MEXICO CITY -- Federal police officer Luis Angel Leon Rodriguez disappeared in 2009 along with six fellow police as they headed to the western state of Michoacan to fight drug traffickers.
Since then, his mother, Araceli Rodriguez, has taken it into her own hands to investigate her son's disappearance and has publicized the case inside and outside Mexico. She's found some clues about what happened but still doesn't have any certainty about her son's whereabouts.
As Mexican troops and police cracked down on drug cartels, who also battled among themselves, Leon was just one of thousands of people who went missing amid a wave of violence that stunned the nation. A new report by a civic participation group has put a number for the first time on the human toll: 20,851 people disappeared over the past six years, although not every case on the list has been proven related to the drug war.
With at least another 70,000 deaths tied to drug violence, the numbers point to a brutal episode that ranks among Latin America's deadliest in decades. In Chile, nearly 3,100 people were killed, among them 1,200 considered disappeared, for political reasons during Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship, and at least 50,000 people disappeared during 40 years of internal conflict in Colombia.
The new database is shedding needed light on Mexico's unfolding tragedy. It's also sparking angry questions about why it doesn't include all of the disappeared.
Neither Rodriguez's son nor his six colleagues who went missing on Nov. 16, 2009, are in the database, which was allegedly leaked by the Attorney General's Office to a foreign journalist. The group Propuesta Civica, or Civic Proposal, released the data on Thursday.
Rodriguez's mother said she's been in touch with authorities investigating the case and has spoken about it in several public forums about the missing.
"I don't think any government entity has a complete database," she said.
A spokesman for federal prosecutors, who would not allow his name to be used under the agency's rules, said the Attorney General's Office had no knowledge of the document.
As compiled by Civic Proposal, the report reveals the sheer scope of human loss, with the missing including police officers, bricklayers, housewives, lawyers, students, businessmen and more than 1,200 children under age 11. The disappeared are listed one by one with such details as name, age, gender and the date and place where they disappeared.
Some media in Mexico have reported that the number of missing could be even greater, at more than 25,000, with their estimates reportedly based on official reports, although media accounts didn't make the reports public.
"We're worried because several of the people gone missing in the state of Coahuila, and that we have reported to authorities, don't appear on the database," said Blanca Martinez of the Fray Juan de Larios human rights center in that northern border state. She's also an adviser to the group Forces United for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, made up of relatives searching for loved ones.
Martinez said that between 2007 and 2012 the group registered 290 cases of missing people. The database released Thursday lists 272 cases in the state since 2006.
"We have no doubt that the authorities have done absolutely nothing" to solve them, she said.
Public attention to Mexico's disappeared has grown especially since 2011 when former President Felipe Calderon publicly met with members of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, a human rights group led by poet Javier Sicilia. His son was allegedly killed by drug traffickers that same year.
Sicilia's movement demanded that the thousands of killed and missing should be treated as victims of the drug war, even if they were criminal suspects. Calderon's government responded that it would create a missing persons database, but authorities have not made it public so far. Calderon also ordered the creation of a special prosecutor in charge of assisting crime victims and supporting the search for the missing.
"There is nothing worse for me than having a missing relative. Not knowing where the person may be is very serious and so ... in every case that comes to us, we try to find a solution, to find the person," said Sara Herrerias, the head of Provictima, the office established by Calderon to help crime victims.
Herrerias, however, was cautious talking about the number of missing and said she could only discuss the cases that her office has dealt with.
In 14 months, she said, Provictima has handled the cases of 1,523 missing people, most of them allegedly taken by members of organized crime but with some cases also reportedly involving government authorities. Of the total number, 150 people have been located, 40 of them found dead.
Herrerias declined to talk about the possible magnitude of disappearances. "I don't like to talk when I don't have hard data," she said.
Estimates of the missing vary. The National Human Rights Commission, which operates independently from the government, has said that some 24,000 people were reported missing between 2000 and mid-2012, in addition to some 16,000 bodies that have been found but remain unidentified.
