Findings / Hallazgos
The Observatory’s Press Database is an organized collection of articles published by Mexican press outlets regarding disappearance cases in the states of Coahuila, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Nuevo León, from 2009 to mid-2018. Our research objectives in this study are threefold. Using these articles as well as interviews with journalists in Mexico, this study seeks to complement the Observatory’s previous analyses about disappearances in these four states, learning what we can from press reports about “who was doing what to whom.” We also want to explain the social and political impacts of spot news reporting techniques for disappearance cases. Finally, we used the press database to engage with academic literature to understand which disappearance cases are considered newsworthy and why.
Key Findings From Press Reports Of Disappearance Cases
In addition to the statistical analysis of the data (concerning the victims, perpetrators and the state’s response), two conceptual key findings emerged regarding the nature of the press reports on disappearances:
The study demonstrates the tendency of the press to report on each disappearance case as a single criminal event and not as an ongoing human rights violation. Given the continuous nature of disappearances, this event-focused reporting limits public understanding and discussion about the crimes. There are notable variations from this practice, including the use of investigative journalism to understand the phenomenon of disappearances, characterized by several collectives now operating in Mexico. However, the tendency to use “spot news” or “nota roja” in coverage of disappearance cases, as well as the enormous number of cases that received no coverage at all, limits the public’s access to information about the phenomenon that might lead to human rights change.
The study also shows that disappearance victims who were most newsworthy were persons from groups perceived as sympathetic -- such as families, students, or persons who held prominent positions -- police, public officials, businesspersons. Disappearance cases that were unusual, including group disappearances or those exhibiting extreme violence, also received more coverage. These findings extend the rarity theory of newsworthiness to situations of widespread human rights violations. The rarity theory asserts that victims who are ideal (females, children, and/or the elderly), stories that are unusual, or stories that involve more than one victim are considered newsworthy. The study also showed that families and civil society groups who advocate for disappeared persons increase the newsworthiness of their cases.
Most Mexican news articles about disappearances provided their readers with limited information about the cases. Articles about disappearances usually included basic demographic information on the victim (e.g. gender, age), basic facts about the event (e.g. date, location, municipality) and, in about 41% of the reported cases, the articles suggested the suspected perpetrator. These reporting tendencies fit with a social-organizational newspaper model based on spot news or “notas del día”, described by McPherson (2012) in her analysis of Mexican press reporting. This model prioritizes news “as it happens” with a particular goal of attracting audiences accustomed to electronic media, including television. This spot news approach tends to rely on fewer sources and less investigation, resulting in fewer voices in the public sphere and less focus on accountability (McPherson 2012).
The spot news model can be seen in other aspects of the press articles in our database including the tendency to cover disappearance cases as singular events published in the crime section, and in a format named “nota roja” -- or crime notes. This “nota roja” type of reporting fails to connect each disappearance to a wider pattern of human rights violations, and therefore removes the event from the more generalized context. This practice has also been critiqued in the literature with regard to news coverage about femicides in Mexico, which covered femicides as isolated events and not the result of structural violence against women. (De la Garza and Salazar 2020).
Reporter assignments for crime stories often circulate among a pool of staff reporters and, thus, a broad range of journalists may report on disappearance cases. At least 482 reporters are included in our database of news stories about disappearances, many of them assigned as part of a crime reporting pool in their media outlet. For security reasons, articles concerning organized crime may be labeled as “staff reporting” -- with no specific individual byline. (Frey and Cuellar, 2020). We found this to be a common occurrence; 55% of disappearance cases in our database included at least one "staff reported" article.
Until several years into the disappearance crisis, few journalists had gained expertise on the phenomenon, such as how these crimes fit into the larger framework of human rights violations. Journalistic expertise in disappearance cases grew along with the crisis and, by the mid-2010s, several individual reporters and collective initiatives, such as A Donde Van los Desaparecidos, Quinto Elemento, Periodistas de a Pie and ZonaDocs, began to publish extraordinary and important investigations into the violence.The focus of press reporting in these states was on the crime and not the search
for the disappeared person or the investigation of those responsible.
