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Marina Armenta, whose husband Eduardo Toyota Espinoza disappeared in Jun 2009 in the town of Nuevo Laredo in the north of Mexico, photographed while holding a picture of her him in Mexico City, May 13, 2012. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and M)
Marina Armenta, whose husband Eduardo Toyota Espinoza disappeared in Jun 2009 in the town of Nuevo Laredo in the north of Mexico, photographed while holding a picture of her him in Mexico City, May 13, 2012. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and M)

Mexico's missing: collateral damage of narco-violence Add to ...

They are ordinary, middle-class Mexicans – computer technicians, police officers and engineers – who went to work one day and never came home. They are Mexico’s missing – and unlike many of the 50,000 killed in the country’s drug wars, they have no direct links to organized crime, drug traffickers or their internecine rivalries. They are not involved in the drug trade but have become caught up in the country's narco-violence. Their bodies are seldom recovered, adding to the devastation and sense of impotence family members feel.

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Mexico’s disappeared are an open wound in a society already numbed by the grisly violence of the cartels – the decapitations, bodies found in vats of acid, the strangulations – and the psychological terror they wage. The country’s National Human Rights Commission estimates the number of disappeared at 5,300 while human-rights groups say it is as high as 12,000. Authorities have been reluctant to solve the crimes, or even register the disappearances, even as hundreds of bodies have been found in mass graves, some hacked to pieces. Family members usually don’t know the motive for the crime, and in many cases don’t even receive ransom demands from drug cartels.

Many of the victims disappear in the northern states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, along the U.S. border, where the drug cartels are most active and local authorities are often complicit in their activities. Family members themselves are left to take up the cause, until they are warned away by anonymous death threats.

“They never appear again, either alive or dead,” said Yolanda Moran, spokesperson of the Working Group of Forced Disappearances in Coahuila state (FUNDEC), an advocacy group that works with Amnesty International. “They are the collateral damage in the war on drugs. But they are our loved ones.”

Family members cling to the belief that the disappeared are still alive. They cannot bear to sign death certificates, collect insurance money or close bank accounts. And so they live in a terrible state of limbo. They gathered in May at a conference in Mexico City organized by FUNDEC to highlight their plight and seek solace from others living a similar torment.

President Felipe Calderon, who deployed the military to fight the drug cartels in 2006, unleashing the current narco-violence, has acknowledged the problem and passed a law this spring to protect the rights of crime victims. The government has agreed to set up a database to record cases of disappeared persons and compensate relatives of those who have been killed, forcibly disappeared or been the target of human-rights abuses by security forces. The law also requires authorities to identify the remains of victims and to locate those who may still be alive.

“We have laid the groundwork for strengthening our judicial institutions and building a country where the rule of law is adhered to by all levels of government,” said Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s Foreign Minister, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “But this is going to take a long time. It is a long process.”

Altered lives

The most difficult thing for Monica Heredia Gutierrez is trying to explain to her five-year-old son what happened to his father. Filiberto Guzman Morales, 47, was last seen on Dec. 15, 2009. He had been hired by a telecommunications outsourcing firm on behalf of Nokia to install a cellphone network in Nuevo Laredo, a city just across the border from Laredo, Texas.

His wife was fearful: The city is known as a lucrative drug-smuggling corridor, where Los Zetas, the country’s best armed, most violent and highly organized drug cartel has its base. But the family needed the money. Mr. Guzman promised that while away from home he would stay in constant touch with his wife, so when Ms. Heredia didn’t hear from him on Dec. 16, she began to worry.

The company called her the next day, saying her husband and another engineer had gone missing. Their cars were still in the driveway of the house they had rented, the company reported, but their computers had been taken. She flew from her home in Mexico City to launch a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office in Nuevo Laredo. Nokia provided her with a lawyer, but says it is up to the police to resolve the case; to date, they have not done so.

Ms. Heredia believes her husband was kidnapped by Los Zetas. His engineering skills make him a high-value target. (Last year, Mexico’s military found secret telecommunications networks across the northeast controlled by drug traffickers, installed to co-ordinate drug shipments and orchestrate attacks.) Ms. Heredia became suspicious after discovering that the owner of the rental property had ties to drug traffickers.

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.”

Police complicity?

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.”

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