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Families of Mexico's missing wait for answers

Despite official promises, authorities have done little to help the victim's of country's widespread drug violence.
Last Modified: 30 Nov 2012 20:37

Celerina Santos is still waiting for her husband to come home.

It's been two years since he and nine other men set off from their small village on the southwest coast of Mexico, hunting for a cheap used van for their ecotourism project.

The community spent all they had on a group of cabins, restaurants and boats they had built on the shore of the Pacific, hoping to attract tourists and provide work for the impoverished village.

The van would be the final part of the jigsaw, bringing visitors to the community.

The ten men made the long journey north to Matamoros, a city long famous for cheap vehicles, and more recently known for barbaric drug violence and kidnappings. Celerina's husband Nemorio phoned to tell her they had arrived safely.

When she called the following day, the line was dead. The men never came back.

'Authorities have never helped us'

The village they left behind lies by the side of a long dirt track which eventually widens out to a solitary, white-sanded beach.

Small, rudimentary houses are scattered between thick vegetation; the only sound that interrupts the silence is the crashing of the waves.

Here money is scarce. The village had invested heavily in the tourism project. But when their husbands went missing, the wives took what little they had left and set off searching for their men.

"The truth is that in these two years we've been alone. The authorities have never helped us, neither economically or in the search for our husbands"

- Celerina Santos, wife of missing man

They talked to officials in government offices, searched prisons and visited morgues across the country.

They've sold off belongings to finance the search, including six of the boats they bought for the ecotourism project, and have bounced from state to state, following dead-end clues and red herrings handed to them by the same state investigators meant to help them.

After two years of constant journeys, and little to show for it, Celerina feels abandoned by the authorities.

"The truth is that in these two years we've been alone. The authorities have never helped us, neither economically or in the search for our husbands," she said.

'Bodies mounting up'

Twenty-four thousand people have been reported missing, according to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, many trapped in the battle between organised crime groups and the government.

Relatives echo Celerina’s story, saying that when they turn to the authorities, they find them unwilling or unable to help.

Al Jazeera tried to get basic details on the case of the missing men from Zapotengo, but our repeated calls and emails to the Tamaulipas and Oaxaca state attorneys offices, as well as the federal attorneys office, went unanswered.

In-depth coverage of Mexico's drug wars

Whilst outgoing president Felipe Calderon’s administration has tried to tackle the problem of organised crime by pouring money into the Federal Police and its armed forces, the task of helping the victims of the violence has not figured high on the list of priorities.

Mexico's top human rights official says that almost 16,000 bodies are still to be identified, but after six years of bodies mounting up, the federal government has only just opened its first dedicated forensic centre, which can hold a maximum of 150 bodies.

Although it has now been operational for nearly a month, it has yet to receive a single corpse; it has no powers to order Mexico's 32 states to send it their unidentified bodies, and none of them have yet offered.

'Human rights have been ignored'

Lack of co-operation between state and federal authorities has frequently been blamed for the failure to find those lost among the violence in the country.

To try to close the gap, Calderon last year pledged to create a national database for missing persons that investigators from all states could use to track the disappeared - but so far it has failed to materialize.

Federal officials told Al Jazeera they still don't know when it will be finished.

Amnesty International spokesman Daniel Zapico says Mexico's inability to address the issue shows a general lack of political will.

"For us it is very clear. We need to put human rights in the agenda as one of the main issues in this situation," he said. 

"Human rights have been ignored by this government and also at the local and state level."

New administration

It remains to be seen if this will change with incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto.

The list of more than 200 pledges from his new administration does not mention the victims of the violence, and he has given little indication of what steps he will take to improve their situation.

The list of necessities is a long one.

"Human rights have been ignored by this government and also at the local and state level"

- Daniel Zapico, Amnesty International

The majority of Mexico's states don't have the technology to do DNA testing and crime scenes are regularly tainted by untrained investigators.

Many relatives of those disappeared think twice before going to local police forces, often fearing local officials may be in the pay of those who murdered their loved ones.

Peña Nieto has talked of reforming and retraining police, just as his predecessor did. But rooting out corruption among badly paid and frequently uneducated local police has proved to be easier said than done.

All of which leaves Celerina without hope that the authorities will be able to find her husband. And she says that without help she can do no more.

"We can’t go on. We are worn out, we've abandoned our children searching for their fathers, spent the money we don't have," she said.

"Although we feel they are still alive, that one day we’ll see them again ... some day."

It is a hope that alternatively sustains and tortures the thousands of Mexicans who still do not know the fate of their loved ones.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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