An additional tendency observed in this database was the lack of press follow up on disappearance cases. We saw little evidence of reporting on the state’s response or judicial proceedings in a disappearance case originally reported as a “nota roja”. Nor did the press typically conduct follow-up reporting to investigate the outcome of a disappearance such as whether the person was still missing or whether there had been an official search or investigation of the case. The focus of press reporting in these states was on the crime and not the search for the disappeared person or the investigation of those responsible. As such, the press outlets did not provide public information about “who should be held accountable, what they should be held accountable for, and how they should be held accountable” (Bonner 2009: 297).
We conducted an analysis of which cases were considered newsworthy in Mexican print media coverage of disappearances by using content analysis on the five reported disappearance events with the highest number of press articles in each of the four states in our database. We found that these highly reported cases tended to cover unusual crimes and/or ideal victims, confirming the rarity theory as an explanation of newsworthiness in the context of widespread violence, including disappearances at the hands of organized crime and state actors.
In addition to unusual or ideal victims, our newsworthy analysis points to coverage related to families or collectives who engage in visible campaigns on behalf of their disappeared loved ones. Our analysis of the top five cases and interviews with journalists suggest that advocacy by the families increases the newsworthiness of these disappearance cases.
Unusual Events: groups, seriousness or novelty
Past research using the rarity theory has found that rare or unusual events are considered more newsworthy and therefore receive more press coverage. Newsworthiness is determined by the unusualness of a crime, typified by the involvement of more than one victim or its degree of seriousness (Gekoski et al 2012); or its extraordinary or novel nature (Gruenewald et al 2013).
In terms of unusualness, our data establishes that group disappearances received higher media attention overall in Mexico, with an average of 7 articles per group disappearance and 4 articles per individual disappearance. Of course, the case of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014 represented the quintessentially unusual case in terms of its high number of victims, which increased its notoriety and generated long-term global coverage of the case.
Beyond this infamous case of mass disappearances, we found a general pattern showing that cases with a large number of victims drove media attention. For example, the case of twelve house painters who were disappeared together in Coahuila generated 16 articles (9 more than the average of 7 per group case); eleven police officers who were disappeared in Apodaca, Nuevo León generated 14 articles, (7 more than the group average), and seven young men who were disappeared in Lagos de Moreno in Jalisco generated 18 articles (11 more than the group average). The latter case was not technically a group disappearance, but was categorized by the media as such because of multiple disappearances of young men, 18-22 years of age, in the same territory and similar time frame. The cases became known as the “the Lagos de Moreno 7”.
Reporters we interviewed acknowledged that they and their editors paid more attention to group disappearances in their reporting than to crimes affecting a single victim. “It sounds distasteful,” one reporter told us, “but one disappeared person is not really newsworthy -- it doesn’t have so much impact now because there are already so many disappeared. So, well yes, you were not going to be filling the newspaper with stories of disappeared persons, but it also depends on who was disappeared.” (Reporter interviewed by Olga Salazar Pozos, Monterrey, Nuevo León, June 9, 2019).
A final group of unusual cases were those that were extraordinary for their seriousness or novel outcomes. The case of the 11 police officers from Apodaca, Nuevo Leon, for instance, was notable not only for the number of victims but because eight officers, who sought to locate their three disappeared colleagues, themselves were disappeared. Cases which involved gruesome crimes were also covered, such as the brutal murder of a family in Guerrero, whose bodies were burned.
Ideal Victims: high profile or sympathetic persons
Higher profile or sympathetic victims were the most newsworthy cases among the many disappearances in the four states we reviewed. Several high profile disappearance victims were among the most covered cases, embodying the idea that “newsworthiness is greatly, possibly even primarily, concerned with measuring the ‘worth’ of the life lost” (Gekoski et al. 2012). In Nuevo León, for instance, the disappearance of Damián G, a businessman from San Pedro, an upper class and seemingly safe neighborhood, generated 16 articles (11 more than the average of 5 articles per individual case in the database), and the disappearance of Saul V, the mayor of Zaragoza, Coahuila, who was later found dead in Nuevo León, generated 20 articles (15 more than the average). In Guerrero, three different cases of social activists and politicians generated significant press attention. First, the case of Ranferi H, a former PRD politician and a social justice activist, who disappeared along with his family, generated 11 articles (6 more than the average). The disappearance of Silvia R, Ex-Secretary of Education and well-known PRD party member, received 13 articles (8 more than the average). Finally, the disappearance of Héctor, a 30-year-old human rights local activist and University of Guadalajara anthropology student, was covered in 11 articles (6 more than the average).
