Tag Archives: disappeared

Real Stories of Mexico’s Missing — Searching for His Sister: Carlitos Looks Among Human Remains in Mexico, by Javier Valdez Cárdenas

Real Stories of Mexico’s Disappeared: Carlitos and the Search Among Human Remains for His Missing Sister

By Javier Valdez Cárdenas, Correspondent (La Jornada)


Around 60 search party members from 11 states in Mexico look for missing or disappeared people in the towns of El Quelite in Mazatlán and Sataya in Navolato. Photograph by Javier Valdez. Published in La Jornada.

Culiacán, February 8, 2017—Carlitos says that he loves his sister and that he is not going to leave her unprotected. At his tender age he already feels guilty for something he did not do, for having failed to take care of and protect Zoé Zuleika. She has been missing for a year.

Carlitos – that’s what we’ll call him – is barely eight years old and he searches for missing people: a searcher of human remains who carries a small staff and pickaxe. His grey and black striped sweater keeps him from the morning chill. He is Mexico’s youngest searcher of the disappeared.

When you ask him what he is going to say to his sister when he sees her again, the boy answers: That I love her; that I am going to protect her. Around the Navolato community of San Pedro, in the deciduous forest, the little one looks among whoever’s human remains, but really he’s searching for his sister.

With blows from his staff and still more from his pickaxe he looks for Zoe like someone who knows he will find her. His lively, black eyes light up like fireflies and he smiles when he thinks about her.

The last time he saw her, he remembers, was a year ago in his father’s truck, in Soledad, a town in San Luis Potosí.

He says that when he finds her he is going to protect her, including from his father whom he suspects took her. Carolina Gómez Rocha, 40, is mother to both children. She comes from San Luis Potosí, and she searches for missing people, even though she realizes it is unlikely she will find Zoé in the state of Sinaloa.

I do these searches to strengthen the families who are here searching, not to find my daughter. I know that she is alive. I am her mother and my heart tells me so. I am here to support the cause. It has been an immense experience, and yes it does help me, it strengthens me, she says. She’s a few yards from the Culiacán River, between the sand sifters and the cornfields.

She has four children: 8, 18, 20, and Zoé, 6. The youngest worry her and give her hope. The day Zoé disappeared Carolina’s family had gone to a party. They went at the insistence of her father in law.

The girl, who was already tired, fell asleep in her father’s truck. A few minutes after midnight they decided to leave but the young girl was not there anymore.

Safety Belt

Carolina and even Carlitos suspect his father. He does not ask about the girl. He has not joined in the searches or gone to the authorities even after they filed the criminal complaint. Her husband’s family acts just the same: indifferent. That’s why they don’t dismiss the idea that they have Zoé or know where she is.

Less than a kilometer from where the search party is looking, the prosecutor set up a roadblock. Two women police officers approach, ask questions in a friendly way, and allow or deny entry. Few get close. Further on, where they are conducting the search, there are four federal police patrol cars. They have dogs with them, dogs trained to search for human remains, and experts with their kit.

About thirty members of the Third National Search Party have come together to excavate and ask questions. This search will last two weeks. A Catholic priest is participating, as are many young women and several members of the Marabunta organization. Most of them wear white shirts with black text: Where are they?

According to statistics from the state prosecutor, around 2,200 people disappeared in Sinaloa during the last six years, the period when Mario López Valdez was governor. His term ended last December.

Some searchers look near the heavy machinery. Others go to another site in the truck belonging to the prosecutor’s forensic team. Still others seek shade under the poplars.

They laugh. They poke risqué fun at the young priest, circling in on each other. Even during the search there is time for fun yet memories still weigh heavy.

They are more than 60 searchers from 11 states. Right now they are looking for human remains in two graves: in El Quelite in Mazatlán, and in Sataya, Navolato. They have managed to unearth one body. It still has not been identified.

Some yards away, in an overgrown corner, Lucas, the police dog, digs again and again. So much so that it looks like he’s playing. The agents say he lifts his ears and his tail goes straight and he goes stiff when he finds human remains. He doesn’t do any of that today.

There’s Carlitos. With his staff and his pickaxe. Sometimes he wants to leave and attaches himself to his mother’s skirt. The two bob through the mess of dry branches, big leaves and uneven earth. It looks like they are crossing a swamp but they emerge clean.

After his sister disappeared, the boy went through a bad time at school. He enjoys math: but his grades went from 9s and 10s to 6s and 7s.

He carries himself aggressively. He locks himself in his room. He throws himself on his bed and cries, all the while clutching a photo of Zoé. He speaks to her. He cries over her. That’s why he goes to therapy. He falls down and het gets up. Here he raises his staff and plunges it into the ground.

