A distraught mother arrives at her state prosecutor’s office to report a crime: her 18-year-old son never came home last night.

Neighbors told her that they saw a group of men grab her son and force him into a vehicle. An eyewitness says that at least some of the abductors wore uniforms, but all of the authorities she has called deny having her son in custody. Her son has not responded to her calls or texts all day and his whereabouts are unknown.

What happens next? Imagine this:

Based on what the mother describes, the authorities take immediate steps to search for her son and to investigate the crime committed against him. These actions maximize the likelihood of finding her son before any further harm befalls him. Through fieldwork, witness accounts, use of technology, analysis of disappearance patterns in the area, and/or other investigative tools, authorities identify and charge the men who disappeared her son. The evidence gathered in the investigation is sufficient and has been obtained with due process, so it stands up in court. The perpetrators are convicted. The investigation improves authorities’ understanding of patterns of disappearance in the area, bringing the government one step closer to preventing them.


When a disappearance occurs in Mexico, this is how the criminal investigation is supposed to play out under the country’s landmark General Law against disappearances, in force since 2018. Yet three years later, reality rarely follows this script, leaving thousands of families without justice.

In this series, WOLA explores how disappearances are investigated in Mexico.

In this series, WOLA will use official data, obtained through information requests and consultation of public databases, to explore how Mexico’s flagship law to address its historic disappearance crisis remains under-applied in criminal investigations throughout the country.

Roughly 25,000 people were disappeared in Mexico between 2018 and 2021.

According to the Mexican government’s National Registry of the disappeared, roughly 90,000 people are currently disappeared or missing in Mexico. Over 90% of these people are classified in the Registry as “disappeared” (meaning that their absence is presumed to be the result of a crime), while the rest are labeled “missing persons.” However, we note that factors including the passage of time trigger a legal presumption that “missing persons” are, in fact, disappeared. We also note that families of the disappeared signal that the true scale of disappearances is greater than what is shown in the National Registry. While recognizing this context, for the present study we will refer to the number of disappeared people according to the Registry.

The vast majority of people included in the Registry were disappeared in the last 15 years. From 2018 to mid-2021 (that is, since the General Law has been in force), approximately 25,000 people have been disappeared. These include over 3,500 adult women and over 3,500 children, of whom roughly 2,000 are girls.


For years, families have led Mexico’s efforts to search for the disappeared and to address disappearances at all levels. But families should not have to bear this burden. To break the cycle of disappearances, authorities must make significant progress in investigating and mapping patterns of disappearance across the country—bringing perpetrators to justice while taking targeted steps to prevent disappearances.

Over each of the next three weeks, we will look at examples of gaps between the law and reality in the investigation process:

Recognizing disappearance crimes

(week one - August 23-27)

Investigating disappearances

(week two - August 30-September 3)

Securing justice for disappearances

(week three - September 6-10)

We hope that this information proves useful to all actors working against disappearances in Mexico.