Other trends concerning sympathetic victims arose in our analysis of the most covered disappearance cases. Victims who are seen as blameless receive more media attention with a wider scope, and more thorough coverage (Gilchrist 2010; Gekoski et al. 2012 ). This explains the press’s interest in the disappearances of young people, especially children and students. For example, the case of a three-year-old in Coahuila, Johan G, that generated 16 articles (11 more than the average) and three university students from Zapopan, Jalisco that had 12 articles (7 more than the average), in addition to the widespread media attention to the three film students in Jalisco.
Another example of victims that are considered vulnerable by the literature on newsworthiness are female victims, since according to Chermark they are considered more “worthy” of news coverage than males (Gruenewald et al. 2013). Among the individual female victims in our analysis, we identified a highly covered case in Jalisco with 14 different press articles (9 more than the average of 5 articles) about a female high school student. Other cases of female victims who received high levels of news coverage in Guerrero, includs Maria Luiz O, a feminist and human rights activist (6 more than the average). A mother and her baby left for dead in her car in Guerrero also generated sympathetic interest, with 15 press articles (8 more than the average).
Reporters we interviewed corroborated their tendency to cover sympathetic victims, especially based on the perceived reader’s response. One journalist from Nuevo Leon said, “So if you tell them that he was a 36-year-old man, you will see in the comments, ‘he was up to something’ or they will justify the disappearance in some way. And if you tell them that he was a student at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León or the Tec [de Monterrey] or the UDEM, everything changes, right?” (Reporter interviewed by Olga Salazar Pozos, Monterrey, Nuevo León, June 14, 2019.) Perceived reader response was therefore a material factor in reporter’s perceptions about the newsworthiness of disappearance victims.
Making cases visible: advocacy by families and civil society
The most highly reported cases in each state demonstrated that families who spoke out on behalf of their disappeared loved ones tended to increase the newsworthiness of the crime victim. Their actions led to more press coverage, humanized the public profile of the disappeared person, and in some cases resulted in more accountability by state officials.
Wives, mothers, fathers, and brothers who demanded action for justice on behalf of their disappeared loved ones received substantial coverage in our database. This held true whether the victim was a student (Daniela in Jalisco), a federal police officer (Juan H in Nuevo Leon), a public official (Esteban A in Coahuila), a human rights advocate (Hector in Guerrero), an engineer (Toño in Coahuila), or an amateur bull rider (Armando in Guerrero). In fact, in several cases, although the named victim was disappeared with a group, the advocacy by families increased the press coverage for their disappeared loved one over the others. This was true, for instance, in the disappearance of Juan H, whose case was covered in twice as many articles (12 v. 6) as another federal police officer, Juan Luis L, who disappeared in the same incident in the midst of a police quarter in Nuevo Leon. The outspoken advocacy of Juan H’s mother led to more coverage.
Civil society organizations also played a role in making cases more visible in the press. Journalists we interviewed repeatedly noted the importance of human rights organizations and families’ collectives as their sources in reporting on disappearance cases. Daniel de la Fuente, a journalist with the Reforma Group, explained his work on a special series published simultaneously in three major news outlets (Mural, Reforma and El Norte) to tell in-depth stories about victims of disappearances. De la Fuente noted, “we relied heavily on CADHAC, and we are very grateful to [Sr.] Consuelo [Director of CADHAC] for all that she has done in these years. That series was very important, it shocked, outraged, made [the cases] visible. None of the cases were resolved, none of those people returned, few officials were detained.” (Reporter interviewed by Olga Salazar Pozos, Monterrey, Nuevo León, July 9, 2019).
Our analysis of the top five cases in each state also showed that families played active roles in pushing back against any governmental or press narratives that criminalized the victims. In the case of Daniela of Jalisco, for instance, the family publicly rejected the state’s attorney’s blame-shifting to the young student. Their public advocacy resulted in more press coverage of her disappearance, and it also humanized Daniela in the public’s eyes. In response, state officials held press conferences and updates on the investigation of Daniela’s case, unusual occurrences in reported cases of enforced disappearances.