– When you speak with your sister, what will you tell her?

– I will tell her I love her and I miss her and that I will protect her. That I can take care of her. That I won’t let my father leave her in his truck.

Award winning Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was murdered on May 15, 2017 just after leaving Ríodocea newspaper he helped establish in Culiacán, Sinaloa. He was 50 years old. He published this story in La Jornada on February 8, 2017. His most recent book (previously published in Spanish as Levantones), appears in English translation and with an introduction to Sinaloa by Everard Meade as The Taken: True Stories of the Sinaloa Drug War,  published earlier this year by University of Oklahoma Press.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator in the Americas, an investigative journalist, and historian. NACLA, the CPJ BlogThe Texas Observer, and CounterPunch have published his writing.

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Missing in Mexico: Tales from Death Highway — Stretch of Veracruz Highway Serves as Dump for Bodies of the Executed (Hernán Villareal Cruz, DIARIO PRESENCIA)

This article first appeared in Diario Presencia on 18 February 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

Missing in Mexico: Tales from Death Highway — Stretch of Veracruz Highway Serves as Dump for Bodies of the Executed
By Hernán Villareal Cruz (Diario Presencia)

– Taxi drivers, teachers, union leaders, and lookouts for organized crime, just some of the victims found in the last ten months on this stretch of highway near Las Choapas, Veracruz

Over the past few months, criminal groups operating in the state’s southern town-ships – among them the towns of Las Choapas and Agua Dulce – have used the stretch of highway between Paralelo and Coatzacoalcos to dump bodies, many of them decapitated. Searching newspaper archives for an estimate of their number yields a statistic of at least a dozen victims.

The area around El Paralelo, from the Las Choapas junction to before the Madisa industrial zone, already sets off alarms about violence and insecurity. But this year the number of execution victims is increasing, without anybody being arrested for them.

The lack of patrols and darkness are key factors that have turned this highway into an ideal place for organized and common criminals to execute or “get rid of” victims. Nobody catches them in the act. In the first part of this year, at least five bodies have been found, one of them a female is as yet unidentified.

The number of dead can only be documented because they have appeared: beheaded beside the road, thrown down ravines, on neighborhood roads or between lots.

Counting up the Bodies

On 13 March 2013, human remains belonging to a man were found inside a black bag on one side of the Coatzacoalcos-Paralelo highway around 32 kms from Agua Dulce town-ship.

The victim has never been identified. Forensic studies show that he could have been murdered. A .45 calibre bullet casing was found in the same place.

Size 32 blue denim pants were found at the crime scene, along with a Hugo Boss belt, a military green t-shirt, white socks, and grey sports boxers.

On Tuesday 1 October 2013, on the same stretch of highway around the garbage dump, a body appeared – covered in blood with a face bound with brown tape, hands and feet tied.

The victim turned out to be 29 year-old Samuel Méndez Martínez, resident of the El Muelle neighbourhood in Agua Dulce. For a time he had worked at the Rabasa oil well. His body showed signs of torture and his death resulted from blows that caused immense bleeding and possible brain trauma.

Union Leaders

On Wednesday 18 October 2013, the leader of the Authentic Federation of Veracruz State Workers (FATEV), Adolfo Sastré Palacios and another worker later identified as Darwin de la Cruz Sarauz, both of whom had been reported missing, were found executed in a clandestine grave near the Rabasa oil well.

Investigations reveal that first they were tortured on a highway stop on the Coatzacoalcos-Paralelo highway. Then their bodies were driven to a lot for burial at the 5.5 kms point on the old highway between Coatzacoalcos Agua Dulce. They were decapitated before burial.

In the murder of the union leader, investigators opened two lines of inquiry: rivalry between the Las Choapas and Agua Dulce unions, and extortion or collection of a turf fee for companies that work for PEMEX, the country’s state-owned oil company.

Two teachers and a taxi driver

On 1 November 2013, workers at a ranch located at the 21km mark on the Coatzacoalcos-Paralelo highway saw a taxi in the undergrowth and a bloodstained trunk area. They got close enough to see a decapitated body. Its head was between its legs.

When the authorities checked over taxi 135 from Agua Dulce, they discovered another body in the trunk. A little while afterwards that body was identified as Juan Felipe Nájera Sánchez, a driver of for-hire vehicles.

On 2 February 2014, the second body was identified. It was that of a teacher, Irving Alor Santander, who had been murdered and decapitated.

Meanwhile, on 4 November 2013, on the side of the same highway, around the 24km mark, the body of a teacher resident in Coatzacoalcos appeared.

