The families of Mexico’s ‘disappeared’ people keep searching

Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, president, and Emillio Alvarez Icaza, executive secretary, of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, are received by parents and relatives of the 43 missing students at Ayotzinapa in the southern state of Guerrero on Sept. 29, 2015.

Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, president, and Emillio Alvarez Icaza, executive secretary, of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, are received by parents and relatives of the 43 missing students at Ayotzinapa in the southern state of Guerrero on Sept. 29, 2015.

(Jesus Guerrero / AFP/Getty Images)
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The man’s voice cracked, then he sobbed as he spoke.

“The government has everything and we have lost everything,” he said. “Please help us to keep looking and digging, to give us the resources we need.”

Mario Vergara, 40, stood crying on a verdant hill on the outskirts of Iguala in Guerrero state. His brother has been missing since July 2008 and is one of hundreds of people counted among the so-called disappeared throughout the country.

Listening closely to Vergara’s tale of loss and heartbreak was Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She and her colleagues are documenting what local residents have to say about the crisis of disappeared people that has led many relatives of the missing to speak out publicly for the first time. The issue gained greater attention from activists and the government after the mass abduction a year ago of 43 teaching students in Iguala.


After the students’ disappearance on Sept. 26, 2014, a social movement headed by their parents and supporters, but also including the families of the thousands of other people missing in Mexico, has staged huge protests and hunger strikes. Civilian search parties have looked for bodies.

The federal government’s investigation into the mass abduction has been discredited both at home and abroad, and the latest official figures show more than 25,000 people have “disappeared” in Mexico since 2006. The issue has become one of the greatest challenges faced by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.

Mexican authorities last month announced that forensic experts had identified the second of 43 missing students from remains officials say were found in a trash dump in Guerrero. But that statement contradicted a report published by an interdisciplinary working group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that found that it was “scientifically impossible” for the students to have been killed and burned in the trash dump.

Federal officials have said they are investigating whether the students were killed by drug gangs in a case of mistaken identity.

Meanwhile, civilian searches by the group of more than 300 families calling themselves “the other disappeared,” which had been suspended due to the rainy season, are expected to resume during the next few weeks. In November, a local group found around 20 bodies in the area called La Laguna, where Vergara shared his experiences with Antoine’s group. One of the bodies belonged to the son of Caritina Rodriguez, 61, who stood by silently as Vergara sobbed.

Rodriguez said her 27-year-old son, Modesto Bahena Cruz, a construction worker, disappeared on his way to work March 3, 2012, in Iguala.


She said the identification of his body — one of 104 that have been dug up by the makeshift search parties in the hills around Iguala since the searching began, but one of only two to be identified so far — has brought her little comfort.

“Sometimes I want to kill myself because of the pain of having lost my son. Life is so sad now and his children really miss him,” Rodriguez said.

Standing near Rodriguez was Maria del Carmen Abarca, 47, whose husband, Saturno, disappeared in March last year.

“All I want to do is to find him — I don’t need to know what happened, or have justice, or anything like that,” Abarca said. “I can’t do anything about what happened anyway. I want to find him alive, but after all this time I just want to find him whatever.”

The townspeople’s searches are rudimentary. They stab pointed metal sticks into the ground. If the putrid stench of death emerges, they know they have to keep digging. Many hope that the visit of the Inter-American commission — the first international organization to address their cause directly — might bring them the tools and resources they need to amplify their searches.

They have received no financial support from the authorities so far, although civilian searches have found and handed over many bodies to the attorney general’s office for identification.


The boldness of the townspeople over the last year has had its costs. One of the founders of the search groups, Miguel Angel Jimenez Blanco, was found shot dead in the taxi he drove in a nearby town in August. Many thought his death could have been connected to the searches he was pushing, and that maybe he knew too much. An investigation is ongoing.

The commission can offer no material help to the searchers, but it can increase pressure on the government to provide answers.

James Cavallaro, vice president of the commission, said the group met with many officials from all levels of government.

“The information they’re giving us is mostly about the measures they’re taking,” he said. “There’s no doubt they’re taking measures but the question is whether those measures are sufficient to respond to the gravity of the human rights situation in Mexico.”

Cavallaro and his colleagues spent the day in Iguala taking statements from residents as part of the group’s five-day visit to various locations in the country.

“We’ve heard in many parts of Mexico that people are scared of reporting and it’s difficult to get a sense of how many [cases] there are. But the ones we know about are overwhelming — their stories are overwhelming,” Cavallaro said.


“For all of us on the team who are speaking to them here and getting their statements of brutality, of forced disappearances, of failed investigations, of indifference of authorities ... it’s a body blow to listen to their statements.”

Bonello is a special correspondent.