May 10th is Mothers Day in México, and this year, relatives marched throughout the country with banners and photographs of loved ones who have been disappeared. Led by mothers who cannot grieve the loss of their children, the holiday is filled with protest and pain.

Some of the victims were taken off the street, never to be seen again. 

Silvia Stephanie Sánchez Viesca Ortíz was just 16 years old when she was disappeared while walking to a bus stop near her home in the northern city of Torreón, Coahuila in 2004. Her mother Silvia Ortíz went on to found Grupo VIDA, a search and support group for families of the disappeared.

Paloma Escobar Ledezma, was disappeared in 2002 as she walked to school in the city of Chihuahua. She was found violently murdered 27 days later, after searches led by her family. Her mother Norma Ledezma went back to university, became a lawyer and founded Justice for our Daughters to support families in similar situations.

Last week, the number of people disappeared in Mexico surpassed 100,000. Most of the disappearances have taken place in the context of the War on Drugs, which was launched by former President Felipe Calderón in December of 2006. 

On average, 25 people are disappeared every day in Mexico. Since Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office on December 1, 2018, that number has topped 30,000 in total.

Over the past six years, I have spoken with families of the disappeared, and accompanied them in searches in different parts of Mexico. Though their cases differ, they all agree that state and federal governments are not doing enough to help find their disappeared relatives. 

Two women sift through bone fragments in Yecapixtla, Morelos during the Sixth National Search Brigade, November 24, 2021. Photo: Dawn Marie Paley.

Search groups seek to go under the ground

Government inaction has led to the formation of more than 160 search collectives, autonomous groups of family members who share the burden of searching for the disappeared. They follow anonymous tips about where they might find human remains, and spend days and weeks in extreme conditions, scouring deserts and digging into volcanic soils seeking human remains.

Searchers in the state of Nuevo León in the northeast of Mexico have taken advantage of a recent drought to search for bodies in depleted reservoirs. In coastal states like Veracruz and Sonora, search groups use boats to comb for corpses left in mangroves and dumped at sea. 

Families in Chihuahua state have found remains that correspond to over a dozen bodies in an abandoned mine, and are pushing authorities to grant them access to three more, including one previously owned by a Vancouver company called Kimber Resources Inc. 

The state of Chihuahua is a major producer of gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper. Over one tenth of the state’s territory is concessioned to mining companies.

Once the precious metals run out, mines are left abandoned, sometimes in dangerous conditions. “The abandoned mines have been used by people who are part of various organized crime groups—we are aware of 10 such groups in the state—as places to dispose of human bodies,” said Norma Ledezma. “We don’t have a specialized group of people able to lower themselves into mine shafts that are 100 to 200 meters deep.”

The goal of the searches is to retrieve bodies or bone fragments and produce a DNA match with the family of someone who is disappeared. México’s forensic system is in crisis, which means that over 52,000 bodies in state custody have yet to be identified. Thousands of bone fragments found by search groups in hopes of a match are in limbo, and have yet to undergo genetic analysis.

Families also lead searches in hospitals and prisons, and visit brothels and nightclubs where they believe women are being trafficked. Earlier this month, a caravan of mostly Central American mothers traversed Mexico, searching for their children who disappeared while migrating north.

Families of the disappeared protest government inaction in the city of Puebla on May 10, 2022, which is Mother’s Day in México. Photo: Dawn Marie Paley.

Understanding disappearance

Current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador made bringing justice for the families of disappeared students a central promise of his 2018 campaign. 

The 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School had been detained by police before being disappeared.

In March, a new investigation revealed the army was monitoring the students and members of the Marines tampering with the crime scene. 

But almost eight years after their disappearance, the whereabouts of the students’ are still unknown.

Then there’s the case of Pedro Carrizales, a former legislator elected as part of López Obrador’s ruling coalition in 2018. Carrizales was an outspoken, formerly incarcerated activist who spoke directly to the problems facing marginalized youth in Mexico.

The last time Carrizales made contact with his family was in February, when he told them he had been detained by Coahuila state police. He was disappeared for 30 days before authorities revealed they were in possession of his vehicle and his charred remains. They claimed he had been the victim of a car accident.

Yet others were snatched from their homes, sometimes by members of state security forces. This is what happened to José Daniel Trejo García, who was dragged out of his bed by Mexican Marines on the night of March 27, 2018. His wife has spearheaded a campaign for his return ever since.

Candles lit by family members of the disappeared. Torreón, Coahuila, December 3, 2017. Photo: Dawn Marie Paley.

Ottawa’s silence

Though López Obrador’s government has shifted the way the War on Drugs is talked about, violence has not eased under his watch. The government’s security strategy continues to be based on military and National Guard patrols, justified in the name of stopping the northward flow of narcotics.

An April report by the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearance found that impunity in cases of disappearance is structural, that Mexican security forces continue to be involved in serious violations of human rights, and that a prevention strategy is urgently needed.

As Mexico passed the grim milestone of 100,000 disappeared, Ottawa has preferred to ignore the issue. 

Instead, the emphasis of the Trudeau government in Mexico has been on ensuring the rights of energy companies and monitoring the state of the automotive industry under the new Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement. The focus on corporate needs over human rights echoes the Canadian government’s priorities—and actions—at home.

In a briefing prepared for the Prime Minister before a call with López Obrador last fall, Justin Trudeau’s advisors spoke of Mexico as a place that shares Canada’s commitment to “equity, diversity and inclusion, including by adopting feminist policies,” and to “recognizing the importance of empowering Indigenous peoples.”

The crisis of disappearance makes it clear that in practice, Mexico is falling well short of these commitments. 

But Ottawa’s silence on gross rights violations in Mexico speaks to something much deeper than a foreign policy misstep. Instead, it reflects Canada’s own failure to respond to disappearance domestically, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples. 

The central issue for families of the disappeared is the return of their loved one, but prevention and non-repetition are also key. 

Until Canada fulfills the recommendations of the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, it will remain complicit in disappearance. 

Activists in México accuse the government of failing to prevent disappearance, and signal a lack of political will to deal with a national tragedy.

“The strategies for searching for the disappeared aren’t effective, and there haven’t been strategies put in place to prevent these crimes from continuing,” Ledezma told The Breach. “It’s terrifying, it’s an atrocity, it’s a terrible situation: the Mexican government hasn’t shown that it can, or that it cares to, deal with this problem.”

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