Nearly 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. Their families now search for clues among the dead.
Leer en españolPhotographs By FRED RAMOS By OSCAR LOPEZ
They lie in clandestine graves strewn across the desert, mingled in communal pits, or hacked to pieces and scattered on desiccated hillsides.
Buried without a name, often all that’s left once their bodies are gone are the empty casings of a person: a bloodied sweatshirt, a frilly top, a tattered dress.
All over Mexico, mothers wander under the scorching sun, poking at the earth and sniffing for the tell-tale scent of decomposing flesh, hoping for a scrap that points toward their missing son or daughter.
For most, the answers never come.
A New York Times photographer documented their search, and in Chihuahua state, he photographed the clothing that was found with unidentified bodies and preserved by investigators.
“It’s a horrible uncertainty I don’t wish on anyone,” said Noemy Padilla Aldáz, who has spent two years looking for her son, Juan Carlos, who was 20 years old when he vanished after finishing his night shift at a local taqueria.
“If I knew he was dead, then I would know that he’s not suffering,” she said. “But we don’t know, and it’s like torture, that not knowing.”
Mexico is nearing a grim milestone: 100,000 disappeared people, according to Mexico’s National Search Commission, which keeps a record that goes back to 1964.
In a country wracked by a drug war without end, death can feel pervasive. Murder rates climb inexorably, now topping 30,000 a year. Macabre images of bodies strung up on bridges or tossed on roadsides as warnings appear on newscasts. Torture techniques get nicknames.
But disappearance can be the cruelest blow. It deprives families of a body to mourn, of answers — even of the simple certainty, and the consolation, of death.
The missing haunt Mexico’s collective memory, a crushing testament to the inability of government after government to staunch the bloodshed and bring criminals to justice.
“Disappearance is perhaps the most extreme form of suffering for the relatives of victims,” said Angélica Durán-Martínez, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and an expert on violence in Latin America.
The faces of the disappeared loom, larger than life, on banners and posters in public squares across Mexico, over messages from relatives pleading for any information about their fate.
But even when remains are found, the task of identifying the dead can be arduous, at times taking investigators months of digging through the brush and combing through dirt for tiny fragments of bone, many of which can be too small or worn to help identify the body.
According to Ms. Durán-Martínez, the crisis of the disappeared in Mexico speaks not just to the prevalence of organized crime, but also to the propensity for state security forces to be engaged in the violence.
Among the most widely known examples: the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in the town of Ayotzinapa. An investigation under Enrique Peña Nieto, the president at the time, placed blame on a local drug cartel and the municipal police. But that explanation has been widely condemned by international experts, including the United Nations, which found the process had been “marred by torture and cover-ups.”
The students are widely believed to be dead, but no one knows where their bodies are, who did it — or why.
Under the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the authorities have tried to make amends for such atrocities and help families find answers. As well as relaunching an investigation into the fate of the 43 students, Mr. López Obrador has thrown his support behind the National Search Commission to locate the missing.
Heading up the effort is Karla Quintana Osuna, a Harvard-trained lawyer who previously worked at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. When she started at the search commission, in 2019, there were some 40,000 officially reported as disappeared.
By compiling records from state prosecutors across the country, Ms. Quintana was able to determine that the total was far higher — it is now more than double. Although there are state prosecutors who do not report their figures in full, she said the tally is now far more accurate than in years past, and also available to the public online.
But locating the missing remains a monumental task.
“The challenge is abysmal, it’s titanic,” Ms. Quintana said of trying to find answers in a country where only a fraction of crimes are ever solved. “As long as there is no justice, a clear message is being sent that this can continue to happen.”
At the state level, improved forensic technology and search equipment like drones have helped find the bodies, according to César Peniche Espejel, the attorney general of Chihuahua, which is among Mexico’s most violent states. But until the authorities can truly take down organized crime groups, such efforts will remain a drop in a bloody tide, he said, that adds thousands to the list every year.
According to the latest data, between September 2020 and the end of July, an additional 6,453 people have been reported disappeared or missing.
“Every day, every day across the country, disappearances continue to be reported,” Mr. Peniche said. “That’s what the federal government has been unable to tackle.”
For now, mothers like Ms. Padilla all over Mexico can only search, and wonder what happened to their children.
“Sometimes I think that he could still be alive, other times I tell
myself he’s not,” she said. “But I still have hope.”
Produced by Craig Allen and Michael Beswetherick
New WOLA Campaign Reveals Gaps Between Legislation and Reality
Justice is failing Mexico’s disappeared starting from the first step of the process: recognizing and investigating disappearances as crimes. This is one of the central findings of a new campaign launched today by research and advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Findings from the first installment of the campaign include:
“Effective investigations are essential to turning the tide in Mexico’s disappearance crisis,” said Stephanie Brewer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at WOLA. “Solving cases is crucial to discovering the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, mapping patterns, and prosecuting networks of perpetrators, all of which are key to preventing future disappearances. That path starts with treating disappearance cases as crimes and forming a theory of the case and an investigation plan, elements frequently lacking right now.”
Over 90,000 people are currently disappeared and missing in Mexico according to government statistics—a number that continues to grow. For years, the families of the disappeared, led in particular by mothers, have spearheaded the search for their loved ones and for justice.
“Authorities should guarantee families’ right to participate fully in searches and investigations,” added Brewer. “But that shouldn’t mean placing the burden of solving cases on families. When authorities don’t move investigations forward, relatives end up essentially investigating on their own, which can put them at serious risk. No family member should be forced to choose between their safety and obtaining truth and justice for a disappeared loved one.”
WOLA’s campaign calls on Mexican authorities to bring investigations into full compliance with Mexico’s General Law against disappearances, in force since January 2018. This landmark legislation created specialized tools and procedures to investigate disappearances, but three and a half years later, the official data analyzed by WOLA show that the law remains under-applied, leaving the majority of Mexico’s disappearances unpunished. WOLA and counterpart organizations in Mexico have written to the country’s National Prosecutors’ Conference and National Search System to share key findings and call for these bodies to coordinate action plans to close the gaps between law and reality.
Over each of the coming three weeks, WOLA will publish findings on obstacles that must be addressed at each stage of the investigative process: firstly, recognizing disappearance crimes; secondly, investigating disappearances; and thirdly, securing justice.
WOLA’s campaign coincides with the International Day of the Victims of Disappearances, August 30. The campaign website includes links to the work of Mexican collectives and organizations, as well as ways to support upcoming search efforts. WOLA invites everyone to join in its call for authorities to ensure effective disappearance investigations, stating that, “For disappearances to end, justice must begin.”