MEXICO CITY — Mexico marked a grim milestone this week: The number of people officially listed as disappeared passed 100,000.
A national database for the missing began in the 1960s, but the numbers really shot up after 2006, when Mexico's government launched a U.S.-backed war against drug cartels.
Relatives of the disappeared and human rights advocates say Mexican authorities must do more to bring about truth and justice for the victims.
"The scourge of disappearances is a human tragedy of enormous proportions," said Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
Virginia Garay says her then 19-year-old son Bryan left the house in February 2018, and never came back. He left for work, selling hot dogs, just three blocks from their home in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit.
He never made it to work. And she has never stopped looking for him.
Garay is part of a growing number of mothers and relatives digging around Mexico, underneath clandestine graves. The authorities do little to solve missing person cases, she says.
"Literally we dig in the dirt looking for the disappeared," Garay tells NPR.
According to investigative journalist Marcela Turati, with the group Quinto Elemento Lab, most of the disappeared are young men, most likely caught up in drug trafficking. But there are many others who are not involved in the trade.
"It can be journalists, human rights defenders, Indigenous people. Everybody can be disappeared because the impunity allows it," Turati says.
Very few crimes in Mexico are ever solved and fewer lead to a conviction. Disappearances have spiked in the last two years, despite promises by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Months after taking office in 2019, he said his government would do everything humanly possible to stop them. Critics say that promise wasn't realized. But López Obrador says his strategy against violence will take time.
Garay, whose son has never been found, says relatives are inconsolable, devastated and exhausted. "I can rattle off many more adjectives," she says. "But none are enough to relay the desperation of not knowing where your loved one is."