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Image: Protest in Mexico against violence toward migrants
Marco Ugarte  /  AP
Relatives of disappeared or dead Central American migrants, one carrying a cross that reads in Spanish "No more migrants' blood," participate in the "Step by Step Caravan Towards Peace" reach in Mexico City, on Aug. 1.
By Sara Miller Llana Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor
updated 9/21/2011 5:45:33 PM ET 2011-09-21T21:45:33

Veronica Coronilla said goodbye to her husband on March 21 as he set off from their home in rural Guanajuato in central Mexico with 22 other men to enter the United States illegally to find work. It was her husband's fifth trip, so Ms. Coronilla was not worried.

But weeks went by with no word. Then news came that bus passengers were going missing in northern Mexico and that a mass grave in the state of Tamaulipas, right where he was to pass. Dread set in.

Now, months later, she still has no news of him. She doesn’t think he was in the mass grave, but is he in another? Or has he been kidnapped and forced to labor for a drug gang? Where is he?

These are the questions that plague Coronilla and thousands of others whose relatives from across Latin America have vanished in recent years as lawlessness prevails in large swaths of Mexico. Now, family members of the missing are starting to unite to call for more government action to help end the epidemic of disappearances across the country.

Recently, Coronilla, along with three other women from her hometown whose relatives are also missing, traveled to Mexico City to demand that federal authorities investigate. "If we don't do this, people will start to forget," she says.

'A humanitarian tragedy'
To be "disappeared" in Latin America carries overtones of the military dictatorships and state-sponsored repression of the 1970s and '80s that saw tens of thousands of dissidents go missing across the region. But today's disappearances, largely apolitical, terrorize civil society.

Some of Mexico's disappeared are believed to have been kidnapped by drug traffickers settling scores or beefing up their ranks. Others report that their relatives were last seen in the hands of officials, or at least by those posing in uniform. Often lines are blurry, as many authorities, particularly at the municipal level, have ties to organized crime.

“Within this context of generalized violence, one of the dramas we are living is the problem of disappearances,” says Blanca Martinez, the director of the Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios in Coahuila who has organized families looking for the missing. “We are living a humanitarian tragedy whose ends we do not know.”

Trying to put a number on how many Mexicans have disappeared among a death toll of some 40,000 in the nearly five years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent the military to fight organized crime is a dizzying affair.

The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico estimated in April that they have received 5,397 reports of missing people since December 2006. Many groups do not specify, or even know, whether the disappearances are enforced by corrupt officials or are the work of criminals. Some numbers include migrants who are missing, while others deal specifically with Mexicans.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, visiting the country in March, said in a report that among the most vulnerable in Mexico today are migrants. The National Human Rights Commission said 11,000 migrants had been kidnapped in a six-month period in 2010 alone. Javier Sicilia, a renowned poet who is leading a social movement against President Calderon’s strategy after his son was found tortured and killed this spring, calls it a Holocaust playing out on Mexican soil.

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Swells of Mexicans have gone missing, too. Ms. Martinez works with 190 families whose members have been missing since 2007. She says the vast majority are men, and that most of them were traveling at the time of their disappearances. One group of 12 men who sell house paint door-to-door, state-by-state, went missing in northern Mexico in 2009.

And the families of the missing often receive little if any support from local, state, and federal authorities. Most feel they are on their own. Many of those that Martinez works with hold out hope that the missing are still alive, perhaps forced to work for drug gangs cultivating marijuana or as henchmen. So they continue searching, gathering information where they can.

Some families are now pressing the government for an emergency national search. Nik Steinberg, Mexico expert at Human Rights Watch, says the government should also create a database to coordinate investigations between state and federal entities. As long as cases remain unsolved, he says, impunity will reign and more disappearances will occur.

Behind government's inaction
Part of the inaction in solving crimes is a prejudice that all victims are wrapped up in organized crime. "Authorities have a reflex reaction with cases of disappearances that these were all 'levantones,' perpetrated by organized crime against other members of organized crime," he says.

President Calderón, in his recent state address, announced the creation of an office for victims' assistance, after emphasizing for years that most of those counted in the death toll have criminal ties.

Activists are also trying to draw attention to the role that the state is playing in disappearances. Human Rights Watch, for example, documented over a dozen enforced disappearances in Nuevo Leon since 2007, in which the group says evidence points to the involvement of the Army, Navy, and police. In the case of bodies found in mass graves in Tamaulipas, nearly 20 municipal police officers were arrested for covering for the drug gang blamed for the mass killings.

Regardless of who is behind killings and what the motives are, the families of the missing are unable to mourn or have closure, says Julio Mata Montiel, president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained, Disappeared, and Victims of Human Rights Violations in Mexico. His group counts 4,000 missing since the beginning of the Calderon administration, and he blames authorities for many of them. He says he believes today’s violence is more damaging to the social fabric than Mexico's "dirty war" because it is not just directed at dissidents but society at large.

"They cannot bury their family member," he said. "They [deal with] uncertainty, not knowing if he is cold or warm, is alive or dead, if he is out there somewhere."

This article, "Mexican families struggle to find drug war's 'disappeared'," first appeared on CSMonitor.com.

© 2012 Christian Science Monitor

Video: Drug war leaves town in constant fear

  1. Transcript of: Drug war leaves town in constant fear

    CARL QUINTANILLA, anchor: It's been an especially bloody week south of the border in Mexico 's deadly war on drugs . Ruthless cartels have stepped up the violence, in one city in particular, ambushing police and leaving everyone to live in constant fear. NBC 's Mark Potter reports tonight on The War Next Door .

    MARK POTTER reporting: Just south of the US border, Mexico 's vicious drug war is unrelenting. Authorities say in the small town of Ascension , gunmen working for the ruthless Sinaloa drug cartel kidnapped and killed the police chief and then murdered five of his 31 men. Fearing they could be next, the town's remaining 26 officers turned in their guns and quit, leaving the town unprotected. Within 48 hours of the defections, federal soldiers were deployed to replace the local police and to try to restore order in the town which is located along a major cartel drug smuggling route into the United States . One leading analyst told Telemundo 's Julio Vacqueiro that Mexico 's war against drugs is not being won.

    Ms. ANA MARIA SALAZAR (National Defense Analyst): Probably the weakest part of the President Felipe Calderon 's strategy is that he went out after these organizations without having a criminal justice system which could investigate and prosecute them and try them.

    POTTER: The government of President Felipe Calderon , under pressure to demonstrate that it is winning the war against the cartels, paraded captured drug lords in front of the cameras last week. One man facing murder charges smiled defiantly. Guns and drugs put on display. This man called El Diego is described as one of the biggest catches of all. He is one of the most wanted men in Mexico , where authorities claim he has now confessed to masterminding 1500 killings in Juarez , Mexico 's murder capital. Despite the high-profile arrests, savage gang violence claimed at least nine new victims this weekend.

    Colonel JACK JACOBS, Retired (NBC News Military Analyst): The only thing that will stop them is themselves, I mean, become so viral that they'll kill themselves off. But in the process, many, many, many innocent people will be killed.

    POTTER: It's a war that has now claimed 40,000 lives in the last five years . Mark Potter , NBC News, Miami.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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