Looking for the Missing in Mexico

Buscadoras Collectives from Zacatecas protesting on Mother’s Day in front of the offices of the state government. Zacatecas, Zacatecas, 10 May 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Angélica Ospina-Escobar

Scroll down

Published on: 31 May, 2024

By Angélica Ospina

On a bright Sunday morning in November 2022, ten people gathered in the main plaza in Zacatecas, a colonial town north of Mexico City, to weave. They meet every week, working to create 100,000 metres of red cloth to represent the more than 100,000 Mexicans who have disappeared and never been heard from again. Members of the group have a personal connection to the cause: their relatives number among the disappeared. They form just one of some 230 chapters that operate throughout Mexico. Because they spend much of their time looking for their loved ones, and most are women, they are known as las buscadoras, or the searchers.

The disappearance of people in Mexico has a long and harrowing history. Officially 116,000 people have gone missing and have never been recovered since 1952, although the actual number could be far higher. The phenomenon has increased exponentially since 2006, when then newly-inaugurated President Felipe Calderón ratcheted up the country’s “war on drugs”. During his six-year term, over 40,000 people went missing, a figure roughly eighteen times higher than the entire number of people who had disappeared over the previous four decades. Since then, the toll has only got worse. Under the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto – which lasted from 2012 to 2018 – almost 100,000 were registered as missing. During the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the total rose by a further 13 per cent; in 2023 alone, almost 30,000 people disappeared.

The spike in the rate of disappearances is closely related to a general rise in violence in Mexico. A total of more than 185,000 killings have been officially recorded since López Obrador took office – more than under any prior administration. As criminal groups battle for territorial control across Mexico, more people find themselves in harm’s way, and many of these violent outfits look to kidnap their victims and dispose of their bodies in clandestine graves. There are several reasons why criminals choose to do so. Disappearances are a form of punishment that seek to prolong the family’s ordeal beyond death, and send a chilling warning across the areas where criminals operate. They can also be an effective way to perpetrate acts of extreme violence without causing the murder rate to soar. This can be important because, as Crisis Group has recently reported, pacts of mutual tolerance between authorities and criminal groups in certain parts of Mexico have sought to limit overt violence, causing some outfits to conceal the murders they commit.

Lastly, better recordkeeping could play a role as well in the surge in the number of disappeared people. Since the crime of “enforced disappearance” was included in the Penal Code in 2017, more people have reported it. (Under Mexican law, “enforced disappearance” refers to cases where individuals linked to the state – such as police officers or military personnel – are involved in the crime; a case where the perpetrator is a civilian is known as a “simple disappearance”.)

Intervention in a public space by collectives of women in search of the disappeared in Zacatecas.
Intervention in a public space by collectives of women in search of the disappeared in Zacatecas with the official cards of the registration of the disappeared. Zacatecas, Zacatecas, 30 August 2023. Malely Linares Sánchez.

Patterns of Disappearance

Certain patterns in disappearances stand out. Men are frequently forcibly recruited into criminal groups, which is one of the reasons why they are more likely to be disappeared than women (the majority of those who have gone missing are men between the ages of 30-40). Disappeared men are also more likely to be found dead than women. The disappearances of women and girls, in contrast, are often linked to sex trafficking: the states that record the highest levels of this crime are also the regions where girls and women are most likely to go missing. These victims tend to be between the ages of twelve and seventeen. People who abuse drugs, small-scale drug dealers or minor players in other illegal enterprises are also often targeted, either in “social cleansing” campaigns or because they fell out of favour with those higher up the ladder in the criminal world. Women who are partners of these victims are often targeted as well. Finally, migrants seeking to cross the border into the U.S., particularly from Central America, are regularly exposed to intimidation, extortion and rape during their journeys, and some end up disappeared as well.

Then there are the disappeared who challenge vested interests, including criminal groups. In 2021, the environmental and human rights organisation Global Witness singled out Mexico as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. That same year, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Mexico as one of the most lethal places in the world for people working in media. Members of Indigenous communities – particularly those who are activists – and the buscadoras themselves are also particularly vulnerable to lethal violence. Almost 100 environmental defenders have been disappeared since 2006, and around 30 journalists have gone missing since 2000.

And then there are the many Mexicans who have been abducted from their homes, workplaces or even buses, and simply vanish with no explanation. Between May 2023 and May 2024, an average of at least 75 people disappeared every day in Mexico. The buscadoras carry their pictures and tell the stories of those who have gone missing: the young man who went out to buy a birthday present and never returned, his party clothes hanging over a chair; the husband who never showed up to pick up his pregnant wife to take her to the doctor’s appointment; the two brothers who never returned from searching for their missing sister.

