Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Mexico's drug war disappearances leave families in anguish

Sunday, March 6, 2011 |

Thousands of people have vanished without a trace – some caught up in violence, others for no reason anyone can fathom. Relatives remain in agonized limbo.

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times


They had scraped together money for a vacation in the port city of Veracruz. Four couples, owners of small fruit and taco shops, from the quiet state of Guanajuato.

After checking in to their hotel and spending the day by the pool with their children, the husbands wandered off, still in their shorts, to buy ice at a nearby 7-Eleven. Maybe they decided to pop into a bar, one the hotel guard recommended.

At first, the wives weren't too worried when the men didn't come back. Even the next morning, the women figured they had tied one on and slept it off somewhere. They took their children on a tour of the city. But by nightfall, the wives became nervous, and as cellphone calls went unanswered, they became terrified.

Where were their husbands?

That was nearly a year ago. The four men have not been seen since. Their families have received no ransom demand, no information, no clues whatsoever. Their bodies have not turned up.

"It was as if the earth swallowed them," one of the wives said in an interview.

In a chilling byproduct of the drug war raging in Mexico, thousands of people have disappeared. Not killed, as far as is known; not taken for ransom. Simply vanished, leaving families desperate and broken, and a society confused and frightened.

Some are low-level drug gangsters "lifted," to use the local vernacular, by rivals, then killed and dumped in secret mass graves. Some are last seen in the hands of the military or police, picked up for questioning, fates unknown. Thousands of others are immigrants who can't pay their smugglers.

And some, in the most unsettling instances, disappear for reasons no one can fathom.




Families tell themselves their loved ones were taken by traffickers and forced into slave labor in marijuana fields and methamphetamine labs. It may be true in some cases, but more often it is a form of self-deluding comfort.

The disappearances are a disturbing echo of a tactic employed by dictatorships in the so-called dirty wars that plagued parts of Latin America in the last half of the 20th century.

Whether practiced by governments or by criminals, it is a form of control and intimidation that in some ways has an even more profound effect on society because it is an "ambiguous loss," said psychologist Carlos Beristain, a Spaniard who has counseled families of the missing throughout the region.

Few cases are ever resolved, with authorities overwhelmed by record-high killings. Senseless brutality engulfs families in uncertainty, leaving them unable to mourn, unable to move on. It is a wound, as many put it, that does not stop bleeding.

A state of limbo

The couples who traveled to Veracruz were on a long-anticipated vacation last May, with 10 children among them, staying at the Howard Johnson hotel in the lively port city and popular tourist destination. The men were in their late 30s, early 40s. They were wearing shorts, sandals and the red wristbands that showed they were hotel guests when they ventured out that last night.

"We never imagined it would be dangerous," one of the wives said. She asked her name not be published out of reluctance to antagonize authorities who initially showed interest in the case but have since moved on to other crimes, including more than 300 other disappearances in Veracruz.

Their wives frantically searched for them in the days that followed, driving all over the city, reporting to every police station, the Red Cross, hospitals, the military and the local television station. They dialed their husbands' cellphones, but there were no answers. Weeks turned to months. Nothing.

The only clue came when one of the men's ATM cards was used two days after the disappearance. And someone told them the bar that the men might have gone to, New Fantasy, was a den of danger, full of "narcos."

Reyna Estrada's husband vanished with 11 others two years ago when they were on a trip to the northern border state of Coahuila to sell paint.

She says the families have been left in a state of limbo.

"You aren't a widow. You aren't a wife. My husband simply is not here," she said. "You cannot mourn."

Estrada's husband, Jaime Ramirez, traveled with the 11 other men from their homes in the state of Mexico, a couple of hours outside Mexico City, to a small Coahuila town called Piedras Negras. Vendors of house paint and other construction supplies, they were on a sales trip, traveling in two vans. Ramirez was 48; the eldest was 50 and the youngest 16, helping out his uncle.

They were last seen late one night at a gasoline station, not far from a military checkpoint. Coahuila has been quietly seething with drug violence for some time, especially as the paramilitary drug gang known as the Zetas takes over part of the state.

Relatives have repeatedly traveled to the area in an attempt to find out more, but to no avail. No witnesses have come forward, and one human rights activist warned they risked being killed if they pried too far.

"How can 12 people go missing, get rounded up, whatever happened, and no one notices?" Estrada said. "At least when your loved one dies, you know where they are, what happened, you can eventually get used to it. We do not know what monster we are fighting."

Little help from police

Authorities frequently try to stigmatize the victim, said Blanca Martinez, a human rights activist who has helped organize families of more than 100 missing people in Coahuila. They suggest the victim ran off with a girlfriend, went to work illegally in the United States or hooked up with the lucrative drug business.

Some Mexicans may have "disappeared" as matters of mistaken identity. A group of 10 hunters from the Guanajuato city of Leon went on a seasonal hunting trip Dec. 4 in Zacatecas, in search of rabbits, deer and wild boar. They had a few rifles and a red SUV and one wore camouflage. According to the testimony of one member of the hunting party who managed to escape, the group was intercepted by local police who handed them over to about 15 masked gunmen dressed in black.

