Homicides and Disappearances Reach New Levels in 2019

A relative holds a photo of her missing loved one during a protest in front of the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Demonstrators presented a petition with 102 thousand signatures to demand that the disappeared be found and identified. Photo and Caption: The Associated Press, Marco Ugarte.

01/14/20 (written by kheinle) – The last year of the decade was one of Mexico’s most violent years on record. Homicides and disappearances played critical roles in driving up the numbers.


When looking at homicides, several of the year’s top headlines and prominent stories emerge. Perhaps most important, more homicides occurred in Mexico in 2019 than in any other year in the country’s modern history. Additionally, Mexican journalists were particularly at risk, as they were more than three times as likely to be killed than journalists in any nation worldwide. The country also grappled with several high profile displays of violence, particularly in the second half of the year. This included when 27 individuals were burned to death at a strip club in Veracruz in August, as well as the catch and release of Ovidio Guzmán in October that left at least 13 people dead in Culiacán. The murder of nine dual U.S.-Mexican Mormon citizens in Sonora in November caught international headlines, and the year came to a close with more homicides (127 dead) registered on one day in December than any other day throughout 2019. 


At the beginning of the new year, violence in the news then turned to the topic of Mexico’s staggering number of disappeared persons. On January 6, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Human Rights, Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez, announced at a conference that 9,164 individuals were disappeared in 2019, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB). Including the 2019 data, 147,033 persons have thus been disappeared since 1964, said Karla Quintana, the director of Mexico’s National Search Commission (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas). Of these, more than half (58%) have been found, meaning the remaining 42% of persons (61,637 individuals) are still missing. This is significantly higher than the estimated 40,000 disappeared persons that the government reported in early 2018 leading many to question the underreporting in previous years.

Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Human Rights, presents on disappearances at a conference on January 6, 2020. Photo: Reforma.

Demographics of the Disappeared

Many of these cases of missing persons are linked to organized crime and drug cartel violence. In fact, 97% of all those registered since 1964 came after 2006 when then-President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) launched his aggressive campaign against drug trafficking and organized crime. There are thus are several commonalities among the victims.

First, just over half (53%) of the 61,637 victims were between the ages of 15 and 34 years old when they were disappeared, reported Quintana. Over 13% were in their early twenties (20-24), another 13% in the late twenties (25-29), and 11.7% early thirties (30-34). Second, almost three-quarters are men. However, when considering all 147,033 persons documented since 1964, women between the ages of 10 and 24 actually have the highest rate of disappearance. Third, there are also geographical tendencies among the disappeared, as they have mostly been registered in just ten specific states (in descending order): Tamaulipas, Jalisco, State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex), Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Sinaloa, Coahuila, Puebla, Guerrero, and Veracrúz.

Head of Mexico’s National Search Commission, Karla Quintana. Photo: El Economista

Mass Graves

Not only did the number of disappearances increase in 2019, but so, too, did the discovery of mass graves containing many of said missing persons. Mexico’s National Search Commission located 873 clandestine graves housing 1,124 bodies since it began its focused search in late 2018. As the Associated Press reports, Tamaulipas has often been home to such graves, although that has come to include Jalisco with the Commission’s new findings. In fact, a discovery was made outside Guadalajara, Jalisco in early January of 26 plastic bags containing miscellaneous body parts. In addition, the states of Sinaloa, Veracruz, and Colima collectively accounted for nearly a third of all 1,124 bodies located by the Commission since its launch.

“These are data of horror,” lamented National Search Commission Director Quintana. She continued, “there are many painful stories from families both in Mexico and of migrants,” alluding to the serious dangers migrants face as they become easy targets while they make the journey north to the United States.

National Search Commission Efforts

Quintana’s Commission will continue to focus efforts and resources on unearthing mass graves and burial pits in 2020. In addition, the Commission also released a one-stop website in November 2019 to streamline reporting of a missing loved one. Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior developed the portal with the Commission as a means for family and friends to submit information if someone goes missing.


