Mexico has long struggled with a history of kidnapping. As of October 5, there were 105,984 people officially listed as disappeared in Mexico. More than a third have disappeared in the past few years, during the current government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO. Many of those missing are thought to have been kidnapped or forcibly recruited by criminal organizations. Most are likely dead, their remains buried in clandestine graves in rural areas, neighborhoods, and farmlands or scattered in the vast unoccupied terrain near the US-Mexico border. Some may be among the more than 52,000 unidentified bodies lying in morgues, common graves, and universities. Around a quarter are women and girls, most likely victims of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, or femicide.
In a departure from previous administrations, AMLO’s government has publicly recognized the scale of the crisis and strengthened search and identification efforts. In March 2019, it inaugurated the National Search System, a mechanism that seeks to coordinate efforts among government agencies in the search for the disappeared. When the system launched, Karla Quintana, the head of the National Search Commission, recognized the work families have been doing on the ground, “virtually alone for years.” She promised: “Never again alone.”
But the authorities are still hesitant to get involved in the search for the missing. And so the task continues to fall on families. Much of the work they do now happens over social media, where people widely distribute photographs of missing relatives, coordinate search efforts, and raise awareness of the problem. Through WhatsApp, Twitter, swear Facebook, Madres Buscadoras has created a platform to engage citizens and work to accelerate the search for the disappeared. Every day, the group receives information about missing people and the location of possible graves—so many that they don’t have the resources to investigate them all.
The work is not without challenges. When Madres Buscadoras began searching for bodies in Chulavista, they were closely watched—and photographed—by local authorities. After the collective meeting with the governor of Jalisco, the local police joined the search the following day. Ultimately, Madres Buscadoras uncovered 221 jumbo trash bags of body parts. By April, the prosecutor’s office said the official tally was up to 44 bodies, with bags still to process.
Families who conduct their own investigations can face opposition and threats both from organized crime and from government officials, who may collude with organized crime groups and may not like the optics of a hunt for missing people in their region. Under the country’s landmark General Law of Forced Disappearance, which was approved in 2017 after pressure from families, authorities must take immediate steps to search for a missing person and investigate the crime, yet this is still not the reality for thousands of families. “Although things have changed a little, it has always been the same situation on the part of the authorities. They shake things off, saying ‘It’s not up to us, it’s up to others,’” says Martín Villalobos, a member of the National Citizen Council, a consultative body of the National Search System.
But other parts of Mexican society are now responding to the plight of the families. “Social networks work very well here. People have been supporting us a lot even though they don’t have disappeared relatives,” says Araceli Hernández, who used to be a member of the main Madres Buscadoras group but recently formed a new collective. “The simple fact of listening to the pain of a mother, an aunt, makes them support us with tools, groceries, water, Gatorades, and tons of information. That makes us hold on tighter.”
On October 30, 2015, Ceci Flores’s then 21-year-old son, Alejandro Guadalupe, disappeared without a trace in the city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa. Less than four years later, on May 4, 2019, hit men kidnapped her other two sons—Marco Antonio and Jesús Adrián—in her home state of Sonora.