In Mexico’s election, candidates grapple with the search for the missing

With voters set to choose a new president, the families of the disappeared reflect on the legacy of outgoing leader Lopez Obrador.

A photo of the Mother's Monument in Mexico City, an obelisk with the statue of a mother holding a child at its base. In front of the monument, the floor is filled with photographs and candles, as families seek justice for their missing loved ones.
Candles illuminate the photographs of the missing placed below the Mother's Monument in Mexico City, Mexico [Chantal Flores/Al Jazeera]

Mexico City, Mexico – Mother’s Day on Friday was a sombre occasion for Joanna Alvear of Toluca, Mexico.

She began her day with hundreds of other women in the shadow of the towering Mother’s Monument, a stone obelisk in the centre of Mexico City.

Most of the women wore the same grim expression: furrowed brows, tightly clenched jaws and piercing eyes, some brimming with tears. Like many of them, Alvear clutched a homemade poster to her chest, its cheery yellow colour belying its heart-breaking plea: “I’m still searching for you. Lilith, I love you.”

She represents one of the estimated 111,000 missing persons in Mexico today.

Every year on Mother’s Day, the families of the “disappeared” join with activists and concerned citizens to march through the streets of the capital, demanding answers in the tens of thousands of unsolved cases.

This year’s protest, however, held special significance. It comes in lead-up to pivotal nationwide elections on June 2, when every seat in Mexico’s Congress will be up for grabs, as well as the presidency.

But as the tenure of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador draws to a close, some question whether his administration has done enough to address the widespread disappearances — and whether his successor can improve upon his track record.

Family members like Alvear said they have had to spearhead their own searches, relying on personal resources in the absence of government support.

In Alvear’s case, her daughter Lilith Saori Arreola Alvear, a 21-year-old transgender woman, went missing while on vacation with friends in Playa Zicatela, Oaxaca, on January 2, 2023.

Months passed, and in desperation, Alvear read Mexico’s Standardised Protocol for Searching for Missing Persons to better understand the investigation. That’s when she started to notice the shortfalls in how her daughter’s case was being handled.

“When I read the approved protocol for searching for missing persons, I realised that, in reality, the protocols that had to be done were not done,” Alvear said.

“So I am a mom who has searched for Lilith with her own resources.”

A woman, Joanna Alvear, holds up a bright yellow poster board, decorated with photographs of her missing daughter and pictures
At the Mother’s Monument in Mexico City, Joanna Alvear holds up a poster of her missing daughter Lilith [Chantal Flores/Al Jazeera]

A president’s promise

Lopez Obrador was voted into office six years ago, in July 2018, after campaigning on the promise of seeking justice for missing persons.

One of the most pressing issues of that election cycle was the case of the Ayotzinapa 43, the mass disappearance four years prior of 43 students from a rural teacher’s college.

The case had plunged the popularity of then-President Enrique Pena Nieto to new lows, as his government oversaw a flawed investigation riddled with alleged cover-ups, inconsistencies and accusations of torture and forced confessions.

But Lopez Obrador promised justice for the Ayotzinapa 43 and other victims — and transparency in any future investigations.

“We will find out where these young men are and punish those responsible,” he said in 2018, standing with the students’ families.

Lopez Obrador ultimately won in a historic landslide: His election marked a blistering defeat for the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as he notched one of the largest margins of victory in decades.

Once in office, the left-wing leader sought to make good on his campaign promises. Just two days after being sworn in, Lopez Obrador announced the creation of a truth commission dedicated to investigating the Ayotzinapa 43.

A man in a knitted full-face mask beats a drum as he marches. His homemade T-shirt reads: Ayotzinapa 43.
A demonstrator at the annual Mother’s Day march wears a T-shirt raising awareness for the missing ‘Ayotzinapa 43’, a group of student-teachers who disappeared in 2014 [Chantal Flores/Al Jazeera]

A legacy in question

But in the years since, sentiment has soured among the families of the missing. Justice remains elusive, and some have accused Lopez Obrador of focusing more on burnishing his own image than producing substantial results.

Under Lopez Obrador’s leadership, the number of disappearances has also continued to climb, surpassing 100,000 in 2022.

An estimated 111,540 people were registered as “disappeared” from January 1962 to September 2023, according to the United Nations, citing Mexico’s own statistics. The vast majority of cases, however, were recorded after 2006, a fact often credited to Mexico’s “war on drugs“.

But critics say Lopez Obrador has tried to cast doubt on those statistics, by conducting a new government census to suss out “false” disappearances.

By December, the new census could only confirm 12,377 cases — a number that families and advocates say fails to represent the true scale of the problem.

“The figures are less, because he [the president] says they are less. Where are our children?” asked Nora Torres, who participated in the Mother’s Day march as part of the group Buscando Nuestros Desaparecidos en Tamaulipas, which searches for the disappeared.

