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Nearly 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico, According to the country’s National Search Commission, which maintains a record existing since 1964.

Most are believed to have been killed by drug cartels, with their bodies dumped in shallow graves or burned.

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Explorers have learned over the past decade, since the height of Mexico’s 2006-2012 drug war, that gangs often use the same locations over and over, creating horrific murder zones.

“Disappearance is probably the most extreme form for relatives of victims,” ​​said Angelica Duran-Martinez, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and an expert on violence in Latin America. the new York Times.

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Harvard-trained attorney Carla Quintana Osuna, formerly of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is leading a new initiative at the National Commission of Exploration to find respected answers.

“The challenge is abysmal, this is Titanic,” Quintana said. “As long as there is no justice, a clear message is being sent that this can continue to happen.”

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The problem has been going on for so long – and so many are believed to have been injured in secret graves – that now some children have grown up searching for their missing parents.

“There are reports of disappearances every day, every day across the country,” said César Peniche Espejel, attorney general for Chihuahua, one of Mexico’s most violent states. “That’s what the federal government has been unable to deal with.”

Duran-Martinez said there is no solution because of the twin problem of organized crime and the preoccupation of the state security apparatus in bloodshed.

Many of the missing were kidnapped and possibly killed by drug cartels or kidnapping gangs, but in some cases authorities and police are also suspected.

According to a report earlier this year, the total number of people missing in Mexico since 2006 is about 87,855, according to the government.

There are three golden rules that Mexico’s missing people search groups follow:

  1. Human remains are not referred to as corpses or bodies. Explorers call them “treasures” because they are priceless to grieving families.
  2. Searchers usually call law enforcement when they think they have found a burial, mostly because officials often refuse to conduct slow but critical DNA tests until remains are professionally exhumed.
  3. Searches are not made to find criminals, only to find loved ones.

The discoverers hoped that the third rule would protect them from retaliation.

Over the long run, this has meant that explorers, and the police who often accompany them, focused on finding graves and identifying remains – not gathering evidence of how they died or who killed them. Search groups also sometimes receive anonymous suggestions as to where the bodies are buried, knowledge probably only available to the killers or their accomplices.

Noemy Padilla Aldáz has spent the past two years looking for his son, Juan Carlos.

“It’s a terrible uncertainty that I don’t wish on anyone,” said the mother.

The 20-year-old went missing one morning after finishing his night shift at a local taqueria.

“If I had known he was dead, I would have known that he was not a victim,” she said. “But we do not know, and it is like torture, not knowing.”

The mother refuses to give up the search for her missing son.

“Sometimes I think he might still be alive, other times I tell myself he isn’t,” she said. “But I still have hope.”