The government of President Enrique Pena, who took office Dec. 1, estimates the number of unidentified bodies at about 9,000 during Calderon's previous six-year administration.
Civic Proposal director Pilar Talavera said that although her group saw inconsistencies in the database, they decided to disclose it not only to help the public understand the scale of the violence, but also to pressure authorities to disclose official information on disappearances.
While the numbers help, what the relatives of the missing need most, of course, is to just learn what happened to their loved ones.
Since the disappearance of Rodriguez's then-23-year-old son, a dozen alleged members of the La Familia drug cartel have been arrested as suspects in his case. Rodriguez said she has interviewed four of them, who have told her that her son and the other six officers were killed and their bodies "disintegrated."
She said that so far no one has given her any clues about where her son's remains are.
"If it's true what the criminals say ... even with that, my heart asks to find Luis Angel," Rodriguez said. "For me Luis Angel is still missing."
Earlier on HuffPost:
Oct 9, 2012
Marines say they have killed the leader of the brutal Zetas drug gang, Heriberto Lazcano, alias "The Executioner," in a shootout. <em>Caption: This photo released by Mexico's Navy on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 allegedly shows the body of Zeta drug cartel leader and founder Heriberto Lazcano while in the possession of Mexico's Medical Forensic Service (SEMEFO) in Sabinas, Mexico. (AP Photo/Mexico Navy)</em>
Oct 4, 2012
The son of the former chairman of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party is found dead. <em>Caption: In this Oct. 15, 2007, photo, Jose Eduardo Moreira Rodriguez poses for photographers in Saltillo, Mexico. (AP Photo/Alberto Puente)</em>
Sept 4, 2012
Mexico captures a leader of the country's Gulf Cartel, Mario Cardenas, alias "Fatso." <em>Caption: Mexican Navy officers flank Mario Cardenas Guillen, also known as "El Gordo" and "M-1," during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>
Aug 24, 2012
Mexican police shoot and wound two U.S. Embassy employees, whom sources later identify as CIA operatives, just south of Mexico City. <em>Caption: In this Aug. 24, 2012, file photo, an armored U.S. embassy vehicle is checked by military personal after it was attacked by unknown assailants on the highway leading to the city of Cuernavaca, near Tres Marias, Mexico. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>
August 14, 2012
Armed men storm a bar in Monterrey, killing eight men in a hail of bullets, in an apparent dispute over drug dealing. <em>Caption: Police forensic investigation vehicles sit parked outside Matehuala Men's Club after a shooting inside the night club in Monterrey, Mexico, early Tuesday Aug. 14, 2012. (AP Photo)</em>
May 13, 2012
Suspected drug gang hitmen dumped 49 mutilated bodies, stuffed in bags, on a highway outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey. <em>Caption: Federal police stand guard on a vehicle behind a forensic truck containing bodies found on the highway connecting the northern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey to the U.S. border, along the Reynosa-Cadereyta road, in the town of San Juan near the city of Monterrey, Mexico, Sunday, May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)</em>
May 4, 2012
The bodies of nine people were found hanging from a bridge and 14 others found dismembered in the city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the U.S. border from Laredo, in Texas. <em>Caption: Four of nine corpses are seen hanging from a bridge in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, early morning on May 4, 2012. (RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Feb 19, 2012
A fight between rival gangs at a prison just outside Monterrey in northern Mexico leaves 44 dead. <em>Caption: Araceli Guevara Ontiveros, the sister of Francisco Guevara Ontiveros --one of the 44 dead in a riot at The Apodaca prison-- is comforted while crying on his coffin during his wake in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on February 21, 2012. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nov 24, 2011
More than 20 bodies are found in cars in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara, a day after the burned bodies of 16 people are found in the home state of the country's powerful drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. <em>Caption: A member of the forensic service carries one of the 26 corpses found this morning in three vehicles abandoned in Mexico's second most populous city of Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 24, 2011. (HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Oct 6, 2011
Mexican security forces find 32 bodies at several locations around Veracruz, just two days after the government unveiled a plan to bolster security in Veracruz state. <em>Caption: Mexican army soldiers walk towards their vehicle after seven bodies were found inside a vehicle in the Gulf port city of Veracruz, Mexico, late Friday Oct. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)</em>
