Foto: Karla Quintana, head of Mexico’s National Search Commission, appears with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, left, and Alejando Encinas, undersecretary of human rights, population and migration in Mexico’s Interior Ministry. (José Méndez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
MEXICO CITY — For years, Mexican newspapers have carried chilling tales of mothers searching for their missing children and discovering hidden graves. Now, for the first time, the federal government has disclosed the number of clandestine sites where those who have been disappeared in Mexico’s raging narco-violence have turned up.
Nearly 5,000 bodies have been discovered in more than 3,000 graves since late 2006, said Karla Quintana, the head of the government’s National Search Commission.
That’s well above previous estimates by academics and journalists. Quinto Elemento Lab, a Mexican investigative journalism organization, published a report last November identifying 1,978 graves.
Quintana said 3,024 informal graves contained 4,874 bodies — and thousands of bone fragments.
At least 40,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. Officials believe the majority were victims of organized-crime groups. But in many cases, local or state authorities might have been complicit.
Until recently, most of the search was carried out by relatives of the victims, who have banded together in groups to dig in barren desert plains and on forest-covered hills. They have complained for years that the government has ignored their requests for help.
Now, the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, is scaling up the effort to find the missing.
Quintana said the “data of horror” she was releasing wasn’t just a question of numbers.
“This is about thousands of people seeking family members who are missing from their homes,” she said at a news conference last week.
The number of disappeared rose sharply starting during the administration of President Felipe Calderón. Calderón, who served from 2006 to 2012, launched a U.S.-backed offensive against increasingly powerful drug gangs. The military was deployed to fight criminal groups, and killings soared.
Violence eventually declined, but in 2017 began to spike again, and is now reaching historic levels.
One reason for that is the splintering of once-mighty cartels into warring factions, analysts say. Another is the disruption of corrupt political deals that once protected traffickers, as Mexico’s longtime one-party rule has been replaced by electoral competition.
Quintana told The Washington Post that her office compiled the number of clandestine graves from data collected by state prosecutors’ offices.
“It’s the first time we’ve said, ‘This is the magnitude of the problem,’ ” she said.
The graves varied in size: Some contained only a few bodies; others held dozens. Five hundred twenty-two have been discovered in the past nine months alone.
The clandestine graves aren’t the only places where the bodies of the missing have ended up. State medical examiners’ offices have been deluged with corpses as violence has escalated in recent years. Authorities suspect thousands of the bodies were simply buried in mass graves, without identification.
Mexican authorities announced Friday that they were planning to invite a U.N. commission that investigates disappearances to visit the country, after years of preventing it from doing so.
“This is a request that the United Nations had made since 2013, but the prior government declined to give permission,” said Alejandro Encinas, the subsecretary of Mexico’s Government Ministry.
The U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances focuses on the involvement of government forces in abductions — a sensitive subject in Mexico, which has long been reluctant to investigate abuses by the military.