Top Five Reported Events
To better understand why the media reported on certain cases and not others, we examined the most highly reported disappearances from each state.
The most highly reported cases in Coahuila related to group disappearances, and sympathetic victims. Families who advocated for justice in these cases were factors in heightened press coverage as well. The five disappearances that received the most press coverage in Coahuila were (1) a case of 12 painters who disappeared together (16 articles); (2) three young people who disappeared together (19 articles); (3) a three-year-old boy, Johan, (16 articles); (4) four members of the A family (19 articles); and (5) the case of Toño (19 articles).
Group cases were the focus of significant press coverage in Coahuila. For example, the case of the twelve men who were disappeared in March 2009, while seeking house painting work door to door in Coahuila garnered significant attention. The case has been used by various news outlets to illustrate the extent of the crisis of disappearances in Coahuila.
Another group case involved the disappearance of the A family in August 2009, including Esteban A, Head of Security and Maintenance of the Social Rehabilitation Center in Saltillo, Coahuila, his eight-year old son Brandon, and two of his brothers, Gerard and Gualberto. The case garnered attention from news sources and official institutions alike, as an investigation into the disappearance was opened by the State Attorney in Coahuila. The coverage also noted the role of Esteban’s wife, who spoke out about the pain of losing her family and the difficulty of searching for them alone.
In Coahuila, visible press coverage of disappearances was also linked to the demands for justice of family members of the disappeared. Reports after Toño’s disappearance in January 2009, for instance, demonstrated the persistence of his family, which resulted in criminal justice proceedings and the arrest of perpetrators who were connected both to organized crime and prominent businesses in Coahuila. Another case that resulted in criminal proceedings involved the disappearance of three students, though only one of their names is provided in the press (Héctor). A man named Oscar Omar was detained for his involvement in the case, but was liberated as he was charged with extortion and a fine of 11,000 pesos. This follows the efforts made by one of the three, Hector's sister Brenda, who has participated in protests on disappearances, spoken out about this disappearance, the inaction of officials, and death threats that she has received.
Coverage of the disappearance of Johan, the three-year-old boy who disappeared in October of 2015, was high given that disappearances of children this young are rare. This disappearance also received attention from investigative authorities in Coahuila, evidenced by official searches, the activation of an Amber Alert, and the offering of 299,464 pesos for his return.
The efforts of family members is notable in the press coverage of several individual cases. Families who are searching for their loved ones, such as the parents of Toño and those of Johan, are often highlighted in press reporting. The attention given to such efforts allows the press to highlight the lack of help that authorities provide in investigating these disappearances. Arturo R, the father of one of the 12 painters who disappeared, participated in a public event in which family members of the disappeared demanded justice from the Coahuila State Attorney.
Increased coverage leads to interesting information for the public. For example, the press coverage of the disappearances of the twelve painters noted that the crimes occurred in areas known to be surveilled by both security cameras and state authorities. This kind of observation provides an insight for the public into the potential collaboration between public officials and members of organized crime; and raises questions about the quality of the investigation in this case.
Guerrero is the location representing the most highly reported disappearance case in Mexico’s history: the 43 students of Iguala. Among other reported cases, family advocacy, high profile victims and group disappearances were central to press coverage in the state. The most reported cases in Guerrero were about the disappearances of (1) Armando, an ex-police officer and businessman (12 articles), (2) Azucena and Luis, a young couple and their baby (15 articles), (3) three members of a family that included Ranferi H, former politician and social justice activist (11 articles), (4) Maria Luiz O, a feminist and human rights activist (11 articles), and PRD party member (13 articles), and (5) Hector, a local activist (11 articles).
In Guerrero, unusually, two of the cases that received higher levels of press attention involved individuals not groups. But these were not just any individuals; they were activists working in the field of human rights. Maria Luiz disappeared in March 2018, member of the Feminist Network (Red de Activistas Feministas), publicly spoke out about violence against women after suffering from years of domestic abuse herself. Hector, 30 years old at the time of his disappearance in March 2015, was a graduate of the University of Guadalajara, where he studied anthropology. He was also a collaborator in the Regional Center of Human Rights "José María Morelos y Pavón", and an active participant in the fight for communities’ access to water.
