Given the limited application of the General Law against disappearances to investigate crimes committed against people disappeared in Mexico from 2018-2020, seen in the previous two installments, it is unsurprising that, according to data reported to WOLA, only a minority of disappearance cases resulted in charges for disappearance crimes during those three years.

Seventeen state prosecutors’ offices provided WOLA with information on charges for enforced disappearance under the General Law between 2018-2020, reporting a combined total of at least 30 cases with charges brought before a court. Fifteen of these states also provided data on charges brought for disappearance by private actors, with 195 cases. In these same 15 states, the National Registry recorded over 14,500 people disappeared between 2018-2020 (charges may correspond to crimes committed in prior years).

Charges for disappearance by private actors in 15 states (2018-2020)

Cases with charges brought fordisappearance by private actors19514,500Currently disappeared people

WOLA received more complete data on convictions due to having requested the information from both prosecutors’ offices and judicial branches: we received information regarding at least 25 people convicted at trial for disappearance crimes at the state level, although these data do not include the outcomes of appeals.

WOLA obtained data from 26 of 32 states indicating that from 2018-2020, at least 11 people were convicted of enforced disappearance. For the crime of disappearance by private actors, 19 states provided information, indicating that at least 14 people were convicted. (In both cases, the convictions may correspond to crimes committed in prior years.)


People convicted of enforced disappearance


People convicted of disappearance by private actors
Santa Catarina, Nuevo León. Photo credit: David Liceaga

While these numbers reflect the lack of justice for disappearance crimes, they also show that it has been possible for prosecutors in different states to secure convictions under the General Law. These experiences should serve as a source of analysis to improve the prosecution of cases in general.

Recalling that the General Law establishes that federal authorities have jurisdiction to prosecute disappearance crimes in certain circumstances (such as when federal agents are involved in the crime or when the perpetrators include known members of organized criminal groups), WOLA also requested information at this level from the National Prosecutor’s Office (FGR).

The FGR’s Special Prosecutor for Disappearances reported opening, from 2018-2020, 97 investigations for enforced disappearance and 543 for disappearance by private actors. It reported having brought charges in seven cases of enforced disappearance (with 29 people placed on trial) and one case of disappearance by private actors (placing one person on trial). Neither the Federal Special Prosecutor nor the Federal Judicial Branch informed us of federal convictions for disappearances under the General Law during those three years. We note that the reported data do not cover the entire FGR, but rather the Special Prosecutor’s work.

The FGR’s Special Prosecutor for Disappearances 2018-2020

0 federal convictions for disappearances7 (29 people placed on trial)971 (1 person placed on trial)543Enforced disappearanceDisappearance by private actorsInvestigations openedCases with charges brought


Over the course of the past three weeks, we have explored areas where official data show the under-implementation or under-use of the General Law against disappearances. Closing these gaps–and, more importantly, ensuring effective searches and investigations for the disappeared and their families–is fundamental to improving access to justice and addressing the devastating damage caused every day by the country’s tens of thousands of ongoing disappearances.

Improving investigation of disappearances is not only essential for providing justice to those who have already been its victims. Complete and effective investigations of patterns and practices of disappearances, making full use of all the tools established in the General Law and its protocols, would allow authorities to better prevent these patterns.

Dismantling patterns of disappearance could, in turn, contribute to lowering levels of other forms of violence. The states where the most people were disappeared in 2020 according to the National Registry, such as Jalisco, Michoacán, Sonora, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas, were also severely affected by other forms of criminal violence that year, such as homicides. While not all of these crimes are interrelated, it is certainly the case that criminal networks who practice disappearances also commit other violent acts. Thus, prioritizing disappearance investigations is not just a pressing human rights issue and an obligation to victims: it is a way to address larger networks of violence.

Mexico, led by the families of the disappeared and their allies, has constructed significant legal tools to combat disappearances in the last several years. But roughly 25,000 disappearances later, the watershed General Law has not led to the transformations that the country needs in access to justice.

2021 is the year to change that.

Three and a half years have doubtless been sufficient time for the experience of prosecutors and other actors involved in criminal investigations; search commissions; victims’ collectives; civil society; academia; and others to identify weak points in authorities’ compliance with the General Law–and in investigative practices in general–that give rise to problems such as those illustrated in the data analyzed by WOLA.

There is no better moment for authorities to use the experience of these three and half years and the recommendations of the families and their allies to improve the investigation and mapping of disappearance crimes.

Mexico’s states and their prosecutors’ offices should commit to the creation and adequate staffing and resourcing of special prosecutors’ offices with Context Analysis Units as mandated by the General Law. This alone does not guarantee quality investigations, but complying with the law and creating the infrastructure to handle disappearance cases would signify a minimum level of readiness and commitment by states to this fight.

It is also important for all competent authorities to diagnose and correct weaknesses in the transmission of data to the National Registry and other databases created under the General Law, so that these instruments can reach their full potential.

Prosecutors’ offices should take measures as soon as possible to ensure that they are promptly opening investigations into disappearances under the most suitable classification, and that they are fully applying the standards and tools of Mexico’s legal framework, including especially the General Law and the Uniform Investigation Protocol. One priority should be improving protection measures, treatment of, and collaboration with families of the disappeared at all stages of the process. Another crucial area of opportunity is improving prosecutors’ ability to gather and use evidence to prove the elements of disappearance crimes as defined under the General Law.

The specific actions needed in each state and at the federal level vary, but much work remains at all levels. Given political will, there is no reason why significant advances cannot be made. International partners would do well to support both civil society and official actors working to enact such changes.

In the context of this year’s International Day of disappearance victims, WOLA expresses its solidarity and support to the families of the disappeared in Mexico and calls on authorities to take concrete, measurable steps towards ensuring access to justice and making reality the ideals behind the General Law.

Because for disappearances to end, justice must begin.

Read every installment in WOLA's exploration of investigations into disappearances in Mexico:

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.