Mining Government Data, Activists Reveal Names of More Than 32,000 Missing People in Mexico

By Mark Browne | November 22, 2017 | 4:10pm EST
Relatives with photos of some of 43 Mexican student teachers who disappeared in the state of Guerrero in 2014, never to be seen again. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Mexico City ( – A meticulous data mining operation by campaigners in Mexico has for the first time revealed the full names of nearly all of the people on the government’s official missing persons list.

Activists have uploaded onto the Internet the names of more than 32,000 citizens on the government’s registry of disappeared persons, in what Monica Meltis, executive director of the citizens group Data Civica, called an effort to “place the focus on the search for justice and truth for the disappeared and their families.”

The group plans to update the list as and when more information about the missing is found, she said.

“In Mexico, the names of the disappeared are not public. We do not know who they are, how they are, or what their stories are,” the group says. “This is an exercise that names them in order to convert figures into people.”

“Knowing the names of our disappeared allows us to follow up on cases… not leaving families alone to do this work.”

Meltis said the government has contended that keeping the full names from public view was out of respect for privacy and in accordance with the law.

She called that decision one of the factors indicating that the government fails to take the issue seriously.

“We believe it is important to examine individual cases to see if the government is really doing its work.”

In response to public pressure, the federal government recently enacted a law that dedicates new resources to the problem of disappearances in Mexico.

It creates special prosecutors, enhances coordination between government agencies, and establishes a national missing persons search system among other measures, according to information on the executive branch’s website.

“We are facing facts that cause suffering for victims and their families that hurt our society and the state has the obligation to intervene and provide justice,” President Enrique Peña Nieto said in a statement.

Meltis called the new measures were “a first step” but said that the government has yet to provide a budget to pay for them.

“We can’t tell at this point if the law will be sufficient.”

Data Civica has been working to identify the full names of the individuals in the national missing persons’ registry for two years, Meltis told

The official registry, which is compiled by law enforcement and other officials, provides last names only, so the group created a dictionary of all possible first and last name combinations that might match those on the missing persons list.

Using the dictionary, the group then searched more than 17,000 other government websites to identify real individuals with the first and last name combinations.

“We discovered that by using search engines on government websites and an elaborate dictionary of possible names, we were able to get the search engines to tell us if a particular name was on the list of the disappeared,” Meltis explained.

Mexico’s missing persons registry numbers approximately 32,280.  Meltis said she and other civic groups believe the official registry underestimates the real number of the missing.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups blame the government, the military, the war on drug trafficking, and organized crime for thousands of “forced disappearances” in Mexico.

HRW alleges that during Peña Nieto’s administration, “security forces have been implicated in repeated, serious human rights violations – including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture – during efforts to combat organized crime.”

According to Meltis, some 18,778 persons disappeared during the current administration and 13,486 during the administration of former President Felipe Calderon.

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