Mexico City, Mexico -  Mariana Yanez Reyes was supposed to be the first person in her family to go to university, so she aimed high, making Mexico City's prestigious National Polytechnic Institute her first choice.

Every year, 87,000 students take the institute's entrance exams, almost three-quarters of whom won't make the cut - but Mariana got in on her first attempt. Her grades were meant to be a trampoline out of her tough, impoverished neighbourhood of Tecamac, on the fringes of Ecatepec, an industrial powerhouse of 16 million people that lies to the northeast of Mexico City, in Mexico State.

The city is at the centre of a perfect storm of organised crime interests. Human trafficking corridors stretching from the Tlaxcala and Coatzacoalcos pass through here, while the territory is significant in the smuggling of opium, cocaine, and marijuana from fields in the neighbouring states of Guerrero and Michoacan.

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Pope Francis is due to visit Ecatepec in a stop-off loaded with uncomfortable symbolism for President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Before being elected president of the Republic, he governed Mexico State, from 2005 to 2011. Since 2005, the state government figures indicate that more than 2,443 women have been murdered in the state, with a further 4,281 reported missing.

More than a year after Mariana disappeared, nobody has been arrested in connection with her disappearance. Although police claimed to have found parts of her body, her parents had the forensic evidence overturned. The case remains open.

Mariana's disappearance is a microcosm of the Mexico's ongoing struggle to establish the rule of law and battle impunity. National government figures indicate that 94 percent of all crimes committed go unresolved, while most murder and missing persons cases in Mexico State remain inconclusive.

Parallels with Ciudad Juarez

The night Mariana vanished - September 17, 2014 - she had only one barrier to clear before starting her degree: a grant application.

After chatting on Facebook with her boyfriend of two years, she told her father that she was slipping out to get her grant's supporting documents photocopied. It was 9pm, but the 10-minute walk to the photocopying shop was well-lit. She was carrying about a dollar and a half (20 pesos) and no mobile phone. .

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She was never seen again.

"Anguish is the only word for what you feel when your child goes missing," Mariana's mother, Guadalupe, 43, told Al Jazeera over the phone.

"I got back from work in Mexico City at 10:30pm. I asked my husband if she had come back. He said she hadn't. I checked to see if she was asleep in her room - no sign," Guadalupe said. "I was still quite calm at this point, but when I went to the photocopying place and they said she hadn't arrived there, the fear started."

Mariana has been lost in a wave of violence that draws parallels with Ciudad Juarez, where 2,376 femicides - murders of women because of their gender - took place between 1993 and 2015. The murder of women reaching a peak of 446 in 2010, the year the border city was named "murder capital of the world".

For Maria de la Luz Estrada, the co-ordinator of the women's rights NGO Catholics for the Right to Decide, however, the comparison with Ciudad Juarez rings hollow.

In the late 1990s she helped mothers to dig for their daughters' bodies in the desert outside Ciudad Juarez, as well as going after inconsistencies in those cases that reached the state courts. She began to monitor Mexico State in 2007 - "the year when things got very serious here".

"Violence against women in Edomex [another term for Mexico State] - and particularly Ecatepec - saturates the community, happening on a different order of magnitude to Juarez," she said.

Maria de la Luz Estrada, co-ordinator at Catholics for the Right to Decide [Tim MacGabhann/Al Jazeera]

"In Juarez, bodies were found. People have been sentenced for the crimes - albeit years afterwards. Mothers formed solidarity committees. But in Edomex, police dig into people's personal lives, saying that the victims wore provocative clothes, or didn't 'satisfy' her husband, or dealt drugs," Estrada said.

"I am sick of hearing these policemen accuse women of their own murders, when their approach to domestic violence is to wait 72 hours after an assault before checking in again - this, during the most dangerous time to advise reconciliation: violence has already happened, and the husband is enraged at being reported on."

Mariana's mother, Guadalupe, described the same hallmarks of police incompetence and victim-blaming in the case of her daughter.

"The first questions police asked when we reported Mariana's disappearance concerned her behaviour," she told Al Jazeera.

"A few weeks after she vanished, a policeman texted me from Veracruz to say he'd heard she was pregnant and had run away because she was afraid to tell us, Guadalupe said. "I know my daughter: if she had an unplanned pregnancy, she would have told me."

In January 2015, police told Guadalupe and her husband that they had found the tops of two thigh-bones and a skull fragment containing teeth, which they said belonged to Mariana. The pieces were found after dredging Rio de los Remedios canal, an 11-mile stretch of water reeking with chemical pollution near Mariana's home in Tecamac where the body-parts of almost 80 different women have been found.

"We were suspicious immediately," said Guadalupe.

"We know one other mother who had been given a body the police said was her daughter's. DNA testing proved it wasn't hers. Later, police found a second body which they said was her daughter's - and it still wasn't her. In our case, the police said we weren't psychologically ready even to see photographs. When we forced the issue, we saw that the teeth weren't hers," Guadalupe recalled.

"Now we're back to zero again. Mariana is a missing person."


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Some in Mexico greeted Pope Francis with banners of disappeared relatives, asking for prayers and blessings [Felix Marquez/AP]

The Pope 'must know what's happening'

Guadalupe won't be attending Pope Francis's Ecatepec event.

"My husband and I were going to bring a protest banner, but with so much security around I didn't think we'd be able to display the poster," she laughed. "All we can do is hope he talks about cases like ours. He must know what's happening."

Maria de la Luz Estrada goes even further.

"If I even had 10 seconds with the Pope, I'd beg him not to cover this up. I don't want him to go easy on our state government," she said.

"They are complicit. To take one example, where women vanish from buses. If the local government regulates the buses, then police can find the number plates and go after the drivers. But they don't do this," Estrada said.

She might have a right to be hopeful. Although Pope Francis only arrived in Mexico City late on Friday night, the pontiff has stayed true to his tendency to go off-script, ruffling a number of feathers on the first morning of his six-day state visit to the country with the world's second-largest Catholic population.

Social media commentators made much of Enrique Pena Nieto's uneasy facial expression during the Pope's homily at Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral on Saturday morning, when the pontiff compared the country's drug trade with "a devouring metastasis", as well as exhorting the Church hierarchy "not to underestimate the ethical and antisocial challenge drug-trafficking represents to young people".

Pena Nieto's successor, incumbent Mexico State governor Eruviel Avila Villegas, may have an uncomfortable moment of his own during the Pope's visit to Ecatepec.


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Source: Al Jazeera