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Reporter On Her Investigation Into Almost 80,000 People Who Vanished In Mexico

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the 1970s and '80s, they were known as Latin America's dirty wars, conflicts where military-backed governments kidnapped and killed leftist opponents. People disappeared by the thousands in Guatemala, Argentina and Chile. Today in Mexico, an equally horrific count is coming to light, one that recalls those human rights catastrophes. More than 79,000 people have vanished in Mexico, most of them since 2006. Washington Post correspondent Mary Beth Sheridan has been looking into and writing extensively about this, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Thanks so much, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how much do we know about why so many people have disappeared in Mexico in just - what? - the last decade and a half?

SHERIDAN: It's really incredible. The numbers are at least 79,000 but probably many more. And we're talking about a country that is the No. 1 U.S. trading partner, major world economy. And yet people are disappearing. And it's a combination of factors. We have, still, cases where the military, because it's fighting against these crime groups, has been accused of disappearing people. But more than that, it seems to be drug cartels and crime groups themselves often working with corrupt police who disappear people from other crime groups. Sometimes innocent civilians get caught in the middle. And the numbers are just shocking.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, on top of the collaboration that you found between drug cartels and corrupt police, you found that state medical examiners are being blamed for failures of accountability. Can you talk about what you see as some of the key failures there?

SHERIDAN: Yeah, it's really quite remarkable. There's been so much violence, so many homicides in the last 14 years that literally, you know, bodies were kind of raining down on the state medical offices. And so in some cases, they would have no identification. And they were just overwhelmed, so they'd toss bodies into common graves. And now the authorities are realizing the numbers of people who are in these common graves, not identified, are something like 37,000. So you have, on the one hand, criminals disappearing people. On the other hand, you have the state itself, which simply misplaced them in a terrible way.

CHANG: Well, you are finding that new graves are being discovered literally every single day in Mexico. And as you have been talking to families there, tell us, how have they been coping with the uncertainty about what has happened to their loved ones?

SHERIDAN: You know, I have to say this is a story really of horror, but there are some heroes here, and among them are the mothers in particular who have banded together over the past 10, 12 years. They basically try to find clues. They go around to areas where they think there might be mass graves. And it's an extraordinary thing because they live such pain. They don't know the fate of their children. And yet they have become probably the most visible and effective human rights movement in Mexico. We're talking about hundreds of mothers who have just been totally fearless.

CHANG: Mexico's federal government, meanwhile, has set up its own czar of sorts to address this, a national search commissioner to investigate these disappearances. Can you talk about - is there real hope that this national search commissioner, Karla Quintana - that she'll bring actual clarity to this ongoing crisis?

SHERIDAN: You know, it's an overwhelming problem, and part of the problem is that people continue to disappear. But Karla Quintana does represent a real effort to do something. So for example, she has put a lot of time and energy into creating a database of the disappeared so that at least there's a sense of how many are disappeared. She's helped to set up search committees in every state that the federal government helps to fund. They're trying to work on a mechanism for getting more forensic help to try to identify this vast number of bodies and - some of them burned down to tiny fragments. So there's efforts to do more, but the scale of the problem is immense.

CHANG: That is Washington Post reporter Mary Beth Sheridan.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

SHERIDAN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.