“Homicide rates on pace for record-breaking year.” Justice in Mexico. August 8, 2019.

Linthicum, Kate. “Extreme acts of violence in Mexico are on the rise: 27 burned to death at a strip club.” Los Angeles Times. August 28, 2019.

“The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa.” Justice in Mexico. November 5, 2019.

Franco, Marina E. “Ante la crisis por desaparecidos, México presenta un portal para reportar nuevos casos.” Telemúndo. November 8, 2019.

Secretaría de Seguridad Pública. “Víctimas reportadas por delito de homicidio.” Gobierno de México. December 1, 2019.

“Mexico homicide record: 127 deaths reported in a single day.” Al Jazeera. December 3, 2019.

“Municipal police chief arrested over Mexican Mormon massacre.” Reuters. December 27, 2019.

Franco, Marina E. “Son datos del horror’: México revela que hay más de 60,000 desaparecidos en el país.” Telemúndo. January 6, 2020.

González, Isabella. “Registran 9 mil desapariciones en 2019.” Reforma. January 6, 2020.

“Mexican missing persons search effort finds 873 burial pits.” The Associated Press. January 12, 2020.

Villegas, Paulina. “A New Toll in Mexico’s Drug War: More than 61,000 Vanished.” The New York Times. January 6, 2020.

Ordaz Díaz, Arturo. “Jóvenes mexicanos, los que más han desaparecido en 6 décadas.” Forbes. January 7, 2020.

“26 bags of body parts found in western Mexico ravine.” The Associated Press. January 9, 2020.

Website. Portal de Desaparecidos. Secretaría de Gobernación, Comisión Nacional de Búsquedas de Personas. Last accessed January 12, 2020.

U.S. Congress reacts to human rights concerns in Mexico

logo of Merida Initiative

Source: The Yucatán Times.

08/16/16 (written by kheinle) — Human rights concerns in Mexico have prompted the U.S. Congress to urge the State Department to take action. A letter sent August 9 sponsored by Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs called on Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department to withhold 15% of funds allocated for distribution to Mexico under the Merida Initiative for the coming year. From 2008 through 2015, Congress required that at least a portion (15%) of U.S. support through the Merida Initiative be contingent on specific human rights conditions. Such conditions are currently up for review.

With the support of 68 fellow members of Congress, the letter highlighted the grave human rights situation in Mexico as cause for withholding the next round of Merida funding. The letter specifically pointed to the 27,000 unresolved cases of disappeared persons in Mexico, a number that has amassed in just under ten years. It also focused on the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students who went missing while detained by Mexican security forces in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in September 2014. That case remains unresolved despite several reputable investigations by international organizations and experts, including the most recent study concluded in April 2016 by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes, GIEI) that found demonstrable “control and monitoring, if not active involvement, from all levels of [Mexican] security—ministerial, municipal, state, federal and military—in the incident,” among other grave concerns. The Congressional letter additionally pointed to the massacre in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex) in June 2014 during which Mexican soldiers killed 22 civilians in a warehouse, 15 of whom were killed extrajudicially. Lastly, the legislators cited “Mexico’s persistent use of torture in criminal investigations,” as well as “the slow pace of reform in the military, law enforcement, and justice sectors” as reasons for U.S. action. Indeed, the State Department even acknowledged such violations in the Mexico section of its most recent Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015. “The most significant human rights-related problems included law enforcement and military involvement in serious abuses, such as unlawful killings, torture, and disappearances,” the report read. “Impunity and corruption in the law enforcement and justice system remained serious problems.”

WOLA logo

Source: WOLA.

Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Senior Associate Maureen Meyer, an expert in U.S.-Mexico relations, commented on the Congressional letter to Secretary Kerry, noting that human rights must remain a priority. “Maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with the United States’ neighbor and partner should not be at the expense of an honest dialogue about the human rights crisis in Mexico and the lack of accountability for the authorities responsible for these crimes,” she writes. Meyer’s comments draws on the fact that the Merida Initiative is exemplary of the strong ties between the United States and Mexico, but that it should not supersede the protection of fundamental human rights in Mexico.

