The Monster in the Mountains: How Tens of Thousands of People Vanished without a Trace

On September 26, 2014, three student activists were murdered and 43 others went missing in the southern state of Guerrero, located 160 miles south of Mexico City. Guerrero is a chief opium producer and a war zone among several cartels vying over drug smuggling routes and land.

The country’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, claims the students were abducted by local police in connection with organized crime and handed over to a drug cartel, which slaughtered them and burned their bodies before dumping them into a river.

In the days and weeks following their disappearance, investigators searching for their remains discovered a series of mass, unmarked graves just outside the extremely poor area. However, none of those remains have been linked to the young men who vanished.

Since 2006, President Peña Nieto estimates that more than 23,000 people have disappeared in Mexico amid the drug-fueled violence, with 40 percent between the ages of 15 and 29. Many victims were kidnapped, tortured and slain — their bodies dismembered or tossed in clandestine graves.

Since the government doesn’t seem to offer any aid, family members of the missing are now grouping together and breaking the law in order to search for clues to the whereabouts of their loved ones. They explore the surrounding hills for the bodies of their relatives, whom they imagine are buried there beneath the trees.

Residents who live in the area have told reporters that they often see fleets of armed gunmen and government vehicles driving up dirt roads that lead to the middle of nowhere. They also recollect hearing the unforgettable screams in the night of victims being tortured and crying out for help.

While some relatives still cling to hope that they will one day find the missing alive (they find comfort in believing that the missing were snatched up for slave labor or forced into gangs), others have simply given up after countless searches ended in vain.

There are many people who don’t even bother making an official report with authorities for fear that there will be some type of retribution and more loved ones will go missing — never to be seen or heard from again.