Mothers of missing persons in Mexico use social media to search for mass graves
Mexico has long struggled with a history of kidnapping. As of October 5 – 105,984 people. officially listed as missing in Mexico. More than a third have disappeared in the past few years, under the current government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO. Many of the missing are believed to have been abducted or forcibly recruited by criminal organizations. Most of them are probably dead, their remains buried in secret graves in rural areas, neighborhoods and farmlands, or scattered across a vast unoccupied area near the US-Mexico border. Some may be among more than 52,000 unidentified bodies lying in morgues, mass graves and universities. About a quarter are women and girls, most likely victims of sexual exploitation, human trafficking or femicide.
Unlike previous administrations, the AMLO government has publicly acknowledged the extent of the crisis and stepped up search and identification efforts. In March 2019, the National Search System was launched, a mechanism designed to coordinate the efforts of state bodies to search for missing persons. When the system was launched, Carla Quintana, head of the National Tracing Commission, recognized the work the families did on the land “virtually alone for many years”. She promised, “Never alone again.”
But the authorities have not yet decided to get involved in the search for the missing. And so the task continues to fall on families. Much of the work they do now takes place on social media, where people widely share photos of missing relatives, coordinate search efforts and raise awareness of the issue. Via WhatsApp, Twitter and facebook, Madres Buscadoras has created a platform to engage citizens and work to speed up the search for the missing. Every day, the group receives information about missing people and the location of possible graves – there are so many of them that they do not have the resources to investigate them all.
The work is not without problems. When Madres Buscadoras began searching for the bodies in Chulavista, they were closely watched and photographed by local authorities. After the team met with the governor of the state of Jalisco, the local police joined the search the next day. In the end, Madres Buscadoras found 221 giant garbage bags with body parts. By April, prosecutors said the official death toll had reached 44 bodies, and the packages had yet to be processed.
Families that conduct their own investigations may face opposition and threats from both organized crime and government officials who may collude with organized crime and may not like the optics of missing persons in their area. Under the historic General Law on Enforced Disappearances, which was passed in 2017 after pressure from families, authorities must take immediate steps to find the missing person and investigate the crime, but this is still not a reality for thousands of families. “Although the situation has changed a bit, the authorities have always had the same situation. They brush it off, saying, “It doesn’t depend on us, it depends on others,” says Martin Villalobos, a member of the National Council of Citizens, an advisory body to the National Search Engine.
But other parts of Mexican society are now responding to the families’ plight. “Social media works very well here. The people have been very supportive of us, even though they don’t have missing relatives,” says Aracely Hernandez, who used to be a member of the Madres Buscadoras core group but recently formed a new collective. “The very fact that we listen to the pain of the mother, aunt, makes them support us with tools, food, water, Gatorades and tons of information. It makes us hold on tight.”
Let’s get together
On October 30, 2015, Ceci Flores’ 21-year-old son, Alejandro Guadalupe, disappeared without a trace in the city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa. Less than four years later, on May 4, 2019, hitmen abducted her other two sons — Marco Antonio and Jesus Adrian — in her home state of Sonora.