The Fight for Recognition

After decades of ignoring the plight of the disappeared – or, failing that, blaming the victims for what befell them – in the 2010s, Mexican government officials began to deal with the issue more seriously. This was in no small part because of the creation of the first buscadoras chapters in 2009. Three years later, their advocacy helped prod the Mexican Congress to pass the Law on the National Register of Missing and Disappeared Persons. The legislation established the state’s responsibility to maintain a register of missing and disappeared persons and to make it public. It also specified how the register was to be maintained and the institutions responsible for doing so.

Canvas with faces of disappeared relatives.
Canvas with the faces of disappeared relatives on display at the IV Regional Meeting of Search Collectives of the Bajío region. Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes, 3 December 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Angélica Ospina-Escobar.

After 43 students at a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, disappeared in 2014 in what is regarded as one of the worst atrocities in modern Mexican history, Congress passed the General Law on the Forced Disappearance of Persons. This law enabled the creation of the National Search Commission, which tasked local law enforcement personnel with searching for the disappeared in conjunction with the federal government. It also created the National Centre for Human Identification (CNIH). Its main task was to create a national database to compare DNA samples from bodies in morgues and mass graves with samples from relatives of the disappeared. The U.S., through USAID, pledged to donate money to set up the laboratory to do this work. López Obrador, however, gutted the CNIH and declared that identifying human remains would once again be overseen by public prosecutors.

Buscadoras from the Hasta Encontrarte search collective during a meeting for the El Bosque de la Esperanza project, where they hang ribbons of their disappeared relatives in public places as a memorial to the disappeared.

Irapuato, Guanajuato, 20 August 2023.

-Maevia Griffiths, from El Bosque de la Esperanza.

That is not the only move on the part of the president that drew the ire of the buscadoras. They have also taken issue with what they see as López Obrador’s efforts to depress artificially the official number of disappeared. In June 2023, the president announced his government would audit the list of the disappeared, prompting Karla Quintana, the then-head of the National Search Commission, to resign. She said she had stepped down because she feared the government would in essence cook the books. Her concerns appear to have been borne out in December 2023, when López Obrador said there were just 12,377 “confirmed reports” of disappeared individuals. Family members of the disappeared were chagrined to find their loved ones off the list, even as their whereabouts remain unknown.

While the government appears to be stepping back from addressing the issue of the disappeared, the buscadoras have persisted in conducting their own searches. They have notched up some impressive achievements. For example, since 2018 the Hasta Encontrarte collective in Guanajuato has found 139 people deceased and twelve alive. Likewise, the Rastreadoras de Ciudad Obregón collective in Sonora found 150 bodies between 2019 and 2022. “We have shown the authorities that those who seek, find”, says Nora Lira, who created the collective Rastreadoras de Ciudad Obregón in 2019 after her daughter disappeared.  

Stigma and Indifference

The first step for the buscadoras often entails pushing those whose loved ones have gone missing to report the disappearance to the authorities. People can be hesitant to come forward because of the social stigma around disappearances: many Mexicans assume that anyone going missing is involved in shady activities, which is true for some but certainly not all cases. Obdulia Vega, part of the Solecito collective in Veracruz, remembers that when her husband disappeared in 2010, her sisters and mother avoided visiting her out of fear that something might happen to them. Neighbours also stopped talking to her. “It was as if we were contagious”, she said. While some survivors complain that their loved one’s memory is unfairly tainted, others carry the pain of knowing that their family member was indeed involved in illicit dealings. Because of that, few in Mexico worry about their fate – except for fellow searchers. “It was hard coming to the collective because I knew my son was involved in shady stuff”, a mother said. “But in the group, I have learnt that… all mothers deserve a place where we can go mourn our children. Here, I am not discriminated against because my son was this or that; my compañeras search for him regardless”.

It’s not just social pressure that can dissuade people from reporting a disappearance. In some cases, authorities themselves discourage families from opening cases. “When I went to file the report, the first thing they told me was that things were very complicated in Fresnillo [the town where she lived], and it was better not to report because everything in the town was known”, said a buscadora from Zacatecas. Those who choose to bring their case to the authorities are often met dismissively. Another mother from Zacatecas said the police “told me to wait a few days … that [my daughter] had probably gone to a party”. This is terrible advice, because initiating a search in the first hours after a person goes missing vastly increases the chances the person will be found alive. This is why the General Law on Forced Disappearance of Persons directs authorities to start searching as soon as a case is reported. Sometimes state officials lack the resources and personnel to do that. But in other cases, they are complicit with criminal groups, and have a vested interest in preventing people from discovering the victims’ whereabouts.

