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Search for Mexico’s disappeared more dangerous than ever

While northern states have dealt with disappearances for decades, places like Mexico City have seen a 330% rise in the last four years, and government inaction is making the search for the missing ever more fraught with peril.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — On the morning of April 17, the Twitter account of the Madres Buscadoras de Sonora — a collective of mothers searching for their loved ones who have disappeared amid the violence of Mexico's so-called drug war — alerted that its founder Ceci Flores had been reported missing since the day before. 

Fortunately for those who know her and her mission to find her son Marco Antonio, who disappeared in the northern state of Sonora in May 2019, their worst fears had not come true. Flores returned safe and sound later that day. 

But she, the other searchers and the security personnel with them had indeed been in danger. Their truck got stuck in the mud in a remote area without cell service. A couple of state police officers had to walk through the night to find bars and call for help.

Other such stories often have tragic endings. 

As the phenomenon of disappearances intensifies and spreads throughout Mexico, more and more families searching for their missing loved ones find themselves in the crosshairs of what searcher Yadira González called “the two-headed monster that is a narco-government.”

Disappearances in Mexico began to rise after former President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006. But the situation has mushroomed in the first four years of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s six-year term.

Over 112,000 people are currently disappeared or missing in Mexico (the distinction being that the former is thought to be the result of a crime), according to the National Registry of Missing and Disappeared Persons, which keeps records dating back to 1921. 

More than 42,000 of those disappeared under the current administration, and activists do not doubt that the hidden figure is much higher. 

A searcher examines a piece of caution tape for blood stains or smells of putrefaction. Such clues can lead to discoveries of the remains of missing loved ones. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

In a testament to the efficacy of López Obrador’s streamlined propaganda outfit, despite experiencing the highest levels of violence in the country’s history, Mexicans’ perception of public safety is the highest it has been in a decade, according to government data analyzed by the watchdog National Citizens Observatory.  

González knows how broad the divide between perception and reality truly is, especially for those seeking a disappeared loved one. About a year into her search for her brother Juan, who disappeared in the state of Querétaro in 2006, she was kidnapped, interrogated and tortured for three days by men who had staked out her house for close to a week.

“I remember so well the sound of his boots; that’s still right here with me,” she said of the man she deduced to be the leader. They covered her head, so she never saw his face. “When he arrived, everything picked up, lots of movement. There would be noise, then silence.”

The man enigmatically demanded she tell him where her brother was. She pointed out she would not be in that house with them if she had that information.

Grasping the dire reality of the situation, González pleaded for mercy.

“If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with. Why waste your time?” she told her captors. “I only ask that you don’t disappear me. Do not put that pain on my mother. Surely you have a mother too, no?”

To this day, González does not know if that appeal saved her life. But the nightmare merely caps off a long list of harassment and threats to her safety. She has had her tires slashed and windows broken, been followed and caught in a shootout between criminals and the security forces accompanying a search in Morelos. 

A list of searching mothers who have been murdered looking for their disappeared loved ones is written on the metal barriers of a feminist anti-monument in downtown Mexico City. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“There’s always an underlying threat,” she said. “You have to behave responsibly and carefully in order to not get in over your head. The love we feel for those who are gone can make us commit acts out of love, rather than our own needs that we end up neglecting.”


Searchers who fail to take their safety into account are likely to be reminded of it by actors looking to stop them from digging. Only a couple of the more than a dozen searchers interviewed by Courthouse News confessed to having no fear in their search. All others expressed fear and described how it effects them. 

“You lose your life once your children disappear,” Flores said. “And you keep suffering since your search receives no support from authorities. You’re always looking out for yourself and don’t even know whom to protect yourself from, constantly feeling your life is at risk.”

Some searchers succumb to this fear piled on top of the pain of their loss and the effects on their remaining family members. Some report family conflicts arising from searchers dedicating their lives to the member they lost. For some, it is too much. Others use that fear as a driving force for what they call a national movement.

“The fear is there, and it always will be, but as time goes by, it changes as you process it,” said González. At one point, it paralyzed her search for Juan. “But you end up altering the fear, transforming it to the point — not to where you no longer fear for yourself and those close to you — but it becomes something that moves you.”

Midday Mexico City traffic rushes past posters bearing the names and faces of disappeared people at an intersection that activists have dubbed the Roundabout of the Disappeared. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

While searchers report a wide range of threats to their safety and varying reactions to the fear those threats cause, their universal grievance continues to be the lack of a tangible response to the problem by authorities.

One of several factors putting searchers at risk is the federal government’s failure to recognize them as human rights defenders, according to Mónica Meltis, director of the feminist human rights organization Data Cívica. 

“And it’s all because there is a lack of data,” she said in an interview. 

Meltis pointed to crime databases, such as that of homicides, which have a label for victims who were human rights defenders, “but in the case of searchers, it is very hard to know based on the government’s data,” she said. 

The National Search Commission, the federal agency tasked with finding and identifying disappeared persons — and protecting their surviving families — did not respond to a request for an interview. 

To fill that void, Data Cívica has designed a bot to search social media posts for disappearances, attacks and murders of searchers, but their research will take time to gather and analyze the data. 

While it has ceded its spot at the top of the list of Mexico’s most violent states to others like Michoacán, Zacatecas and Baja California, the state of Sinaloa has long been plagued by the scourge of disappearances. In May 2022, it became the first in Mexico to establish a state-level Institute for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Veracruz has a similar institute, but only for journalists.

