Mexico government says at least 26,000 have gone missing in the last six years.
Karnes City, Texas – Last May, Sonia Loredo got the type of call that every mother likes to receive.
“Mom, I’m coming home to spend Mother’s Day with you,” her son Julio Cesar Martinez Loredo told her over the phone.
Julio, 22, was born in the US and was living in Houston at the time. But he occasionally went home to Matamoros, Mexico, to visit his family – Sonia, his mother; Juan Manuel, his father; and two younger sisters, Laura, 10; and Mary, 3.
The drive from Houston to the Mexican border town of Matamoros usually only takes about five hours.
By all accounts, Julio was a good young man making ends meet, working in the fishing industry in Houston. He didn’t drink alcohol and was saving money for school, sending some back to his family when he could. In Matamoros, Sonia stayed home to take care of Laura and Mary, but also worked part-time in the local elementary school’s cafeteria.
When Julio arrived home last May for Mother’s Day, his mom had his favourite dish waiting for him when he walked through the front door.
A few days after settling in, Julio went out to meet some of his fishing buddies by the water.
“I’m going, but I’ll be right back,” he told his mom on his way out.
But Julio never came back.
‘Where is my son’?
Worried, Sonia started knocking on doors and asking anybody and everybody in Matamoros if they knew the whereabouts of Julio. She went to the police station, local jails, the church, the corner restaurant.
A few eyewitnesses recounted a similar story, saying they saw Julio being detained by men from the local Mexican military base.
Sonia drove by the base and said she saw Julio’s car impounded there.
Sonia said an official at the base told her Julio had been arrested for a minor fishing infraction, but would be released the next day.
But when she returned to the base the next day, she said they informed her they knew nothing about Julio’s whereabouts.
Something wasn’t right. Matamoros is a bustling yet dangerous border town, suffering from drug-gang violence and killings. But Sonia and her family were far removed from that shadowy side of the city.
“My husband and I had no problems with anybody in Matamoros,” Sonia recalled.
Determined to find answers and not willing to remain silent, Sonia went to Mexico City to speak with government officials who deal with human rights issues. She saw local lawmakers and demanded to speak to them, refusing to take no for an answer.
Since Julio was a US citizen, she went to the nearest American consulate.
Sonia said they told her they didn’t have the staff to investigate missing persons claims, but when pressed, asked Sonia to bring in statements from eyewitnesses who claimed he was taken by the marines.
When asked about Julio’s case, a State Department official in Washington said they were aware of media reports that a US citizen had been reported missing.
But, the official added, if the disappearance was confirmed, US officials would work closely with Mexican authorities on the matter and would not comment further because of privacy concerns.
A spokesperson for the Mexican marines told Al Jazeera they do not have any information on the whereabouts of Julio Cesar Martinez Loredo, adding a records search gave no indication he was ever taken into their custody in Matamoros.
Frustrated, Sonia started holding small protests in Matamoros to raise awareness and pressure the marines for answers.
She confronted the vice admiral of the base at a local parade.
“I asked him, where is my son?” she remembered. He didn’t have an answer, Sonia said.
Then things took a turn for the worse.
‘You need to disappear’
The next day while she was away from home with her kids, she received a call on her mobile phone from her neighbour.
“Sonia, Julio has disappeared, but now you need to disappear from your home,” the neighbour told her.
Armed men had come looking for Sonia at her house, and when she wasn’t there, they ransacked it, taking personal documents, according to eyewitnesses.
According to Sonia, the neighbour said the men were from the local military base. She saw this as a direct and immediate threat against the safety of her family.
“I was scared,” she said.
On November 3, 2014, Sonia and her family went to the international bridge that separates Matamoros from Brownsville, Texas, and requested asylum in the US.
One week later, an asylum officer heard their case and concluded the family did have credible fear, and their lives could be in danger if they were deported back to Mexico.
The Loredos were turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and that is when matters became even worse for the family.
Sonia’s husband, Juan Manuel, was sent to a detention facility for undocumented migrants seeking asylum in Los Fresno, Texas.
Sonia and her two daughters were sent 380km away to a similar women’s detention facility in Karnes City, Texas.
That was nearly three months ago – and that is where they remain today.
‘We want out of here’
The Loredos became one of thousands of undocumented immigrants seeking asylum who have been placed in detention camps by the US government until their immigration cases can be resolved.
It was at the Karnes City, Texas detention facility where Al Jazeera met Sonia on one recent evening.
Requests by journalists to conduct interviews with asylum-seeking immigrant detainees inside the facility are more often than not denied.
This reporter entered as a guest requesting to speak with Sonia, with her permission, during visitation hours.
Sonia, who has not been accused of committing any crime, is known as detainee A202132712. The A stands for “alien”.
As all visitors do, personal effects were handed over before entering, though one piece of paper and a ballpoint pen were brought in to jot down notes from Sonia, who sat a table in a sterile room with security cameras and thick metal doors.
Instead of being protected ... our country is spending money every day to detain her and her children and her husband. And they have done nothing wrong.
Sonia hasn’t been able to speak to her husband since they were separated. Wearing a sweatshirt, glasses, and a wooden crucifix necklace, she recounted her story in a slow and methodical tone.
But then she started to cry.
“We want out of here,” she said.
“My daughters ask me where their father is. We are a tight family and not used to being apart like this.”
Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the San Antonio office of the Refugee and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), took on Sonia’s case for free, and wrote a parole request to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security.
ICE agreed to release Sonia and her daughters, but set their bail at $7,500. Sonia doesn’t have the money. Her only source of income comes from a part-time cleaning job at the detention facility, in which she makes just $1 an hour.
Ryan said the system has failed the Loredo family.
“Sonia fled to the US thinking we would provide her and her family protection that her own country could not or would not provide to her,” said Ryan, who is trying to raise donations so she and her daughters can be released from detention.
“Instead of being protected, instead of taking an interest in the disappearance of her son, our country is spending money every day to detain her and her children and her husband. And they have done nothing wrong.
“That is a completely upside-down system… What she is going through right now is not what the mother of a disappeared US citizen should be suffering.”
While Ryan said he doesn’t know what happened to Julio, he suspects there was foul play involved.
“The fact is this story involved Julio, a US citizen, and it could well be the fact the very people who kidnapped him didn’t realise until after the fact they did this to a US citizen,” Ryan said. “And it could be the cover-up is related to the immense fear of what could happen if it’s discovered.”
As for Sonia, her future is uncertain.
“I want out of here, but I can’t go back to Matamoros,” she told Al Jazeera.
Asked about her hopes of finding Julio alive someday, she replied softly: “I think he’s probably dead. All I ever wanted was his body, to bury him with dignity.”
Shortly thereafter, a guard walked over to say visiting hours were ending, and it was time to leave.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @ElizondoGabriel