Victims are taken into custody and then "disappear": their friends and relatives cannot find out where they are held or what has happened to them. Sometimes the victims are later discovered in prison, or released; sometimes it is learned that they have been killed. Bodies are recovered from secret graveyards in a state of decomposition that makes it impossible to ascertain their identities. Corpses have been found at roadsides far from where abductions took place, so badly mutilated that identification is difficult or impossible. The practice of leaving bodies in public places is intended to terrorize potential opposition, as does the open reporting in the press of assassinations and the finding of bodies. The secrecy surrounding "disappearances" serves to hide the scale of extrajudicial executions. Another purpose of disappearances is to intimidate the local population.
Between 1973 and 1990, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Voluntary Disappearance of the Commission on Human Rights, reported nearly 28,000 cases relating to 45 countries. In 1990 alone, it transmitted a total of 962 new cases of disappearance (486 to have occurred in 1990) to 20 governments. Whilst there has been a downward trend since 1983, it is thought there may be many more cases of which the Group is not aware. Quite a number of countries are said to suffer from the phenomenon of disappearance, some significantly, while the Group has only very few individual cases on its files. There is also often quite long delays in referral, so caseloads for recent years may yet increase. While difference criteria and definitions exist between countries and groups reporting disappearances of persons, the following countries have outstanding cases of disappearances in 1990:
[Africa] Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Seychelles, Uganda, Zaire, Zimbabwe
[America] Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Rep, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela
[Asia] Afghanistan, China, India, Indonesia, Iran Islamic Rep, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Syrian AR, Viet Nam
[Europe] Cyprus, Turkey
As an example, after the 1976 coup in Argentina, abductions followed by "disappearances" virtually replaced formal arrest and imprisonment in political cases. General Roberto Viola, Commander-in-chief of the army from 1976 to 1979 and later President, admitted in March 1981 that there were between 7,000 and 10,000 dead and "disappeared". In some cases, victims were flown out to sea to the point where the Gulf Stream would ensure the disappearance of the bodies. It has been alleged that some 2,000 prisoners were thrown alive out of the planes. Another estimate puts the number at 14,000 Argentinian disappearances from 1976 to 1983, of which some 10,000 simply disappeared, kidnapped from homes and streets and never seen again; the "disappeared" were not formally accused of any crimes, or tried, nor did the government ever acknowledge that it had them in custody. In 1990, only 74 of the 3,459 officially transmitted cases by the UN Commission on Human Rights had been clarified. They comprised 27 persons whose bodies were located and identified, 26 persons released from detention, 14 children located by NGO's, and 7 persons whose cases were not disappearances.
Amongst the Latin American dictatorships it has been variously reported that there were between 90,000 and 120,000 disappearances between the 1960s and the 1980s. Of Latin and Central American cases of disappearance which have been officially transmitted to governments, the number outstanding in 1990 (which have not received clarification) were: Brazil 47 (95% of all transmitted cases); Chile 461 (99%); Colombia 649 (81%); Ecuador 5 (33%); El Salvador 2,168 (86%); Guatemala 2,972 (96%); Haiti 21 (75%); Honduras 126 (66%); Mexico 219 (85%); Nicaragua 101 (43%); Paraguay 3 (13%); Peru 1,905 (81%); Uruguay 31 (79%); and Venezuela 1 (50%). The situation is all the more alarming because the true number of disappearances far exceed the cases reported officially. Some of the 219 cases of unaccounted Mexicans may have illegally crossed the border into the USA, although civil rights activists have been protesting against police abuses, torture and disappearances for many years and one lawyer was assassinated in 1990. Following many disappearances in Guatemala, the victim's body was found soon afterwards, invariably with signs of having been tortured. Certainly the decade 1976-85 (inclusive) was an exceptionally high period of disappearances in southern America according to the UN Commission on Human Rights, with 2,889 persons unaccounted for in Argentina, 2,205 in El Salvador, 2,792 in Guatemala, 851 in Peru, 367 in Colombia, 204 in Nicaragua, 134 in Honduras, 169 in Mexico, and 99 in Chile -- a total of 9,710. Worldwide there were 14,502 officially recorded disappearances during this period, with 4,090 in 1983 alone, the year when disappearances in Iraq also soared wildly out of proportion with 2,410 reported cases (see below).
In Lebanon, the exceptional year was 1982, with 181 official disappearances recorded by the UN. Missing persons in China arise principally from events of June 1989 (in Beijing and other cities) and the annexation of Tibet; there remained 32 unclarified cases in 1990, but reports are that thousands more are in long-term detention outside the judicial system. Officially missing persons in India rise in periods of religious clashes, reaching a peak of 39 cases in 1989, with an increasing number of cases reported from Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir; there were 90 outstanding cases in 1990. Reported in the same year, Sri Lanka has had 1,140 officially unexplained disappearances in the period since 1984, occasioned by civil unrest.
On July 1983, there was the alleged disappearance of 2,280 Barzani Kurds in Iraq, still unsatisfactorily explained in 1990 by the Iraqi government as deaths or losses of collaborators during the Iraq-Iran war and subsequent retreat of Iranian forces; 3,420 persons who have disappeared in Iraq remain unaccounted for in 1990. 450 Iranian disappearances are also related to sectarian conflict, but little is known because detainees are said to be held incommunicado detention, frequently for extended periods of solitary confinement. Morocco had 108 outstanding disappearances cases in 1990, where it is also reported that more than 400 disappeared persons were being detained in secret prisons. On 14 February 1989 the Philippine Commission on Human Rights had created a task force to study the 413 outstanding cases of disappearances, most of which had been inherited from the Marcos era. Outstanding cases had increased to 497 in 1990.
In Moscow in 1993, a practice has developed whereby criminals offer to buy apartments occupied by people, notably the elderly, for their use as long as they live. There is a marked tendency for those who accept the offer to disappear very soon thereafter.