‘We just want to find our children’

Published on February 14, 2024

People from all walks of life have disappeared during Mexico’s so-called ‘war on drugs’; many others become victims of the growing global human trafficking industry; migrants go missing as they travel to seek a better life elsewhere, often displaced by criminal groups.

Vulnerable youth, particularly young boys, are co-opted by criminal interests and then ‘disappeared’ to forcibly join gangs, often groomed to provide gang ‘muscle’ or traffic drugs. Women and children are often trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labour. Many activists, journalists, politicians and whistle-blowers who campaign against organized crime or corruption have disappeared.

Disappearances – as we define the phenomenon in this paper – are deployed for various reasons: to silence the voices of social and political leaders, activists and journalists; to assert violent control over criminal territories and illicit markets; or to monetize vulnerable people as a tradeable commodity. In all these cases, criminal groups have a hand, and although organized crime-related disappearances vary in motive and scope, they disproportionately affect the most marginalized communities.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 26: Demonstrator sticks pictures to the wall outside Palacio Nacional during a demonstration to commemorate the 8th anniversary of the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students On September 26, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico. On September 26 of 2014, 43 students of Isidro Burgos Rural School of Ayotzinapa disappeared in Iguala city after clashing with police forces. The students were accused of attempting the kidnap of buses to be used for protests. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

This brief draws from the work and perspectives of such civil society and community members who live in environments that are exposed to disappearances. It assesses this form of organized crime as a serious human rights violation. While informed by the global dynamics of this criminal market, it focuses on contexts in which disappearances occur in Latin America, analyzing in particular the cases of Mexico and Venezuela.

‘We just want to find our children’, Understanding disappearances as a tool of organized crime therefore aims to bring these specific local perspectives to the broader global policymaking agenda, and is intended to inform government officials and policymakers, as well as civil society groups working in this field.

‘We just want to find our children’ Understanding disappearances as a tool of organized crime 

This brief aims to bring specific local perspectives to the broader global policymaking agenda, and is intended to inform government officials and policymakers, as well as civil society groups working in this field.

About the authors

Radha Barooah is the regional field coordinator for South and South East Asia for the GI-TOC’s Resilience Fund. Her work involves coordinating and supporting local civil society initiatives against the impact of transnational organized crime in Asia.

About the authors

Ana Paula Oliveira is an analyst managing the GI-TOC’s Assassination Witness project and a member of the GI-TOC’s multilateral engagement and Resilience Fund teams. Her research focuses on assassinations, disappearances and other forms of violence in the context of illicit economies as well as the impact of organized crime on human rights and humanitarian law and policy.

About the authors

Siria Gastélum Félix is the director of resilience at the GI-TOC. She is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with experience in radio, television and print media in Mexico, the United States and Canada. Her past experience also includes the International Narcotics Control Board and the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. Currently, she leads the GI-TOC’s programming in Latin America and works on technology applications to empower civil society leaders to collaborate, learn from each other and tell their own story.

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