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: