This Mother’s Day, Mexican Moms Marched for Their Disappeared Children

Mothers are demanding the return of their missing children—and charging the Mexican state with culpability.

Chantal Flores

A woman shouted slogans and held a photograph of her disappeared daughter during a march on Mother's Day on May 08, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. Mothers again took to the streets this past Monther's Day, May 10, 2018. (Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

It’s been two months since Mar­gari­ta Castil­lo Fuentes has hugged her son.

Besides the trauma of living in ambiguous loss due to the perpetual uncertainty, women face ongoing victimization after a disappearance due to the financial burden that comes with focusing extensive time and resources on the search of their loved ones.

She’s join­ing, for the first time, the hun­dreds of moth­ers march­ing in Mex­i­co City on Mother’s Day to demand the return of their miss­ing chil­dren. Twen­ty min­utes before 10:00 a.m., Mar­gari­ta lines up hold­ing a ban­ner with an image of her son, Ángel de Jesús González Castil­lo, with a big ques­tion on top: Have you seen him?”

On March 8 of this year, Ángel de Jesús González Castil­lo, a 20 year old with dark eyes, brown hair and a small scar on his right cheek, went out for din­ner with his friend, Rubén González, in Xicote­pec in Puebla state. Accord­ing to Mar­gari­ta, they were dri­ving a black SUV, and sud­den­ly they vanished.

We haven’t had any response from the author­i­ties,” says Rubén’s moth­er, Guadalupe Rangel. In fact, we’ve asked to check the town’s CCTV cam­eras, the cell­phones, but noth­ing. Noth­ing has happened.”

Mar­gari­ta and Guadalupe are aware of the wor­ry­ing secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion in Puebla, where, accord­ing to offi­cial fig­ures, at least 1,852 peo­ple have been disappeared.

We know many par­ents, many fam­i­lies, who are like us. Many young peo­ple are dis­ap­pear­ing, young women too,” says Mar­gari­ta. We’ve just start­ed orga­niz­ing to gath­er the par­ents to cre­ate the col­lec­tive. I am vis­it­ing them.”

Marchers say that dis­ap­pear­ances are not iso­lat­ed cas­es, but stem from delib­er­ate and sys­temic actions by fed­er­al and state secu­ri­ty forces, as well as mem­bers of orga­nized crime. In its 2017/2018 report on Mex­i­co, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al con­clud­ed, Enforced dis­ap­pear­ances with the involve­ment of the state and dis­ap­pear­ances com­mit­ted by non-state actors con­tin­ued to be com­mon and those respon­si­ble enjoyed almost absolute impunity.”

Unlike the polit­i­cal dis­ap­pear­ances of the 1960s and 1970s, a peri­od known as the Dirty War in which author­i­ties forcibly dis­ap­peared more than 1,200 peo­ple under the rule of the Insti­tu­tion­al Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Par­ty, the cur­rent wave of dis­ap­pear­ances was ini­tial­ly attrib­uted to orga­nized crime. How­ev­er, as secu­ri­ty forces were sent to con­front these groups as part of the war on drugs strat­e­gy in 2006, the vio­lence inten­si­fied and dis­ap­pear­ances increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly as both sides bat­tled for con­trol of the ter­ri­to­ry, and author­i­ties at every lev­el col­lud­ed with orga­nized crime. Ear­li­er this year, for instance, pros­e­cu­tors in the state of Ver­acruz affirmed that police used death squad tac­tics to dis­ap­pear at least 15 people.

More than 34,000 peo­ple have been dis­ap­peared since the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment declared the war on drug car­tels, backed by the Unit­ed States. The fig­ures, how­ev­er, could be high­er con­sid­er­ing that many peo­ple are still afraid of report­ing the cas­es, and the gov­ern­ment has repeat­ed­ly failed to inves­ti­gate and prop­er­ly doc­u­ment many cases.

Thou­sands of moth­ers whose chil­dren are miss­ing have now become a sym­bol of resis­tance, claim­ing their right to know where their daugh­ters and sons are, and defy­ing the stereo­type of moth­ers as pas­sive vic­tims. May 10, when Mex­i­cans cel­e­brate Mother’s Day, has become a call for jus­tice. For the sev­enth con­sec­u­tive year, has been marked with the March for Nation­al Dig­ni­ty, and sim­i­lar demon­stra­tions held in oth­er cities, led by hun­dreds of moth­ers, sis­ters, aunts, and grandmothers.

These women have been at the helm of efforts to break the cul­ture of silence around enforced dis­ap­pear­ances by orga­niz­ing into search col­lec­tives to exhume bod­ies and col­lect burnt human remains.

Lucy López Cas­tru­i­ta has become an expert in find­ing search sites in Tor­reón, in the north­ern state of Coahuila, while her hus­band, Jesús Lamas, has roamed thou­sands of kilo­me­ters search­ing. They trav­elled more than 12 hours to walk along Paseo de la Refor­ma, the cen­tral boule­vard in down­town Mex­i­co City, to demand the return of their daugh­ter, Irma Clari­bel Lamas, who dis­ap­peared on 2008 on her way to a par­ty in a near­by city.

I came because, then in my house, I’m alone,” says Lucy, leader of Aso­ciación Inter­na­cional de Búsque­da de Desa­pare­ci­dos en Méx­i­co (Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of the Search for the Dis­ap­peared in Mex­i­co), which has orga­nized three car­a­vans to search for the dis­ap­peared alive in hos­pi­tals and pris­ons, among oth­er places.

It hurts, the pain nev­er goes away, but it’s good to see that we are not alone, that more peo­ple are sup­port­ing us”, she adds.

Many of the moth­ers and rel­a­tives have been forced to become foren­sic experts, lawyers and inves­ti­ga­tors due to gov­ern­ment inac­tion and high lev­els of impuni­ty. This puts women on the front line as advo­cates for truth and jus­tice, call­ing to the plight of their chil­dren with courage and resilience.

Some­times, how­ev­er, this comes at great per­son­al risk. Last year, Miri­am Rodríguez Martínez, who found the remains of her miss­ing daugh­ter and orga­nized fam­i­lies, was shot dead on Mother’s Day when gun­men burst into her home in Tamauli­pas, a state on the Texas bor­der with the high­est num­ber of dis­ap­pear­ances reg­is­ter­ing over 5,000 missing.

Zai­da Fer­nan­da Guer­ra Med­i­na, from Tamauli­pas, marched with her two small chil­dren to the chant of Vivos se los lle­varon, vivos los quer­e­mos,” or Alive, they took them. Alive, we want them!” This scream has become the slo­gan of the fam­i­lies’ move­ment. The 24-year-old says she was forced to leave her home two years ago with her fam­i­ly after the two police offi­cers inves­ti­gat­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of her broth­er, then 29-year-old Aldo Oliv­er, were killed.

This is my first time,” Zai­da says. My moth­er is in Tamauli­pas par­tic­i­pat­ing in some exhuma­tions so I came to rep­re­sent my family.”

The impact of dis­ap­pear­ances on women is often not ade­quate­ly addressed by gov­ern­ments. Besides the trau­ma of liv­ing in ambigu­ous loss due to the per­pet­u­al uncer­tain­ty, women face ongo­ing vic­tim­iza­tion after a dis­ap­pear­ance due to the finan­cial bur­den that comes with focus­ing exten­sive time and resources on the search of their loved ones. Fam­i­ly con­flicts often arise when moth­ers aban­don some par­ent­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties to com­mit full time to their fight. Often­times, they even are blamed for the dis­ap­pear­ance of their children.

As Mexico’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion nears, the epi­dem­ic of dis­ap­pear­ances and the plight of the moth­ers have received lit­tle atten­tion from the can­di­dates, whose pro­posed solu­tions are vague and null.

What has the State done for them?” asked a man­i­fest shared by the par­tic­i­pant col­lec­tives. Deny them and say that the dis­ap­pear­ance is some­thing of a few civil­ians who were involved with orga­nized crime, denies that this tragedy is wide­spread and that in Mex­i­co dis­ap­pear not only men, but also women and children.”

Chan­tal Flo­res is a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Mex­i­co City. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her first book, focused on the par­ents of Mexico’s dis­ap­peared. Her writ­ing has appeared at Vice, Rolling Stone Mex­i­co and Upwor­thy.
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