In Mexico, Mother’s Day is a sad reminder for the mothers of the disappeared

Last week, Mexican officials were able to find the bodies of three missing tourists from Australia and the US in less than a week. But many Mexican mothers have been searching for their children who have gone missing in Mexico for years — even decades — and can’t seem to get help from the authorities.

The World

On Mother’s Day, hundreds of mothers searching for their missing children marched to the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico as they do every year.

Ana Enamorado was among them. She’s been looking for her only son, Oscar Antonio Lopez, since 2010. “Today is his birthday. He’s 34 years old,” she said.

Enamorado said her son left his home country of Honduras with the intention to reach the United States, but he got stuck in the Mexican state of Jalisco 14 years ago, and is nowhere to be found.His mother decided to leave everything in Honduras 12 years ago and move to Mexico to search for her son. She complains about the lack of effort by the authorities to help her figure out where her son is.

Ana Enamorado left her home country of Honduras 12 years ago to search for her only son, Oscar, who disappeared in the Mexican state of Jalisco in 2010. She became an activist in support of mothers of migrants who’ve gone missing in Mexico.Tibisay Zea/The World

She said she was shocked to learn that the bodies of three international tourists were found so quickly just days before the march, in a case that made international headlines. “So, is it because they are foreigners that their cases are more urgent?” she questioned, “I don’t get it.” 

Another mother, Rosa Silva, said that she has looked for her daughter, Victoria Lizabeth Posada Silva, in mental health hospitals, police offices and prostitution houses across the country. 

It’s not uncommon that women and girls who go missing become victims of sex trafficking.

Silva joined a collective of mothers from the central state of Mexico who are looking for their children in mass graves across the country. Carrying picks and shovels, they dig holes in sometimes remote places suggested by anonymous tips or social media messages.

More than 5,500 clandestine mass graves have been found in Mexico in the last two decades — many by families of the relatives who have disappeared.

The mother of Victoria Lizabeth Posada Silva has been looking for her daughter in prostitution houses across the country because, she says, many women and girls who go missing in Mexico end up as victims of sexual trafficking.Tibisay Zea/The World

“Criminal groups often hide the bodies of their victims in clandestine graves and, in some cases, use them to dispose of the remains of those they have burned beyond recognition,” said Parker Asmann, an investigative journalist in Mexico who focuses on organized crime.

The search can be difficult, exhausting and dangerous. Several searching mothers, activists and journalists investigating the disappearance of people have been killed. 

The disappearances can be used to put pressure on the government or security forces to negotiate or act in a way that benefits organized crime,” Asmann added. Cartels often need the complicity of the authorities to be able to sustain their crime-related operations.

Relatives of the families showed banners and posters with the faces of the disappeared, pleading for any information about their fate.Tibisay Zea/The World

Unlike previous administrations, the current government has publicly recognized the scale of the crisis and strengthened search and identification efforts.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO), launched the first National Registry of the Disappeared in 2018. It now contains over 116,000 reported cases of missing people. Over 70% of the cases happened in the last 10 years.

Violent crime increased significantly around 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón launched a militarized “war on drugs.” The country started seeing gruesome crimes, including torture, decapitations and bodies hung from bridges. But disappearance can be the cruelest of all, Silva said.

“It deprives you from mourning a body. You don’t have answers or the simple certainty of death,”

Rosa Silva, mother of missing daughter, Victoria

“It’s an unimaginable pain and anguish. It deprives you from mourning a body. You don’t have answers or the simple certainty of death,” she said.

Looking for missing people is a monumental task, said Karla Quintana, former head of the government’s National Search Commission in Mexico, in a recent panel organized by Harvard University.

“There’s a lack of human and financial resources on the state and federal levels to respond to this crisis. The relatives are searching on their own,” she explained, because, in many parts of Mexico, authorities collude with the perpetrators of the disappearances.  

Even when remains are found, the task of identifying the dead can be hard. “We have a lack of forensic staff. We don’t still don’t have enough anthropologists, archeologists and criminologists.”

In June of last year, AMLO announced a “census” to review the official total of disappearances, case by case. Critics say this was a tactic to manipulate numbers and present a fictitious decrease in those missing ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.

The march concluded in Mexico’s National Palace, the official residency of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.Tibisay Zea/The World

Quintana, of the National Search Commission, resigned last summer, amid the controversy, and she told the media that “the intention [of the census] is very clear and regrettable: It’s to reduce the number of disappeared people, mainly during this government.”

Quintana added that moves by Lopez Obrador, which include laying off a significant percent of the staff of the commission, would “reverse advances” made in the effort to track down the missing and bring perpetrators to justice. In a country where nearly all violent crimes go unsolved, the missing are a testament to the inability of the government to stop violence and deliver justice.

Related: 43 students from a rural Mexican college disappeared 7 years ago. This deep dive delves into what happened to them.

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