Digging into Disappearances: A Guide to Investigating Missing People and Organized Crime

বাংলা | Español

With no graves to visit, the Families of Victims of Enforced Disappearance and other human rights groups hold an All Souls’ Day commemoration in the Philippines. Photo: Maria Tan/Rappler

Millions of people disappear every year, according to the International Commission on Missing People, and organized crime is involved in many of these cases. The violence associated with drug trafficking in particular, but also wildlife smuggling, resource theft, human trafficking, and other criminal rackets, plays a key role in many of the disappearances.

At its most sophisticated, organized crime is transnational, highly organized, and often systemic. It features in everyday life, infiltrating systems and groups that are essential to society. Disappearances are often a byproduct of this criminal activity.

As corruption is frequently at play, disappearances may not be investigated thoroughly or even at all. Sometimes national or regional authorities are paid off or are unable to access information because of the power and reach of the  criminal groups involved. The same can be said for enforced disappearances in which there is a level of state involvement, and where a person is abducted, secretly imprisoned or killed, and the body hidden by a government, or those acting on its behalf. 

This crime can take various forms, from isolated cases to mass disappearances and multiple connected cases over time. There are even those who choose to disappear. 

Journalists play an important role, acting as both a deterrent to this kind of criminal conduct and as public-minded investigators, particularly where the state and rule of law have broken down. But there are serious risks, and reporters themselves are not immune to the danger inherent in investigating these types of crimes.

This makes the reporting of organized crime and missing people complex and nuanced. Journalists must be both careful and deliberate in their approach. Below we list some case studies and examples of published investigations, relevant organizations to be aware of during the research stage, and tips for on-the-ground reporting.

This reporting guide accompanies the launch of Digging into Disappearances, a webinar series from GIJN and the Resilience Fund. The first webinar, in English will take place on September 8. A French webinar will be held on September 10, one in Spanish on September 15, with a final webinar, in all three languages, on September 17.

Contents

Case Studies

Here is a selection of recent stories about investigating missing people cases.

Useful Organizations and Guides

Tips for Reporting

Know the Area

When working on a particular case, researching the surrounding region is important both for assessing risk and understanding the relevant type of organized crime and who may be involved. Start by looking for similar cases, talking to experts who have worked in the area, searching the media, and understanding local crime dynamics. 

Don’t travel into the danger zone without trusted contacts and a realistic plan for how to leave quickly if necessary. 

A protest in Mexico calling for information about some of those who have disappeared. Photo: Marcela Turati

Safety

In launching an investigation into organized crime, safety considerations for you and your sources should be paramount. You need a strong security protocol. Firstly, you should plan what kind of investigation you want to do and think about whether you are the correct journalist for the specific story.

Next, decide how you will store your information safely and how you will communicate with your team and interviewees. Do not travel with sensitive information on your computer or phone. Whenever you travel, make sure your team knows where you are and how to issue an alert if you are in danger.

Maintaining contact with your sources after release of the investigation is crucial, as they are vulnerable and could be targeted as a result of your work. Teaming up with experts such as NGOs can help you protect your sources and decide which details to publish and when. Generally speaking, omit personal information that may endanger your sources or allow people to prey on vulnerable friends and family. Be especially careful with photos and videos that may inadvertently expose clues as to who your sources are, or where they are. Such clues might be contained in an interviewee’s clothing, or in the metadata of your images.

Sources

As in any investigation, start identifying and developing sources, and begin the process of piecing together what happened. Leads can be found in numerous places: 

  • Media reports
  • Judicial files
  • Freedom-of-information requests 
  • Witnesses
  • NGOs
  • Lawyers
  • Police 
  • Family and friends of the missing person

In most cases, family members of missing people will have information about the local criminal scene and understand how criminal gangs operate in the region. Sometimes loved ones will omit or hide information to protect the missing person, but every detail is important for journalists to consider. While relatives and close friends of the victim are invaluable sources, it is important to maintain a critical eye and fact-check what they tell you. 