Buscadoras from the Hasta Encontrarte Search Collective with the ribbons of their disappeared relatives.
Buscadoras from the Hasta Encontrarte Search Collective with the ribbons of their disappeared relatives. Irapuato, Guanajuato, 20 August 2023. Maevia Griffiths, from El Bosque de la Esperanza.

The buscadoras help victims’ families keep tabs on authorities. They ensure state prosecutors classify disappearance cases as such, rather than as kidnapping or illegal arrest. The distinction is crucial, because when a case is labelled as a disappearance law enforcement has to follow the federal search protocol and provide families with access to the investigation file. Mariana Ávila, founder of the non-profit Observatory of Social and Gender Violence in Aguascalientes, says that authorities often misclassify cases to hide the very high numbers of missing people in their jurisdiction. “In many cases”, she says, “we help [families] create their own investigation file because [they] don’t know who is handling their case, and the prosecutor’s office itself loses key documents in the investigation”.

Local authorities have learned that families who have the support of the buscadoras will be relentless. As a result, they are often more responsive when they realise the litigant is linked to the buscadora movement. Karla Martínez from the Hasta Encontrarte collective said she had unsuccessfully demanded that a local prosecutor look into the disappearance of her brother; after witnessing how a member of the collective was given help right away, she joined the group. The authorities “respect the collectives, because we mobilise media and networks, and officials don’t want to be exposed negatively”, says Selene Ortíz from the Solecito collective in Veracruz. “It’s different if an individual goes or if the collective goes, because we exert more pressure”.

The search goes on

Searchers from Aguascalientes during a public protest commemorating the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance.
Buscadoras from Aguascalientes during a public protest commemorating the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance. Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes, 30 August 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Angélica Ospina-Escobar

The buscadoras don’t just push the authorities to do their jobs. They have established their own databases. They are masters of social media, using platforms such as Facebook to call meetings, search for individuals and lobby politicians. Perusing the social media posts left by people who have since gone missing have helped the buscadoras find safe houses, where criminal groups hold those they have kidnapped, often torturing them until they are moved to other locations and are ultimately killed. Many of their searches have led them to mass graves, extermination camps, or clandestine crematoria, which they have found all over the country. Maribel Ruiz, a member of a collective in the city of Obregón, explained that women engage in the equivalent of investigative reporting: “We … discover places from stories circulating in neighbourhoods. It could be a van coming at night and unloading packages. Other people tell us about a place with strong odours. We follow all of these clues. When we reach vacant lots, we check for tyre tracks and if the soil is disturbed, if there is a certain type of debris … or remnants of bonfires. That’s how we’ve learned to identify graves”. Ruiz found the remains of her son in 2023, after searching for more than four years.

Detail of a ribbon commemorating the disappeared relatives of Veracruz from the Solecito Search Collective during a public demonstration in a public space in downtown Veracruz.
Detail of a ribbon commemorating the disappeared relatives of Veracruz from the Solecito Search Collective during a public demonstration in a public space in downtown Veracruz. Veracruz, Veracruz, 19 August 2023. Maevia Griffiths, from El Bosque de la Esperanza.

In some cases, the buscadoras’ independent searches have led to clashes with the state. Authorities have demanded that the collectives refrain from working on their own; some of these officials claim independent searchers hinder the state’s work and could contaminate crime scenes. Members of a collective in Tamaulipas say that after they recovered three bodies the state attorney general’s office threatened to file a criminal case against them. The buscadoras view these threats as a way to neuter a civilian movement that has shown the failings of state institutions. “It’s a matter of political control. No one wants us, women, to find graves independently”, says Bibiana Mendoza, who is part of the Brigada Independiente de Búsqueda in Guanajuato. “No one wants it to become a topic during elections”, she adds, referring to the 2 June poll in which Mexicans will elect a new president.

Discovering clandestine graves and human remains is, of course, only the first step. After a corpse or its remains are discovered, Mexican authorities must identify the bodies through DNA testing and deliver them to the families, a process that can take up to two years. The collectives do their own work to press them to move faster. “We record what we find ourselves and upload the video to Facebook”, says Martínez from the Hasta Encontrarte collective. “When relatives identify some clothes or some body marks, they write to us and we give them the information about where the remains are, what the procedure is to get them, and we accompany them to put more pressure on the authorities. When we do that, we see that the process [of returning remains to families] takes less time”.

