More than 26,000 Mexicans have disappeared since 2006

Disappeared Mexicans are reportedly being enslaved in forced labor camps run by criminal groups, a scenario that could help account for the tens of thousands reported missing since 2006. 

In interviews with Proceso, victims' relatives, human rights ombudsmen, religious leaders, and NGOs described prisoners across Mexico being forced to work in a vast variety of ways in horrendous conditions under threat of death.

According to civil society organizations, "jobs" include forced killings, preparing marijuana, constructing tunnels, cleaning safe houses, preparing food, installing communications equipment, and acting as lookouts or sex slaves.

One victim told his sister that while captive, he saw fellow hostages raped and was forced to carry out armed robberies, fed on a diet of instant noodles. He escaped one night when his guards took too many drugs, but he gave himself up after the criminal group threatened to kill his family, his sister told Proceso. 

A report obtained through Mexico's Freedom of Information law from the country's National Commission of Human Rights revealed that between 2009 and 2013, government officials freed 2,352 captives, 855 of whom were migrants. Juan Lopez, lawyer for NGO United Forces For Our Disappeared In Mexico (Fundem), says of the more than 26,000 people that have disappeared in Mexico in the last six years, up to a third could be enslaved.

Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo said there were "strong indicators" that many of Mexico's disappeared victims are working in forced labor camps, which he described as "concentration camps."

InSight Crime Analysis

There have been previous reports of Mexican criminal groups forcibly recruiting and enslaving people for specialized tasks, including engineers. It's also known that gangs will kidnap people -- migrants among the most vulnerable populations -- and hold them at safe houses while demanding large ransom payments for their release. 

SEE MORE: InSight Crime Special Report, the Mafia's Shadow in the Americas

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? Isolated cases however, are certainly plausible.

Fundem lawyer Juan Lopez told Proceso that that disappeared people did sometimes emerge, but it was rarely possible to interview them, helping explain why there is little public reporting on the issue. "The people that escape are destroyed, psychologically broken," he said. "They get to their houses, take their things, and flee."

Ultimately, the notion that such forced labor camps could exist adds even more weight to the demand that the Mexican government must fully investigate what has happened to the victims of its forced disappearance "crisis."