An earlier, extended version of this piece first appeared at CIP Americas.
Held just four days after the one-year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa disappearances, at least three hundred people attended the International Forum on Disappearances in Mexico in Mexico City from September 29 to October 1, 2015. Social organizations and the Autonomous Metropolitan University Campus Xochimilco brought together families of disappeared persons, human rights activists, government officials, academics, journalists and students for three days of presentations and discussion around the crisis of disappearances in Mexico. Among the participants were dozens of mothers of some of the over 26,000 thousand people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2006.
The mothers listened and discussed the issues presented by government officials and civil society organizations. The mothers of Mexico’s disappeared have become experts on the topic of state violence as they search for their children on their own. In the face of chronic government apathy, inefficiency and even attacks, the mothers have built a community of mutual support and autonomous organizing. They have become the leaders of grassroots organization against a criminal state responsible for the disappearances of their children and thousands of others.
Here are some of their stories:
Adela Alvarado Valdés and Moni’s Story
Adela Alvarado Valdés was one of the first mothers to arrive at the Mexico City forum. She wore a button with a picture of her daughter, Moni. Alvarado Valdés explained that she tries her best to attend events such as this, in addition to protests for Mexico’s disappeared, because many mothers, “for lack of funds or emotional strength,” are unable to participate. “I’m here because they can’t be,” she says.
A professional clown for over 34 years, Alvarado Valdés is the mother of Monica Alejandrina Ramirez Alvarado, a psychology student who disappeared 11 years ago.
Monica disappeared on Tuesday December 14, 2004 on her way to the FES Iztacala, a university in northern Mexico City. She left her home in Ecatepec, in the State of Mexico (now one of the most dangerous states for women in terms of rates of gender violence), heading to the campus to turn in an assignment. At six that night, Alvarado Valdés received a call from one of her daughter’s classmates saying that Monica had never arrived at school.
Alvarado Valdés’s eleven-year search has been marked by emotional abuse at the hands of government investigators, death threats from local police, and a complete uprooting of their family life.
According to Alvarado Valdés, those first days were marked by indescribable anguish. “I wanted desperately to find my daughter because I felt that I could no longer live without her,” she says.
Initially the family searched local hospitals and distributed missing person flyers, printed up with the help of the Support Center for Missing and Absent Persons (CAPEA).
Four days after Monica’s disappearance, her family received a menacing text message from the supposed kidnappers. The message said that Monica was being held captive and demanded a 250,000 peso (about $15,000 USD) ransom for her safe return. The alleged kidnappers ordered the family to deliver the money; if not, they would cut the woman into pieces. Desperate, Alvarado Valdés and her family approached both a private investigator and the Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) for help returning Monica safely home.
The private investigator helped them track Monica’s cell phone activity and found that a series of phone calls were made to a man named Jesús Martín Contreras Hernández, one of Monica’s classmates, after her disappearance. The investigator who was helping Alvarado Valdés unravel the mystery over Monica’s disappearance quit when he realized AFI was involved, since at that time it was illegal to be a private investigator in Mexico.
AFI was a federal government investigation agency created by the Attorney General’s Office in 2001 to replace the notoriously corrupt Federal Judicial Police. The agency was in charge of investigating federal crimes such as kidnapping and drug trafficking. Though it was restructured in 2009 and renamed the Ministerial Federal Police, it was known for being highly effective at finding missing persons, according to Alvarado Valdés. But in the search for Monica, the agency only brought emotional stress to the family.
In the beginning, AFI agreed to help the family find their daughter and even installed equipment in their house to train them to negotiate with the kidnappers. The agency prepared Alvarado Valdés’ husband to carry out the negotiation, instructing the family to cut off all communication with extended family and friends. But the AFI investigator’s attitude soon changed, says Alvarado Valdés.
“He grew apathetic and very unhelpful. He basically kidnapped us in our own house and tormented us with irrelevant information and false leads … [He] ridiculed our suffering,” Alvarado Valdés explained. Meanwhile, threats continued: the family would receive two more text messages from the kidnappers. But when Monica’s father left voice messages saying he was ready to negotiate and begging the kidnappers not to hurt his daughter, nobody ever called back.
