obrador. He has been widely accused of lacking an effective strategy to combat rising violence. The government’s weakness was exposed in October when Sinaloa cartel gunmen swarmed into the city of Culiacan, forcing authorities to release the son of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, shortly after his arrest.
That was followed weeks later by the brutal murder of three women and six children with dual U.S.-Mexican nationality from a breakaway Mormon community. They lived in an area dominated by drug cartels in the northern state of Sonora.
President Trump has pressured Mexico to confront drug-trafficking groups more aggressively, volunteering to send U.S. troops and warning that he could designate the cartels as terrorist groups. Mexico has rejected any American military deployment.
Analysts cite various motives for such forced disappearances. In some cases, they say, criminals want to hide the evidence of murders, to avoid prosecution. In others, they want to sow terror. Earlier this decade, parts of Mexico turned into virtual extermination camps, with hundreds of bodies of the “disappeared” incinerated in oil drums or dissolved in acid.
But organized-crime groups aren’t the only culprits. In some cases, people have been disappeared by the military or the police. In one of Mexico’s most infamous cases, 43 students were detained near the southern city of Iguala in 2014. They were never seen again. Witnesses last spotted them getting into municipal police trucks.
An initial investigation concluded that the police had turned the students over to local drug dealers, who killed them, in the mistaken belief that they were rivals. That probe has been discredited, and López Obrador has opened a new one.
Authorities continue to find plastic bags containing body parts, many from recent killings, dumped in wells or abandoned buildings.
In September, Quintana released the first official tally of clandestine graves found nationwide since 2006. There were more than 3,000, she said — far more than previous estimates by journalists and academics.
Quintana said the “data of horror” wasn’t just an issue of numbers.
“This is about thousands of people seeking family members who are missing from their homes,” she said.