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Mexico's official list of missing people passes 100,000, with few cases ever solved

Mexico marks a grim milestone: The number of people officially listed as disappeared now exceeds 100,000. Many are victims of drug cartels, journalists, human rights advocates and Indigenous people.

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Protesters carry images of disappeared people on Mother's Day during an annual march by the mothers of missing people to demand the Mexican government step up efforts to locate the missing and prevent further disappearances, in Mexico City, May 10.
Protesters carry images of disappeared people on Mother's Day during an annual march by the mothers of missing people to demand the Mexican government step up efforts to locate the missing and prevent further disappearances, in Mexico City, May 10. Eduardo Verdugo | AP
Updated May 18, 2022 at 3:04 PM ET

MEXICO CITY — Mexico marked a grim milestone this week: The number of people officially listed as disappeared passed 100,000.

A national database for the missing began in the 1960s, but the numbers really shot up after 2006, when Mexico's government launched a U.S.-backed war against drug cartels.

Relatives of the disappeared and human rights advocates say Mexican authorities must do more to bring about truth and justice for the victims.

"The scourge of disappearances is a human tragedy of enormous proportions," said Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

Virginia Garay says her then 19-year-old son Bryan left the house in February 2018, and never came back. He left for work, selling hot dogs, just three blocks from their home in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit.

He never made it to work. And she has never stopped looking for him.

Garay is part of a growing number of mothers and relatives digging around Mexico, underneath clandestine graves. The authorities do little to solve missing person cases, she says.

"Literally we dig in the dirt looking for the disappeared," Garay tells NPR.

Virginia Garay is part of a national search brigade in Mexico, digging in hidden graves and elsewhere for her missing son, who is pictured on her hat. Her son, Bryan, went disappeared when he was 19 years old in February 2018.
Virginia Garay is part of a national search brigade in Mexico, digging in hidden graves and elsewhere for her missing son, who is pictured on her hat. Her son, Bryan, went disappeared when he was 19 years old in February 2018. Jesus Alvarado | picture alliance via Getty Image

According to investigative journalist Marcela Turati, with the group Quinto Elemento Lab, most of the disappeared are young men, most likely caught up in drug trafficking. But there are many others who are not involved in the trade.

"It can be journalists, human rights defenders, Indigenous people. Everybody can be disappeared because the impunity allows it," Turati says.

Very few crimes in Mexico are ever solved and fewer lead to a conviction. Disappearances have spiked in the last two years, despite promises by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Months after taking office in 2019, he said his government would do everything humanly possible to stop them. Critics say that promise wasn't realized. But López Obrador says his strategy against violence will take time.

Garay, whose son has never been found, says relatives are inconsolable, devastated and exhausted. "I can rattle off many more adjectives," she says. "But none are enough to relay the desperation of not knowing where your loved one is."

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Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Mexico, the number of people officially listed as disappeared topped a hundred thousand this week. Mexico began recording those reported missing back in the 1960s, but numbers really shot up after 2006, when Mexico launched its war on drugs. Relatives of the disappeared and human rights advocates say authorities must do more to stop what the U.N. says is a human tragedy of enormous proportions. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Virginia Garay says in February of 2018, her 19-year-old son Bryan left the house and never came back.

VIRGINIA GARAY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He went to work, she says, just three blocks from their home in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, where he sold hot dogs. But he never made it to work. She's never stopped looking for him.

GARAY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Literally, we dig in the dirt looking for the disappeared," she says. Garay is part of a growing number of mothers and relatives digging around Mexico, unearthing clandestine graves since, she says, authorities do little to solve these crimes.

According to investigative journalist Marcela Turati with the group Quinto Elemento Lab, the majority of the disappeared are young men, most likely caught up in drug trafficking. But there are many others not in the trade.

MARCELA TURATI: It can be, like, journalist, human right defenders, defenders of land, Indigenous people - everybody can be disappear because the impunity allows it.

KAHN: Very few crimes in Mexico are ever solved and fewer lead to a conviction. Disappearances have spiked in the last two years, despite promises by current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We will do everything humanly possible to stop this," he said in 2019, just months after taking office. Critics say that promise wasn't realized. But Lopez Obrador says his strategy against violence will take time.

Virginia Garay, whose son has never been found, says relatives are inconsolable, devastated and exhausted.

GARAY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I can rattle off many more adjectives, but none are enough to relay the desperation of not knowing where your loved one is," she says.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.