Most are thought to have been killed by drug cartels, their bodies dumped into shallow graves or burned.
Searchers have learned over the last decade, since the height of Mexico’s 2006-2012 drug war, that the gangs often use the same locations over and over again, creating grisly killing fields.
“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.
Karla Quintana Osuna, a Harvard-trained lawyer who formerly worked at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is spearheading a new initiative at the National Search Commission to find reputable answers.
“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.”
The problem has gone on so long — and so many people are believed to have wound up in clandestine graves — that now some children have grown up and are searching for their disappeared parents.
“Every day, every day across the country, disappearances continue to be reported,” César Peniche Espejel, the attorney general of Chihuahua, which is among Mexico’s most violent states, said. “That’s what the federal government has been unable to tackle.”
Durán-Martínez added that there is no solution because of the twofold problem of organized crime and engagement of the state security apparatus in the bloodshed.
Many of the disappeared were abducted and presumably killed by drug cartels or kidnapping gangs, but authorities and police are also suspected in some cases.
The total number of people who have gone missing in Mexico since 2006 and have never been found stands at almost 87,855, according to the government from a report earlier this year.
There are three golden rules that Mexico’s search groups for the disappeared follow:
Human remains aren’t referred to as corpses or bodies. The searchers call them “treasures,” because to grieving families they are precious.Searchers usually call law enforcement when they think they’ve found a burial, mostly because authorities often refuse to conduct the slow but critical DNA testing unless the remains are professionally exhumed.Searches are not conducted to find perpetrators, only to find loved ones.
Searchers hoped the third rule would keep them safe from retaliation.
For a long time, it has meant that searchers, and the police who often accompany them, focus on finding graves and identifying remains — not collecting evidence of how they died or who killed them. Search groups sometimes even get anonymous tips about where bodies are buried, knowledge probably available only to the killers or their accomplices.
Noemy Padilla Aldáz has spent the last two years looking for her son, Juan Carlos.
“It’s a horrible uncertainty I don’t wish on anyone,” said the mom.
The 20-year-old man disappeared one morning after he ended a night shift at a local taqueria.
“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.”
The mom 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.