It is important to contextualize the Merida Initiative. From FY2008 to FY2015, U.S. Congress allocated $2.5 billion in Merida funding to Mexico to support four pillars: (1) Disrupting organized crime groups, (2) institutionalizing the rule of law, (3) creating a 21st-century border, and (4) building strong and resilient communities. Thus, Merida funding supports a number of other key rule-of-law pillars in addition to the protection of human rights. As such, funding will continue through 2016, as the work to strengthen and maintain a strong rule of law in Mexico is far from complete. This notion was argued in Justice in Mexico’s July 2016 publication, “Policy Brief: The State of Judicial Sector Reform in Mexico,” in which the authors commend Mexico’s clear strides made in recent years to overhaul its criminal justice system, moving from an outdated, inquisitorial model to a new, transparent, and efficient adversarial system. However, the authors note that while “Mexico is one step closer to reaching a more just society … its path will no doubt remain long, steep, and sometimes rocky.” The 69 signatories to the recent Congressional letter to Secretary Kerry echoed that idea, acknowledging Mexico for its advances towards a more just society on the one hand while advocating for more work to be done on the other. “We commend the Government of Mexico for taking important legislative steps to advance human rights protections and to reform its criminal justice system,” the letter reads. “However, having good laws on the books does not ensure justice; Mexican authorities must enforce the law and respect human rights.”

To read the letter in full, click here.



“CNDH issues recommendations for Tlatlaya massacre as case moves to federal civil court.” Justice in Mexico. November 30, 2014.

Ribando Seelke, Clare and Kristin Finklea. “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond.” Congressional Research Service. February 22, 2016.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practice for 2015: Mexico.” U.S. Department of State. April 2016.

Heinle, Kimberly et al. “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2015.” Justice in Mexico. April 2016.

“Ayotzinapa Disappeared 43 Students Case Remains Unsolved.” Justice in Mexico. May 2, 2016.

Cortés, Nancy et al. “Policy Brief: The State of Judicial Sector Reform in Mexico.” Justice in Mexico. July 25, 2016.

Government Communication. United States Congress of the United States. August 9, 2016.

Press Release. “Congressman Lowenthal Calls on State Dept. To Prioritize Human Rights and Justice Reform in Bilateral Talks With Mexico.” Office of U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal. August 10, 2016.

Press Release. “U.S. Congress Expresses Concern for Mexico’s Human Rights Crisis and Sends Letter to Secretary Kerry.” Washington Office on Latin America. August 11, 2016.

Justice in Mexico publishes two new working papers

Justice in Mexico logo

3/17/16 (written by msmith) –  Two new working papers are now available from Justice in Mexico.  From examining the fundamental features of Mexico’s criminal justice system to analyzing whether there has been a real drop in homicides in Mexico recently, each author informs the reader of some of the most pressing issues and challenges facing Mexico today.

Jane Kingman-Brundage’s working paper, “Mexico’s Traditional Criminal Justice System: A Layperson’s Guide,” introduces the legal logic underpinning Mexico’s traditional ‘mixed inquisitorial’ Criminal Justice System in the tradition of Civil Law. The discussion begins by comparing salient characteristics of the Civil Law and Common Law traditions. Three fundamental features alien to Common Law are identified: authoritarian nature, reliance on a deductive process anchored in both a Penal Code and a Code of Criminal Procedure, and a formal documentary focus. Mexico’s traditional Criminal Justice System is then examined against this broad framework. A description of the Criminal Justice System’s structural components—including roles, responsibilities of various court officials—sets the stage for examining how the Criminal Justice System actually works—its four major procedural phases and the steps within those phases. The publication is available in English here.

