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MEXICO CITY -- More than 61,000 people have disappeared in Mexico, authorities announced Monday, sharply raising their estimate of those who have vanished in more than a decade of extreme violence by and among organized-crime groups.

The government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador released the new figure after an exhaustive analysis of data from state prosecutors. Previously, authorities had estimated the number of victims at 40,000. While a few cases date to the 1960s, the vast majority have been reported since 2006, when Mexico launched an all-out offensive targeting organized-crime groups.

Karla Quintana, head of Mexico's National Search Commission, which coordinates the effort to find the missing, said at least 61,637 people had been reported disappeared and not been found -- what she called "data of horror." The actual number is thought to be even higher, since many cases are never reported.

The numbers confirm that Mexico is suffering one of the worst crises of "the disappeared" in Latin American history.

In the 1970s and 1980s, forced disappearances in the region became a global human-rights concern, as governments systematically detained and killed opponents -- most suspected of involvement in leftist insurgencies.

Around 40,000 people disappeared in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. An estimated 30,000 disappeared during Argentina's "dirty war," which lasted from 1976 to 1983.

Unlike those countries, though, Mexico has not been at war -- at least, not officially. And while militaries were behind most of the Cold War disappearances, narcotraffickers and other criminals are the likely culprits in the majority of the Mexican cases. Authorities suspect many of them worked with corrupt police and politicians.

The announcement highlights the toll of more than a decade of extraordinary violence in Mexico, which shows no sign of abating. Last year, homicides through November topped 31,000, a record. In some regions, organized-crime groups openly battle police and soldiers.

But the updated figure also indicates how Lopez Obrador's leftist government, which took over in December 2018, has placed more priority on the issue of the disappeared, after years of official indifference. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has praised the National Search Commission, even as it has warned that Mexico faces "enormous challenges" in other areas.

The announcement "is a step toward needed recognition of true scope of conflict," tweeted Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. However, he wrote, "what is being done to curb conflict" and keep the numbers from rising further "is still unclear."

The National Search Commission set up a team in the spring that pored over records from state prosecutors' offices to update the national registry of the disappeared, officials said. The previous official estimate was released in April 2018.

The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Lopez Obrador. He has been widely accused of lacking an effective strategy to combat rising violence. The government's weakness was exposed in October when Sinaloa cartel gunmen swarmed into the city of Culiacan, forcing authorities to release the son of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, shortly after his arrest.

Weeks later, gunmen killed three women and six children with dual U.S.-Mexican nationality from a breakaway Mormon community. They lived in an area dominated by drug cartels in the northern state of Sonora.

President Donald Trump has pressured Mexico to confront drug-trafficking groups more aggressively, volunteering to send U.S. troops and warning that he could designate the cartels as terrorist groups. Mexico has rejected any American military deployment.

But organized-crime groups aren't the only culprits. In some cases, people have disappeared after encounters with the military or the police. In one of Mexico's most infamous cases, 43 students were detained near the southern city of Iguala in 2014. They were never seen again. Witnesses last spotted them getting into municipal police trucks.

An initial investigation concluded that the police had turned the students over to local drug dealers, who killed them, in the mistaken belief that they were rivals. That probe has been discredited, and Lopez Obrador has opened a new one.

Alejandro Encinas, Mexico's undersecretary for human rights, said that authorities logged the highest number of unresolved disappearances in 2017, with more than 7,000 cases, and that there was a decline in 2018 and 2019. But officials continue to find plastic bags containing body parts, many from recent killings, dumped in wells or abandoned buildings.

A Section on 01/07/2020

Print Headline: Count of 'disappeared' tops 61,000 in Mexico

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