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‘Until we find them’: Families of victims of enforced disappearance march in Mexico City

For families of people who have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico, the United Nations' commemoration of such victims was a painful day. But also one of hope, as they looked to each other to find the strength and support denied them by their government.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Many had to force their chants through tears and voices that cracked with the pain of their loss, the toil of their struggle: “Because they took them alive, we want them back alive!”

Some, like Jorge Verástegui González, have been searching for over a decade. Others lost loved ones more recently. But no matter how much time has lapsed since a family member was disappeared without a trace, their absence is ever-present in the lives of those who continue to look for them. 

Verástegui said his brother Antonio and nephew Antonio Jesús were disappeared by police in Parras, Coahuila, in January 2009.

“I’ve been looking for them ever since,” he said as others in the same situation gathered at the Roundabout of Women Who Fight, an anti-monument installed by feminist activists on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma Avenue in September 2021.

Their march and other activities on Tuesday commemorated the United Nations’ International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The families chanted as they walked to the Roundabout of the Disappeared, an anti-monument a couple blocks down the avenue installed by families of disappeared people in May.

Mexico’s National Registry of Disappeared and Missing Persons topped 100,000 people that month. It is now over 105,000 names long.

Flor de Lis Torres García holds a canvas sign bearing a picture of her son José Eduardo, who she says was disappeared by state and local police in Tabasco in July 2021. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

As the extreme violence of Mexico’s drug war intensifies and rampant impunity allows state corruption to go on unchecked, more and more families are finding themselves in the powerless position of looking for help in a government that is unwilling to provide it. 

“I have proof that my son was stopped by state and municipal police, but up to now, authorities have told me nothing,” said Flor de Lis Torres García, holding an enlarged picture of her son. 

“Today is very painful for us,” said Torres. It is the second such commemorative day since her son José Eduardo went missing on July 22, 2021, in Comalcalco, Tabasco. He was 19 years old. “He turned 20 in January.”

She also had a photo of the patrol cars that she said stopped her son on the day he was forcibly disappeared. 

In spite of the pain caused by Tuesday’s march, the day also brings Torres “hope that through one of these collectives we can find at least one person who can help us find out what happened to him, where they took him, where they have him or what they did to him.”

It’s a hope that more and more people in her situation have turned to in recent years. In the face of a government that flatly refuses to own up to its atrocities, families of the forcibly disappeared look to each other for support and to find strength in numbers.

Jorge Verástegui marches with other activists and families of disappeared people in Mexico City on Aug. 30, 2022. His brother and nephew were disappeared in Coahuila in January 2009. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“Families are sick of the government not looking for their loved ones, because the authorities don’t look for them,” said María Eugenia Arriaga Salomón, an activist with the Fray Juan de Larios Center for Human Rights in Saltillo, Coahuila. She came to the capital from that state that borders Texas to attend Tuesday’s march.

“They find strength in these collectives, because it’s the only way the authorities will pay any attention to them,” said Arriaga. “It’s company, it’s understanding. What you’re going through, I’m going through too.”

Enforced disappearances have spiked sharply during the term of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which began in December 2018. And this organization among citizens could be one reason why, according to security analyst David Saucedo. 

While organized criminal groups have both intensified the levels of violence they carry out and broadened their portfolios to include crimes such as human trafficking and widespread extortion, families of the victims of enforced disappearances also feel more comfortable reporting such crimes when they have each other’s support.

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“People who are looking for their fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers — finally they’re starting to organize all over the country and they are acquiring a certain level of experience,” said Saucedo. “Finally they have the courage to go out into the streets to protest, to demonstrate openly and report the disappearance of a loved one.”

It has long been known that district attorney’s offices across the country have been in league with the criminal groups that control their respective territories, Saucedo said, “but more and more people are organizing in collectives, influencing legislation and state budgets, and people who before were afraid to report now do so with the protection of these groups of people in similar situations as them, people who are also looking for their relatives.”

Families of the victims of enforced disappearance press tiles bearing the faces of their loved ones to a wall outside the Federal Attorney General's Office in Mexico City on Aug. 30, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

As with most topics he discusses in his daily morning press conferences, López Obrador has hailed his own administration’s treatment of the issue while demonizing those of his predecessors. 

When the national disappearances list reached that grim milestone in May, he responded by saying that “no other government has worried about the disappeared as now.”

And while activists and analysts recognize the change in discourse, they say that López Obrador has yet to put the federal budget where his mouth is. 

“The administration has taken cosmetic measures without getting to the substance, to the bottom of the problem,” said Saucedo. 

It has, however, taken advantage of it. 

Saucedo said that criminal groups have caught onto the fact that if they make a person disappear, they cannot be accused of murder.

“The narcos are hiding the bodies so that they’ll stay in disappeared status,” he said. “They bury them, leave them in rivers and lagoons, dismember them, dissolve them in acid.”

Such terror tactics aren’t necessarily new in Mexico. Groups like the now defunct Los Zetas pioneered the horrific practices at the beginning of the drug war, “but not at this pace and not with such regularity,” said Saucedo.

With fewer bodies being recovered, statisticians have found a correlation in the homicide rate. In July, López Obrador touted the lower rates of homicide during his administration in comparison to those of his predecessors. 

“López Obrador insists that there’s a reduction in homicides, but I don’t see it like that,” said Saucedo. “Rather, there’s been a reduction in the number of cadavers found.”

A seat saved for President López Obrador remains empty at Tuesday's demonstration to commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Which is where the collectives step in. They do the dirty work of uncovering clandestine graves, then alert the authorities to their findings. 

Ceci Flores, founder of the Searching Mothers of Sonora, told Courthouse News in May that her group had aided in the recovery of over 900 individuals in clandestine graves, and around 800 people alive, across the country. She founded the collective after her son was disappeared in May 2019.

“The government shows no signs at all of wanting to stop this,” she said.

March organizer Verástegui agreed, saying that it’s not a lack of ability that keeps the government from taking significant action, but lack of political will. 

“They don’t want to solve this problem, because it’s not about the government’s lack of ability or funds,” he said. “The Mexican state has a large budget and lots of human and material resources to deal with this.”

He said that, like López Obrador's militarization of the country or contentious electricity reform, the president could push this through if he really wanted to.

“We need the president to order this to be solved,” said Verástegui. “If it can happen with other issues, even when there are constitutional hurdles to jump over, why doesn’t it happen with this one?”

López Obrador’s office did not respond to Courthouse News’ request for comment.

Demonstrators set out chairs for López Obrador, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and Interior Undersecretary of Human Rights, Population and Migration Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez at Tuesday's protest.

They remained empty throughout the day’s activities.

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