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Missing in Mexico: Thousands disappear, leaving family members grasping for answers | #College. | #Students | #parenting | #parenting | #kids


Humberto Daniel Ramirez Hernandez was last seen on a Tijuana street corner where he was smoking a cigarette in front of a small convenience store near his home nearly two years ago.

His disappearance is just one example of a much larger problem. According to the most recently-released government figures, more than 73,200 Mexicans are currently missing.

They’re known as los desaparecidos — those who have vanished without a trace. And their numbers are larger than the entire populations of such California cities as Redlands, Davis or Lake Elsinore.

Family members and others say Mexico’s staggering roster of missing persons reflects at least official indifference on the part of authorities, and in some cases, complicity.

People protest the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico City in 2014.

(The Associated Press)

The most high-profile case is that of the 43 young male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College, a small college in southern Mexico with a tradition of left-wing activism. On their way to a protest in Mexico City, the group disappeared from Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014, after a confrontation with government security forces, who were acting in concert with local politicians and organized crime, according to Mexico’s federal government.

In June 2020, Reforma reported the Attorney General of Mexico announced the arrest of the cartel leader who allegedly ordered the students’ assassination. Arrest warrants were issued this week for local police, federal police and members of the army, according to Mexico News Daily.

Most of the victims’ remains were never found. But the search for the missing students in the rural hills of Guerrero turned up hundreds of other bodies, inspiring people across the country to form loose political and social alliances and search for the remains of their own missing loved ones.

In Tijuana, that movement predates the Ayotzinapa case.

One father’s desperate search for his kidnapped son in 2007 led to the discovery of abandoned properties where a Tijuana bricklayer named Santiago Meza, also known as “El Pozolero,” dissolved as many as 650 bodies in caustic acid for the Arrellano Felix cartel. He left their remains — mostly just tiny fragments of bones and teeth that did not dissolve in the acid — in partially-constructed houses he worked on as a mason.

“We had to do the hard work of converting ourselves into investigators not for our own will, but forced by circumstances, when the authorities did not do their proper job. We had to enter (the properties) ourselves, apart from authorities, to discover these units,” said Fernando Ocegueda, the father who discovered the properties and founded the group United for Baja California’s Disappeared, which organized a dozen different parent collectives.

Parents and family members who have formed collectives throughout Mexico

A member of the search party shines a light into a dark corner of a stash house in Colonia Campos. Anonymous tipsters directed the parent collective Mothers in Search of their Lost Treasures to the home, where parents believe the remains of their missing children may be buried.

(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Since then, family members have been risking their own safety to search for their missing relatives in Tijuana. They form into groups both for protection and for political purposes, so as to lobby state officials in greater numbers.

In Baja California, such parent groups have located the bodies of 109 missing people so far in 2020 — all buried in clandestine gravesites in rural hillsides across the state, according to Fernando Ortegoza, the president of MOVED, an umbrella group of collectives that represents about 120 parents.

Ocegueda’s 2007 discovery drew international law enforcement attention and brought answers to hundreds of families. But the disappearances in Tijuana continued.

Ramirez, a 21-year-old factory worker, was a new father when he disappeared in 2019.

His family had recently relocated from Jalisco for work, according to his mother. Ramirez, his wife and then-six-month old baby daughter settled four months prior in the Viñedos Casa Blanca neighborhood of southeastern Tijuana, where the rent is cheaper, but crime is much higher.

His mother, Maria Dolores, says Baja California state law enforcement authorities have been reluctant to investigate her son’s missing-persons case. So she’s been gathering clues herself.

She has video from a home surveillance camera across the street from where he disappeared, statements from the store clerk who reportedly saw him last and records from the border factory where he worked.

But she can’t access her son’s bank records without police intervention.

Humberto Daniel Ramirez Hernandez

Humberto Daniel Ramirez Hernandez, 21, disappeared off a street corner where he was last seen smoking a cigarette in front of a small convenience store near his home in January 2019.

(Courtesy of Maria Dolores, his mother)

“(Police) haven’t given me a response about my son’s bank card. He had an account. I want to know if there were any charges. I want to see the bank statement,” she said last week outside an abandoned property in Colonia Campos, a neighborhood in eastern Tijuana. “They told me the bank hasn’t responded to their requests.”

Dolores said even though her son disappeared on Jan. 28, 2019, the plastics manufacturing factory where he worked inexplicably has records showing that he continued showing up for work through Feb. 4.

