A prayer for the disappeared
This investigation was carried out over four years,collecting testimonies, visiting cemeteries, coroners’ offices, interviewing officials and specialists, and filing freedom of information requests.Some of that information was only released after legal challenges. In all that time, little or nothing has changed: there are people searching for disappeared family members and there are unidentified dead buried in common graves.
By: Hasta Encontrarles
“We give thanks because we have found this treasure. We give thanks for the person who helped us find you, and we give thanks because you are now going to return home, you beautiful being, whomever you are. Now your mother, your family will be able to rest peacefully. Now we will not rest until you are identified and you ascend in glory and light after all this. May the universe continue to help us to keep searching and finding to bring them all home.”
Maria Isabel Cruz Bernal, searching for her son Yosimar García Cruz, a municipal police officer in Culiacán, disappeared on January 26, 2017.
No. They’re not all alive, although they were alive when they were taken. And it is their mothers and fathers, sisters, sisters-in-law, and friends who have left their homes to move the entire universe to find their family members. They are succeeding, and they pray:
Our father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
On earth as it is in Heaven
Give us each day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
Lead us not into temptation
And deliver us from evil
Among undergrowth and piles of wet earth that serve as a reminder of the previous day’s rain, the cicadas are buzzing. The noise is deafening, and it echoes around the clandestine grave where the bones of a person are lying. Perhaps it was a man, because of the long femur and the prominent jaw that has a few teeth with braces still attached.
It is July 10, and the members of the Sabuesos Guerreras collective are searching. The group has more than 300 families who share the same pain, the same absence of a loved one who was taken.
“We received an anonymous message from a man, and he asked us to come, because it wasn’t right to see so many bones scattered here,” explained María Isabel Cruz Bernal, founder of the collective. She takes a phone from her bag to play a video, where the man shows the route to reach the area, a rugged spot near Campo El Diez, to the south of Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacán.
They are families who do not rest and carry a weight and an anger from not knowing what has become of their sons, brothers, cousins, husbands, in-laws, and friends. They suffer from anxiety, insomnia, and paranoia. Everything reminds them of their missing, the smell of perfume, the shadows, the food. Everything.
“Ever since they took him, I haven’t been able to sleep well. I couldn’t last night either, even though I knew we were searching today. It’s impossible, because you are haunted by the memories, the thoughts. Everything,” says Magaly Castillo Rodríguez, mother of Martín Alejandro López Castillo, a teenager who was disappeared on July 31, 2018, in the Alturas del Sur neighborhood of Culiacan by a group of men on motorcycles.
In Sinaloa there are 15 collectives of people with disappeared family members. That is understandable, given the announcement that was made three days after the bones were discovered in El Diez.
On July 13, the Interior Ministry released a new report about disappeared individuals and clandestine graves that gave dimension to the degree of barbarity in the state.
In Mexico there are 75,065 cases of missing persons, and Mexico State, Jalisco, Tamauliapas, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Mexico City, Nuevo León, Michoacán, Puebla, and Chihuahua have 70% of those cases.
In Sinaloa alone there are 9,760 documented cases of disappearance. Of those, 4,880 are still missing.
En los registros de la Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda y la Fiscalía General de Sinaloa se indica también sobre 4 mil 880 personas fueron encontradas, pero 886 de ellas las hallaron sin vida. Por eso las familias piden a Dios por el descanso.
“Thanks be to God for having found them, now another family can rest. We hope that you will soon be with your loved ones.”
- Victoria Soto Vázquez. Searching for her brother, Pedro Soto Vázquez. Disappeared August 17, 2017.
With regards to clandestine graves, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Colima, Guerrero y Sonora are the states with the most, representing 57 percent of all found in the country between 2018 and 2020.
In Sinaloa alone at least 151 clandestine graves were discovered, with the bodies of 253 people, although not all have been identified and returned to families
Among the problems faced by the families is that the state has only one forensic team, and it operates in Culiacán. The Attorney General’s office has revealed in response to freedom of information requests that there is a shortage of personnel due to budget shortfalls, and that when a person is found in a clandestine grave in another region, such as Choix, El Fuerte, or Ahome, in the north of the State, the body must be analyzed in the state capital. The same happens with the municipalities in the south of the state.
Meanwhile, those bodies, skeletons, and remains found outside of Culiacán are deposited in morgues or common graves. That is why the families pray and give thanks when they are found.