With the exception of the man who escaped, the hunters remain missing.

Two months earlier, 20 young men from Michoacan went on what their families described as a vacation to Acapulco. They were seized by gunmen and remained missing for weeks. Their bodies were eventually discovered in a mass grave, and their purported killers confessed that the men had been mistaken for a rival gang from Michoacan.

Several drug-gang gunmen captured by authorities have recounted how they disposed of bodies en masse in remote, hidden graves. And in one particularly grisly case, a henchman for the Sinaloa cartel in Tijuana said he dissolved about 300 bodies using acid. Police searching his property found traces of human remains last month.

More than 11,000 migrants, primarily from Central America, went missing last year crossing Mexico on their way to the United States, according to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. Most were captured by drug gangs demanding payoffs. Many remain missing. In the single largest massacre in Mexico's four-year conflict, 73 immigrants who refused to work for their captors were slain last summer.

In early 2009, Pablo Esparza was dragged from his mother's home in the Durango city of Cuencame. A few weeks later, his brother and sister were seized by gunmen armed with cattle prods. Then the police commander investigating the disappearances vanished. They were among about 60 people who went missing in 2009 just in Cuencame, a town of fewer than 10,000 people along a Zeta infiltration route.

Another Esparza brother, Jose de Jesus, is a U.S. citizen from Texas. He has pressed both U.S. and Mexican governments to investigate the case. But, nearly two years later, there is no trace of his absent family. One theory is they may have fallen prey to drug traffickers avenging actions by other, distant relatives.

"I live for the day they will reappear," Jose de Jesus Esparza said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he works for an airline. The uncertainty has taken its toll: What remains of his family is falling apart. Their mother has attempted suicide, the children fall ill, family members have sunk into deep depression, and Jose de Jesus is going bankrupt in his attempts to find his missing relatives.

"A lot of time has passed, but I haven't stopped looking a single day," he said. Hope, he says, is the last thing that dies.

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17 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

Only a fool or someone with a death wish would EVER take one step into Mexico for ANY reason... You couldnt pay me enough to come to Mexico... I feel badly for those that can not escape... God speed, amigos...

zak said...

Very disturbing story, this would never happen in any civilized society , what's going to be done? human decency is about us taking action regardles of what country we live in, it's about time Mexico asks for help in ending this.

J said...

Heart wrenching and awful things. Like a movie with no end, or no conclusion. I feel for these people.

But, I disagree, this year I will be back in Mexico, Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada specifically. It's been too long. However, I agree there are places I wouldn't want to travel to in Mexico, besides from the curiosity/journalistic reasons. But, going back to Tijuana is something I have to do for myself.

J said...

In all fairness, this happens in the US and all over the world. Admittedly, it seems to be more common in Mexico, but also the spotlight is on Mexico and organized crime right now.

Anonymous said...

J said...

In all fairness, this happens in the US and all over the world.

-----------------------------------------------

What planet are you living on? The ONLY place that the animalistic monstrous evil stuff is taking place is Mexico, sure you may have something come up once in a GREAT while but not like the uncivilized mongrel scum that is raping and mutilating thousands and thousands of good people, the ONLY place that is happening on such a large scale is in Mexico...

-------------------------------------------

Many, many countries have volunteered to help but the refuse because if other countries come there they will see the deep level of corruption! No, Calderon would rather keep watching as the Mexican country is burned to the ground, everyone that can is fleeing Mexico and those that can not are losing their minds, suicides are way, way up... Children are being traumatized and thats going to harm them for their entire lives! BLACKWATER OFFERED TO COME IN AND ERADICATE/KILL/CAPTURE ALL OF THE ZETAS IN 120 DAYS BUT CALDERON HAS SAID NO THANKS!

Anonymous said...

@ J ...This DOES NOT happen in AMERICA. 10 of your friends including yourself go on a hunting trip,you guys have your hunting license and permit to do such activity,you guys get pulled over by police and get arrested,taken to jail for 12 hours and then for some reason the police turn you guys over to some 20 masked thugs with SUV's and Hummers and armed with AK-47's and AR-15's.From there...all 10 of you guys are NEVER heard or seen again.

Anonymous said...

WHY are they taking innocent people? There's no motive. There's no ransom. What are they after??

Anonymous said...

It's so stupid to kidnap the immigrants. They don't have any money!

Anonymous said...

Anon said
"What planet are you living on? The ONLY place that the animalistic monstrous evil stuff is taking place is Mexico,....................the ONLY place that is happening on such a large scale is in Mexico..."

BS it happens all over Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan,.....
Yes, mexico has it bad, but it's not alone.

Anonymous said...