“You’re not an investigator and neither am I, but we both can see, ‘Wow, that maybe seems important. Like a possible line of investigation,’” she said. “But as far as I know, (the police) haven’t even asked about that.”

Eson Multiwin, the Taiwan-based maquiladora where Ramirez worked, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did it confirm Ramirez’s last documented day of work. A spokesman for state police, which runs the team that investigates kidnapping, did not respond to questions about the case.

Like the vast majority of other parents searching for their missing children, Dolores said she doesn’t know why authorities haven’t responded to her about the bank statements or other clues in her son’s case. She only knows kidnappings and disappearances in Tijuana are commonplace and no one ever gets caught.

David Contreras, a retired detective sergeant who served for 27 years with the San Diego Police Department — much of it on the border-liaison team gathering intelligence in Mexico — estimated nearly a quarter of the municipal police he encountered participated in corrupt activities. Most of it involved small bribes or other minor offenses, not major crimes.

Still, Contreras, who has worked as a private investigator in Tijuana negotiating ransom payments for kidnapped family members, said “it’s not uncommon” for Mexican law enforcement to be involved in kidnappings.

“If we’re talking about wealthy and successful businesspeople in Tijuana, and they don’t trust law enforcement with their missing-persons case, then what happens with common folk who can’t afford to hire a foreign company from the U.S. or Israel to negotiate the return of their loved one?” he said.

A common misconception among Americans is that Tijuana municipal police officers are comparable to police in the United States, Contreras said. He described their duties as more like first responders or security guards — only there to secure a scene and call a bigger agency in cases where investigation is needed.

“By the time state police gets there, three, six, maybe even 12 hours has gone by and a lot of the evidence is gone,” he said.

The son of a street vendor in the Buena Vista section of Tijuana cries on the hood of a police car

The son of a street vendor in the Buena Vista section of Tijuana cries on the hood of a police car after his father had been shot and killed in 2017.

(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Emma Medrano, who is searching for her missing son, a U.S. citizen from San Diego, said police told her they located some of the empty houses where her son was held. She said Baja police worked diligently to find her son at first, but then quickly gave up.

“They’re not answering my calls,” she said. “And the FBI doesn’t have that information. They’re working together, but they’re not sharing everything with the FBI. Why?”

Medrano answered her own question. “They looked until they found out who did it,” she said. She believes the authorities are “involved … with someone powerful … someone with money.”

A state spokesman said police continue to very actively investigate her son’s case and they are working with U.S. authorities. A spokeswoman for the FBI said the agency is unable to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch found that among more than half of the forced disappearances they documented in Mexico, there was “compelling evidence that state actors participated in the crime, either acting on their own or collaborating with criminal groups.”

At a minimum, experts say, the inability of Mexican law enforcement to find the missing and bring those responsible to justice is another symptom of a larger crisis of impunity for violence.

In Baja California, less than 2 percent of kidnappings are solved and less than 4 percent of homicides result in convictions, according to data from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography for 2010 through 2016.

In more recent years, Tijuana’s staggering homicide rate has earned it the title of “the most violent city in the world” from a Mexican citizen-led nonprofit called “Security, Justice and Peace.”

“When we or these groups find bodies, those numbers go into the current year’s homicide tally, even if the deaths maybe occurred a decade ago,” said Isaías Bertín Sandoval, the secretary of security for Baja California, during a news conference last month.

Bertín, who is part of a newer administration, has indicated state authorities are meeting with federal law enforcement authorities and human rights groups to address Baja California’s historical issue of forced disappearances and provide more assistance to the parent groups.

Their efforts have been noted among parents and researchers, but most say it’s nowhere near enough.

“The interesting trend is that municipalities are increasingly accepting that their obligation to the families of the disappeared is to, at the very least, not get in the way of searches,” said Michael Lettieri, Ph.D. a Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.

A woman's banner reads "We Are Missing 43!"

A woman’s banner reads “We Are Missing 43!” at a presentation in Mexico City to relatives of missing Mexican college students from a school in Ayotzinapa.

(Sashenka Gutierrez / European Pressphoto Agency)

On Sunday, Bertín gave a news conference after 16 homicides were reported in Baja California over just a few hours between late Saturday and early Sunday morning. Though no one had been arrested for those crimes, he did report a handful of suspected vandals had been caught and were being held in jail after a protest in downtown Tijuana left damage to several private businesses and city buildings.

Within 24 hours, the alleged vandals would be in front of a judge and charged with intentional damage to property of others and vandalism to businesses and urban facilities, Bertín said.

The group was protesting the case of the missing 43 college students from Ayotzinapa.





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