Family and NGO advocacy also played a role in coverage of Hector’s case. His mother, Carmen, who lost both of her sons to disappearances, has participated in press conferences and spoken out about her experience, denouncing the inaction of public officials. She additionally has worked with and received support from groups such as Asociación Siempre Vivos and El Centro de Derechos Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon. Individual activists, such as Manuel O., have expressed their support of the investigation of Hector’s case in local press conferences.
Among the group cases, the story of Amando stood out, when he was disappeared in November 2017 with five other men who were bull riders travelling to Guerrero. His family last heard from him when he called to let them know of his whereabouts. His call was cut short when he spotted a group of local police officers known to be involved with the criminal group Guerreros Unidos. Armando’s family members were also visible advocates on his behalf. His brother Alejandro spoke against the crime in press conferences, appearing for instance with the Collective of Social and Student Organizations in the National Press Editors Union. Alejandro also filed official complaints with the Public Ministry in Coahuila, the State Attorney General, and the Human Rights Commission.
Gruesome disappearances involving families received press attention among the Guerrero cases. The disappearance of the H family in October 2017 ended in the burning of their bodies and car. Ranferi H was the ex-president of the local chapter of the PRD political party. Similarly, the brutal nature of the murders involved in the disappearances of Azucena and Luis, and their baby was considered newsworthy; the mother was found dead with her baby (left alive) in the car. Also of note in this case is that its investigation was supplemented by reports offered by witnesses of the detention of this family by armed men. The validity of such testimonies was denounced by officials investigating the case.
In Nuevo León, the events that received the most press coverage involved sympathetic or high profile victims, and group disappearances. The advocacy of family members and NGOs was a factor in press coverage in these cases. Among the most reported cases were the mayor of Zaragoza, Coahuila, Saul V (20 articles); a federal police officer, Juan H (16 articles); a San Pedro businessman Damián G (16 articles); a group of 11 police officers in Apodaca (21 articles); and a group whose disappearances implicated the Navy (16 articles).
The case of the businessman Damián G was noteworthy for several reasons. The victim was disappeared in August 2012 from San Pedro, the richest municipality of Nuevo León and, as such, considered to be the safest area in the state. Damián G studied at a high school called “El Irlandés" which is a very exclusive, private school in San Pedro, and is an indicator of the high social and class status of the victim. Nuevo León is known for its industry and a lot of business owners live in the state, Damian in particular had a construction business. Unusually in the context of the Mexican criminal justice system, in which judicial convictions in cases of enforced disappearances are rare, this case led to the conviction of the identified perpetrators, each of whom received a sentence of 55 to 90 years in prison. These sentences, however, were later dismissed by a judge. The press articles covering the release of these perpetrators highlighted this reality and painted the case as being emblematic of the impunity that plagues the judicial system.
The disappearance of the mayor of Zaragoza (PRI party), Coahuila, Saul V in January 2011, received a lot of press attention given the victim’s high profile. Just as in the previous case, there was an official investigation into this case. After the investigation, the mayor’s widow received compensation for his death. Other mayors were assassinated later in the year (2011), and this case was emblematic of violence targeted at the political arena. The victim was found dead in Galeana, Nuevo León, two days after his disappearance, allowing for the press to report a resolution in the case.
The coverage of the group disappearance of drug dealers in March 2010, is unique in the sense that victims with explicit links to organized crime tend not to receive much press coverage nor sympathy from the general public. Indeed, the majority of the articles about this case focused not on the drug dealers, but on the disappearances of others who were connected to the Navy. One victim was reportedly tortured while in the Navy’s custody. In Mexico, the Navy had been considered to be a more trustworthy institution than the Army or police, who are more frequently connected to corruption and organized crime. Also, various articles about this case reported on the involvement of the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (National Human Rights Commision) in investigating the crime. The Commission sent investigators to Nuevo León to clarify the facts, and examine the possible violations committed by the Navy.
