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Mexican families struggle to find drug war's 'disappeared'

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To be "disappeared" in Latin America carries overtones of the military dictatorships and state-sponsored repression of the 1970s and '80s that saw tens of thousands of dissidents go missing across the region. But today's disappearances, largely apolitical, terrorize civil society.

Some of Mexico's disappeared are believed to have been kidnapped by drug traffickers settling scores or beefing up their ranks. Others report that their relatives were last seen in the hands of officials, or at least by those posing in uniform. Often lines are blurry, as many authorities, particularly at the municipal level, have ties to organized crime.

“Within this context of generalized violence, one of the dramas we are living is the problem of disappearances,” says Blanca Martinez, the director of the Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios in Coahuila who has organized families looking for the missing. “We are living a humanitarian tragedy whose ends we do not know.”

Trying to put a number on how many Mexicans have disappeared among a death toll of some 40,000 in the nearly five years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent the military to fight organized crime is a dizzying affair.

The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico estimated in April that they have received 5,397 reports of missing people since December 2006. Many groups do not specify, or even know, whether the disappearances are enforced by corrupt officials or are the work of criminals. Some numbers include migrants who are missing, while others deal specifically with Mexicans.

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