Mexico uncovers 3,000 secret graves hiding bodies of drug war victims

More than 3,000 secret graves containing victims of Mexico’s raging drug wars have been found across the country, according to the first ever official tally of the phenomenon.

A total of 4,874 bodies were found at 3,025 sites, and many of the victims have yet to be identified, said Karla Quintana, the head of the National Search Committee, which was set up last year to help desperate families find relatives who have gone missing.

“This is the data of horror,” she said at a press conference on Friday. “This is not about the numbers. This is about the thousands of people who are looking for the relatives and the thousands not in their homes.”

Disappearances have become common amid the extreme violence triggered by a counterproductive military offensive against organized criminal groupsoriginally launched in 2006.

More than 200,000 people have died since then, with the number of missing estimated at 40,000 – though the data is notoriously sketchy because of the reluctance of successive governments to recognize the gravity of the problem.

Related: Mexico’s missing students draw attention to 20,000 ‘vanished’ others

This has also left desperate relatives to spearhead search efforts, even setting off with picks and spades to comb scrub-covered mountains for signs of hidden graves.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador won last year’s presidential election with a promise to finally create reliable databases, and develop the infrastructure to effectively search for the disappeared – alive or dead.

Quintana said that 522 of the 3,025 graves were discovered since the new government took office in December.

She also emphasized the creation of search brigades providing relatives with support and resources. One such group looking for graves in Sinaloa state this week found bags full of thousands of finger bones – presumably from hands severed during torture.

The data on hidden graves nationwide was released to coincide with the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, a term usually used only to refer to disappearances attributed to state forces.

In Latin America the phrase has traditionally conjured up images of 1970s military dictatorships who rounded up political dissidents and tortured them in clandestine jails, their bodies sometimes then dumped into the sea from aircraft.