MEXICO CITY — The number of people who went missing in Mexico during the six years of former President Felipe Calderon’s administration stands at 26,121, government officials said Tuesday, a figure that would rank among the worst episodes of “disappearances” in Latin American history.
The official statistic, which includes people reported missing between December 2006 and November 2012, was released at a news conference by Lia Limon, the subsecretary for legal affairs and human rights under new President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office Dec. 1.
Her announcement came days after Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report that blamed Mexican security forces for many disappearances during the government’s crackdown on domestic drug cartels, which began in earnest in December 2006. The report also blamed the Calderon government for failing to adequately investigate the disappearances.
Last year, The Times reported that the Calderon administration had concealed significant drug-war figures, including statistics on the number of people killed and missing. A list of more than 20,000 people who disappeared during Calderon’s tenure was leaked to The Times and other news outlets, but it was never officially published by the government.
Limon said the figure was a tally from a database of missing people that the government was releasing online. The database, she said, would serve as a “starting point” in an effort to identify and search for the missing.
She noted that the list probably included people who disappeared “for diverse reasons, not necessarily related to criminal acts.”
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the Mexican federal government to create such a database to allow officials to check the names of missing people against records at hospitals, prisons, morgues and border crossings.
Reporters checked the newly released database by searching for the name of Luis Leon, a federal police officer who went missing with six other officials on Nov. 16, 2009, in the state of Michoacan. Six items in the database matched “Luis Leon,” and one apparently refers to the missing officer because it tags the point of disappearance as Cuidad Hidalgo, Michoacan, where he and a group of officers were headed before disappearing.
Peña Nieto is in a difficult position, having inherited a controversial drug war from Calderon that has resulted in as many as 70,000 deaths. It has also sparked allegations of widespread human rights abuses by the military, which Calderon deployed domestically to take on the cartels.
Peña Nieto has pledged to keep the military in the streets for the time being. But the unveiling of the database is one of the ways he is trying to distinguish his security plan from that of his predecessor.
Limon said last week that the government was in possession of a list of nearly 27,000 missing people. A former member of Calderon’s Cabinet subsequently denied that such a list existed.