The disappearance of the 11 municipal police officers from Apodaca in 2011 by organized crime received considerable attention. The case not only victimized a large group of government employees, including a high-ranking officer (Apodaca Police Director), but it took place in a dramatic way. Initially a group of three officers (the Director’s guards) were disappeared. Eight other officers including the Director set out to find their colleagues, and they were disappeared as well. The coverage included detailed information about the state’s response, including investigations and trials, and the location of their bodies in 2016. The information on perpetrators also generated media attention since it showed an alliance with organized crime (Los Zetas), police, and ex-military personnel, and details of brazen violence, as the victims were tortured, assassinated, and their bodies were burned.
Another highly covered case involved an individual federal police officer, Juan H, who was 23 years when he was disappeared in February 2011 in a hotel where he was quartered with 300 other officers in San Nicolás de los Garza. Press coverage of his disappearance included descriptions of the activism and vocal stance of his mother, who acted in partnership with a human rights organization. While Juan H disappeared with his co-worker, Juan Luis L, the other officer’s case was covered in only 6 articles, half the coverage Juan H received. Juan H’s mother was interviewed in almost every article.
In Jalisco, the press reports focused on the disappearances of young victims and students, and family advocacy on their behalf. The most highly reported case in Jalisco was the three film students in Guadalajara. In addition to this newsworthy case, the most highly reported disappearance cases from our database in Jalisco included Daniela, a student in the University of Guadalajara High School, (14 articles); Pedro, another high school student (16 articles); three students from Zapopan (12 articles); Luis Antonio and Andrés, two high school students, (21 articles); and a group of seven people (18 articles). In most of these events, the victims were found dead or alive. Most reported cases were from 2013-2014 when many young people disappeared in the region, or 2018, close to the time of the high profile case of the three film students.
The case of Daniela’s disappearance in September 2014 in the municipio of Zapotiltic, and that of the three young men from Zapopan highlight the ways in which advocacy, both from civil society and the families of the victims, increases the visibility of specific cases in the media. In Daniela’s case, family members fiercely advocated for justice on her behalf, raising her case’s coverage in the press. Daniela’s case generated sympathy with the public because she was a minor (17 years old) and a high school student. The government of Jalisco gave various press conferences and updates on the investigation of Daniela’s disappearance, unusual in reported cases of enforced disappearances. The press covered these conferences and highlighted impunity. They reported, for instance, that the state’s attorney tried to minimize the cause of her disappearance and tried to blame her absence on a “family matter”, even though her family adamantly denied any instability at home. Other articles featured details about Daniela’s life by interviewing her parents and used humanizing language that described her as social and caring, and that she was also preparing her application to medical school wanting to become a pediatrician.
The disappearance of three students from Zapopan was highly covered because the event took place in April 2018, less than a month after the disappearances of the three film students, which generated national and international interest. Another element that generated press attention was civil society advocacy through protests and campaigns. The students at the University of Guadalajara included this case in the protests that were already happening for the case of the film students, and also organized a social media campaign to actively raise this case’s visibility. Only one of the three young men (José Armando P) was a student at the university and his two other friends (Francisco Javier B and Juan Rubén T) were not, but the school community rallied around the case and called for their safe return, which generated a lot of press. The three young men were finally found alive three days after their disappearance.
Two other events of disappeared students in the municipio of Zapopan one in 2013 and the other in 2018, all high school students, were the case of Pedro R, and then the case of Luis Antonio O and Andrés B, who were all reported as found (alive and dead). In each of these cases, increased press coverage had to do with the fact that all of these victims were minors and students. Pedro R disappeared in March of 2018, one day after the three film students from University of Guadalajara and others around the same date, which generated massive protests that drew a lot of press attention. He was found alive four days later, but no further details were provided by the Attorney General's office of Jalisco as reported by the press. Regarding the other case, both high school students Luis Antonio O and Andrés B were found dead in July of 2013. Much of the press coverage focused on the reported motive of the crime: the two young men supposedly bullied the son of a drug lord (Sinaloa Cartel), who attended school with them. There are a couple of articles published years after the event, talking about impunity in the case which has not received justice yet.
In the case of the seven youths who disappeared in July of 2013 in the same region of Jalisco, the high media coverage grouped multiple separate instances of disappearances of youth between the ages of 18-22. These victims disappeared in the same area, during the same day, so the press grouped them as the “7 of Lagos de Moreno” (the municipio where the disappearances occurred). It is unusual for coverage to center on the crime of enforced disappearances in the area, instead of the individual profiles on the victims. It is not clear if the perpetrators were connected, but organized crime individuals arrests were made days later according to the press. Other information provided by the press described how the bodies of the victims were dissolved in acid.
