Mexico City, Mexico
Thomson Reuters Foundation

From young men forced to work as hitmen to missing migrants, Mexico will be on the lookout for potential victims of human trafficking as it searches for tens of thousands of people who are registered as disappeared, a leading official said.

More than 40,000 people are listed as missing in Mexico, many from the years since former President Felipe Calderon launched a military campaign against drug cartels in 2006, according to the country's National Search Commission (CNB).

Mexico City

Mexico City, the capital of Mexico where more than 40,000 people are listed as missing. PICTURE: Jexael Megoza/Unsplash

Karla Quintana, the new head of the body which was set up last year, said Mexico had suffered a humanitarian crisis and that her team would be double checking the official figures and looking for patterns in the data to help find missing citizens.

Quintana, a lawyer who has worked at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said victims of trafficking were on the radar, citing the example of men forced into crime by cartels and migrants who have disappeared against their will.

About 75 per cent of the people registered as disappeared in Mexico are men, according to the CNB.

"It's very important to us as searchers to know that this possibility exists when we're looking for people who are alive," Quintana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"[Finding] human trafficking [victims] specifically is one of the big possibilities of finding someone alive," she added.

Mexico is an origin, transit and destination country for human trafficking, with hundreds of victims documented per year.

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has said there could be between 50,000 and 500,000 victims, but academics say the real number is hard to pin down with concrete data lacking.

Although searching for the living is the primary focus for the CNB, which works alongside prosecutors and other government bodies and actors, there are more than 26,000 unidentified corpses registered with authorities across the country.

The true number of missing people is likely to be higher than official figures as many do not report cases for fear of reprisals or lack trust in Mexico's authorities, Quintana said.

In particular, the number of Central American migrants who have disappeared while trying to cross Mexico to the United States is hard to pinpoint.

The process of reporting a missing person from Central America was very complicated, Quintana said, adding that the CNB does not need to wait for an official report to search for someone as it can instead use news sources and other tips.

A group of 22 people, thought to be Central American migrants, were last week taken from a bus by armed men in the northern state of Tamaulipas, which has been troubled by violence. Another 25 migrants vanished there in February.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, said this week that the group of 22 might not have disappeared and could have been trying to cross the border into the United States.

Quintana, who was this week in Tamaulipas with an operation to find the missing, said she had to assume they had been abducted as migrants have been previously targeted in the state.

"In this context, I have to assume that they've disappeared against their will," Quintana said. "My job is to look and hopefully always find people alive, no?"