The goal of Rafael Mora’s working paper, “A Subnational Analysis of Homicides and Disappearances in Mexico,” is to determine whether the recent drop of homicides in Mexico is real or not. This is determined by comparing data of homicides and disappearances in Mexico from 2007 to 2014 on a national, state, and municipal level. The paper presents analyses of homicides and disappearances in Mexico as a whole, Juarez, Tijuana, as well as a case study of homicides and disappearances in Estado de Mexico and Tamaulipas. The analyses of this paper were conducted utilizing primary sources of homicide and disappearance data. This report concludes that homicides have decreased on a national scale. However, the national trends of homicides and disappearances in Mexico are not representative of sub national trends. The publication is available in English here.

Panel of Experts Rejects Mexican Government’s Account of Ayotzinapa Disappearances

Family members and friends of missing Ayotzinapa students wait for an international panel of experts to presents its findings. Source: New York Times

Family members and friends of missing Ayotzinapa students wait for an international panel of experts to presents its findings.
Source: New York Times

9/18/15 (written by rkuckertz) – An international panel of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights recently released a report contradicting the Mexican government’s official account of how 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared last September near Iguala, Guerrero. According to the report, elements of the government’s explanation of the tragedy are inconsistent with scientific evidence procured by the panel of experts.

The report illuminates inconsistencies with the federal government’s version of these events—an account they claimed to be the “historical truth” this past January. According to the government’s narrative, municipal police in the state of Guerrero attacked several buses in various locations that carried as many as one hundred students in total. Following a shootout in which six people were killed, the 43 students were handed off to members of a local drug-trafficking gang, Guerreros Unidos, before being transported in trucks to a trash dump in Cocula, Guerrero. According to the January account, fifteen of these students were already dead upon arrival to the site and the remaining students were then executed. The government maintains that the remains were then incinerated and tossed into the nearby San Juan River.

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights’ report has noted several large disparities between this account and evidence retrieved throughout the course of the investigation. For instance, the panel determined that it is “scientifically impossible” that the remains of the missing students were incinerated at the Cocula trash dump—a fact that the federal government claims to be true.

Following the report’s release, President Enrique Peña-Nieto tweeted that he had instructed members of his cabinet to support the ongoing investigation into the events occurring near Iguala. The Attorney General also extended the panel’s ability to remain in Mexico in order to continue its search for a true account of what happened to the missing 43 students. This response is uncharacteristic of past government reactions to the crisis. Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina, a foreign policy adviser to former President Felipe Calderón, states that “the strategy for Ayotzinapa has been do not rock the boat and let the popular indignation run its course.” However, experts such as New York Times foreign correspondent Azam Ahmed believe that the government’s unprecedented reception of the new report may suggest that the government is beginning to accept a role of responsibility in the events occurring near Iguala last year. A senior member of Peña-Nieto’s cabinet reported the president saying, “we need to do things different.”

Meanwhile, experts at the University of Innsbruck in Austria have recently identified a second set of remains to be one of the missing Ayotzinapa students, Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz. Jhosivani would now be twenty years old and wanted to teach in the community of Omeapa, Guerrero. His remains were identified through the analysis of bone fragments reportedly recovered from the San Juan River. The Argentina Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) identified the first set of remains this past December as belonging to Alexander Mora Venancio, another Ayotzinapa student. Although EAAF did confirm the identity of these remains, they also indicated that they were not involved in the discovery of the bone fragments used in their DNA analysis. Consequently, the team of Argentine experts could neither confirm nor deny that the fragments were recovered from the San Juan River, as the Mexican government asserts. The expert panel appointed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights also asserts that physical evidence collected at the dumpsite failed to support the government hypothesis that the remains were cremated there.


Ahmed, Azam. “Report Renews Hope and Doubt on Missing Students in Mexico.” New York Times. 9 September 2015.

Goldman, Francisco. “The Missing Forty-Three: The Government’s Case Collapses.” New Yorker. 8 June 2015.

Malking, Elizabeth. “Mexico: 2nd Missing Student Identified.” New York Times. 17 September 2015.

Villegas, Paulina. “Experts Reject Official Account of How 43 Mexican Students Were Killed.” New York Times. 6 September 2015.

“Identifican a Jhosivani, el segundo normalista de Ayotzinapa.” Vanguardia. 17 September 2015.