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Government counts 26,000 missing in last six years

February 27, 2013

Almost 100,000 people were killed or disappeared during former President Felipe Calderon’s six-year war on organized crime, according to the Enrique Peña Nieto administration.

The government recently cited an official count of 26,121 people reported missing from December 1, 2006 to November 30, 2012, having previously acknowledged that some 70,0000 were killed in the same period in Mexico.

If the government figures are true, the number of disappeared in the Calderon era would be even greater than under some of Latin America’s most notorious military dictatorships. The most recent official figures say around 3,000 disappeared in Chile under General Pinochet, while an estimated 10,000 went missing in Argentina during the military dictatorship.

The figures announced last week have been disputed by members of the Calderon administration who claim the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) lists only 5,319 disappearances, but Lia Limon, the deputy interior secretary for human rights, says the list was compiled using data from local prosecutors across Mexico.

Limon said the government began the count after meeting with representatives of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), which recently released its own investigation into 249 disappearances in Mexico. Having found credible evidence that soldiers or police participated in 149 of these cases, HRW declared this “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades.”

In light of the government’s official count, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of HRW’s Americas division, said any list must be carefully scrutinized and cross-checked to eliminate those who are known dead or who later reappeared. The authorities may have already unwittingly counted many of the disappeared as dead, having collected 15,921 unidentified bodies or partial human remains in the last six years, Vivanco noted. But even if the actual number of disappeared is lower than the official count, the figures are “overwhelming” and “speak for themselves,” Vivanco added.

Organized criminal gangs are believed to be responsible for the majority of killings, kidnappings and disappearances in Mexico, but as HRW showed, abuses by the police and armed forces are also common. The 249 cases investigated by HRW were just a small, unscientific sample, so the proportion of disappearances in which the authorities are involved remains unknown.

The number of disappearances is disputed by other organizations and media outlets, but not all have investigated the same time-frame. Spanish-language daily Milenio counts 14,000 disappearances in the first five years of Calderon’s tenure, while Provictima lists 1,708 missing from October 2011 to January 2013, over three quarters of them male. The vast majority of these cases were reported in the northern states of Tamaulipas (240), Coahuila (193) and Nuevo Leon (168), with just 45 occurring in Jalisco.

The victims are not only Mexican, but also include large numbers of undocumented Central American migrants who are routinely kidnapped by Mexican cartels – or corrupt officials working at their behest – while making the perilous journey to the United States. The migrants face being press-ganged into working for the cartels or killed if they refuse, with authorities having uncovered several mass graves in northern Mexico in recent years.

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