Karla Quintana, who is heading an effort to find Mexico's disappeared, talks with a federal police officer last year near the city of Torreón. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)
Karla Quintana, who is heading an effort to find Mexico's disappeared, talks with a federal police officer last year near the city of Torreón. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)

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EJIDO SAN ANTONIO DEL ALTO, México — Karla Quintana was on her knees, looking at some pebble-like objects she’d scooped from the desert floor. “Fragments,” one of her companions said, and everyone knew what that meant.

A decade ago, thugs from the Zetas cartel had brought their victims to this windswept patch of turf. They’d hacked them to pieces and roasted them until the bones exploded. The remains were dumped in shallow, unmarked graves.

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Now, 12 miles from the NAFTA boomtown of Torreón, the land was dotted with tiny bone fragments. Quintana, a 41-year-old lawyer in a pink scarf, stared as a pebble crumbled in her hand. “You don’t know if that’s a person disintegrating,” she said later.

More than 79,000 people have disappeared in Mexico, most of them since 2006. It’s the worst crisis of the disappeared in Latin America since the Cold War, when military-backed governments kidnapped and secretly killed their leftist opponents — an estimated 45,000 in Guatemala, up to 30,000 in Argentina, as many as 3,400 in Chile. And Mexico’s numbers keep rising. Last year saw a record. Mexicans are uncovering two clandestine graves a day, on average.

A count of Mexico’s disappeared since 2006

For the first time, the federal government has committed to a serious effort to find the missing. Quintana is in charge. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a longtime leftist, named her as part of a sweeping commitment to elevate human rights in a country still emerging from its authoritarian past.

But Mexico’s new wave of disappearances is more baffling, more complex than what happened during Latin America’s dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s. It coincides with the drug war and the country’s troubled transition to democracy.

The culprits are sometimes the armed forces, but more commonly they’re the country’s drug cartels, often in league with corrupt police. The sheer number of the disappeared reflects a collapse of order in America’s neighbor, with a proliferating number of crime groups warring over territory.

A mass grave near Torreón is excavated on Dec. 17.

Volunteers at the site separate fragments of human bones from rocks and dirt.

A federal police officer guards the excavation site.

(Photos by Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)

In February 2019, Quintana walked into her new office at the National Search Commission. There were a dozen desks and a few chairs. The commission had been established a year earlier, but barely funded. Initially, she paid the WiFi bill out of her own pocket.

She was a respected lawyer, but human rights activists had their doubts. Quintana had embarked on “the most impossible job in the country,” one said. She would receive a $22 million budget for her first year — significant but hardly enough. She’d have to rely on a corrupt, underfunded justice system for help in exhuming and identifying the bodies. She had no prosecutorial power.

Still, Quintana saw reasons for hope. Her boss at the powerful Government Ministry, Alejandro Encinas, was one of López Obrador’s closest allies. The president had vowed to solve Mexico’s most notorious case of the disappeared: 43 college students who had vanished years earlier. On taking office in 2018, López Obrador named a gender-balanced cabinet and pledged more attention to the poor and Indigenous. He’d even written a book defending migrants — and called it “Listen Up, Trump.”

[Disappearances in Mexico rose during López Obrador’s first year]

“Many people think human rights defenders should always be in opposition to the government,” Quintana said. “I’d say there are moments in which it’s necessary — there is no other option — but to be in the government.”

Ten months into the job, though, she was starting to realize the limits of government power. Nowhere was that more true than in the desert outside Torreón, where on that chilly morning last December, she was exploring a field sprinkled with human remains the size of peppercorns.

Quintana had roared up with six truckloads of federal police and soldiers. Just a day earlier, men peering through binoculars had been seen driving slowly past the graves. “They surveil us, they threaten us,” said Silvia Ortiz, the leader of a group of mothers who found the graves while searching for their missing children.

Groups such as Ortiz’s were combing sites like this all over the country, largely on their own. They weren’t particularly impressed by Quintana’s Harvard law degree. “What if she’s the kind of woman who just sits behind a desk?” Ortiz recalled thinking when she first heard of the commissioner.

Now the bureaucrat was here, her hiking boots sinking into the soft dirt, a floppy hat jammed over her short gray hair. She fired questions at Ortiz and a state forensic expert.

How long had they been digging here? (Four years). How much help had they received from the government? (Not much). How many bodies were in each grave? (Up to 10 pounds of pebbles — around three humans). Quintana surveyed the barren land. Here, the narcos didn’t just disappear people but exterminated them. It would be impossible to identify many of the remains.

