Posted: February 20, 2013
More than 60,000 people have died in Mexico's war on drugs over the past six years. But that statistic tells only part of the story. Human-rights groups say thousands more, as many as 25,000 people, have vanished — many at the hands of Mexico's security forces.
A woman holds a sign that reads, "We demand justice after two years," during a Jan. 11 protest outside the government palace in Monterrey denouncing the disappearance of family members in the state of Nuevo Leon.
Janet Olazaran Banderas says her husband, seen with her in the photograph, was picked up by transit police two years ago for parking on the wrong side of the street. She never saw him again.
Maximina Hernandez says she begged her 23-year old son, Dionicio, to give up his job as a police officer in a suburb of Monterrey. Rival drug cartels have been battling in the northern Mexican city for years.
But he told her being a police officer was in his blood, a family tradition. He was detailed to guard the town's mayor.
In May 2007, on his way to work, two men wearing police uniforms stopped Dionicio on a busy street, pulled him from his car and drove him away. That same day, the mayor's other two bodyguards were also abducted. Witnesses say the kidnappers wore uniforms of an elite anti-drug police unit. The three men haven't been seen since.
'It's So Bleak'
At a weekly meeting at a downtown Monterrey human-rights center, relatives of the disappeared hold hands and pray. There is no shortage of heartbreaking stories here, says Sister Consuelo Morales Elizondo.
Morales is a petite woman. A large cross hangs from her neck. She's been a thorn in the side of authorities in Monterrey, pushing officials to do more to aid relatives of the disappeared.
"What is happening to us here in Mexico these past years, the thousands of disappeared, it is so painful, it's so bleak," she says in Spanish. "We have to stick together for the family members that are left behind. They are the ones who suffer the most."
Family members are left with many questions: not only who took their loved ones but why. The motives for disappearances are murky, sometimes involving drug traffickers, sometimes state security forces, or both.
Hernandez says she was so frustrated with a local investigator, she told him to get out of his chair and get to work.
"I told him you never leave the office; I always see you here drinking your soda, with your feet up, eating your chicken — no one is looking for my son," she says in Spanish.
She says that's when the investigator threatened her.
"He said I better shut my trap or they would shut it for me," she says. "I told him if he wasn't going to do his job then get out of the way and let someone else do it."
Many families complain that authorities require relatives to do the bulk of the investigating.
That's not true, says Javier Enrique Flores Saldiva, the assistant attorney general for the state of Nuevo Leon. Monterrey is the state's capital.
Flores says he can't comment on specific cases, but he says his investigators have gotten results and are setting an example for the rest of the country on how to work with victim's groups.
Nuevo Leon has done more than other states when it comes to solving cases of disappeared, says Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch. But, he adds, that is not much of a compliment given that the vast majority of cases in the state remain unsolved.
The New York-based group released a report Wednesday documenting hundreds of disappeared cases throughout Mexico. Steinberg says the numbers are staggering: around 25,000.
"With a number that high, we are dealing with a crisis of disappearance in Mexico that is nothing like anything we've seen in Latin America in decades," he says.
Human Rights Watch says many disappearances occur at the hands of security forces. That's what happened in the case of Jehu Sepulveda Garza.
At his family's modest home in a Monterrey suburb, his mother, Elba Garza, breaks down at the dinning room table. She says her son was a good man, that it's just not fair.
His wife of six months, Janet Olazaran Banderas, says her husband was picked up two years ago by local transit cops for parking on the wrong side of the street. He was taken to the local station where she was able to reach him on his cell. He told her not to worry.
When she called back 15 minutes later, he didn't answer. A videotape at the station shows her husband being handed over to state police; from there they believe he was transferred to the navy. None of the police forces will say what happened next, and like thousands his case remains open and unsolved.
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