Over the last six years, a bloody stalemate has been in place between the Mexican federal government and the cartels, with an estimated 70,000 civilians killed in the process. At least 1,000 murders linked to organized crime have taken place each month since President Enrique Pena Nieto took over in December. Beyond the death, however, another facet to the conflict lurks just out of sight. In an article whose title translates to “Captives in Hell,” Spanish-language magazine Proceso features interviews with victims’ relatives and members of civil society, all of whom tell of a vast system of forced labor throughout Mexico.
These laborers are counted among the 26,000 “disappeared” in Mexico — civilians who have vanished without a trace — of whom many are assumed to be dead. In their interviews, civil society groups tell of some of these captives being alive but forced to perform “jobs” on behalf of the cartels. These can include “forced killings, preparing marijuana, constructing tunnels, cleaning safe houses, preparing food, installing communications equipment, and acting as lookouts or sex slaves.”
The idea of cartels kidnapping individuals to perform specialized tasks is also well-documented, lending credibility to Procesco’s report. The Zetas — one of the deadliest gangs in Mexico — reportedly caused the forced disappearances of engineers in the recent past, forced to service the cartel’s sophisticated communications equipment. At one point, the Zetas’ infrastructure, supported through this forced labor, was enough to completely bypass the rest of the country’s communications’ systems entirely.
InSight Crime notes, however, that some of the claims Proceso make could still be inflated. “The idea that up to a third of Mexico’s disappeared victims may in fact be working in slave-like conditions is a horrifying proposition, although it seems unlikely given the huge profit margins of criminal organizations — why would they would need to resort to large-scale slave labor when they can pay willing recruits?” Miriam Wells asks in her analysis. “Isolated cases however, are certainly plausible,” she notes, given the rarity of being able to interview those who escape from captivity.
Disappearances go far beyond the issue of forced labor as well. According to a National Commission of Human Rights report, between 2009 and 2013, government officials freed 2,352 captives, 855 of whom were migrants. Both sides in the war have been blamed for these disappearances, with a report from Human Rights Watch earlier this year accusing the Mexican government of cooperating with many of the vanishing acts.
There are some glimmers of hope in the ongoing conflict, though. The Mexican Navy on Monday managed to capture Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the head of the Zetas, taking him into custody without firing a shot. Morales’ capture means that three of the four top leaders in the Zetas have been killed or captured in the last year, likely weakening the group’s position. Despite that, other syndicates like the Sinaloa cartel, remain in place, ready to take over any ground the Zetas cede to the Mexican government.