Shortly thereafter, the AFI investigator began to remove the surveillance equipment he had installed in the Alvarado Valdés’s house to track to kidnappers’ communication. When the family complained, they were informed that their case had been closed. Frustrated, they went to the capital with the phone logs the private investigator had obtained. Finally, in 2005, a year after Monica’s kidnapping, the government investigator in the Attorney General’s Office ordered the arrests of Jesús Martín Contreras Hernández, Marlon Gaona, the son of a local police officer, and one other man. All were members of two local gangs, “Los Cruces” and “Los Gaona.” The three men were sentenced to 21 years in prison for kidnapping. They haven’t admitted to the whereabouts of Monica and to this day Alvarado Valdés and her family do not know what happened to their daughter. What’s more, Alvarado Valdés and her family were soon forced to move out of the Ecatepec municipality after the local police made threats against them for raising awareness about these crimes in their neighborhood.
After enduring eleven years of uncertainty, stress and emotional violence, Alvarado Valdés said that she has been able to stay strong because of the community with her professional and activist families. She and her coworkers have held marathon clown fairs in the Zócalo plaza and participated in events throughout the country to raise awareness about the disappearance of Monica and others. And as a staunch activist for disappeared persons, Valdés has forged friendships and relationships with other mothers.
“It’s been eleven years since Monica disappeared and I refuse to forget about her. We didn’t lose a dog, a car, or a bicycle but rather a human being, my daughter, and I can’t abandon her. I don’t think we families can ever abandon our disappeared loved ones to their fate,” Alvarado Valdés said. “Unfortunately, over the years we have learned that this crisis has worsened because the government and mafias profit from disappearances.”
Despite years of hardship, Alvarado Valdés remains determined to obtain justice for Monica and help other families do the same. Her traumatic experience with AFI helped her develop an acute awareness of the costs of government inaction and complicity in these cases.
“We’ve succeeded in sentencing those three men. But we couldn’t achieve more than that. You can’t do more because the government protects these criminals. When I get together with other families, with my friends and fellow victims, we all realize that our own government is contributing to this terrible crisis,” she concluded.
Norma Andrade and the Long Battle for Justice for Disappeared Women
As one of the founding members of May Our Daughters Return Home, a Mexican non-profit association of mothers whose daughters have been victims of femicide in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Norma Andrade is very familiar with the emotional hardships, difficulties, and violence many mothers and families face in the search for their missing children. Andrade’s daughter, Lilia Alejandra García Andrade, was disappeared on February 14, 2001, in Ciudad Juarez. Seven days later Lilia’s body was found wrapped in a blanket, with signs of physical and sexual assault.
Since then Andrade has become a fearless activist in Ciudad Juárez and has led the organization of mothers for over fourteen years in the hopes of getting the murderers of their daughters arrested and convicted.
To date Andrade’s unrelenting activism has led to two attacks on her life. On December 2, 2011, Andrade was shot and wounded in her home in Ciudad Juárez by an unknown assailant. Shortly afterwards, she moved to Mexico City for her safety. However, two months later, Andrade was again attacked by an unknown assailant outside her residence in the neighborhood of Coyoacán while she was taking her granddaughter to school. The attacker slashed Andrade in the face with a knife.
Since 2008, and especially after the second attack on Norma’s life, International human rights and women’s groups including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Nobel Women’s Initiative have called for immediate and effective protection for Norma Andrade and her family.
Despite these attacks and other threats against her life, Andrade has continued to organize in Ciudad Juárez for justice for victims of femicide. In a country where attention to femicides is minimal and where there are very few advances in investigations due to corruption and a lack of political will, Andrade is an activist and mother who has taken it upon herself to learn how to overcome bureaucratic barriers and apathy, on behalf of disappeared women and their families. She has accompanied and advised families to investigate disappearances, promoted occupational therapy for grief-stricken families, lobbied to change laws under the Penal Code of the State of Chihuahua that allow this and other violence to continue, and she has become an international spokesperson against the violation of women’s human rights in Mexico.
