Critics fear the government may use statistics to appear to be making progress in finding Mexico’s disappeared.

The head of a commission tasked with finding tens of thousands of missing people in Mexico has resigned as critics accuse the government of trying to undermine the true scale of enforced disappearances.

Karla Quintana, head of the National Search Commission, did not elaborate on the reasons for her resignation, saying only that she was resigning “given the current circumstances”.

“The challenges related to disappearances remain,” Quintana posted Wednesday on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter. “The state must remain committed to comprehensive policies focused on prevention, search and combating impunity.”

The escalating cartel violence is increasingly affecting large parts of the country. Thousands of Mexicans have been reported missing this year alone.

The government of populist President Andres Manuel López Obrador recently came under fire for announcing it would conduct a count of the country’s disappeared. Critics say it’s a tactic to manipulate numbers and present “a fictitious drop” in missing people ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

According to the Quintana Commission, more than 110,000 people are still missing across the country – likely outnumbered due to lack of reporting, distrust of authorities and widespread impunity. Many families of those who have disappeared have made it their mission to demand justice, often with fatal consequences.

Lopez Obrador appeared to approve of Wednesday’s departure; He appointed Quintana in 2019. When asked about stepping down at his press conference Thursday morning, he said it “comes full circle and we are free.”

He added that his government continues to make progress in locating those who have disappeared.

Last year, the special prosecutor leading an investigation into the infamous 2014 kidnapping of 43 students in southern Mexico resigned, citing disagreements with the attorney general’s office. International watchdogs at the time said his unit lacked the support to collect evidence and conduct court cases.

Meanwhile, human rights groups – including the Center for Human Rights Miguel Agustin Pro Juárez – have expressed concerns about Quintana’s resignation, saying Lopez Obrador’s moves would “undo progress” in finding the missing and prosecuting the perpetrators.

The work of Quintana and her team “revived a previously ailing state institution” and shed light on the “crisis of enforced disappearances amid prosecutor resistance,” according to the center.

The number of disappearances exploded in 2006 when Mexican authorities declared war on drug cartels. For years, the government looked the other way as violence mounted and families of the missing were forced to become detectives.

Since then, cartels across the country have broken up into factions and fought among themselves for territory, which has only exacerbated the violence.

In 2018, legislation was passed providing the legal basis for the government to establish the National Search Commission. Local commissions followed in each state; logs separating searches from investigations; and a temporary and independent panel of national and international technical experts, supported by the United Nations, to help clear the backlog of unidentified remains.

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