The institute has compiled and mapped out data from civil society groups on homicides and attacks on activists and journalists dating back to 1897, and it is working on risk maps that highlight areas in the state that present a security threat to people in these groups. 

Searcher José Díaz León holds a machete as he waits for a search to begin in southwest Mexico City on Apr. 27, 2023. His T-shirt bears a photo his daughter Josefina, who suffers from schizophrenia and disappeared in the capital in October 2018. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The institute’s director Jhenny Bernal Arellano said they are conducting a diagnosis of the situation for “indirect victims of enforced disappearance,” like searching families. Similar to Data Cívica’s project, it is in its initial stages and will take some time to obtain actionable data. Nor will the task be easy.

“We knew, of course, when we started that there was a latent risk situation for journalists and activists in Sinaloa since they put themselves on display and are easily identifiable,” Bernal said in an interview. “But we did not expect the number of cases from August 2022 to date would be so high.”


The institute has attended to 41 cases of journalists, activists and their families since it started its work. 

Despite the Sisyphean task before her, Bernal said she is invested in implementing a “state public policy that is preventive and respectful of the rights of journalists and human rights defenders.”

Furthermore, she aims to correct at the state level the federal government’s failure to recognize searchers as human rights defenders. 

“They feel disillusioned, neglected by authorities, and that was something we had to deal with at the beginning, earning their trust,” Bernal said. “But we’re working to earn it and want them to know that they have an ally in the institute.”

According to Meltis of Data Cívica, however, even if those in Sinaloa can find governmental support and recognition of their situation, one last hurdle often remains for searchers: themselves.

“It’s hard for them to put themselves in the place of victims when the main victim is the one they’re searching for,” she said, adding that the perception of searchers — especially the mothers — as people of incredible emotional fortitude can contribute to this as well. 

“Their strength is impressive — they are the moral reserve of this country — but the social perception of their strength can also be one of the factors that makes it that much more difficult to recognize themselves as something else besides that strength and the hope to find their loved ones.”

Jacqueline Palmeros speaks to a crowd of around 50 who attended an Apr. 22 concert to raise funds for the collective of searchers she founded in 2020. Searching mothers and collective members Brígida Ricardo Matilde (middle) and Martha Alicia Miranda Franco accompany her. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Saturday night. The stage was set. Daft Punk played as those who arrived on time waited for the classically Mexican late start. A photo exposition in the foyer featured shots of mermaids floating among water trash, flopped onto the wet counters of a fish market: the artist's comment on women's objectified, disposable place in Mexican society.

The concert and dance show was for the benefit of Una Luz en el Camino (A Light in the Path), a collective of searchers founded in Mexico City by Jacqueline Palmeros after her daughter Jael Monserrat disappeared in July 2020. 

“We searchers have been abandoned by the state,” she told a crowd of around 50 who had come out to support her cause. “I don’t know if my treasure — that’s what we call them, our treasures — is alive or dead, but I do know that the state is negligent in this.”

The story of Jael Monserrat’s disappearance and Palmeros’ search for her serves as a case study for how violence and impunity have spread and intensified during López Obrador’s term. 

Once considered insulated from the narco-violence of northern states, the capital has seen a more than 330% rise in disappearances under the president’s watch. During his term, more than 8,100 people have been reported missing, with over 3,700 unaccounted for. 

Those numbers tower over the same stats from Dec. 11, 2006 — the day Calderón declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels — to Nov. 30, 2018 — the day before López Obrador’s term began: a total of 3,780 reported disappearances in those 12 years, and just 873 of those cases remain cold. 

In an interview after her speech, Palmeros spoke of the perilous nature of her search for Jael Monserrat. 

Members of the Una Luz en el Camino collective prepare folk art, snacks and other products at a benefit concert in Mexico City on Apr. 22, 2023. The products bear stickers with photos of the people they are searching for and information about their disappearances. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“It has been constant harassment and threats,” she said. Not long after she founded her collective, a man on a motorcycle shot up her house while she was home. Fortunately, she was not hurt. 

“Your safety becomes more and more at risk,” she said, joining other searchers in criticizing a federal protection mechanism for journalists and activists for its inadequacy. For most who solicit protection, all they receive is a panic button app that is of little use in the middle of a firefight, in remote areas without cell service or after one has already been kidnapped.

“The mechanism takes you in and ties you to them so that they’ve got you in their sights,” she said. “Really, the day they want to kill you, they’re going to do it.”

The office of the federal protection mechanism did not respond to a request for an interview by the time of publication. 

Bernal said that the Sinaloa protection institute offers preventative services like police patrols and escorts, video surveillance and more, but it will take some time to see if these actions succeed.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s searchers aren’t waiting around for a governmental change. They are organizing concerts, art auctions and other social functions to raise funds to continue their digging with or without the help of the authorities. 

In addition to soliciting donations at the Saturday night show, Palmeros and her fellow searching mothers sold folk art, snacks and water bottles, the labels removed and replaced by stickers bearing the faces of people they haven’t seen in a very long time. 

Alongside each photo is one of the more than 112,000 heartbreaking reasons for the event: “Jael Monserrat Uribe Palmeros, Disappeared July 24, 2020, in Iztapalapa, Mexico City.”

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