In the photograph, Arturo Figueroa Bonastre, decked out in hospital scrubs, smiles broadly. It captures how he felt about his nascent career.
Figueroa was completing his final year in nursing school and relished his profession, one day recounting excitedly to his mother how he had helped deliver a child at the Veracruz hospital where he worked.
Each weekday at 6 a.m., Figueroa left his home in rural Cardel, a sugar cane hub, to take buses to classes and do hospital service in Veracruz, 45 minutes away. He regularly returned, exhausted, at 8 p.m., his mother said.
“Every day when he came home, he would tell me what happened that day in the hospital,” recalled his mother, Basilia Bonastre. “He loved that work.”
But then one day, Figueroa became one of Mexico’s desaparecidos — one of the “disappeared.” Now Bonastre, like thousands of other mothers across the country, is left to wonder what happened. Her story is sadly familiar.
As was his custom, Figueroa bathed after returning home from work on Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 , and went to the nearby house of a childhood friend, not far from the soccer field where he had played since boyhood. About 11:30 p.m., he decided to head home and sent his mother a text:
“Ya voy, Mama.” (“I’m on my way, Mom.”)
That was the last she heard of her son.
Neighbors reported that a roving police patrol had picked up Figueroa and half a dozen young men who were on the streets of Cardel at that hour. None has been seen again.
All are presumed to have been swept up in a limpieza (cleansing) — a tactic employed by both law enforcement removing presumed “delinquents” from the streets and drug traffickers looking to eliminate rivals. Mexico’s drug wars also have claimed police officers and cartel members, along with many who apparently had no ties to crime and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After Figueroa disappeared, relatives searched but turned up no sign of him or the others who were missing. The police and military denied conducting any operation.
Bonastre recalls that neighbors tried to console her. “Don’t worry. Your son and the others will come back,” they told her.
The grief over losing their son contributed to the declining health and eventual death of her husband, Bonastre said, and the disappearances have cast a pall over the town and her family. These days, she says, few roam the streets after dark in Cardel.
“Here in Mexico, they launched a war against narcotrafico, but it wasn’t really against trafficking — it was against our children, against professionals, students, all the young men and women whom they took away and were never seen again,” lamented Bonastre, a petite woman in a red dress, sitting in her simple home here and holding a photo of Figueroa in his nursing scrubs.
In nearby Veracruz and across the country, activist groups, often largely composed of the wives and mothers of the disappeared, have been calling on the government to take more action to uncover what happened to the missing. Bonastre is part of a group called El Solecito Collective, which has pressured authorities to clarify the fate of those who have disappeared and has discovered a series of clandestine graves of presumed victims in a field on the northern fringes of Veracruz.
Bonastre, like many relatives of the disappeared here, says she often felt shunned after her son went missing, tainted by the experience. “A lot of people seem to think, ‘Well, he must have done something wrong if the police took him,’ ” she recalls. “They assume it was his fault somehow.”
The volunteers with El Solecito Collective has discovered 80 graves since it began excavating the field Aug. 2. None of the remains have been identified yet.
“Really, we are tired, we are fed up, we are looking for a little peace in our lives,” Bonastre said. “We want to find every missing body. All of them are someone’s children. … Many people say we are brave, they want to approach us. But more than bravery, it is just this desire to find our children.”
Special correspondent Liliana Nieto del Rio in Cardel, Mexico, and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.