The Mexican government announced Thursday that its controversial effort to look for people falsely listed as missing has turned up 16,681 individuals who had returned to their homes but not notified the authorities.

The nationwide effort was widely viewed as an attempt by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to pare down the country’s politically embarrassing total of 113,000 ‘disappeared’ people, a number that has skyrocketed under his administration.

Instead of looking for the clandestine graves and crematoriums that dot the country, the government sent about 5,000 police and other officials to perform more than 111,000 visits to homes to look for people who might have shown up on tax roles, hospital or bank records.


Another 17,843 people who appeared to have used a credit card, gotten a vaccine or applied for government benefits while listed as disappeared could not be located. The government set up a hotline urging people to call in information on them, in what appeared to be an attempt to criminalize them.

Mexico City missing posters

A woman passes in front of photographs of missing persons in front of the Attorney General’s office in Mexico City, on Dec. 6, 2023. The Mexican government announced on Dec. 14, 2023, that its effort to look for people falsely listed as missing has turned up thousands of individuals who had returned home without notifying the authorities. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)

“If you have information that would help complete the reports, or know somebody who is on the list, call,” according to a video that accompanied the new report.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether authorities considered the fact that kidnappers and other criminals often use missing people’s credit cards or make transactions under their names. Criminals also often threaten kidnapping victims with dire consequences if they contact police once released.

Perhaps the most shocking discovery announced by Interior Secretary Luisa Maria Alcalde was that the national registry of missing people had such poor record-keeping that in 62,112 cases, or about 68% of reports, there wasn’t enough contact information to even start a search. That means authorities essentially never followed up on those missing-people reports or asked for enough information to do so.


The search effort started in Mexico City more than a year ago, and was launched nationwide in August. Alcalde said 12,377 people — about 11% of the missing people cases as of August — had been confirmed as missing.

In effect, what that meant was that police or other officials called or showed up at the door of distraught relatives, sometimes years later, to ask if their loved ones were really missing.

This approach has angered the relatives of the missing, who for years have carried out the investigations and searches that police won’t perform.

Search activists were angered that the government was willing to devote millions of hours of officials’ time to combing through databanks to lower the number of missing, when police and prosecutors often won’t even accompany family members to suspected clandestine grave sites that they have found on their own.

“This is an effort by the president to disappear the disappeared, to keep massaging the data and minimize the problem of the humanitarian crisis this country is suffering,” said Hector Flores, whose 19-year-old son Héctor Daniel Flores Fernández disappeared in 2021 in the violence-plagued city of Guadalajara. He has not been heard from since.

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. The government has been unable 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.

The government’s lack of interest in looking for people who are really missing is evident. In Guadalajara, locals uncovered a body-dumping ground where 41 bags of human remains had been buried in shallow pits.

But the site wasn’t discovered through a police investigation; it was found in November after neighbors saw dogs trotting off with a human leg and skull.

Alcalde said the government effort was not an attempt to minimize the problem, and that none of the names of those who were found would be struck from the list. Instead, they will be moved to the category of “found alive,” which currently contains about 190,000 names.


Despite the apparent reduction touted by Alcalde, experts say Mexico’s missing may actually be undercounted because many people live in cartel-dominated regions where filing such a report could be dangerous.

López Obrador claims the figures of missing — up about 47,000 since he took office in 2018 — have been inflated by his political opponents to make him look bad.

The problem is so bad that even the ‘missing’ can go missing in Mexico. On Wednesday, residents of the notoriously violent town of San Fernando, in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, posted videos of a half-dozen bullet-ridden bodies dumped on a street with threatening message from the Gulf cartel.

But the state government reported that by the time National Guard officers got there, “they reported stains on the ground of apparent blood, but no bodies were found at the site nor in the area.” It was unclear who took the bodies; warring cartels sometimes pick up the bodies of their own dead.


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