The war on drugs and the unexplained disappearance of 34 thousand people

Opinion Piece

By Noushin Karim

The Cold War ended 27 years ago, and supposedly as did the covert tactics of social containment by governments. Yet, one look at Mexico's war on drugs shows that this is not the case.

The war on drugs describes the initiative taken by President Calderón to rid the country of the numerous drug cartels, regain lost territory and protect the human rights of those threatened by the cartels. Yet, it is due to this counter-trafficking initiative that Mexico’s rare period of peace has come to an end.

The President has created a patriotic narrative that the Mexican government is capable of protecting its people from brutal cartels. Yet, this image cannot be further from the truth.

Since the beginning of Mexico's war on drugs in December 2006, 34 thousand people have disappeared, and their whereabouts are completely unknown. With 34 thousand people missing, common sense would dictate that the search for these people would be the highest national priority. Yet, the government has appeared to go out of their way to cover the truth.

The disappearances are now commonly accepted by both the international community and the Mexican government as being ‘enforced disappearances’. As defined by Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, this means that the State is involved, whether it be directly or indirectly by authorisation, support or acquiescence. To make matters worse, it is often in collusion with cartels themselves.

These disappearances are reminiscent of Cold War tactics that involved governments targeting dissidents and silencing those who threatened the social order.

The Mexican government label their tactics as part of the war on drugs, yet they appear to target those who have no involvement in the drug cartels. One of the highest profile cases in Mexico involved the disappearance of 43 students from a school called Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher's College, known for their left-wing political activism in Iguala, a town located in southern Mexico. On the 26th of September 2014, 43 students were ambushed by government police whilst making an annual trip to Mexico City to participate in protests for the Mexican government's history of massacring students. The students were then loaded onto the back of police vehicles and handed to the local cartel, never to be heard of again.

There are many things that go unexplained in the official statement made by the police. For instance, the official statement read that the students were mistaken for drug traffickers and police were ordered to execute them by the wife of the mayor who incidentally had ties to a rival cartel. Another example relates to the claim that the students were killed and burned in a nearby rubbish dump. Independent investigators have determined that the apparent burning of the students is scientifically impossible as the fire would have been seen for miles and would have caused a forest fire (neither of which occurred). Beyond this, further investigations found that the government went out of their way to obstruct justice and tamper with evidence by discarding gun shells and cleaning up blood. Later on, investigators say that government officials also attacked journalists and bystanders who had gathered at the scene.

If this was truly just a case of the police deeming it necessary for the purpose of the war on drugs and to combat drug trafficking, then why would the government lie to the public? Why would the government clean up the area and follow correct protocols? Why would they attack journalists and others who were at the scene? Clearly, there is something extremely wrong with the story and there is another agenda at play.

The school at Ayotzinapa had a reputation for being “radical trouble-makers”, they were extremely anti-regime and had previously participated in many resistance movements. As such, would this attack just be a coincidence? This school was travelling to Mexico city, this school was ambushed by all parts of Mexico’s security apparatus and this school is the school in which 43 students disappear? There is much more to the story, and it is not about drug trafficking and mistaken identity.

The case of mistaken identity seems to be a common justification that the government and cartels use when their actions are made public knowledge. It was also the excuse used to justify the disappearance of three university students in March 2018, who were found to be brutally murdered, apparently mistaken to be members of another gang.

Mexico has had a history of rampant corruption; previous governments have had alliances with drug cartels, providing protection against the justice system in return for cuts from drug trafficking into the United States. This also came to light in the recent Texas court files, in which evidence showed truckloads of money being invested into political campaigns in return for a blind eye being turned to disappearances at the US-Mexico border. The President has been pictured with cartel members, the Attorney General has been charged with drug trafficking charges, drug bosses have been released from prison, or have broken out with the help of the government's prison system in extravagant fashion, befitting a Netflix original series. The current war on drugs and substantial disappearances suggests that corruption is still a major issue in the country.