More recently, she joined the Task Force for Human Rights and Social Justice to organize workshops for middle and high school girls in Ciudad Juárez, centered on preventing disappearances. The workshops focus on telling the stories of how three young girls disappeared and aim to teach young girls how to identify, prevent, and denounce potential kidnappers.
“I found my daughter murdered 14 years ago, and that’s the same amount of time that I’ve been organizing,” Andrade explained. “I’ve learned a lot along the way. I knew nothing about law but I now know how to ground my demands and the rights that we are seeking. She continued: “When we say we have the right to life, we know which clause in the constitution guarantees that right. I can’t say that a femicide gets 60 years of prison time for their crime if I don’t know the penal code and now I know the definition of femicide," she said. " I know what femicide means—we’ve learned all this along the way, through organizing.”
According to Andrade, there is still much to do in order to prevent crimes against women and attain justice. When Mexico and the entire world learned of the disappearances of 43 teachers’ college students from Ayotzinapa last September, Andrade pointed to the case of Navajo Creek in Chihuahua, where the remains of 80 people have been uncovered in the last two years, most of them women apparently victims of sex trafficking. “Eighty remains have been identified at Navajo Creek. Almost double the 43. And it’s worth asking ourselves why 43 moves people and not 80.”
While she acknowledges that there is indifference towards the disappearances of poor women, Andrade believes that people have to come together in the search for justice for all the disappeared persons of Mexico, from the Ayotzinapa 43 to the victims of femicide. “What I think is fundamental is unity. Unity between states, unity between mothers, because what unites us is the same pain. Even when the missing are men, the pain felt over the loss of a son is the same pain felt as the result of the loss of a daughter.”
A National Crisis
What ties mothers like Alvarado and Andrade together isn’t just the pain of losing a child but the indignation toward a government that has permitted impunity, corruption, and violence to take the lives of thousands of Mexicans. It is a shared pain and indignation that has declared the State as the prime suspect for the disappearances and murders of Monica, Lilia, and thousands more unnamed victims.
The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, visited Mexico in October and issued a stark assessment of the state of human rights in the country. He met with President Enrique Peña Nieto, other government officials, and with NGOs and civil society. What the Commissioner found is a reality that many mothers of disappeared persons in Mexico are all too familiar with.
Al Hussein concluded that at least 151,233 people were killed between December 2006 and August 2015 in Mexico. Additionally, at least 26,000 have gone missing—although activist and non-governmental organizations like Services and Consulting for Peace (SERAPAZ) say the real figure is much higher.
The official figure of “people not found” in Mexico since 2006 has fluctuated under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The contradictory figures released by the Mexican government, and the information labyrinth that investigators and human rights activists must embark on to track disappearances, gets to the core of Mexico’s human rights crisis. The ineptitude and reluctance with which the Mexican government has approached the disappearances crisis reflects a structural problem in Mexico. It is a state policy to use impunity, corruption, and ineffectual judicial mechanisms and investigations to sustain violence and terror—to sustain, or ignore, the human rights crisis of disappearances.
The U.S. government is also complicit in Mexico’s human rights crisis. Under the Mérida Initiative, the U.S. has invested more than $2 billion since 2006 to militarize Mexico under the pretext of fighting drug cartels. It has thus funded the security forces largely responsible for these human rights abuses. Instead of mitigating violence, it has heighted it to unbearable levels.
In the press conference, Al Hussein explained that his visit to Mexico was “sobering with regard to the daily realities for millions of people here in Mexico.” According to the Commissioner, “It is neither myself, my office, the UN, nor State officials who can declare enough is being done or has been done. It is only the people who can do this, especially the most disadvantaged, the victims or families of victims of crime who have the credibility to pass judgment.”
The mothers of Mexico’s disappeared have echoed these sentiments. At the conclusion of the International Forum on Disappearances in Mexico, Andrade called out the Mexican government as responsible for her and thousands of other mothers’ suffering. “What must unite us is this pain, a united front against our common enemy, which is the State, our real enemy, even more than any criminal group involved in these cases.”
Nidia Bautista is the managing director for the CIP Americas Program and writes about student protest, transborder social movements, and gender issues in Latin America.