Description of the Database
Using our methodology process, we identified 651 cases of disappeared victims published online by 227 press outlets during the nine-year span. To prevent the skewing of numbers in the press database during the analysis, we choose to exclude press reports from two highly publicized cases -- the case of the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014, and the case of three film students who disappeared in Guadalajara, Jalisco, in 2018.
The number of articles published about each disappeared person in our database, aside from these two high profile cases, spanned from 1 to 23 articles. While this range suggests some major in-depth reporting, and the average number of articles per case was five, in nearly a quarter (24%) of the reported disappearances, the press published only one article about the case. Large numbers of articles about a single disappearance case, which might represent investigative reporting or follow up, were rare. The most highly reported disappearances -- those with the most articles written about them -- tended to be in cases in which families or groups disappeared, which related to public figures, or highly sympathetic victims such as small children.
The press database further demonstrates significant underreporting of named disappearance cases in the four states we studied, despite thousands of disappearances known to have occurred in each of these states. There are various reasons for this discrepancy, including fear, editorial and journalistic decisions about newsworthiness. We found an average of 163 disappearance cases per state that were reported by the press about named victims. The state with the highest number of cases reported was Coahuila, which had a total of 196 reported cases. The state with the fewest disappearances reported about named victims was Guerrero, with 120 reported cases (Figure 1) during the period we studied.
While press reports provided limited information overall, they still told us a great deal. The following is an analysis of trends and observations of data the Mexican press did report about disappearance cases. For state-specific summaries, visit the individual state sections on this site.
Number of press reports
Press reports of disappearances appeared at a fairly consistent, if low, level between the years 2009 to mid-2018, averaging 58 reported victims per year, with a notable spike in reported cases in 2010 and 2011. As seen in Figure 2, distinct trends emerged in reporting regionally and by state. Press reports in Coahuila and Nuevo León, two contiguous northern states, accounted for the spike in cases during 2010 and 2011, when disappearances were highest in the border region. In Guerrero, reports of disappearances were concentrated from 2016 to 2018 (the 2014 case of the 43 students was not included in this analysis), and in Jalisco, higher incidences were reported between 2013 and 2018, following the upswing of violence there.
Where were the victims disappeared?
Five municipalities had the highest reported disappearances in these four states during this period:
Piedras Negras, Coahuila (44 cases/10%);
Monterrey, Nuevo León (33 cases/8%);
Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco (29 cases/7%);
Torreón, Coahuila (27 cases/6%);
Chilapa de Álvarez, Guerrero (20 cases/5%).
Disappearances tended to be reported more often in city centers; however, supporting the Observatory’s prior research, the press reports did suggest that disappearances were widespread and deconcentrated among municipalities in each state.
The reports shed light on the location of the disappearances. When location was reported, the press revealed that 41% (127 cases) took place in locations related to the victim (house, workplace, private property) and 33% (104 cases) occurred on means and routes of transportation. This trend is consistent across the four states.
What Was Reported About the Victim?
Of cases in the database, 56% of victims disappeared alone and 44% disappeared in a group. The database reveals that group disappearances tended to receive more press coverage than individual victims (see fig. 3). We found that the press reported an average of seven articles for each group disappearance and four articles for each individual disappearance. Group cases received 8+ articles with higher frequency than individual cases.
Nearly three-quarters (74%) of reported victims were male, a quarter (25%) were female, and five victims were identified as transgender. When age was reported, press coverage confirmed the youth of the victims: 20% of victims were between 10 to 17 years old, and 33% were between 18 and 25. Female victims tended to be younger than male victims; the highest percentage of female victims was 10 to 17 years old, while the highest percentage of male victims was 18 to 25 (see fig. 4). Victim age and gender demographic trends were consistent across all four states.
Nearly a third (30%) of victims were service or sales workers, followed closely by professionals, and students (see fig. 5). There were distinct trends in the victim’s occupation based on gender; notably, more female than male victims were reported as students (see fig. 6). This distinction aligns with the press’ reporting on age distribution by gender; considering female victims were observed to be younger than male victims, it is unsurprising that a larger proportion of female victims were students.
