Wiping tears from her eyes, Brenda Rangel Ortez, 34, clutches the hand of her 7-year-old son. She has one simple question. “Where are they?” Two and a half years ago her brother and two friends were returning home from an evening out when their car was stopped by local police. They have not been seen since.
Ortez is one of over 300 people from ten states in Mexico who marched through the capital on Mother’s Day demanding an end to forced disappearances and calling on authorities to find their loved ones. Most of those marching were mothers, many of whom have spent years searching for their children. They marched slowly, some carried flowers; almost all held banners with pictures of the missing. With them marched brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents. All of them asking the same question; where are they?
Their question is met with silence from the government. Ortez filled out a missing person’s report within days of her brother’s disappearance and says she has had nothing but excuses ever since. “They give us titbits of information to keep us happy,” she states. “They give us false hope and try to wear us out so that we stop looking.” She says that the authorities often explain away abductions using organized crime as an excuse. “They say that my family has ties to local drug gangs and that’s why my brother is missing,” she states angrily. “It’s insulting. My family has never had anything to do with that.”
Marching just behind her is Marcela Ramirez, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of her 22-year-old niece Cecelia, who disappeared just under a year ago. “She went to the corner shop and never came back,” she states. Like Ortez, the family has seen no progress with their case. But Ramirez is certain the authorities know who did it. She believes local government is aware that criminal groups operate in the area and that they work with complete impunity. “The police tried to tarnish her name, saying that she had run off with a man,” she explains. “She is married with two small children. She didn’t take anything with her. She just disappeared.” Ramirez is certain she knows what happened to Cecelia. “They took her so they could sell her for sex,” she states flatly.
Few really know what happens to Mexico’s missing, but rumors are rife. Sandra, in her late thirties, who did not want to give her full name, works for a human rights organization in Coahuila, a state in the North-East of Mexico. “We don’t really understand what is happening,” she states visibly distressed. The majority of those missing are between the ages of 15 to 35, she explains. “First it was the men that disappeared,” she says. “Later on, women started going missing too.” She, like many others, believes the missing are taken and forced to work for the drug cartels. She points out that most of the men who are taken are strong and healthy. “They are in the prime of life and at an age when they can work long hours,” she states. And the women? “They are presents or rewards for men involved with organized crime,” she says. “That’s what people are saying.”
Sandra’s town has been hit hard by the violence with citizens becoming caught up in a turf dispute between two rival drug gangs. She explains that with Mexican President, Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on organized crime came an increase in forced disappearances. Over the last two years, her organization has registered 280 people missing in her town, which has a population of just under 950,000. She believes the number of people kidnapped is likely to be much higher, but many are too afraid to file a report.
The Mexican government does not release official statistics on disappearances linked to the war on drugs, however the National Commission for Human Rights in Mexico has registered over 16,000 missing people since Calderon came to power in 2006.
For Mexicans, one of the biggest problems is knowing who to trust. Alma Lorena, 37, is certain that whatever confidence she had in the federal police is now gone. On a late evening in summer last year, federal police offices came to her house. They left with her husband, her father, her four brothers and two cousins. It was June 19, Father’s Day. She has heard nothing from them since.
Many of those looking for their relatives say that the authorities are involved in the disappearances. But for Juan, not his real name, it is not that simple. He is searching for his 33-year old nephew who went missing while working as a federal police officer. Viktor explains that those working for criminal organizations often pose as police and wear the same uniforms. He says that in Mexico you can never really be sure that someone is who they say they are.
As the demonstrators gather together to read out the names of those missing, Ortez gestures to the crowd. “We Mexicans are tired,” she states quietly. “The government wants to shut us up, but I will not be keep quiet.” Despite her and her family having received death threats she says that she will keep on fighting. “They have stolen everything from us. We have no peace, no normal day. We are not longer a normal family.”