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Mexico's drug war disappearances leave families in anguish

Thousands of people have vanished without a trace – some caught up in violence, others for no reason anyone can fathom. Relatives remain in agonized limbo.

March 07, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Central American migrants attend a prayer service at a shelter in Lecheria, Mexico. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to kidnappings.
Central American migrants attend a prayer service at a shelter in Lecheria,… (Alexandre Meneghini, AP )

Reporting from Mexico City — They had scraped together money for a vacation in the port city of Veracruz. Four couples, owners of small fruit and taco shops, from the quiet state of Guanajuato.

After checking in to their hotel and spending the day by the pool with their children, the husbands wandered off, still in their shorts, to buy ice at a nearby 7-Eleven. Maybe they decided to pop into a bar, one the hotel guard recommended.

At first, the wives weren't too worried when the men didn't come back. Even the next morning, the women figured they had tied one on and slept it off somewhere. They took their children on a tour of the city. But by nightfall, the wives became nervous, and as cellphone calls went unanswered, they became terrified.

Where were their husbands?

That was nearly a year ago. The four men have not been seen since. Their families have received no ransom demand, no information, no clues whatsoever. Their bodies have not turned up.

"It was as if the earth swallowed them," one of the wives said in an interview.

In a chilling byproduct of the drug war raging in Mexico, thousands of people have disappeared. Not killed, as far as is known; not taken for ransom. Simply vanished, leaving families desperate and broken, and a society confused and frightened.

Some are low-level drug gangsters "lifted," to use the local vernacular, by rivals, then killed and dumped in secret mass graves. Some are last seen in the hands of the military or police, picked up for questioning, fates unknown. Thousands of others are immigrants who can't pay their smugglers.

And some, in the most unsettling instances, disappear for reasons no one can fathom.

Families tell themselves their loved ones were taken by traffickers and forced into slave labor in marijuana fields and methamphetamine labs. It may be true in some cases, but more often it is a form of self-deluding comfort.

The disappearances are a disturbing echo of a tactic employed by dictatorships in the so-called dirty wars that plagued parts of Latin America in the last half of the 20th century.

Whether practiced by governments or by criminals, it is a form of control and intimidation that in some ways has an even more profound effect on society because it is an "ambiguous loss," said psychologist Carlos Beristain, a Spaniard who has counseled families of the missing throughout the region.

Few cases are ever resolved, with authorities overwhelmed by record-high killings. Senseless brutality engulfs families in uncertainty, leaving them unable to mourn, unable to move on. It is a wound, as many put it, that does not stop bleeding.

A state of limbo

The couples who traveled to Veracruz were on a long-anticipated vacation last May, with 10 children among them, staying at the Howard Johnson hotel in the lively port city and popular tourist destination. The men were in their late 30s, early 40s. They were wearing shorts, sandals and the red wristbands that showed they were hotel guests when they ventured out that last night.

"We never imagined it would be dangerous," one of the wives said. She asked her name not be published out of reluctance to antagonize authorities who initially showed interest in the case but have since moved on to other crimes, including more than 300 other disappearances in Veracruz.

Their wives frantically searched for them in the days that followed, driving all over the city, reporting to every police station, the Red Cross, hospitals, the military and the local television station. They dialed their husbands' cellphones, but there were no answers. Weeks turned to months. Nothing.

The only clue came when one of the men's ATM cards was used two days after the disappearance. And someone told them the bar that the men might have gone to, New Fantasy, was a den of danger, full of "narcos."

Reyna Estrada's husband vanished with 11 others two years ago when they were on a trip to the northern border state of Coahuila to sell paint.

She says the families have been left in a state of limbo.

"You aren't a widow. You aren't a wife. My husband simply is not here," she said. "You cannot mourn."

Estrada's husband, Jaime Ramirez, traveled with the 11 other men from their homes in the state of Mexico, a couple of hours outside Mexico City, to a small Coahuila town called Piedras Negras. Vendors of house paint and other construction supplies, they were on a sales trip, traveling in two vans. Ramirez was 48; the eldest was 50 and the youngest 16, helping out his uncle.

They were last seen late one night at a gasoline station, not far from a military checkpoint. Coahuila has been quietly seething with drug violence for some time, especially as the paramilitary drug gang known as the Zetas takes over part of the state.

Relatives have repeatedly traveled to the area in an attempt to find out more, but to no avail. No witnesses have come forward, and one human rights activist warned they risked being killed if they pried too far.

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