“I just want a bone.” Desperate, a mother begs a soldier to give her a chance to find the remains of her son, one of the 94,000 missing who haunt Mexico. The mother-courage, who lost track of her child a year ago, is negotiating with the security forces access to a former cornfield in the state of Tamaulipas (north-west), where a half- ton of human remains have been found since 2017.
“Answer me! Do you have no children?“insists the woman in her fifties in the face of soldiers who turn a deaf ear. “I just want a bone from my son to rest next to my husband.”
This dialogue of the deaf broke out a few kilometers from the state capital, Matamoros. On the border with Texas, the area is hit by the violence of drug traffickers, in this case the Gulf Cartel. The Dungeon is considered a “camp d’extermination”, according to the National Commission for the Search of the Missing (CNB, official). Access to the site is prohibited even for the families of the victims.
The mother, who refuses to disclose her identity for security reasons, has no proof that her son’s remains are lying somewhere here underground. But she decided to come after learning that one of these collectives of victims would be present – often mothers who denounce “inefficiency” authorities and undertake their own research.
The main cause of these disappearances is “organized crime”
Passageway for drugs to the United States, the state of Tamaulipas, which has 11,667 missing, is the most affected by the phenomenon, along with that of Jalisco (west). In total, Mexico has 93 to 94,000 missing people, according to official figures. The disappearances began with the “dirty war” authorities against the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1980s.
Their number exploded as much as the assassinations from 2006, when ex-President Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on narco-trafficking. In 15 years, Mexico (126 million inhabitants) has recorded 300,000 assassinations, more than 36,000 in 2020, an average of 100 per day.
“Organized crime remains one of the main causes of disappearances “, notes Laura Atuesta of the Center for Investigation and Economic Expertise (Cide), in allusion to the trafficking of drugs, migrants or fraudulently taken fuel (“Huachicol”). The authorities also evoke “the corruption of police forces linked to organized crime“, as the Under-Secretary of State for Human Rights, Alejando Encinas, recalled in mid-November.
For the most part, the missing are young people between 15 and 30 years old, trapped in poverty (43.9% of the population), unemployment (more than 50% of the workforce works in the informal sector) , the vicious circle of enlisting or simply the bad luck of having been there at the wrong time.
In areas of conflict between the police and “narcos”, young girls are kidnapped and trafficked in women. This is the theme of “Noche de fuego”, a Mexican film by Tatiana Huezo which this year upset the Cannes and San Sebastián Festivals.
“Do your job”
Return to Bartolina, under a blazing sun. Maria Isela Valdez, 58, at the head of the collective of victims, is indignant against the security forces who prevent mothers from crossing. “Why the National Guard (editor’s note: a security body created in 2019), the army and the navy were not there when they were kidnapped, massacred, tortured, buried, burned?“
With her daughter Delia, 38, she is looking for her son Roberto, kidnapped in the neighboring town of Reynosa in 2014. In June 2019, the mother knelt in front of the President of the Republic, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to ask him to ugly. The girl publicly asked the Gulf Cartel in June for a truce to be able to access Bartolina and find her brother’s remains. The mother and daughter camped out in front of the parquet floor, before finally winning their case: being able to get closer to the site.
“We are here for the authorities to do their job, because if we leave, they are not going to do anything”, insists Delia to AFP. That day, they get to stay in a tent while forensic scientists do their research. The wait is long and exhausting, under a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius in this desert region where snakes glide between the thorny shrubs.
Finally, confrontations with live ammunition between police officers and armed men shortened the work of the experts.
98% of crimes go unpunished in Mexico
“Families still face a system that does not give them an answer “, sighs with AFP Karla Quintana, leader of the CNB which coordinates the research. In total, 98% of crimes in Mexico go unpunished and thousands of unidentified bodies languish in mortuaries because the justice system is overwhelmed, she said.
The country lacks forensic pathologists and prosecutors are dragging their feet to conduct investigations, continues Ms. Quintana, while infiltration of criminals into the security organs has been denounced, including by the authorities.
The government, in power since the end of 2018, says it wants to get out of inertia. “Between March 2019 and today alone, the CNB carried out 2,300 days of research with families”, argued the Under-Secretary of State for Human Rights in mid-November. But at the end of a ten-day visit to Mexico during which around 100 people disappeared, the UN Committee against Enforced Disappearances denounced Friday “inefficiency “ authorities, the arbitrariness of court decisions at the time of research and culture “impunity“.
Mrs. Quintana, who reported at the end of September of the discovery of a new “extermination camp” near Nuevo Laredo, still in the state of Tamaulipas, also deplores the apathy of Mexican society. These disappearances often arouse indifference.
“We do not understand how with hundreds of thousands of homicides (…), with thousands of clandestine graves and with almost total impunity, Mexican society prefers to look elsewhere”, she recently told the Mexican edition of the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Exceptionally, the case of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, who disappeared on September 26, 2014 in troubled conditions in the state of Guerrero (south), shook Mexico and beyond. But seven years later, only the remains of three of them have been found and identified. According to the official version of the time, the “43” were kidnapped and murdered by a gang of drug traffickers called “Guerreros unidos”. A version largely invalidated, to the point that the UN estimated in 2020 “fundamental that the Mexican state continues to provide reliable answers to families “.
Murdered during the search
Armed with shovels, picks and patience to search for the remains of his brothers Marco Antonio and Alejandro, Milagros Valenzuela advances under police protection with his collective, near the town of Hermosillo. Another red zone is the state of Sonora (north).
In July, one of the members of the collective, Aranza Ramos, 28, was shot dead in her home. Ramos was looking for the remains of her husband, Bryan, who has been missing since December 2020. The couple had a one-year-old baby girl. The UN Human Rights Office has ordered Mexico to investigate a possible link between this assassination and the activism of the young woman.
During another research, Milagros believed to recognize, in the flight of vultures, the presence of human remains. Unable to get to the site, four people died the same day in a shooting. “It means they don’t want you to come home”, a policeman then told him. “When the state fails” to take charge of research, “it places the families of the missing in a risk situation”, noted the United Nations.
Often questioned, the prosecution reacted in the state of Sonora, claiming to have supported family tracing work since the creation of the first collective in the state. “The Attorney General maintains his will and commitment to care for and support families who are looking for a loved one in their remarkable work, because it is right,” a spokesperson for the prosecution told AFP.
Each week, the women of the collective continue to meet near a Hermosillo gas station. This reunion in good humor takes on the dimension of collective therapy, launches one of them, whose son has been missing for four years. But frustration can quickly take over. “The hardest part is leaving with the hope of finding something and when you come home empty-handed”, sighs Milagros.
His collective publicly calls on organized crime to respect corpses: “If you killed them, why are you burying them? Why are you burning them?” Milagros has the answer to his own question. “Unfortunately, the authorities say that without a body there is no crime. “
Despite the danger, Anel Robles, sister-in-arms of Milagros, remains determined to continue the search for her husband, who has disappeared in the hands of the police. “If we don’t look for it, who is going to do it for us?”