Mexico: Families of missing people join volunteer search brigades

Tijuana, Mexico – A convoy of Mexican law enforcement vehicles drove through the dusty roads of Valle de Las Palmas, near the Mexico-US border, escorting a bus of volunteers armed with shovels and dressed to withstand the blistering heat.

The group of about 30 volunteers, including relatives of missing people, were preparing to make their way through the thicket, up and down the hills, in search of loved ones. The expedition in Baja California, ranked as Mexico’s most violent state, was part of a larger search effort that drew dozens of volunteers last month.

“One sees it as a family. It unites us all in the same pain,” said Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, whose son disappeared in 2020.

After joining the search brigades, Sanchez found her son’s body the following year; today, she participates in the annual, statewide effort “to support my fellow women who still cannot find their missing children”, she told Al Jazeera.

Some of the volunteers are dedicated to “field searches”, which entail looking for bones and other human remains that could be buried or hidden outdoors.

Others conduct “live searches”, focusing on sites such as jails, rehabilitation centres and morgues, in an effort to find people who have gone missing – both those who are still alive but difficult to reach, and people who have died and been buried without proper identification.

During the two-week effort last month, volunteers in the field found five instances of human remains, while those conducting live searches were able to identify three bodies found in mass graves, Angelica Ramirez, one of the coordinators of the brigades, told Al Jazeera.

A person searches for missing family members in the Valle de las Palmas area in the 4th Baja California state brigade in the city of Tijuana, Mexico
Institutional failure
According to official data, more than 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 1964, with the vast majority of cases occurring since former President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs and organised crime in 2006.
In Baja California alone, more than 14,000 have reportedly gone missing in the past 15 years.
That number includes two of Barbara Martinez’s sons, one of whom was “taken by organised crime” in 2018 in Tijuana. Her other son was arrested by municipal police officers in 2020 and has not been seen since, she told Al Jazeera.

“I spoke to a witness, and the witness said that my son fell on gravel, and the policeman shot him in the leg,” Martinez said, adding that she personally collected her son’s blood at the alleged scene after forensic services said they could not get a usable sample. A DNA test confirmed the blood belonged to her son, but police have taken no further action in the case, she said.

The Baja California State Human Rights Commission has reported on the failure of government institutions to act on thousands of missing persons cases.

The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances has gone further, noting that “acts of enforced disappearance continue to be committed directly by public officials at the federal, state and municipal levels”, amid “various forms of collusion” between organised crime and public officials.

‘We have to take the risk’

Carlos Ivan Robles, a forensic archaeologist hired by the government to assist with the April search efforts, said such endeavours are hampered by a lack of resources. “Work is overwhelming for all of us, all over Mexico, not only in Baja California,” Robles told Al Jazeera.

Forensic archaeologists should be in charge of analysing cases that involve bones found in clandestine graves, he said, but there are not enough experts in the field and the work is often handed off to other forensics teams.

Portrait of Barbara Martinez who belongs to the 4th state brigade of Baja California, in which they search for missing persons
Barbara Martinez says the search for two of her sons, who disappeared in 2018 and 2020, respectively, is extremely challenging [Nazuu/ Afrinesia Tv]

According to the human rights organisation Elementa, as of March 2022, the state forensic medical service in Baja California had collected more than 11,000 unidentified bodies and bones from mass graves.

During the search brigades, volunteers examined photos of unidentified bodies to determine whether their missing relatives were among the dead. DNA testing can be done to confirm a potential match.

For Martinez, the search for her two sons continues to this day, and it has brought many challenges. She used to work in a factory, but lost her job after joining the search brigades.

“You start asking for permission at work to go on searches, and they say yes the first time, but then they say no, and you get fired,” she said. Today, she sells clothes that are donated to her by friends and family, in order to earn a meagre income to support her 11-year-old son.

Several women who participated in the April searches told Al Jazeera that these efforts came with serious risks, including being chased away from search sites at gunpoint.

“Even if it is dangerous, we have to take the risk, because as a mother, we will not leave our children stranded,” said Ana Ruth Cuellar, who came to Mexico from El Salvador to look for her missing son. “We are here until we find them.”

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