They lie in clandestine graves strewn across the desert, mingled in communal pits, or hacked to pieces and scattered on desiccated hillsides.
Buried without a name, often all that’s left once their bodies are gone are the empty casings of a person: a bloodied sweatshirt, a frilly top, a tattered dress.
All over Mexico, mothers wander under the scorching sun, poking at the earth and sniffing for the tell-tale scent of decomposing flesh, hoping for a scrap that points toward their missing son or daughter.
For most, the answers never come.
A New York Times photographer documented their search, and in Chihuahua state, he photographed the clothing that was found with unidentified bodies and preserved by investigators.
“It’s a horrible uncertainty I don’t wish on anyone,” said Noemy Padilla Aldáz, who has spent two years looking for her son, Juan Carlos, who was 20 years old when he vanished after finishing his night shift at a local taqueria.
“If I knew he was dead, then I would know that he’s not suffering,” she said. “But we don’t know, and it’s like torture, that not knowing.”
Mexico is nearing a grim milestone: 100,000 disappeared people, according to Mexico’s National Search Commission, which keeps a record that goes back to 1964.
In a country wracked by a drug war without end, death can feel pervasive. Murder rates climb inexorably, now topping 30,000 a year. Macabre images of bodies strung up on bridges or tossed on roadsides as warnings appear on newscasts. Torture techniques get nicknames.
But disappearance can be the cruelest blow. It deprives families of a body to mourn, of answers — even of the simple certainty, and the consolation, of death.
The missing haunt Mexico’s collective memory, a crushing testament to the inability of government after government to staunch the bloodshed and bring criminals to justice.
“Disappearance is perhaps the most extreme form of suffering for the relatives of victims,” said Angélica Durán-Martínez, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and an expert on violence in Latin America.
The faces of the disappeared loom, larger than life, on banners and posters in public squares across Mexico, over messages from relatives pleading for any information about their fate.
But even when remains are found, the task of identifying the dead can be arduous, at times taking investigators months of digging through the brush and combing through dirt for tiny fragments of bone, many of which can be too small or worn to help identify the body.
According to Ms. Durán-Martínez, the crisis of the disappeared in Mexico speaks not just to the prevalence of organized crime, but also to the propensity for state security forces to be engaged in the violence.
Among the most widely known examples: the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in the town of Ayotzinapa. An investigation under Enrique Peña Nieto, the president at the time, placed blame on a local drug cartel and the municipal police. But that explanation has been widely condemned by international experts, including the United Nations, which found the process had been “marred by torture and cover-ups.”
The students are widely believed to be dead, but no one knows where their bodies are, who did it — or why.
Under the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the authorities have tried to make amends for such atrocities and help families find answers. As well as relaunching an investigation into the fate of the 43 students, Mr. López Obrador has thrown his support behind the National Search Commission to locate the missing.
Heading up the effort is Karla Quintana Osuna, a Harvard-trained lawyer who previously worked at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. When she started at the search commission, in 2019, there were some 40,000 officially reported as disappeared.
By compiling records from state prosecutors across the country, Ms. Quintana was able to determine that the total was far higher — it is now more than double. Although there are state prosecutors who do not report their figures in full, she said the tally is now far more accurate than in years past, and also available to the public online.
But locating the missing remains a monumental task.
“The challenge is abysmal, it’s titanic,” Ms. Quintana said of trying to find answers in a country where only a fraction of crimes are ever solved. “As long as there is no justice, a clear message is being sent that this can continue to happen.”
At the state level, improved forensic technology and search equipment like drones have helped find the bodies, according to César Peniche Espejel, the attorney general of Chihuahua, which is among Mexico’s most violent states. But until the authorities can truly take down organized crime groups, such efforts will remain a drop in a bloody tide, he said, that adds thousands to the list every year.
According to the latest data, between September 2020 and the end of July, an additional 6,453 people have been reported disappeared or missing.
“Every day, every day across the country, disappearances continue to be reported,” Mr. Peniche said. “That’s what the federal government has been unable to tackle.”
For now, mothers like Ms. Padilla all over Mexico can only search, and wonder what happened to their children.
“Sometimes I think that he could still be alive, other times I tell myself he’s not,” she said. “But I still have hope.”