This plays greatly into why many Mexican people are extremely distrustful and angry at their government. Another factor that plays to this is the response many families receive when reporting disappearances. They are told that the victims simply ran away or had ties to criminal organisations, despite evidence suggesting that 92 per cent of victims have had no connection to organised crime. The families are then told to investigate the disappearances themselves if they desired to do so, despite it being the job of the police. As a response, groups of families have come together to search for their loved ones, and face numerous obstacles from the Mexican Government when seeking information about their disappearances.

Why is it that despite the fact that ongoing government tampering with investigations is public knowledge, nothing is being done? The answer is simple: impunity.

According to the Wilson Centre, 98 per cent of homicides in Mexico are not investigated and for the 26 thousand people who disappeared during former President, Calderón’s presidency, only 13 offenders have been convicted.

There have been some positive steps taken however - laws have been negotiated under pressure from the United Nations and dedicated investigative bodies have been created - yet, all of these bodies and laws have not been implemented by the government. Of course, none of these steps will be implemented if the government is the perpetrator.

In order for there to be real change, people need to be asking the right questions of their government and keeping them accountable for their actions. Consequently, this could invoke international bodies to act, and in turn pressure the Mexican government to take sincere steps to end this epidemic and their impunity. Moreover, resources must be made accessible to the public, including  databases and media releases independent from government influence. Access to these resources may uncover the clear contradictions in the narratives hastily put together by the government. At the least, these resources could facilitate efforts by families to find their loved ones and perhaps find some closure.

However, it is clear that the Mexican Government is using a form of authoritarianism and narcoterrorism by using the war against drugs as a way of intimidating and controlling the public. It has gone past the point of the government only eliminating targets who they consider to be dissidents. Anyone could be targeted, without just cause. The government does not fear justice and retribution and this is a major problem for the people of Mexico where there is danger from both cartels and police.

The Mexican war on drugs, backed by the US government, is a facade. It has done more harm than good and left the society of Mexico fearing for their lives.


Acevedo, N., Reuters, ‘Missing Mexican students were killed and dissolved in acid after mistaken identity: authorities’, NBC News, 25 April 2018, viewed 28 May 2018:

Agren, D. 2017, ‘Mexico drug cartel’s grip on politicians and police revealed in Texas court files’, The Guardian, 10 November 2017:

Al Jazeera, 2015, ‘What Happened To The 43 Ayotzinapa Students?’ [Online video] September 24 2015, viewed May 26 2018:

Al Jazeera, 2017, ‘The Bodies of Missing People Are Rapidly Turning Up in Mexico’, [online video] 8 October 2017, viewed 26 May 2018:

Amnesty International (2016), ‘The State of the World’s Human Rights’, Amnesty International Report 2014/15. 4:

Amnesty International, 2018, ‘The State of the World’s Human Rights’, Amnesty International Report 2017/18. 29:

El Pais, 2012, ‘Scandal in Mexico for the Photos of one of the Alleged ‘Narcos’ with Peña Nieto’, El Pais, 10 August 2012, viewed 27 April 2018:

El Pais, 2015, ‘Who’s heading up the Sinaloa cartel?’, El Pais, 3 February 2015, viewed 27 April 2018:

Karl, S, 2014, ‘Missing in Mexico: Denied victims, neglected stories’, Culture & History Digital Journal, University of Marburg, Marburg 3:2, viewed May 26 2018:

Kim, J. J., 2014, ‘Mexican Drug Cartel Influence in Government, Society, and Culture,’ Latin American Studies thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, viewed May 27 2018:

Malarvannan, A, 2017 ‘The Observatory on Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico’, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota, viewed May 26 2018:

McCormick, G, 2018, ‘The Act of Disappearing in Mexico’, Mexico Institute, Wilson Centre, Washington, viewed May 26 2018:

Open Society Foundations, 2016 ‘Confronting Crimes Against Humanity in Mexico’, Undeniable Atrocities, viewed May 27 2016:

Soto, M.R, 2015, ‘You took them alive, we want them back alive!’ Arena Magazine, 10 – 12, viewed May 26 2018:;dn=595122599431381;res=IELAPA

UN General Assembly 2006, ‘International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance’, 20 December 2006, viewed May 27 2018:

Disclaimer: the views presented only represent the views of the author.