Some 1,680 Mexican army special forces soldiers have deserted in the past decade, the Milenio newspaper reported, citing Defense Secretariat figures.
The army does not know where the deserters are or whether some of them went to work for organized crime groups as happened in the past, documents obtained by the newspaper from the Federal Institute for Access to Information, or IFAI, show.
The best known case of special forces soldiers who went to work for criminals is Los Zetas, a group of elite troops who signed on as hired guns for the Gulf cartel in the late 1990s.
Defense officials have “lost track” of 125 special ops soldiers in the past two years, a period marked by a wave of drug-related violence that left thousands of people dead, the secretariat said.
Some 50,000 soldiers have been providing security and fighting drug traffickers across Mexico since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon militarized the conflict with the country’s cartels.
Human rights activists have filed numerous complaints against soldiers allegedly involved in abuses.
The desertions have continued even though the government has increased soldiers’ pay by 115 percent since the end of 2006, Milenio said.
The deserters include snipers, paratroopers, survival experts, intelligence analysts and rapid reaction specialists, the newspaper said.
The Mexican press has reported previously about U.S. concerns that deserters who went to work for the cartels may have possessed security information obtained from U.S.-Mexican cooperation programs.
U.S. specialists have trained police and military personnel in Mexico as part of the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a security cooperation pact aimed at fighting drug trafficking and other forms of transnational organized crime.
Information about Mexico’s special forces units is classified, and the army currently lacks a program to track deserters, Milenio said.