Ortiz looked at her. “There are 13 sites like this, my dear.”

A cross hangs on a photograph of Fanny Sánchez, who disappeared in Torreón in 2004. Her mother, Silvia Ortiz, leads a group of relatives of the disappeared who search for hidden graves. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)
A cross hangs on a photograph of Fanny Sánchez, who disappeared in Torreón in 2004. Her mother, Silvia Ortiz, leads a group of relatives of the disappeared who search for hidden graves. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)

Mexico’s first crisis of the disappeared was in the 1970s, when security forces abducted and killed more than 1,000 leftist insurgents and their supporters. It was a smaller-scale version of the kidnappings carried out by dictatorships in places such as Argentina and Guatemala. Disappearances became known as a unique kind of evil, denying families closure, leaving them forever tortured by the mystery of their loved ones’ fates.

When disappearances began to resurge here in recent years, many suspected the security forces. In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón militarized the war on drugs, deploying the army and marines to fight the cartels. Complaints of human rights abuses soared.

[U.S. judge drops drug charges against former Mexican defense minister]

But drug traffickers, too, were abducting people. By the time Quintana became commissioner, it was obvious that they often worked closely with corrupt officials. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case of the 43 students from the southern town of Ayotzinapa, who went missing in 2014, possibly after stumbling onto a heroin-trafficking operation. A special prosecutor has linked local and federal police, military officers and even a former top justice official to the disappearances.

How did things get this bad? It’s easy to blame the well-armed criminal gangs. The truth is more complicated. In 2000, Mexicans voted to end seven decades of authoritarian, one-party rule. But the young democracy failed to build a professional justice system, with well-trained and well-equipped police and prosecutors. Today, only around 1 percent of crimes are reported and solved. “The use of violence is less regulated than it was before,” said Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, the co-founder of Noria Research, which studies conflict. “Many more people are using violence.”

It was the mothers who finally forced officials to take action on the disappeared. They held demonstrations around the country, waving poster-size photos of their missing children. Their pressure led to the creation of the search commission, at the end of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.

The first commissioner served for only a few months. When Quintana arrived early last year, there was barely any staff.

But six weeks later, there she was at the National Palace, sitting on a stage behind López Obrador, blinking at the TV lights, as he announced an unprecedented effort to find the disappeared. “There is no budget limit, no financial ceiling,” he declared. The auditorium erupted in applause.

When Quintana first arrived at the commission, it had just a handful of employees. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)
When Quintana first arrived at the commission, it had just a handful of employees. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)

Quintana knew there was no such thing in government as an unlimited budget. Still, she was optimistic. “For the first time, maybe in a limited manner, the state, as a state, is trying to give a response,” she said.

Quintana came by her idealism naturally. Her father grew up poor; he put himself through law school by swabbing floors. The law was his ticket to a middle-class life, but it was something more. “Being a lawyer means nothing less than maintaining the light of the ideals of Justice,” he wrote in a three-page letter to his daughter.

Quintana, too, was a striver. She arrived at Harvard in 2007 with a pile of grants and $1,500 in the bank. When she realized she didn’t know legal terms in English, she binge-watched “Law and Order.” Later, as a prosecutor at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, she represented victims of horrific abuses — disappearances, massacres, torture. She would absorb their pain and use it as “a source of energy,” said Silvia Serrano, a Colombian colleague. The young attorneys would stay up all night prepping before a big case, fueled by coffee and Red Bull. “I never saw her tired,” Serrano said.

By 2013, Quintana had a husband and a chubby-cheeked little girl and a cozy basement apartment near Washington National Cathedral. But the family decided to move to Mexico. Quintana’s father had Alzheimer’s. She felt a debt to Mexico. “We always had this feeling we were not doing enough for our countries,” Serrano said.

One of Quintana’s first priorities was to figure out exactly who was missing.

Remains of the disappeared are kept in crypts at the edge of a graveyard in Zacatecas state.

Reports on those who are missing sit in a bookcase at the Zacatecas Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Remains that have been found at clandestine gravesites are usually taken to the institute for analysis, cataloguing and storage.

(Photos by Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

The search commission had 40,000 names of the disappeared in a crazy quilt of Excel documents and Word files, replete with duplications and typos. Quintana hired a dozen people — programmers, systems analysts, lawyers — to consolidate and update the material. They called state prosecutors’ offices for the latest figures.

The trouble was, many wouldn’t send the information. In some cases, their computer systems didn’t talk to the federal government’s. In others, their records were just a mess. In the central state of Guanajuato — one of Mexico’s most violent — a justice official told lawmakers last year there had been only 11 cases of forced disappearance. In reality, more than 1,000 people were missing, according to an investigation published this year by the citizens group Data Cívica — but they’d apparently been misclassified.

In January, two weeks after her trip to Torreón, Quintana stepped up to a lectern in a shabby beige government auditorium in downtown Mexico City. The commission had come up with a more accurate toll of the disappeared: 61,637. “These are data of horror,” she said at the news conference. But it was still an undercount. Many people were too afraid to file complaints. And despite Quintana’s pleading, nearly one-third of Mexico’s 32 states still hadn’t turned over their figures — including Guanajuato.

Time and again, Quintana’s small office clashed with Mexico’s sprawling justice system. Her team could help find clandestine graves and remove remains, but because these were technically crime scenes, someone from the prosecutor’s office had to be present. The prosecutors’ offices, which had most of the government’s forensic experts and oversaw the identification of bodies, were supposed to be her partners. But some of them were riddled with corruption. Others were grossly understaffed. In one state, Quintana found only three lawyers assigned to handle 900 disappearances — and process the graves that continued to be discovered.

The dysfunction of the bureaucracy was staggering. Mexico had become so violent, so awash in bodies, that medical examiners ran out of space. In 2018, authorities in Jalisco state resorted to loading excess corpses into a refrigerated truck that was moved from town to town.

[Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel blazes a bloody trail in rise to power]

That caused a national scandal. But in fact, state medical examiners had been disposing of bodies for years without conducting autopsies or taking DNA samples. Quintana and other officials crunched the numbers. There were something like 37,000 such corpses. It hit her: At least some of the disappeared weren’t disappeared at all. They were misplaced. By the government itself.

“Where are they?” she asked one day in her office, scrawling the number on a legal pad and stabbing it with her pencil. “Certainly in common graves. The question is, where?”

The work was often excruciating. There were the painful encounters with the mothers, who wanted their children back — now.

Family members of the disappeared have formed independent search groups to find their loved ones. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
Family members of the disappeared have formed independent search groups to find their loved ones. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

There was the bureaucratic indifference. “It affects you every day,” Quintana said one evening as she sipped red wine in her simple, white-walled apartment.

Sometimes she couldn’t sleep. She had to be careful about security — she no longer posted casually on Facebook or Twitter. “You protect the people close to you,” she said. In her meetings with families, she never mentioned that she, too, was a mom. By this point, she and her husband had divorced; he’d moved with their daughter back to the United States. Only a few colleagues knew why Quintana withdrew every night at 8, phone in hand. Hundreds of miles away, a little girl was going to bed.

More than a year into the job, Quintana had made some progress. Her commission had swelled to 89 employees. She’d helped create government search committees in every state. In August 2020, Mexico recognized the authority of the United Nations to investigate disappearances, a step that was long anathema to the military. She used some of the commission’s money to fund a center in the northern state of Coahuila to identify bodies. The U.S. Agency for International Development doubled its assistance with a $24 million, five-year grant to find the disappeared and combat torture.

But tensions were building with the attorney general’s office. After months of work, Quintana’s commission presented an ambitious master plan, known as a search protocol, that would give it access to information from across the Mexican government. Federal justice officials refused to sign off, citing concerns that investigations could be compromised.

To relatives of the victims, the dispute was disheartening.

“If the two government bodies that can give us good results can’t work together, what hope do we have of success in searching?” asked Grace Fernández, the leader of one such group.

It was just the latest sign of what human rights activists saw as a darkening picture.

Amnesty International had criticized López Obrador’s first year in a report titled “When words are not enough.” The president had reversed himself on several fronts: expanding, rather than reducing, the power of the military to fight crime; dispatching the national guard to crack down on Central American migrants in response to pressure from the Trump administration. When Mexican women launched a nationwide strike in March to protest an alarming rise in femicides, he blamed the action in part on his political opposition.

Families of the disappeared recognized that there had been advances in the search for their loved ones, but the effort fell well short of López Obrador’s promise to involve “all the institutions” in resolving the problem. “There’s not a strategy of state,” Fernández said.