The problem is it's more of most likely mistaken identity. Arriving at a different location in Mexico even as a Mexican tourist is not the safest thing right now. Hell most Mexicans you talk to that live in Mexico say they stay put right now in their homestates or cities they live in. That traveling even to the tourist destiantions in Mex could go wrong, and these are people that live in Mexico and know their way around daily life in Mexico. The smaller cartel cells are ruthless right now and most out of control with no limitations for greed. If they see a group of guys arrive in their city they most likely take it as another criminal fraction sending people over to inflitrate their plaza. Most common sense would say well even if they pick these guys up unarmed why wouldn't they release them. Because these dudes the sicarios and secuestardores in Mexico are another breed right now. Blood thirsty animals that get paid by the amount of people they kill. All they do most likely is even if they aren't in the drug trade they kill them anyway and dispose of their bodies in a Narcofosa. If you go back to interviews of different sicarios in Mexico that have been captured all have confessed to killing people not knowing if they are even in the drug trade just to get paid their measly $2000 pesos which is just under $200 USDLLS to kill somebody. It's sad but it's real life in Mexico right now. Back in the day when the cartels could control their plazas and sicarios this was unheard of. It was more of a checks and balances and innocent folks were hardly mistaken and the true narcos would die because they knew what type of business they were in. I pray for the families who have nothing to do with this dirty business.

Anonymous said...

@5:24 am

Good explanation. Makes the most sense.

Anonymous said...

lol at Blackwater/Xe getting rid of Zetas in 120 days. Maybe you just want to see their corpses hung from bridges all over again.

Ardent said...

But who created this dirty war zone in Mexico though? Here is an article that answers that question in a very reasonable manner-

'...Despite talk of a deteriorating relationship, in fact the Calderon and Obama administrations are overseeing the birth of historically unprecedented cooperation between the two nations.

The problem is that nearly all of that cooperation centers on the severely flawed approach to confront transnational drug-trafficking. The Mexico City US Embassy has expanded into a massive web of Washington-led programs and infrastructure. The controversial Merida Initiative, up for another round of funding in Congress, has allocated more than $1.5 billion to help fight Mexico's drug war with devastatingly negative effects. In addition to the rise in violence, the binational relationship, which should be multi-faceted and focused on peaceful co-existence, has been hijacked by proponents of a war model...'

The Presidential Summit-
Putting US / Mexico Relations Back on Track ... in the Wrong Direction
By LAURA CARLSEN
http://www.counterpunch.com/carlsen03072011.html

Layla2 said...

I'd like to address Ardent's above cited article. Important but does it offer real solutions?

Wikileaks Cable 10MEXICO83, for example, "states that "the GOM's inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere… has become one of Calderon's principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security." The cable cites "official corruption," inter-agency rivalries, "dismal" prosecution rates and a "slow and risk averse" Mexican army."

I'd like to know what part of this statement is not true? Also,

Regarding the social costs of the "war" i.e. militarization, the article goes on to say:

"A new movement called No More Blood has taken hold throughout the country and regions like Ciudad Juarez, where militarization has been heaviest and not coincidentally violence has taken the highest toll, have seen the rise of grassroots movements to defend human rights, call for an end to militarization and put forward alternative strategies. Among their demands is to rechannel scarce resources away from the attack on cartels to address social needs, restore the armed forces to their constitutional mandate of national defense, and end impunity for crime by fixing the judicial and public security systems and attacking government corruption."

I thought these strategies have also been tried with limited success...

"A wide range of alternative policies exist to supplant the endless drug war. Human rights concerns, along with longterm effectiveness, should dominate in considering which of these to adopt."

Then let's spell them out. I'm sure everyone's anxious to know.

ajulio said...

the worst emotional anguish a human being can feel, is not having any answers. i personally, would want to know the truth to what happened to a loved one even if it was bad news than to know nothing at all.

and who wants to be included on a list of unknowns? when most of these people probably had violent endings.

but this has become a part of modern day mexican culture. back in the 90's, these occurances happened daily to young women in juarez and till this day, these stories remain unsolved. the truths to what actually happened to these women are blowin' in the wind.

just a bunch of john and jane does. a bunch of nobody's. whoever says that this is common in the U.S. is very naive.

J said...

No one is saying it's common, or at least I am not, just that it happens. Obviously, not on this scale, or frequency, but it happens all the time. People, whole families disaeppear in the US often, just look at the missing persons websites. Now, they most likely haven't been kidnapped by cartel members and buried in a clandestine grave site, but still, they have vanished.

Ardent said...

Layla2 addresses the lack of detailed spelling out, in the article, of the alternatives to Prohibitionism. The article was short though, and it makes sense for the author to have concentrated mainly on the defects of militarization in the fight to limit and fight the problem of drug abuse.

In the US alcohol abuse is still a major problem, but it does not mean that our US society was wrong to ditch the dangerous Alcohol Prohibitionism that once led to an astronomical increase in criminality when that program was still in place.

There simply is no magic bullet that will totally eliminate drug use throughout the world. That still does not mean that we should just turn to fighting against drug abuse with some sort of 'war' that concentrates on making drug use a crime and then fighting the judicially made up crime by jailing people or killing them.

That, we should all recognize by now is a counterproductive approach to stopping drug abuse. It is a tried and true non-solution that makes the problem worse, and does not make for any better situation for us at all. It does make al the policing and military supply people much richer though.

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