“Most of our relatives do not appear on the registry. Where are they? We want them to tell us where they are.”

The human rights group Amnesty International also pointed out that the new census categorised 80,000 people “ambiguously” to arrive at the new, lower total. It called on the Mexican government “to ensure transparency” and involve the relatives of the disappeared in any further census processes.

Later, in mid-March, Interior Minister Luisa Maria Alcalde said that there are officially 99,729 people missing.

But the government has framed the backlash as part of an opposition smear campaign, and tensions have been running high.

In February, a group protesting the lack of progress in the Ayotzinapa case used a pickup truck to smash a door to the presidential palace. Then, on Monday, protesters threw firecrackers at the palace after eight soldiers accused of involvement in the students’ disappearance were released from pre-trial detention. Twenty-six police officers were injured.

For his part, Lopez Obrador accused reporters and volunteer searchers last week of suffering from a “a delirium of necrophilia” in their search for the missing and presumed dead.

Families and activists march through the streets of Mexico City, carrying banners and posters with the faces of the missing.
The families of the disappeared mark Mother’s Day with an annual march through Mexico City [Chantal Flores/Al Jazeera]

New election, new promises

Many of the women at this year’s Mother’s Day march expressed scepticism that the situation will change under a new administration.

“We do not believe anything. They are pure promises — pure promises for us mothers,” said Torres, who travelled from Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, in northern Mexico, to participate.

Presidents in Mexico are limited to a single six-year term. That means Lopez Obrador cannot run for a second stint as president.

So his protegee, former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, has stepped forward to represent his party, Morena, instead.

Polls show her maintaining a healthy lead over Xochitl Galvez, a senator running on behalf of the conservative National Action Party.

Both candidates have attempted to address public concern about the disappearances — as well as systemic issues like the government corruption used to cover up crimes.

“We must address the causes. We must reduce the crime of disappearance, and we must attend to the victims,” Sheinbaum said on March 19, during a news conference in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.

Both she and Galvez have campaigned on improving public security as part of the solution.

Sheinbaum has largely focused on tackling poverty as a means of lowering crime. But Galvez has taken a stiffer approach, promising to build a high-security prison and use “the necessary bullets” to subdue criminal networks.

On Mother’s Day, Galvez met with the mothers of the missing in the northeastern city of Ciudad Victoria to discuss their concerns.

“There are women who today have nothing to celebrate,” she said at the campaign stop. “There are women who suffer the absence of their children.”

But critics point out that Galvez’s political coalition, Strength and Heart, includes the PRI — the same party that faced criticism for mishandling the Ayotzinapa case before Lopez Obrador’s term.

A woman in a straw hat holds up one side of a large banner that shows the faces of missing people in Mexico. Her T-shirt is likewise printed with the face of a man, Enrique, who has gone missing.
Critics have accused the government of casting doubt on the number of missing people in Mexico [Chantal Flores/Al Jazeera]

Families push for ‘empathy’

Many families have called for this year’s candidates to restore the government bodies once tasked with searching for their missing loved ones.

Within the last year, for instance, the National Search Commission saw its staff reduced by half. The National Centre for Human Identification (CNIH), meanwhile, was dismantled after less than two years in existence.

The centre had been charged with examining the estimated 52,000 unidentified bodies discovered in Mexico since 2006.

But many relatives of those who have disappeared told Al Jazeera they care little which candidate takes power — so long as action is taken to find their loved ones.

“We are neither with one party nor with another. The only thing we want is for whoever is going to be in the government to really do something for us,” said Lourdes Romero Diaz, whose brother-in-law went missing in Mexico City in 2019 along with two co-workers.

Romero explained that the process of filing police reports can be traumatising for the families involved — and the stalled, sputtering nature of the investigations can increase the stress they feel.

“It is quite exhausting,” said Romero. “The worst thing is that our president and our leaders turn a blind eye and say that nothing is happening here, both in Mexico City and in the country.”

But when politicians do pay attention to cases like hers, Romero added that she sometimes questions their motives. She expressed concern that politicians could use the disappearances — and the outrage they arouse — to curry public favour.

“We do not agree that our relatives are used as political loot. They are not an object that they can use to monetise or use in their policies,” she said.

A woman in a pink hat and striped shirt stands with an embroidered message pinned to her chest, containing the name of her missing son surrounded by a heart.
Ana María Velázquez remembers her missing son, Carlos Eduardo Monroy Velázquez, with a message pinned to her T-shirt [Chantal Flores/Al Jazeera]

Another mother in Friday’s march, Ana Maria Velazquez, told Al Jazeera her 20-year-old son Carlos Eduardo Monroy Velazquez disappeared two years ago while trying to cross the border into the United States.

She hopes this year’s candidates will deliver what she and other family members have been longing for: understanding — and answers.

“I would like them to have more empathy because the truth is, we haven’t had any support,” she said. “The state has not given us any response.”

Source: Al Jazeera