Quintana meets with local officials and relatives of the disappeared as they prepare to exhume a mass grave in October in the Guanajuato town of Salvatierra. (Mary Beth Sheridan/The Washington Post)
Quintana meets with local officials and relatives of the disappeared as they prepare to exhume a mass grave in October in the Guanajuato town of Salvatierra. (Mary Beth Sheridan/The Washington Post)

Quintana wrapped a green scarf around her hair to ward off the cold and shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans. Facing her was a circle of people, their faces covered by ski caps and kerchiefs with tiny slits for eyeholes. She’d never seen such a terrified group of moms.

“We know the security situation here is complicated,” Quintana told them. “It was urgent to come and support you in any way we can.”

It was 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in October and she was standing on a grassy lot just off a street lined with pastel-colored homes in the Guanajuato town of Salvatierra. For a week, her team had been digging in the fields here with the relatives of the disappeared. They’d found 47 bodies. Within days, the total would grow to 69 — the biggest gravesite ever found in the state.

Until recently, the state prosecutor’s office had denied the existence of mass graves. This was Guanajuato: an industrial juggernaut, home to GM, Volkswagen, Toyota and Honda plants; and a tourist magnet, with pretty Spanish colonial towns such as San Miguel de Allende. In recent years it had also become a battleground between the Jalisco New Generation and Santa Rosa de Lima cartels. But that was not the image the state wanted to project.

The site that morning was a swirl of activity: soldiers leashing their search dogs, civil-protection officials lugging medical kits. The prosecutor’s office normally sent only four staffers to help the moms at suspected gravesites, they said. Now there were 25. That’s what happened when Quintana came to town.

“If it weren’t for her, they wouldn’t even have dug up that grave,” said Conchita Sierra, one of the mothers. “They would have hidden it, as they hide others.”

State officials deny they’ve ignored the problem. “We’re going to do everything necessary so the people we find in this place are correctly identified,” Zuce Hernández, Guanajuato’s prosecutor for human rights abuses, said at a news conference.

Soldiers with dogs search for bodies at the mass grave in Salvatierra. (Mary Beth Sheridan/The Washington Post)
Soldiers with dogs search for bodies at the mass grave in Salvatierra. (Mary Beth Sheridan/The Washington Post)

As 2020 neared an end, the count of people reported missing in Mexico had grown to more than 79,000. New names were being added to the list all the time. López Obrador’s administration had failed to rein in the country’s barbaric violence. In the Salvatierra grave, some corpses were found embracing one another. “We came to the conclusion they were buried alive,” Sierra said.

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said Quintana “represents a clear and genuine commitment to do something for the victims” of massive atrocities. But her mandate, he cautioned, is narrow. “She’s searching for the whereabouts” of missing people, he said. “Not the truth about who killed them and why.”

In a small way, Quintana was searching for that, too. She was trying to set up a unit within her commission to write the histories of the disappeared. To identify the patterns, the perpetrators in different regions. The justice system had an abysmal record of convictions: From 2006 to 2019, it opened 11,706 investigations of forced disappearances. Only 39 people were sentenced.

Quintana hoped that someday her histories could serve as evidence for a judicial process, or a truth commission.

“Maybe it’s not in a year or two,” Quintana said. “Maybe it’s 10 or 20.”

It was a Sunday, and she was back from Guanajuato, enjoying a rare moment of calm, having breakfast in a cafe with her partner, a Belgian human rights worker. October had been brutal: 69 bodies found in Guanajuato, more than 100 in Jalisco state. Progress, of a sort. But with so much impunity, so much institutional weakness, Mexico could be digging up bodies for decades.

Her phone rang. Several of her employees were in Chihuahua state, battling a sandstorm as they investigated a mass grave. It looked like this would be a big one.

Crosses mark a clandestine grave where about 20 bodies were found in Nayarit. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
Crosses mark a clandestine grave where about 20 bodies were found in Nayarit. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

Disappearances data comes from Mexican’s Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas (CNB).

About this project

Copy editing by Frances Moody and Martha Murdock. Graphics by Adrian Blanco. Graphics editing by Armand Emamdjomeh and Tim Meko. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Design and development by Joanne Lee. Design editing by Brian Gross. Digital operations by Maite Fernández Simon. Project editing by Courtney Kan.

Mary Beth Sheridan is a correspondent covering Mexico and Central America for The Washington Post. Her previous foreign postings include Rome; Bogota, Colombia; and a five-year stint in Mexico in the 1990s. She has also covered immigration, homeland security and diplomacy for The Post, and served as deputy foreign editor from 2016 to 2018.