They were Members of the Teachers’ Movement in Veracruz (MMPV)

His father, Amílcar Humberto Morales Briones, identified that body. The last time the father heard of his son’s whereabouts he was roaming around in a taxi, drinking with teacher Irving Santander.

Both Irving Santander and Álvaro Montes took part in the seizure of tollbooths in protest against the federal government’s educational reforms. They participated in the Veracruz Teachers’ Movement (MMPV), fighting to prevent secondary legislation and changes to Mexico’s constitution.

Another Taxi Driver

On 11 February 2014, a taxi driver who had disappeared for five days was found decapitated on the other side of the same stretch of highway, this time going in the direction to Villahermosa from Coatzacoalcos. The head was not found. Forensic investigators and the public prosecutor took the remains of the body.

The victim was identified as Otoniel Fabre Torres, 28 years old, who lived in the Centro neighborhood of Agua Dulce. His relatives reported that he had been missing since 6 February. He left his house around 20:00 that night. He never returned.

And a woman

Last 12 February the body of a woman was discovered. It was obvious she had been murdered. Her body was found to one side of the stretch of highway from Coatzacoalcos to Paralelo, around the 6.1km mark. Her body was in an advanced state of decomposition. She had a cloth wrapped around her head.

Owing to the body’s obvious decay, her age could not be calculated. Since a cloth covered her face, there’s an assumption that she had been dumped in that place for at least three days. She still has not been legally identified.

Most recently, on 14 February, a person of indeterminate sex was found. Again, the body was in an advanced state of decomposition. The body was discovered in a bag in a ravine around kilometer 20 of the Coatzacoalcos-Paralelo highway.

Judicial sources revealed that they had only found the body’s limbs, and that they were in an advanced state of decay.

And Those Still Missing…

It’s important to mention that these are only the cases that have come to light in the past few months. The authorities are aware that a large number of people have disappeared and their whereabouts remain unknown.

The Veracruz State Public Prosecutor’s office in Las Choapas currently reports six disappeared people, the result of a round-up by alleged judicial authorities driving around in a white truck last Tuesday, 11 February. But until now, no authorities admit to having detained these disappeared people. A fifteen year old girl is among those missing.

Reporter Hernán Villareal Cruz is one of Mexico’s at-risk journalists. He writes for Diario Presencia in Veracruz. This story first appeared under the title, “Tiradero de ejecutados tramo Paralelo-Coatza,” and is available at: http://diariopresencia.com/nota.aspx?ID=68977&List=%7BE99F52BD-B89D-4D80-A5BB-BCD1566AE98A%7D.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.

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Missing in Mexico: For Victims of Disappearances, Farce over Narco-graves Provokes Rupture with Coahuila’s State Government (Inés Santaeulalia, EL PAÍS)

This article first appeared in El País on 11 February 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

For Victims of Disappearances, Farce over Narco-graves Provokes Rupture with Coahuila’s State Government
by Inés Santaeulalia (EL PAÍS)

–        Relatives of the disappeared clash with authorities in the northern Mexican state after an alleged operation to find missing people

Mexico is missing 26,000 Mexicans. The anguish of their families puts a face to a debt blighting the country: Mexico has as yet been unable to explain its disappeared peoples’ whereabouts. The latest blow to victims comes from Coahuila State, in the country’s north, a place punished by violence from organized crime between 2006 and 2012. The recent discovery of various narco-graves with human remains resurrected families’ hopes and fears, but it’s been accompanied by confusing, even contradictory information from the state government, causing victims’ patience to evaporate. The United Force for Coahuila’s Disappeared (Fuundec), the country’s largest such association, decided to cease its dialogue with authorities for the first time in four years. “It has all been one big farce,” summarized Rosario Villanueva. She has been looking for her son since 2009.

In Coahuila, a photo in last week’s newspapers stirred up the victims’ tense wait for word about their loved ones. Families learned through the press that the state government had found several narco-graves. Nobody wants to talk about it, but an awful question popped into peoples’ heads: “Could it be my relative?” The authorities – even including Governor Rubén Moreira – sat down last week with Fuundec’s members to inform them about what the press was reporting as “the first large-scale national operation” to look for missing people. By Monday, he had changed his message: Moreira now talks about “small finds.”

“The governor was asked if they were following the appropriate search protocols, and he said they had been taking care with the remains, but that’s all a lie,” explains Villanueva. Images spring to mind of heavy machinery working the ranches where organized crime supposedly buried the victims — the US Spanish-language channel, Univision, filmed the operation in Allende (about 60kms from the US border). “Do you know what they do when they find dinosaur remains? They use brushes and a great deal of care so as not to break anything. Here they turn over the ground when they look for people,” complained Raúl Reyes who has been looking for his thirty-four year old son Raúl Ignacio since April 2009.