“I give thanks to God that we are here, and that you are going to return home, whoever you are it makes me happy, because you will be with your family”
Magaly Castillo Rodríguez. Searching for her son, Martín Alejandro López Castillo. Disappeared July 31, 2018.
Finding the disappeared in clandestine graves has become an essential balm for the pain, but it is just the beginning of the journey for the searchers.
The forensic staff of the state attorney general’s office work in Culiacán, although they could also operate in Ahome, Angostura o Mazatlán, where the state government constructed coroner’s offices, but those three buildings are not in service.
The office in Ahome is empty, unoccupied, despite having been built at a cost of more than 4 million pesos. The office in Angostura is being used as a base for judicial police. The office in Mazatlán was converted into a warehouse for unidentified bodies, because the cemeteries were full. That is why the buscadoras pray also for the families with missing loved ones.
“Like all my compañeras, I wish with all my heart that the family that is waiting sees you return home, whoever they are, and that they are happy to have you home, and give you a Christian burial, bring flowers or candles to your grave, because that is where all our disappeared treasures should be.”
Juana Esperanza López Valenzuela. Searching for her son, Omar Zazueta López. Disappeared December 1, 2018.
The nonoperational buildings of the forensic service are one part of the explanation for the barbarity.
On August 8, 2016 the state inaugurated the Forensic Medical Laboratory in Culiacán. Four years later, it has analyzed the bodies of 1,465 people, of which 676 were identified and claimed by family members.
But prior to this, due to the lack of forensic capabilities, more than a thousand people were labeled as “unidentified” and buried in common graves in mausoleums and cemeteries, according to official data released in response to freedom of information requests. For this, the families give thanks and pray for those who help them search.
“I give thanks to God for having found you, and thanks to the person who told us. One more family will rest.”
José Feliciano Ramírez Ramírez. Searching for his son, Carlos Omar Ramírez Esparza. Disappeared January 18, 2018.
Those bodies are in 12 graveyards, divided among the municipalities of Mazatlán, Culiacán, Angostura, Salvador Alvarado, Ahome, and El Fuerte.
They were buried, and the Attorney General’s office has lost the records, because in 2017, when a constitutional reform made the office independent, the information was discarded.
The hope is with the gravediggers and cemetery administrators who guard in their memory the locations of the bodies, some in mausoleums and others below the ground. This somber landscape is unmarked by headstones or crosses to identify the tombs. This is why the collectives always pray that those exhumed from clandestine graves are identified and returned to their families as fast as possible.
“Soon you will be with your family, whoever you are, and I am thankful because surely it was you who said ‘here I am’ to someone who was passing by and they told us. You are okay now… now you can rest, you are going back to your family, not as we would have wanted, but you will be where they can bring you a flower, a candle, and we hope it will be very soon.”
- Rosa Neriz. Searching for her brother-in-law Daniel Zavala Martínez. Disappeared April 23, in Monclova, Coahuila.
The Sinaloa state Attorney General’s office states that half of all disappeared persons are found, nevertheless a large number of cases have yet to return home.
In total, there are 4,880 open cases of disappeared men and women. In a normal investigative process, those 4,880 would be the subject of searches by judicial police officers, but in Sinaloa, this crime—one of the most frequent—is handled by only 15 agents.
That is to say, each agent has an average caseload of 325 disappearances, and the numbers have been increasing over the past five years.
The reason for this increase in disappearance has not been explained by the state government nor the attorney general. On one hand, Juan José Ríos Estavillo, the attorney general, says that there are several factors that must be analyzed, among them the role of criminal groups, but he has yet to offer a concrete diagnosis.
“Sometimes the disappearances have people, groups, involved. Some of those cases occur when people arrive with guns. So there are some things that might be identifiable,” Ríos Estavillo said during an interview in March, 2020.
The same thing occurred with the director of the state public security system, the state government entity tasked with designing and managing anti-crime policies.
Renato Ocampo Alcántar, director of the system, blames the state’s inability to diagnose disappearances on a lack of coordination with the attorney general’s office, since much of the information about the cases is located in confidential files due to the sensitive information they contain. That is why the buscadoras are always grateful they do not have to rely on the authorities when they search.
