- The Mexican government has resources to investigate “bogus” missing person cases, which it says are reported by political opponents or involve people returning home without notifying authorities.
- Human rights groups say there is a lack of significant efforts to trace actual missing persons, causing frustration among families.
- Family members of the missing have volunteered to lead search teams as authorities allegedly neglect investigative efforts.
The Mexican government is devoting resources to identifying what it suggests are “false” missing persons – cases reported by political opponents to embarrass the government or kidnappers who return home but do not notify authorities.
But officials are making no significant effort to find actual missing persons, angering the families of the 113,000 “disappeared” in Mexico.
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They are outraged that the administration of President Andrés Manuel López spent nearly a year, a lot of money and thousands of man hours combing databases to see if a presumed missing person has applied for a loan, paid taxes, registered to vote or been vaccinated flu.
López Obrador said last week that he expected to release the first partial results of the recount soon. Claiming that the numbers of missing people – some 47,000 since he took office in 2018 – have been inflated to make him look bad, he said: “We are going house to house because we have found many of the people who were reported missing. “
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But the government has not bothered to conduct even the most rudimentary investigation of the tens of thousands of missing people, or to identify some 50,000 unidentified bodies piled in morgues and paupers’ graves, or the bone fragments found in mass graves and makeshift crematoria.
“It’s not that they’re worried about the victims,” said Hector Flores, whose son disappeared in 2021. “They’re interested in further reducing the number of missing people.”
Flores has spent two harrowing years since his son’s disappearance, leading one of dozens of volunteer search teams made up of relatives who do the often gruesome, dangerous investigative work that authorities won’t do.
López Obrador sees politics behind the growing number of “disappeared”. He boasts of a slight decrease in homicides in Mexico, but critics point to a large increase in the number of people missing. Critics say homicides may be down a bit simply because drug cartels simply bury or destroy bodies to hide the evidence.
Jacobo Dayan, an international law expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, agrees that “there is clearly manipulation of numbers for political reasons,” but suggests that it is being done by the authorities.
Rather than inflating the numbers, Dayan said, “they’re grossly understated … there are (state) prosecutors who haven’t updated their figures in months.” He said migrants, who are often killed in Mexico, are significantly underrepresented in official figures.
Adrian LeBaron, the father of a woman who was one of nine U.S. citizens killed in a drug cartel ambush in the northern border state of Sonora four years ago, says the government routinely understates both homicides and disappearances.
LeBaron filed a legal complaint Wednesday accusing Mexican officials of underreporting the true death toll. Prosecutors in Sonora filed a report on the day of the 2019 ambush saying a total of only five people had been killed that day in the entire state.
Referring to the government’s census of the missing, LeBaron said, “They’re trying to make the missing disappear.”
López Obrador says he ordered the year-long manhunt for a “fake” missing person because his opponents were inflating the numbers.
“We will show that the registry as it exists was a mistake. It wasn’t just inefficiency; there was a conscious effort to harm my administration,” he said on November 13.
López Obrador has accused human rights groups, the former director of the government’s commission of inquiry himself, and even the Organization of American States.
The president also claims that new agencies such as the National Search Committee were created during his tenure. he encouraged more people to come forward and report cases, which accounts for part of the increase in his tenure.
Karla Quintana, whom López Obrador appointed to head the Commission of Inquiry, said “people may be more confident in reporting a disappearance” because of the new services. But Quintana, who resigned in August, also said the president’s new census is primarily aimed at reducing the number of victims.
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No one doubts that the president’s effort will find people who aren’t actually missing, but whose cases are still on the books.
Given the little attention and effort prosecutors and police give to missing persons cases, some people who return alive do not see a priority in contacting authorities who never sought them in the first place. Others may have been released by cartels or kidnappers with a warning not to contact officials.
The fear of these same criminal gangs has almost certainly prevented large numbers of people from reporting their relatives missing.
In western Mexico, the priest of a cartel-dominated town – who asked not to be named for security reasons – recounted how he brought to the local cartel boss the concerns of a local mother whose son had been kidnapped by the gang a couple of years ago years.
The cartel leader’s response was simple: “Tell her not to look for him,” the priest recounted. Coming from a gang leader, this may seem like an order or a threat in many parts of Mexico.
The authorities’ lack of interest is evident to many. There are so many secret graves and dumping sites throughout Mexico that dogs sometimes dig up bodies before officials do.
Incompetence also plays a role.
Braulio Caballero was 14 when he was fatally struck by a speeding vehicle outside a Mexico City subway station in 2016. Officials did not identify the boy, so his parents were not notified.
The distraught couple asked street vendors and taxi drivers and put up wanted posters. David Peña, the family’s attorney, said city officials told the parents they had no staff available to help with the investigation, not even to post flyers.
An ambulance driver had picked up the unidentified boy, but gave his estimated age incorrectly, about 20. It wasn’t until six years later, when his parents again listed him missing with the age he would have been at the time — 20 — that authorities matched the case with the unknown young man who had run away in 2016.
Officials never looked at the boy’s backpack, which held his schoolwork and almost certainly had his name on it. The backpack was lost at the hospital where he was briefly treated before he died.
“I think if the government is interested in matching information from data banks, it should have done it from day one of this administration, not in the last year to reduce the numbers,” Peña said. “They should have made it a priority (to find) the disappeared.”
The government spends little on the search for the missing. Volunteers must support non-existent official investigative teams in hunting down secret graves where the cartels hide their victims. The government has not adequately funded or implemented a genetic database to help identify the remains found.
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In a small victory, activist Delia Quiroa won a court order forcing the government to pay for the gasoline she uses to comb empty fields and abandoned houses for the remains of her brother, Roberto, who was abducted by gunmen in the violent northern border state. Tamaulipas in 2014.
Victims’ relatives rely on anonymous tips — sometimes from former cartel gunmen — to find suspected body disposal sites. They sink long steel rods into the earth to detect the scent of death.
If they find something, most authorities will do is send a team of police and forensics to recover the remains, which in most cases are never identified.
It leaves volunteer investigators feeling caught between two hostile forces: murderous drug gangs and a government obsessed with denying the scale of the problem. At least half a dozen volunteer researchers have been killed since 2021.
“If they kill me, don’t let my case go unsolved,” Quiroa wrote, referring to the government.