The deputy prosecutor for missing people, and the head of the alleged operation, Juan José Yáñez, told this newspaper that 250 people were participating in the operation. The personnel were drawn from the state and federal police, and the army “to comb” an unknown number of ranches in 11 townships. Coahuila is the country’s third largest state and occupies 150,000 square kms. Yáñez stated that the procedure used was to “prick the earth” with sticks so that sniffer dogs could smell for human remains. The operation also used radar for underground mapping.

Last Wednesday EL PAÍS traveled to Coahuila on the state government’s promise to provide access to the operation then underway in the city of Monclova. But unexpectedly the day before our arrival, the authorities said that the operation had finished. In spite of a request, officials would not provide a map of the work areas and they refused to show any discovered remains that had supposedly arrived that same day in the forensic medical service (SEMEFO). This newspaper could find no evidence an operation existed beyond the testimony of state authorities.

The state’s attorney general and the deputy prosecutor explained that they found bones, burnt remains, and various drums that criminals used to make bodies disappear by reducing them to ashes. This information contradicted information given by Coahuila’s governor on Monday. “There are bodies that are never going to be identified,” Yáñez remarked. The DNA analyses of the supposed human remains will take months but the families’ mistrust of the authorities began in no time. “Even if they say they are ours, we won’t accept it because we need proof. We don’t just want bodies returned to us to make the problem go away. We want to know about everything right up until the end: who disappeared them, and why,” said Mr. Reyes.

Coahuila’s government says that the graves were discovered as a result of information obtained during interrogations and detentions, from statements made by mayors, former mayors, and officials from the 11 townships under search. Citizens sent in anonymous tip offs in response to a flyer asking for cooperation in locating the disappeared.

Media outlets slowly leaked news about the operation until last Saturday when the newspaper, El Siglo de Torreón, published the deputy prosecutor’s statement that 500 human remains had been discovered in graves. The very same Yáñez then denied that information to this newspaper. “I never spoke of numbers. The bones could come from just one person,” he said in a phone call.

Coahuila has a population of 2.7 million inhabitants, and lived through an escalation of violence during Humberto Moreira’s governorship (2006 – 2011), brother of the current incumbent and nominated as national PRI president in 2011. Months later Humberto Moreira was removed for an illegal increase in the state budget during his term in office. State authorities say the violence began to decrease in 2011 and that the region has calmed. The state attorney general, Homero Ramos, remembers that in 2011 they fired 33percent of the state police force for corruption and ties to the narco. “Previously we had to combat organized crime. Now we are going after common criminals,” he says.

The debt to the disappeared remains outstanding. The state purports to be one of the few in the country that has “recognized the problem.” As such, in 2011 it created a deputy prosecutor’s office for missing people. It says that it has a full database of the missing, that it has gathered DNA samples, and that it meets twice a month with victims’ families to inform them of any advances in the search for their loved ones. The last of these meetings occurred on Saturday. After the meeting, Fuundec decided to get up from the table and issued a press release. “Fuundec categorically rejects the operation, doubts its results, and is suspending meetings with the state until those responsible … explain publicly and transparently what happened.”

“We feel deceived by the authorities. They make promises, but they never investigate. In three years and nine months they have never offered a single result. We don’t want dead people, we want them back alive,” says Mireia Villareal, the mother of the Cantú brothers. Villareal pounded on the trucks that carried her sons away early one morning in 2011. The two twenty-year olds, Lauro and his brother Jorge, were abducted from their home in Torreón, Coahuila by some men “dressed like soldiers” as their mother wept disconsolately after them.

Others simply disappeared without even a “so long or goodbye.” Four years ago, José Alberto Cerda left his house one morning to head for Monterrey to fix his car. Claudia Risada (25) left her son with her mother and said she was going out to eat with her boyfriend one night in 2011. One afternoon in 2009, Antonio Jaime Aldaco (40) went to buy some cigarettes a few blocks from his house in Saltillo. That’s how they were last seen. In Coahuila there are 1,665 lives on hold.

Journalist Inés Santaeulalia reports on Mexico for El País. This article first appeared under the title, “ Las victimas rompen con el Gobierno de Coahuila por la “farsa” de narcofosas,” available at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/02/10/actualidad/1392064501_991971.html. A photo gallery by staff photographer Saúl Ruiz accompanies the story.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.

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