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Mexico focuses on looking for people falsely listed as missing, ignores thousands of disappeared

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's government is pouring resources into detecting what it suggests are “fake” missing people — cases reported by political opponents to embarrass the government, or kidnapped people who return home but don't notify authoritie
Adrian LeBaron talks to the press outside the Attorney General's office in Mexico City, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. LeBaron, the father of a woman who was one of nine American citizens killed in a drug cartel ambush in northern Mexico on Nov. 4, 2019, says the Mexican government systematically undercounts both homicides and disappearances. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's government is pouring resources into detecting what it suggests are “fake” missing people — cases reported by political opponents to embarrass the government, or kidnapped people who return home but don't notify authorities.

Yet officials make no significant effort to find actual missing people, angering the families of Mexico’s estimated 113,000 “disappeared.”

They are outraged that President Andrés Manuel López's administration has spent almost a year, lots of money and thousands of work hours combing databases to see if a supposedly missing person has applied for a loan, paid taxes, registered to vote or gotten a flu shot.

López Obrador said last week he expects to release the first partial results of the recount soon. Claiming the figures of missing — up about 47,000 since he took office in 2018 — have been inflated to make him look bad, he said, “We are going house to house because we have found a lot of the people who were reported as missing.”

But the government hasn’t bothered to do even the most elemental search for the tens of thousands of those who really are missing, or to identify about 50,000 unidentified corpses piled up in morgues and pauper’s graves or the bone fragments found in mass graves and makeshift crematoriums.

“It's not like they're concerned for the victims," said Hector Flores, whose son disappeared in 2021. “They're interested in cutting back further the number of missing.”

Flores has spent two agonizing years since his son's disappearance leading one of the dozens of volunteer search teams made up of relatives who do the often grisly, dangerous investigative work that authorities won’t do.

López Obrador sees politics behind the rising number of “disappeared.” He brags about a slight decline in Mexico's homicides, but critics point to a large increase in the number of people going missing. Critics say homicides may be down a bit just because drug cartels are simply burying or destroying bodies to hide the evidence.

Jacobo Dayan, an international law specialist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, agrees that “there is clearly a manipulation of numbers for political reasons,” but suggests it is done by authorities.

Rather than figures being inflated, Dayan said, “they are enormously understated ... there are (state) prosecutors' offices that haven't updated their figures in months.” He said migrants, who are frequently killed in Mexico, are significantly underrepresented in official figures.

Adrian LeBaron, father of a woman who was one of nine U.S. citizens slain in a drug cartel ambush in the northern border state of Sonora four years ago, says the government systematically undercounts both homicides and disappearances.

LeBaron filed a legal complaint Wednesday charging Mexican officials with failing to report the true number of the dead. Prosecutors in Sonora filed a report the day of the 2019 ambush saying a total of only five people had been killed that day in the entire state.

Referring to the government's census of the missing, LeBaron said, “They are trying to disappear the disappeared.”

López Obrador says he ordered the year-long hunt for “fake” missing because the numbers are being inflated by his opponents.

“We are going to show that the registry as it exists was mishandled. It wasn't just inefficiency; there was a conscious attempt to damage my administration,” he said Nov. 13.

López Obrador has accused human rights groups, his own former director of the government's search commission, and even the Organization of American States.

The president also argues that new agencies set up during his term, like the National Search Commission. encouraged more people to come forward and report cases, accounting for some of the increase in his term.

Karla Quintana, who López Obrador assigned to head the Search Commission, said that “people may be more confident about reporting a disappearance” because of the new agencies. But Quintana, who resigned in August, also said the president's new census is mainly aimed at reducing the count of victims.

Nobody doubts the president’s effort will turn up people who aren’t really missing, but whose cases are still on the books.

Given the scant attention and effort prosecutors and police give to missing persons cases, some people who return alive don’t see a priority in contacting authorities who never looked for them in the first place. Others may have been released by cartels or kidnappers with a warning not to contact officials.

Fear of those same criminal gangs almost certainly has deterred a large number of people from reporting their relatives missing.

In western Mexico, the priest of a cartel-dominated town — who asked not to be quoted by name for safety reasons — recounted how he relayed to the local cartel boss the concerns of a local mother whose son had been abducted by the gang a couple of years ago.

The cartel leader’s answer was simple: “Tell her not to look for him,” the priest recounted. Coming from a gang leader, that can seem like an order or a threat in many parts of Mexico.

The authorities’ lack of interest is evident to many. There are so many clandestine graves and body dumping sites across Mexico that dogs sometimes dig up corpses before officials do.

Official incompetence also plays a role.

Braulio Caballero was 14 when he was fatally injured by a speeding vehicle outside a Mexico City subway station in 2016. Officials didn't identify the boy, so his parents weren't notified.

The distraught couple quizzed street vendors and taxi drivers and hung up search posters. David Peña, the family's lawyer, said city authorities told the parents they had no personnel available to aid in the search, or even put up flyers.

An ambulance driver had picked up the unidentified boy, but listed his estimated age wrong, as about 20. It wasn’t until six years later when his parents re-listed his disappearance with the age he would have had then — 20 — that authorities matched the case with the unknown youth run over in 2016.

Officials never looked in the boy's backpack, which held his schoolwork and almost certainly had his name on it. The backpack was lost at the hospital where he was briefly treated before dying.

“I think that if the government is interested in matching information from data banks, they should have done it from day one of this administration, not in the last year to reduce the numbers,” Peña said. “They should have done it with the priority of (finding) the disappeared.”

The government spends little on looking for the missing. Volunteers must stand in for nonexistent official search teams in the hunt for clandestine graves where cartels hide their victims. The government hasn't adequately funded or implemented a genetic data base to help identify the remains found.

In a small victory, activist Delia Quiroa won a court order forcing the government to pay for the gasoline she uses to comb vacant fields and abandoned houses for the remains of her brother, Roberto, who was kidnapped by gunmen in the violent northern border state of Tamaulipas in 2014.

Victims’ relatives rely on anonymous tips — sometimes from former cartel gunmen — to find suspected body-dumping sites. They plunge long steel rods into the earth to detect the scent of death.

If they find something, the most authorities will do is send a police and forensics team to retrieve the remains, which in most cases are never identified.

It leaves the volunteer searchers feeling caught between two hostile forces: murderous drug gangs and a government obsessed with denying the scale of the problem. At least a half dozen volunteer searchers have been killed since 2021.

“If they kill me, don’t let my case go unsolved,” Quiroa wrote, referring to the government.

Mark Stevenson, The Associated Press