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Mexican families struggle to find drug war's 'disappeared'

Thousands of people have disappeared without a trace amid the ongoing drug war in Mexico. Their families are now demanding action from the Mexican government.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2011

Relatives of missing Central American migrants demonstrated in Mexico City last month. They sought to pressure authorities to do more to guarantee the human rights of migrants traveling toward the United States.

Marco Ugarte/AP

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Mexico City

Veronica Coronilla said goodbye to her husband on March 21 as he set off from their home in rural Guanajuato in central Mexico with 22 other men to enter the United States illegally to find work. It was her husband's fifth trip, so Ms. Coronilla was not worried.

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But weeks went by with no word. Then news came that bus passengers were going missing in northern Mexico and that a mass grave in the state of Tamaulipas, right where he was to pass. Dread set in.

Now, months later, she still has no news of him. She doesn’t think he was in the mass grave, but is he in another? Or has he been kidnapped and forced to labor for a drug gang? Where is he?

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

These are the questions that plague Coronilla and thousands of others whose relatives from across Latin America have vanished in recent years as lawlessness prevails in large swaths of Mexico. Now, family members of the missing are starting to unite to call for more government action to help end the epidemic of disappearances across the country.

Recently, Coronilla, along with three other women from her hometown whose relatives are also missing, traveled to Mexico City to demand that federal authorities investigate. "If we don't do this, people will start to forget," she says.

'A humanitarian tragedy'

To be "disappeared" in Latin America carries overtones of the military dictatorships and state-sponsored repression of the 1970s and '80s that saw tens of thousands of dissidents go missing across the region. But today's disappearances, largely apolitical, terrorize civil society.

Some of Mexico's disappeared are believed to have been kidnapped by drug traffickers settling scores or beefing up their ranks. Others report that their relatives were last seen in the hands of officials, or at least by those posing in uniform. Often lines are blurry, as many authorities, particularly at the municipal level, have ties to organized crime.

“Within this context of generalized violence, one of the dramas we are living is the problem of disappearances,” says Blanca Martinez, the director of the Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios in Coahuila who has organized families looking for the missing. “We are living a humanitarian tragedy whose ends we do not know.”

Trying to put a number on how many Mexicans have disappeared among a death toll of some 40,000 in the nearly five years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent the military to fight organized crime is a dizzying affair.

The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico estimated in April that they have received 5,397 reports of missing people since December 2006. Many groups do not specify, or even know, whether the disappearances are enforced by corrupt officials or are the work of criminals. Some numbers include migrants who are missing, while others deal specifically with Mexicans.

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