Mexican families struggle to bring attention to those who’ve disappeared

Posters bearing the photos of disappeared people lie piled up on a table at the office of a group hunting for disappeared people in the Mexican state of Coahuila
Posters bearing the photos of disappeared people lie piled up on a table at the office of a group hunting for disappeared people in the Mexican state of Coahuila MCT

Rogelio Elizondo’s son went to buy a used car in Nuevo Laredo. He never came back.

He and a companion simply vanished on May 8, 2011. Because they were carrying the equivalent of $5,000 for the purchase, suspicion turned to foul play.

Alarmed, Elizondo fretted over what to do. Friends offered advice.

“People said to us, ‘Don’t report this.’ They said, ‘Let us look into this,’ ” Elizondo recalled. After 10 days, growing more desperate, Elizondo went to the Coahuila state police, only to find utter lack of interest.

“They said it wasn’t their jurisdiction. It happened in another state,” Elizondo said. Indeed, Nuevo Laredo is in neighboring Tamaulipas, not Coahuila. “They said, ‘We aren’t going to investigate. There’s nothing we are going to do.’ ”

In much of Mexico, Elizondo’s tragedy would remain the anguish of a solitary family in a country where the problem of people who’ve disappeared is worse than anyplace else in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico’s government acknowledged in February that it has a list of 26,121 people who’d vanished without a trace during the government of President Felipe Calderon, who left office Dec. 1.

But in Coahuila, a slightly more positive story is unfolding. The number of “disappeared” is still high here – 1,600 or so, the governor has acknowledged – but Elizondo wasn’t alone. He joined scores of other families looking into the cases of 298 missing persons in the state.

The families, gathered in a group called United Efforts for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, raised a clamor. They met with the governor, who agreed early last year to set up a special prosecutor’s office for the disappeared.

The fears of relatives melted somewhat as their ranks grew. They called for greater use of DNA testing to match human remains with the disappeared. They began to map the cellular phone calls of their missing loved ones in their final hours before vanishing. They demanded – and got – regular meetings with authorities.

“We’re sitting down every two months with the governor and the state attorney general. This is a big advance. We think it could be a model for other states,” said Diana Iris Garcia, who’s a leading activist with the group. Her son vanished in 2007.

There’s no easy answer to why Mexico has so many disappeared people. Its numbers dwarf the better-publicized cases of Argentina, Brazil and Chile during the years that military governments ruled those countries.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that the military or police had played a role in 149 of the 249 Mexican cases the group examined in depth, which suggests official involvement in many of the disappearances. Hundreds more may be people who ran afoul of the country’s brutal criminal syndicates. The lack of interest among police departments means that most cases are never investigated, the New York-based advocacy group found.

Even the extent of the problem is uncertain. The list of 26,121 cases that the new government of President Enrique Pena Nieto acknowledges is not definitive, authorities say, and the number might be higher. Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced last month that he’d assigned 20 police officers to look into the cases full time.

Coahuila might seem an unusual place to make headway on the issue. The state, abutting Texas, is a hotbed of organized crime. Mexico’s most feared syndicate, Los Zetas, holds sway here. Few officials resist falling into the pockets of gangsters.

“The degree of penetration of organized crime in the police, the judiciary and in political spheres makes people quite scared,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, the head of the diocese of Saltillo, the state capital.

Vera, one of Mexico’s most outspoken prelates, has played a crucial role in drawing attention to the issue. His diocese houses the offices of the United Efforts group, and it’s drawn legal and scientific support from experts outside Mexico.

“We’ve got people helping us who were looking for the disappeared at the time of Pinochet in Chile,” Vera said, referring to that country’s military dictator, the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The growing unity of family members in Coahuila, who compose the backbone of the movement, has emboldened them, however. Their demands are straightforward, including a national database of those gone missing.

“The way we see it, the state should declare a national emergency and give all resources necessary to begin an emergency search,” said Garcia, of United Efforts.

With police and other authorities often in league with gangsters in northern Mexico, judicial investigators frequently resist probing disappearances. That leaves it to relatives to conduct their own investigations.

That’s what happened with Elizondo when his 23-year-old son, a mechanical engineer, went missing on his used-car shopping trip.

Desperate for leads, Elizondo soon realized that someone presumably involved with the disappearance was using his son’s cellphone. He kept paying the monthly bill and managed to get phone records.

“That phone was in use for three or four months, being used here and there,” he said.

It’s dangerous for relatives to conduct such investigations on their own. They aren’t trained, and they may draw the hostility of criminal gangs or corrupt police, activists say. But such efforts also put pressure on authorities to make headway in the cases.

“If the family members bring in evidence, the prosecutors can’t very well not investigate it,” said Consuelo Morales, a nun who heads Citizens in Support of Human Rights, a group based in nearby Monterrey.

She recalled a meeting between family members of the disappeared and prosecutors in which a relative offered the location of a car that witnesses said was used in a disappearance.

“About half an hour into the meeting, the lady said sweetly, ‘Look, Mr. Prosecutor, I don’t know how you say you can do nothing. I’ve been three times to the taxi terminal, and there it is. How is it that you can’t get over there?’ ” Morales said.

Elizondo, who’s 49, continues his quest to find answers about his son, even perusing the grisly photos on blogs dedicated to the victims of organized crime.

“I would look at them all the time to see if I recognized my son,” he said.

“This changes your life 100 percent,” he said. Asked whether he thought about his missing son each day, Elizondo broke down into uncontrollable sobbing: “Yes.”

While relatives have grown more vocal in Coahuila, it’s in the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon, home to the industrial hub of Monterrey, that advances have been more dramatic.

In the past two years, 40 people in Monterrey have been formally accused in disappearances, 16 of them state or local police officers, Morales said.

In mid-December, Nuevo Leon enacted a statute that makes “enforced disappearance” a felony and stipulates that police or other state agents who do nothing to stop gangsters from taking human beings are equally guilty.

On one front, activists haven’t made much headway: stirring ordinary Mexicans to care about the disappeared.

“Society doesn’t show much solidarity,” Garcia said. “People think, ‘This won’t happen to me,’ or they are too busy trying to provide for their families to offer support.”

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