In page after page and case after case, the rights commission refutes a quarter century of those denials. Its vice president, Raul Plascencia, last week ranked among its most important achievements the debunking of these previous government reports, particularly one in 1979 that wrote off many of the disappeared as having been killed in clashes with police or soldiers or executed by one of their own.
Using testimony from survivors and the first outside access to the underground intelligence archives of the once-dreaded and now-defunct Federal Security Directorate in Mexico City, the report documents direct responsibility by government agents for 275 "forced disappearances." It concludes that there are indications of such involvement in 97 more cases. In the other 160 cases examined, the investigators found no signs of government responsibility but did not rule it out.
The report does not directly accuse anyone, but it says it has identified 74 government officials as suspects in the disappearances--names and data that will be handed to the special prosecutor.
Mexico's new spirit of openness and examining of the past, though, has yet to be embraced by the two ex-presidents most of the victims' families blame for the abuses of the era.
Soon after the report's release, Luis Echeverria (1970-76) and Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-82) responded publicly by saying the nation was fighting a war at the time and did what it had to do. They insisted that they had kept abuses to a minimum.
Asked about the dirty war, Lopez Portillo responded: "What dirty war?"
The Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment last week, though the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma reported Friday that the military has begun an internal inquiry into alleged abuses, including the disappearance in the 1970s of 60 people in Guerrero.
To be sure, the guerrilla movements of the conflict's heyday--the late 1960s through the early 1980s--were often brutal. They ambushed and killed army and police patrols; they kidnapped the wealthy and powerful; and they robbed banks to fill their war chests. They even killed their own--movement members fingered as "traitors." And they assassinated government officials. The guerrillas are blamed for scores of deaths in the 1970s.
In all, the armed combatants in the most potent rebel groups--the September 23 Communist League and the Party of the Poor--never numbered more than 2,000. The estimates of the dead on all sides during the dirty war range from 1,300 to 1,500 people, although information is often vague and contradictory.
That toll may appear pallid beside the tens of thousands of victims from state terror elsewhere in Latin America in the same decades. But many Mexicans and the families of the disappeared say Mexico must be judged by its own standards.
"We didn't have a Pinochet when my Carlos was taken away," said Margarita Velazquez, referring to the Chilean dictator of the '70s and '80s and to her son, who disappeared into state custody 24 years ago at age 18. "We had a supposed democracy. We had elections. And our presidents told us we had a rule of law.
"And so, even today, I want to know: What happened to my little Carlos?"
Even today, the Human Rights Commission concedes, that is a question its voluminous report doesn't answer.
"Is the person alive? Or not? Or where is this person?" asked the commission's Plascencia rhetorically. The commission has no answers to such mysteries, he said.
Why do all of the report's case studies end simply with the victim's last known whereabouts?
"It's because of the limitations of the investigation," he said. "If the evidence doesn't present itself, we cannot go further. . . . We assimilated 200,000 pages of dossiers, we have visited all the places. . . . We took more than 500 testimonials, and with all of this, we could not determine where these people are."
For most families of the missing, that has deepened the trauma.
"The pain that does the greatest damage to the family and its spirit is the fact that the anguish has no end," said Oscar Loza Ochoa, head of the independent Human Rights Defense Commission in Sinaloa, the northwestern state that ranked third in the nation in the number of disappeared.
"The relatives of the dead, they can mourn and put it behind them. For sure it hurts, but the pain subsides. For the relatives of the missing, it never subsides."
Some of Disappeared Stay Officially Invisible
Then, there is the issue of the disappeared who do not appear on the commission's list:
Martha Camacho, a 46-year-old Sinaloa teacher who was forced from her home with her husband, Jose Manuel Alapizco, 24 years ago, reappeared 60 days later. Her husband was never seen again. The commission took her testimony in 1992, but Alapizco's name doesn't appear in its list of missing.