Mexico’s ‘searchers’ seek the disappeared — and political support

Mexico’s ‘searchers’ seek the disappeared — and political support

Mexico’s “buscadoras,” or searchers, are seeking political support in the United States after finding little more than closed doors in their home country.

Raul Servin, a member of the “Madres Buscadoras,” or Searching Mothers, collective, looks for his missing son at the Aqua section 6 neighborhood in Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Jalisco State, Mexico, on Aug. 31, 2023.
Raul Servin, a member of the “Madres Buscadoras,” or Searching Mothers, collective, looks for his missing son at the Aqua section 6 neighborhood in Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Jalisco State, Mexico, on Aug. 31, 2023.

The term searchers refers the often gruesome task of physically sifting through dirt in search of human remains ignored by Mexico’s professional forensic services.

The buscadoras are mainly mothers and sisters of Mexico’s more than 100,000 disappeared — people who have gone missing with no trace, presumed victims of criminal activity.

Forming collectives throughout the country, the searching relatives are doing work they say Mexican authorities at local, state and federal levels won’t, including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose six-year term ends Oct. 1.

“The government of Mexico is on the way out. There will be elections soon, and in these six years, he never had five minutes for the victims of the country. In the whole six-year term, he didn’t receive a single buscadora in the country,” said Bibiana Mendoza, who contributed to the creation of Hasta Encontrarte, “Until We Find You,” a searching collective from the city of Irapuato in the central state of Guanajuato.

According to the United Nations, 97 percent of the disappearances have taken place since 2006, when Mexico militarized its response to cartel violence. The homicide rate jumped from 4 per 100,000 inhabitants that year to 12 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012.

The official murder rate in Mexico correlates with presidential administrations and their public safety policies.

Former President Felipe Calderón, a traditional conservative who ordered the militarization of the country’s policing, oversaw the rise until 2012.

Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, governed as a centrist, but his administration came to be more associated with corruption than any particular policies, though under his government, homicide rates dipped down to 8 per 100,000 inhabitants before jumping back up to 12 per 100,000.

López Obrador, whose “hugs not bullets” police strategy has long been the focus of criticism, oversaw a spike to 15 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and back down to 12 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Mexico’s abysmal public safety results over the past two decades seem to be regardless of party — the last three presidents had three distinct political affiliations — something Mendoza connected with the country’s rabid partisanship.

“I see public officials in Mexico, like from the moment they take a government job, it would seem they lose their humanity and they trade it for defending a political party,” Mendoza said.

“Over there they all say, ‘My party did things right. My party did this for the disappeared or my party isn’t to blame for the violence, that’s from the previous party,’ and they want to insert the social causes, the searches women conduct in Mexico, into a political game that they use as a campaign, conveniently. And once we’re in the way, there’s this new rhetoric, ‘You’re either with me or against me,’ so the state ceased to be an ally long ago.”

But López Obrador, who campaigned as a leftist, made sweeping promises to the families of disappeared individuals, including the relatives of the 43 student activists who were abducted in the state of Guerrero in 2014 and are presumed dead.

Those promises included strengthening a national search commission and allowing independent investigations, but López Obrador’s perspective as an outside critic of Peña Nieto’s handling of the case and other disappearances changed once in power.

“There was a certain level of attention and progress that was possible for a while on the Ayotzinapa case in particular during this government — certainly there wasn’t that type of dialogue and collaboration and attention given in general to search collectives,” said Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights research and advocacy organization.

“So that’s the context, but what has happened, especially in the last year to year and a half, is that the López Obrador administration seems to have decided that it no longer wants to pay the political costs of facing this crisis.”

In November, López Obrador accused former officials from his own administration of inflating the number of disappearances to “affect” his government.

He called for a new census of disappearances, following whistleblowing from Karla Quintana, who in August resigned as head of the National Search Commission, denouncing attempts to scrub official numbers in López Obrador’s favor.

With the federal government turning its back and often facing threats from criminal organizations eager to keep evidence of their crimes under wraps, the collectives have continued their search, but have also looked abroad for attention.

Earlier this month, Mendoza and Olimpia Montoya of Proyecto de Búsqueda — search project — were recognized with WOLA’s Human Rights Award at the group’s 50th anniversary gala in Washington.

The group also paid visits to administration and congressional offices, looking both for increased visibility and for U.S. oversight of forensic equipment given to Mexico.

“My heart goes out to the families who have had a loved one forcibly disappeared in Guanajuato or other parts of Mexico, many of whom have searched for the missing without many resources and little to no support,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill in an email.

“I am concerned by the alarming number of disappearances, low convictions, and staggering impunity in Mexico. I urge the Mexican government to work with the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances to strengthen its transparency and methodology mechanisms.  I will continue to monitor this situation closely and work with key stakeholders to find effective ways to work together to address these serious problems.”

But U.S.-Mexico relations are at a standstill, with federal elections coming soon in both countries.

Mexico’s election is June 2, with former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum the heavy favorite, though opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez has somewhat reenergized her campaign during the final stretch.

Sheinbaum, López Obrador’s handpicked successor, is widely expected to continue his policies if she is sworn in Oct. 1, a month before the U.S. election.

That’s the Biden administration’s current top interest in bilateral affairs, as López Obrador has effectively reduced migrant border crossings through enforcement throughout Mexico, giving the Biden administration political breathing space on a critical issue.

“The United States praises the vibrancy of Mexico’s democracy, even amid very clear and very troubling signs of democratic backsliding under the López Obrador administration. The United States is not being as vocal on some of the human rights issues in Mexico as we might see with a different country,” Brewer said.

“So all would indicate that what López Obrador gets in exchange for these migration enforcement actions on the Mexican side is largely the spoken or unspoken agreement that certain other thorny issues will not be brought up to criticize him or will not be used in the same way in the bilateral relationship.”

Amid the high diplomacy and politics, the buscadoras say they will keep trying to find closure for their disappeared relatives, who are often revictimized with allegations of criminality or racialized dehumanization.

Mendoza and Montoya said they remain unaided in their search for their relatives — in their specific cases, their brothers — shunned by a society that often views the victims as criminals who are unworthy of public resources.

“Unfortunately they ask us to be perfect in a country where they don’t give the tools to everyone to be equal. They ask us to have the way of being and to behave like privileged people when we didn’t have any privilege,” Mendoza said.

—Updated May 28 at 5:18 p.m. ET

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