Joining search groups can come at a high personal cost. Locating the remains of the disappeared often becomes the buscadoras obsession. “My entire day is about searching, from when the day starts until … very late at night”, said a buscadora from Zacatecas. “I wake up and go to Facebook to post the missing persons announcement, check messages to see if there are any reports [of possible clandestine graves], or a new disappearance case. Then I go to the market where I work, and there I continue with WhatsApp, coordinating work with other colleagues”. The all-consuming nature of searching can cause family ties to fray. “I feel like I abandoned my children when I started searching for my brother”, says Elizabeth Araiza from the buscadoras collective in Zacatecas. “My daughter says angrily, ‘Go look for your disappeared, are you already going to your protests?’” While she regrets that her children feel neglected, she feels she has no choice: “[If] I don’t search for my brother, no one will”.

Buscadoras from the Hasta Encontrarte search collective.
Buscadoras from the Hasta Encontrarte search collective. Irapuato, Guanajuato, 20 August 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Angélica Ospina-Escobar

Living under threat

In some cases, the buscadoras themselves have become targets of violence. Since 2010, at least twenty buscadoras have been murdered. In 2020, in Guanajuato, Rosario Zavala was killed on her doorstep, where the assailants left a sign reading: “talks too much”. In the same state, Mendoza says that when she was pregnant a man pointed a gun at her and told her to stop looking for her brother. In 2021, when her group discovered a clandestine grave and asked state authorities for help with the exhumation, armed men arrived and pursued them for hours. State employees only appeared after the assailants had left, fuelling the buscadorassuspicions that state officials had colluded with criminal groups to intimidate them.

That is far from idle speculation. As Crisis Group has shown, there is ample evidence that certain state officials work in tandem with criminal groups. It can quite literally be hard to tell them apart: criminal group members often wear uniforms and use weapons similar to those of state forces. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented the involvement of the army and navy and the federal, state and municipal police in 149 disappearances. In 2021, members of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) reported they had found evidence of collusion between state agents and organised crime; in some cases they found that state officials were directly responsible for disappearances. Notably, in August 2023, the state of Guanajuato withdrew security from the collectives searching for human remains in the region, leaving these buscadoras dangerously exposed. The scale of the risks they face in that state persuaded the CED to provide urgent protection to fifteen searchers, starting in 2021.

Buscadoras from the Solecito Search Collective during a public demonstration in a public space in downtown Veracruz.
Buscadoras from the Solecito Search Collective during a public demonstration in a public space in downtown Veracruz. Veracruz, Veracruz, 19 August 2023. Maevia Griffiths, from El Bosque de la Esperanza.

Last year, the buscadoras came up with a daring proposal. On social media, they offered to negotiate a “social pact” with criminal groups to end disappearances. In response, three of the biggest criminal groups (the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel) revealed the location of several clandestine graves. Speaking not long after, President López Obrador said he endorsed the idea. But his government has failed to follow up on the initiative and disappearances have continued.

The buscadoras are not hopeful that things will change once a new president, due to be elected on 2 June, takes office later this year. They will, however, continue pushing for a better state response. For starters, they are demanding that the new government recognise the use of disappearances as an instrument of criminal violence. They also want the state to implement mechanisms that are on the books as part of the General Law on Forced Disappearance of Persons. The Forensic Medicine Service, for example, could make progress in identifying the bodies and remains held in its facilities, after which these corpses could be returned to their families in a dignified manner. State officials can also engage in the searches the buscadoras are actively pursuing.

In the meantime, the collectives try to learn from peer organisations. Every year, Fondo Semillas – a Mexican feminist organisation – and the Observatory of Social and Gender Violence hold a national meeting of buscadoras to build networks and craft a national agenda to address the issue of the disappeared. Some organisers hope to meet with similar groups in other Latin American countries to strengthen their ability to mobilise and exert political influence throughout the region. Slowly, the world has turned its attention both to the dizzying numbers of missing in Mexico and the courageous searches led by these groups. International partners could help the buscadoras by bringing greater visibility to the security challenges they face, protecting individual searchers, and urging the Mexican state both to support these groups and take tougher action against disappearances. Despite the difficulties, women in these groups are committed to continuing their struggle. “We have learned not to give up. They kill our fellow searchers, and we continue; they threaten us, and we continue”, says a buscadora from Guanajuato. “Why? Because we have no other choice. Going back to our homes to continue life is not an option because that life we had no longer exists. This violence stole it from us, the state took it when it didn’t investigate the disappearance of our children, and then buried it with all the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent us from bringing them back home”.

Women from the search collective Solecito in Veracruz pose with the ribbons of their missing relatives.
Women from the search collective Solecito in Veracruz pose with the ribbons of their missing relatives. Veracruz, Veracruz, 19 August 2023. Maevia Griffiths, from El Bosque de la Esperanza.