The disappearance has altered the family’s lives in every way. Ms. Heredia cannot access her husband’s bank account, since it was only in his name, and she has had to move in with her mother and sister. Most of all, though, she grieves for her lost future. “It’s like my heart has been cut in half,” she says. “My son says, ‘Daddy is lost because he cannot find his way home.’ And I don’t know what to tell him.”
Juan Hernandez, a tall, slim man, joined Mexico’s federal police force when he was just 19. An excellent shot, he soon became a third-class officer. His mother, Patricia Manzanares remembers his words: “‘Mama,’ he told me, ‘I am prepared to die for my job. You will never lack for anything because I will be part of the police family and they will protect you.’
“His dream was to build me a house and to marry his girlfriend,” says Ms. Manzanares, who lives in Gustavo A. Madero, a municipality of Mexico City.
In 2011, his second year on the force, Mr. Hernandez was sent to San Nicolas de los Garza, in Monterrey, an area embroiled in a brutal wave of violence as Los Zetas fought rival cartels for control of the smuggling corridor. Mr. Hernandez was last seen late on Feb. 20 inside the 88 Inn, the hotel where the police were staying. The next day he didn’t report to work. Instead of sending out a battalion of officers to look for him, his commander simply listed him as missing.
When Ms. Manzanares, 44, launched her own complaint with the state prosecutor’s office, his police commander and other senior officers gave conflicting versions of events. One officer said her son had last been seen leaving the hotel to recharge his telephone at a small shop two doors away. Another said he’d been spotted at a popular police bar, Los Rieles.
Said Ms. Manzanares: “How could he disappear inside a well-guarded police hotel?” Her theory is that the police commander was complicit in the disappearance, hence the reluctance to investigate the case. A few months later, Ms. Manzanares received a call from the commander asking her to identify her son’s remains.
Police showed her a cellphone video of two masked members of Los Zetas beheading two victims, sawing off their heads with a machete. “The police said, ‘This is your son, take into consideration that when heads are cut off, they become swollen in size,’ “ she recalls, weeping at the memory. “They wanted it to be my son so we could conclude the case. But it wasn’t him. A mother can always recognize her own son.”
Links to Los Zetas
Jose Antonio Robledo Fernandez studied civil engineering and his dream was to move to Vancouver, where he had studied English in high school as an exchange student. He was grateful to get a well-paying job as a supervisor at ICA Fluor Daniel, a construction conglomerate.
In 2009, the 32-year-old was sent north to Moncloa, Coahuila, a border state where Los Zetas operate, to oversee a project building furnaces for Altos Hornos de Mexico S.A. He was last seen alive Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009. He had just returned from a day trip to Monterrey and was sitting in his blue Nissan outside a garage, speaking to his girlfriend on his cellphone when several armed men approached him.
Terrified, Mr. Robledo dropped his cellphone on the floor of his vehicle and his girlfriend could hear the men ordering him out and then, the muffled sounds of them beating Mr. Robledo. His body was never found – nor was his vehicle.
His father, also named Jose Antonio Robledo, travelled to Moncloa to investigate for himself. An accountant, he meticulously documented all the evidence he uncovered, including the fact that a driver working for the company was a convicted drug trafficker with links to Los Zetas. The head of the security company contracted by ICA was accused of operating an extortion and kidnapping ring.
The senior Mr. Robledo and his wife, Maria Guadalupe Fernandez Martinez, lobbied federal police to investigate for two years until they took action. The driver and the security head were finally arrested and charged with weapons offences in April, 2011. However, the kidnapping charges never went ahead.
“To lose a son for parents is the worst thing. But to have your son disappear is even more terrible because you always wonder if he is still alive,” says Ms. Fernandez. “This should not happen in Mexico. These are our children.”