SALTILLO, Mexico — The mothers knock on the doors of flophouses and morgues. They sift through pictures of prisoners and the dead. Clutching pictures of their own, some from long ago, they ask the same questions, over and over.
Have you seen him? Does she look familiar?
Occasionally, there is a reported sighting. More often, it’s another shake of the head, a “Sorry, no.” And with that, weariness stooping their shoulders and worry sagging their faces, they board their bus and move on to another town.
By last weekend, these mothers, wives and sisters of missing Central American migrants had already crossed some of Mexico’s most dangerous territory in their two-bus caravan.
Following a route often used by migrants northward along the Gulf Coast to the U.S., they had entered the country in the south through Tabasco state. They traveled through Veracruz and Tamaulipas, sites recently of horrific massacres of Central Americans and others, stopping along the way to ask and search — against all the odds wishing for a happy ending.
By the time they finish what has become an annual mission organized by several migrant rights and church groups, they will have traveled to 23 cities and towns in 14 states in 19 days. A total of nearly 3,000 miles.
Aboard the buses, with the lived-in feel of ordered chaos, the women pass the time dozing, chatting, occasionally watching a movie.
Despite their pain, or perhaps because of it, they find friendship. The Nicaraguans share stories of their experiences during their country’s civil war, telling of relatives killed or forced into armies; the Hondurans recount tales of their nation’s utter, violent poverty that fuels one of the world’s highest homicide rates and drives their children to seek lives elsewhere.
Emotions soar and fall. The women joke and tease one another and laugh. Then, suddenly, one remembers the son she is missing and breaks into sobs and another moves to her side to comfort her.
Another nine hours through hot, dusty cactus fields brought them here to Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila state, where the top leader of the notorious Zetas paramilitary cartel was slain by government forces last month. By all accounts, it is the Zetas who most routinely and viciously prey on the migrants, thousands of whom have gone missing in recent years — kidnapped, killed, pressed into involuntary labor by drug traffickers, or simply lost to poverty and desperation.
Dilma Pilar Escobar last heard from her daughter, Olga, in January 2010. Olga had taken off from their home in Progreso, Honduras, leaving behind five children, with the plan of reaching the United States. Like so many others, her idea was to earn a little money, make things a little easier for her mother and her children.
Now Escobar is raising her grandchildren, listening to their questions every night about when their mother might come home. She is running out of answers.
“I’ve looked in hospitals, in morgues,” said Escobar, 55. “We see so much about what’s happening in Mexico on TV. It puts a lot in your head.”
Escobar was inspired to make the trip in part by a local radio program that attempts to help families with missing relatives.
“It gave me the push to come here,” said the woman with dark, unsmiling eyes, grasping an 8-by-10 photo of Olga that hangs from her neck on a green cord.
In each city or town, the mothers stage a public event to make their presence known. A Mass. A march. Here in Saltillo, they converged on the downtown Plaza de Armas, the pale-blue-and-white that adorns all Central American flags fluttering in the breeze ahead of the slow march of mothers. They hung their photos of loved ones on clotheslines at the center of the square.
The women — about 40 on this year’s caravan — sleep on cots in churches or in “migrant houses,” shelters set up by a number of communities, where they also receive donated meals.
“We are facing a humanitarian tragedy,” Tomas Gonzalez, a Franciscan friar who runs a shelter in Tabasco, told the women. “Mexico has become a cemetery for migrants.”
In August 2010, 72 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and a handful of other countries were slain execution-style, hands tied behind backs, shot once in the head, in Tamaulipas state, which borders Texas. Among the youngest was 15-year-old Yedmi Victoria Castro of El Salvador. The Zetas were presumed responsible. Dozens more bodies were found in the same region in the months that followed.
Not a week goes by, it seems, without fresh reports of hidden graves and unidentified dead. But the Mexican government has been slow to recognize the epidemic of missing persons, only this year moving to toughen legislation and expand the collection of DNA samples and other data.
Even now, there is no national data bank, and each federal agency maintains its own. Further, technicians are poorly trained and collection of samples is often sloppy. In one of the more absurd cases, according to people familiar with several investigations, technicians took DNA samples from women in hopes of identifying their missing husbands.
Official neglect means it is up to the families to pursue their relatives’ whereabouts, to show up at mass graves, to carry hair samples to authorities.
Here in Saltillo, in one of the first states to recognize “forced disappearance” as a crime, special prosecutor Juan Jose Yanez met with the women and showed them photos of 178 unidentified cadavers that had ended up in the morgue. His office had collected the basics — height, weight, tattoos — and would be taking down the same information from the mothers.
“People disappear for a lot of reasons,” Yanez said, acknowledging that sometimes the authorities are responsible for kidnappings.
Honduran homemaker Ana Gris Enamorado knows that her 22-year-old son, Oscar Antonio, got as far as Jalisco, in western Mexico. He called and said he had found work. That was early 2010, and Enamorado has had no news since.
“I tried calling him,” she said. “It rang and rang and rang, no answer. Then it didn’t even ring anymore.”
Leonarda Chacon had a different story to tell. Her son went missing in 2009. She joined the caravan last year, and afterward received a call from him when he got word that she was searching for him.
“He was working on a farm in Chiapas. He wanted to go to the U.S. but didn’t have the money,” Chacon, 47, said. “Then he learned about all the kidnappings and he didn’t want to continue. He wanted to come home, but he didn’t have money for that, either.”
There is a chance now that she may be reunited with him when the caravan reaches the far-south state of Chiapas.
“You look wherever you can. You ask for help at every turn,” she said. “You pray, you cry.”
Small miracles do happen. A couple of mothers have been reunited with missing children, as a result of efforts by activists who work all year, following up on leads that emerge each time a caravan travels through.
The reported chance sighting of a son or daughter at a market or near a truck stop is what keeps the women going.
They dream of a moment like this one: A Honduran mother, Olga Marina Hernandez, found her son on the caravan’s stop in the northern city of Monterrey. After leaving home five years ago to head for the U.S., he had fallen into a life of drug abuse and jail time. But now he was recovering and studying to be a preacher. He heard about the caravan of mothers, and that his own was among them.
Outside an evangelical church, the nervous mother and hesitant son were brought together. She had worried it was too good to be true. He felt something akin to shame for his disappearance. Quickly, they melted in an embrace, and chatted in torrents about the lost years.
Around them, the other mothers watched, eyes welling with tears.