  • Other local sources

Those who have moved away from the area may be more open to speaking to you, as the risk to them is less immediate. It can help to make a map of contacts and sources. Prison inmates can also be valuable sources, as some have first-hand experience in the criminal networks you are investigating. Their information should always be cross-checked. 

  • Social media

Social media can often help trace people’s movements and activities, including the victim and any suspects related to the case. It can also give you more contextual information about criminal activity in the region. Social media is a good way of verifying what you gather from your sources.

A mural in a town in rural Colombia marks International Day of the Disappeared. Photo: Laura Dixon

Look for Clues On the Ground

In some cases missing persons may leave clues about their disappearance on their own social networks. Finding out who they last spoke to from relatives or friends is a good place to start, particularly in slavery or trafficking cases. 

If you’re able to track the missing person’s cell phone or other mobile device, that may give you valuable insight into their location. Bank account information or social media access could also reveal where the person may be, or give additional clues about what happened to them. 

In some cases, it may be worth publishing some initial findings as a way of fishing for more information or attracting new sources. But remember that going public in a story like this can add an additional level of risk.

Analyzing the Evidence

Sometimes a body will be discovered by the authorities or other groups during the course of your investigation. It is imperative to verify if this is your missing person. Even if the body has the same clothes and tattoos or is carrying the right identification paper, it is possible for people to have similar physical features or to swap clothes and IDs. Ideally, you will have forensic verification before publishing. 

In many countries, the police investigation is not thorough and the prosecutor’s office lacks the budget, capacity, or will to investigate. They often don’t have DNA labs or training to handle these complex cases. Where cases are investigated, try to get the results verified by an outside expert. 

Be wary of any forensic evidence and analysis that come from prosecutors or state investigations. There could be conflicts of interest or corruption involved that may impact the results. 

Working with Authorities

In some cases, journalists need to be wary of the authorities, and bear in mind there is always a chance they are colluding with criminals. Do your best to determine whether this is a factor, so you don’t alert corrupt authorities to your work. As with any source, fact-check what they tell you. You can use freedom of information requests to access documents or open source data to help you here. 

In other situations, however, the authorities can also be extremely helpful. Be careful about publishing any details that could jeopardize their investigation or further endanger the missing person. 

Photo: ICMP

Reporting around Trauma

At the heart of many of these stories is a loss. Journalists must be sensitive to this. When speaking to family or loved ones of the victim, reporters should be careful about their language. If the family believes that the person is still alive, make sure you do not refer to them in the past tense. 

Honesty and transparency are important for establishing a relationship with family members. From the beginning, journalists should disclose if they are talking to other sources — including any alleged criminals or gang members — so that the family understands what to expect. It is important to keep the family informed, but don’t share details that are unverified, as this could provide them with false hope. 

If you are in contact with previous victims of organized crime, be clear about who you are and what you are doing. You can risk re-traumatizing your sources and, in the worst case scenario, they can retreat into hiding if they feel they are in danger. Do everything you can to avoid endangering your sources. 

Remember your limitations as a journalist and do not make promises you cannot keep. Understanding how to interview victims before you start is essential. For more advice on working with victims and survivors, see this tipsheet from the Dart Center

Looking after Yourself

Looking for disappeared people can be distressing, frustrating, and dangerous. Some cases involve searching in mass graves, seeing remains of people subjected to horrific treatment, or working with victims who have lived through physical or psychological torture. 

Even the toughest journalists may need external support to deal with the level of trauma and stress these cases can produce. You can prepare yourself by establishing a support network that includes your colleagues, friends, and a good therapist. 


This guide was put together by Hannah Coogans, an editorial assistant at GIJN. She has an MA in investigative journalism from City University and previously worked as a researcher in Hong Kong focusing on wildlife crime and trafficking, and for various Channel 4 Dispatches programs in the UK. She is based in London.

Special thanks to Marcela Turati for contributing to this guide. Marcela is a freelance investigative journalist renowned for her investigations into missing people, enforced disappearances, massacres of migrants, mass graves and cases of violence.