Press reports across all four states included limited information on the victim’s demographic characteristics. Little can be discerned from the reporting about victims’ educational attainment level, nationality, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Disappearance of Migrants
While it is known that vulnerable migrant populations are at a high risk of suffering human rights violations, the crimes suffered by individuals pertaining to this group often go unreported. In the writing of their report on human rights abuses against migrants in Mexico, the group WOLA found that statistics concerning the crimes committed against migrant populations are not collected on the national level in Mexico, making it extremely difficult to assess the extent to which migrants here are subjected to grave violations of their rights. We found almost a complete absence of reporting on named migrant victims in disappearance cases. While the press periodically reports on the phenomenon, these articles almost never identify the victims by name. One notable exception is the case of Honduran migrant, Oscar Antonio López Enamorado, who disappeared in Jalisco in 2010. Oscar’s mother, Ana Enamorada has been a fierce advocate for the families of disappeared migrants in Mexico, resulting in significant press coverage of his case.
What was Reported About the Perpetrators?
In 4 out of 10 disappearance cases in these four states (41%), the press reported information about the suspected perpetrators. The level of detail reported varied. In some cases, the press named a specific group responsible (e.g. cartel or government department) and in others, unspecific individuals (e.g. private persons or unidentified state actors).
Our interviews with journalists confirmed that, for security reasons, they or their editors often chose not to name a specific criminal group in their reporting (Frey and Cuellar 2020). One journalist explained, “Yes, we stopped signing our articles, and then there was a moment when we stopped including the names of cartels, for example, Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel, only writing ‘a criminal group.’” (Reporter 3, interviewed by Olga Salazar Pozos, June 19, 2019).
We analyzed information about the perpetrators in our database both by type of actor (state versus private actor) and by category (specific group affiliation). Perpetrators were grouped into three categories: state actors, private actors (including criminal organizations), and state and private actor collusion. In the database, approximately half of the private actors were associated with a specific criminal organization, and half were not identified as affiliated with a specific group (e.g. described generally as armed groups or kidnappers).
When perpetrators were named in disappearance cases, the press identified the perpetrators as state actors in nearly a fourth of disappearances (23%), private actors in more than half (55%), and both state and private actors colluding together in about a fifth (21%) of the cases. In the two northern states, Coahuila and Nuevo León, there were higher reported incidences of state and private actor collusion (see fig. 7). The involvement of state actors reported as perpetrators -- whether acting on their own or in collusion with private actors -- was highest in Guerrero. The role of criminal organizations acting alone was most pronounced in reporting from Nuevo León. As shown in Figure 7, press reports on disappearances in Nuevo León identified a suspected perpetrator at a higher frequency than the other states, as well as reporting a higher percentage of private actor involvement.
The specific criminal organization, when reported in the disappearance cases, differed by region (see fig. 8). In the northern states, Coahuila and Nuevo León, the press reported that Los Zetas committed the highest number of disappearances. This is consistent with previous reporting by the Observatory. In Jalisco, Cartel de Nueva Generacion was reported most frequently. Press reports in Guerrero rarely identified nor named private actors as the perpetrators.
What was Reported About the State’s Response?
According to press reports on these four states, 73%, 474 victims, remained disappeared or there was no reported outcome. Only 55 victims (8%) were found alive, while 113 victims (17%) were reported as deceased. This trend varies slightly by state (see fig. 9). In Nuevo Leon, the highest percentage of victims were found alive. In Guerrero, the highest percentage of victims were found deceased. In Coahuila and Jalisco, fewer cases were reported to have been resolved.
As shown in Figure 10, in nearly three-quarters (71%) of cases, the press did not report any official search being conducted by state officials for the disappeared victim.
In 89% of cases, the press did not report whether a court case had been initiated for the disappearance (see fig. 11). In 10% of reported disappearances, a total of 62 cases across the four states, the press noted the initiation of a court case. As shown in Figure 12, in 36 of those cases, the press explained that a sentence had been delivered, and in 10 cases they reported a sentence in process; however, only in 18 cases did the press specify the type of sentence, including 16 convictions and two acquittals.