Sept 20, 2011
Thirty-five bodies are found abandoned in two trucks on an underpass in the eastern Gulf city of Veracruz, which had been largely untouched by the violence. <em>Caption: Mexican marines stand guard in streets of Veracruz State, Mexico on 24 January 2012. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2011
Masked gunmen torch a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people, most of them women. The attack takes less than three minutes. <em>Caption: Relatives of victims cry in front of the Casino Royale, in Monterrey, Mexico, on August 27, 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 20, 2011
Five headless bodies were found in Acapulco, taking the number of people killed in the popular Pacific resort to at least 25 in that one week. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel move the corpse of a person murdered in a hotel at the La Guinea neighbordhood in the town of Acapulco, Guerrero state, Mexico on August 24, 2011. (Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Officials unearthed the first of what turned out to be more than 450 bodies buried in mass graves in the northern states of Durango and Tamaulipas. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel unload at the morgue bodies of people killed execution-style in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, Mexico, on April, 11, 2011. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2010
Marines found the bodies of 58 men and 14 women at a ranch near the Gulf of Mexico in Tamaulipas state, 90 miles from the Texas border, after a firefight with drug hitmen in which three gunmen and a marine died. <em>Caption: A worker wearing protective suit and boots walks between two refrigerated trucks parked outside a funeral home where the bodies of 72 men and women that were allegedly killed by the Zetas drug gang, are kept in San Fernando, just 100 miles from the the Mexican border with the U.S. near the city of Matamoros, Thursday Aug. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>
July 24, 2010
Police unearthed 51 bodies in a grave outside Mexico's business capital, Monterrey, in northern Mexico over several days. Some corpses were burned beyond recognition. <em>Caption: View of the remains of two burnt bodies found in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on October 20, 2010. The bodies were found under burnt wooden pallets. (Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
July 18, 2010
Gunmen burst into a birthday party in the northern city of Torreon, using automatic weapons to kill 17 party-goers and wound 18 others. Mexican authorities said later those responsible were incarcerated cartel hitmen let out of jail by corrupt officials. The killers allegedly borrowed weapons and vehicles from prison guards and later returned to their cells. <em>Caption: Police officers patrol a street in Torreon, in the Mexican northern state of Coahuila, Monday, July 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Ramon Sotomayor)</em>
June 28, 2010
Suspected cartel gunmen shot and killed a popular gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas in the worst cartel attack on a politician to date. Rodolfo Torre, 46, and four aides from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, were ambushed on their way to a campaign event for the July 4 state election. <em>Caption: A billboard with the portrait of the candidate for Governor of Tamaulipas state for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Rodolfo Torre, and reading 'A leader forever' is seen during his funeral at the Polyforum in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on June 29, 2010. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
March 13, 2010
Hitmen killed three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez in March, provoking "outrage" from U.S. President Barack Obama. <em>Caption:The U.S. national flag flutters at half-mast at the entrance of the consulate of the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on March 15, 2010. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Jan 31, 2010
Suspected cartel assailants killed 13 high school students and two adults at a party in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas. <em>Caption: Students enter a high school in Ciudad Juarez, a city ridden by homicidal violence along Mexico's border with Texas. (Tim Johnson/MCT via Getty Images)</em>
Sept 15, 2008
Suspected members of the Zetas drug gang tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in the western city of Morelia, killing eight people and wounding more than 100. <em>Caption: From left to right: Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, and Alfredo Rosas Elicea, are members of a group of hitmen called the 'Zetas' shown to the press at the General Attorney's office in Mexico City, on September 26, 2008. The three gangsters confessed that they are the authors of a grenade attack that killed eight people during the celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, western Mexico. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>