“Thanks to the universe that we found you, because you are going home, a family is going to rest, and we wish we hadn’t found you like this, but we are thankful. We give thinks and hope that we can identify you soon.”
- Casandra Beltrán Aispuro. Searching for her son, Carlos Enrique Pérez Beltrán. Disappeared November 11, 2017.
The caseload for each judicial police agent has led to many cases—more than 50 percent—being filed in a “temporary archive,” a legal category that represents only despair.
Article 254. Temporary archive. The Prosecutor may archive, temporarily, those investigations in initial phases in which there is insufficient evidence or information, or in which it is impossible to establish lines of investigation that would allow for a determination of the events that led to the case. The archive will remain temporary until information is obtained that allows for further development of the investigation leading to penal action.
(National Code of Penal Procedure)
The delay in these investigations led to a movement by the collectives to demand more than 30 injunctions, asking federal judges to oblige the state to provide information about advancements in the cases.
Al mismo tiempo han acudido a informantes anónimos y han seguido su intuición para rastrear, así han encontrado más de 300 fosas clandestinas en los últimos 10 años.
They have been exposed to violence and have been threatened, as happened with Mirna Nereyda Medina Quiñónez, founder of Las Rastreadores de El Fuerte, who in December of 2015 received a call offering information, but when she arrived at the site of the meeting in a crop field, she found it was a deception.
“I arrived there, and there was a man, who I knew, and he said ‘do you know who I am?’ and I said yes, I knew very well who he was, and then he said ‘so you know what we are capable of, and we are asking you, telling you, to stop bringing those people to Mexico, those investigators,’ who were investigating the federal attorney general’s office", told me this reporter in 2015 and that interview can be consulted in Noroeste..
There were also threats against the members of the Una Luz de Esperanza collective in Mazatlán, after they discovered more than 20 clandestine graves in different areas of the municipality. The collective decided to stop their searches and enroll in the federal protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders.
The most extreme attack occurred with the murder of Sandra Luz Hernández, from the Voces Unidas por la Vida collective, on May 12, 2014. She had been searching for her son, Édgar García Hernández.
Impunity is the rule for these aggressions, as it is for the majority of disappearances.
The state attorney general has only resolved two cases of enforced disappearance, one in Mazatlán and the other in Ahome. The latter, the disappearance of Román Soto Vázquez, 28, who was detained by Ahome municipal police on November 17, 2013.
Those arrested in the case were Jorge Cota Jiménez, Óscar Guadalupe Huicho Puentes y Jorge Martínez Santos.
They were accused of enforced disappearance and in June, 2015, they were sentenced to 31 years in prison, after Román’s mother, Rosa Elia Vázquez, led a campaign of popular pressure for a just sentence.
Nevertheless, none of those involved have revealed the whereabouts of the young man, the manager of a Coca Cola facility in Los Mochis, and they continue to claim that they do not know where Román was taken by their commander, the now fugitive Daniel Murillo.
That is why, each time the buscadoras find a disappeared person they join hands and begin a ritual.
They pray for the person who is before them, praying that they find peace.
They pray for the person’s soul, and for those of their still missing family members.
They give thanks for the anonymous informants.
They pray that the pain, the anguish, the despair, the hopelessness will be lifted.
They reflect on their lives and the death before them.
They hug, and then they do the thing that requires the most faith: they leave the body in the hands of the police and investigators.
“We know you are here, we know that your energy is going to return to your family, that they are going to take you. We hope that when they take you, you go with them, and that you are no longer alone here in this wilderness, and that you will help us to find our missing, just as we found you. Every one of us wishes with all our heart to find our missing, and may it be soon, because we are tired of this journey and we ask you to guide us. Until they are found, let it be so. May God take you into his light in heaven. Because they were taken alive, and alive we want them back.”
- María Isabel Cruz Bernal. Searching for her son, Yosimar García Cruz, municipal police officer in Culiacán, disappeared January 26, 2017.
This work was made by Espejo Magazine, Juan Panadero, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies of the University of California at San Diego y Mente Interactiva.
Cecilia Fafán, Michael Lettieri, César Hernández, Marcos Vizcarra, Alexis Rubio, Josué David Piña, Jimena Rivera, Mariel Yee, Nidia Azucely, Dante Aguilera Benitez, Hëb Martinez and Vivi Santana participated in this first edition of Hasta Encontrarles.