Around 3 a.m. on September 18, 2010, Noemi Martinez Martagon discovered that her son, Luis Alberto Calleja, was gone. He had been out with his wife and two other couples in Poza Rica, Veracruz, a small city close to Mexico's gulf coast. On the Avenue 20 de Noviembre, a thoroughfare busy with bars, clubs and restaurants, federal police took him away, along with the two other men. That night, Martinez Martagon left her house to look for her son in hospitals, police stations and prisons.
Nearly a decade later, Martinez Martagon continues to search for her son, one of the thousands of reported missing victims in the state of Veracruz. This past month, nearly 300 other Mexicans joined families like Martinez Martagon's in Poza Rica as part of the Fifth National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons.
The group, organized by the Mexico City-based Red de Enlaces Nacionales (Network of National Links), brought together participants from 74 collectives of relatives of disappeared persons across 21 Mexican states. In addition to hopes of finding their loved ones, they came together from February 7 to 22 to break the silence around forced disappearance in Mexico.
More than 61,000 missing
The searchers make up but a tiny fraction of Mexico's indirect victims of forced disappearance. As of early January 2020, the Mexican government puts the number of disappeared people at 61,637.
Juan Carlos Trujillo, a brother of four disappearance victims and one of the founders of the Red de Enlaces Nacionales, describes Mexico's crisis as a lottery. "Twelve tickets a day are chosen," he said, referring to an estimate that puts the average number of forced disappearances in Mexico at a dozen a day. "The tickets are free. As Mexicans, we all have them."
Activists suspect the real number could be dozens of times the official count. Many disappearances go unreported, whether due to social stigma or the fear of retaliation by authorities or organized crime.
Disappearances began to increase after former President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs in 2006. Many disappearances, like that of Luis Alberto Calleja, have been tied directly to Mexican security forces. Police forces, particularly in the state of Veracruz, were notorious for working hand-in-hand with the Zetas drug cartel.
In the face of historic government collusion and negligence around disappearance, family members of disappearance victims have taken up shovels and picks to search for their loved ones. Amid a rising wave of violence — 2019 was one of the most violent years in the country's history — this year's search brigade brought together the largest contingent yet.
Earlier this year, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who campaigned in 2018 on a platform of anti-corruption and ending the drug war, publicly promised unlimited government resources to aid in the search for disappeared people. But collectives of disappearance victims have said the federal government has failed to back up its pledge with action. According to coordinators, last year's brigade received significantly more support from government institutions. The National Registry for Victims (RENAVI) had previously covered the full costs for all family members' transportation to the brigade. This year, many participants received partial or no coverage of their travel costs, resulting in nearly a third of registrants being unable to attend.
Juan Carlos Trujillo describes the mission of the search brigade as far more than simply excavating potential burial sites. "These people are taking 15 days out of their life to reconstruct a country," Trujillo said at a press conference to this year's search. "They are taking two weeks to bring a message of peace to Mexico."
This year, that message of peace took many different forms. Some brigade members spent each day searching fields, hills and creeks for human remains, following anonymous tips from residents of the region. Others visited prisons, rehab centers and local coroners' offices to seek out any information about their family members. Still others gave talks and led workshops on forced disappearance in churches, schools and government institutions, including municipal authorities and police forces.
Victims are 'erased'
At the outset of the brigade, Mario Vergara and Miguel Angel Trujillo, who are both searching for their brothers and have specialized in uncovering clandestine graves throughout Mexico, warned the rest of the group that they didn't expect to find many bodies in Veracruz.
In Veracruz, unlike in other sites where the two men have conducted searches, the bodies of the disappeared are rarely found. A practice of destroying the bodies with acid, erasing all traces of DNA, has been common for about a decade. The brigade found evidence of sites where criminal groups had systematically burned bodies in acid or ovens. In other regions, finding the sites of former extermination camps — known in the region as "kitchens" — would be a step toward finding some sort of identifiable human remains, however small, but here the climate and the chemicals used have devoured many of the traces.
"These aren't graves like we're used to," said Vergara, referring to the clandestine graves common in his home state of Guerrero. "Here we aren't going to find people. There are people who were erased. Our question is, how are we going to make the government accept that there were disappearances?"
During the search, the brigade uncovered 12 sites where bodies may have been burned with acid. Members also found dozens of possible burned human bone fragments on a property that state and federal authorities had previously examined four times. The site, known as La Gallera, gave an indication of the chilling brutality that some disappearance victims may have experienced, as well as the negligence with which the state has historically treated disappearance investigations.
On the final day of the brigade's activities, despite a persistent cold rain falling over the city, family members marched through Poza Rica with photos of their disappeared loved ones. They installed a plaque of remembrance, and in the city's Civic Square Noe Amezcua, one of the members of the coordinating team, read out a bulletin presenting their findings.
"We call for the implementation of a holistic search policy in the region," he said. "The state of emergency that this region is experiencing can only be overcome hand-in-hand with the families."