The Vanishing: What Happened to the Thousands Still Missing in Mexico?

More than 23,000 people have gone missing during Mexico’s drug wars. Every year, their families make a trek to Monterrey seeking answers.

Grace Rubenstein | Longreads | April 2016 | 19 minutes (4,634 words)

Somewhere in Mexico, someone knows the answer to the question that drives Araceli García Luna day and night. The person or persons who know might be criminals or government officials—or both. The jagged beige mountains around the northern city of Monterrey, which hold so many horrible secrets, surely know. You would think, given the circumstances, that someone would help her find out.

Araceli lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Mexico City. She gets up in the morning and goes to work in maintenance at a local middle school, the same job she’s had for 24 years. She comes home by 5 p.m. and stays there, with two of her grown children, her grandson, and a little frizzy-haired dog named Chiquitín. Araceli doesn’t go out anymore—not for events or unnecessary errands. Except that, once every few months, she packs her purse and a folder full of documents and travels 560 miles to Monterrey. She does this because Juan Lagunilla García is still missing. Because, though the authorities managed three times to find the elusive drug lord El Chapo, almost all of the 23,000 regular Mexicans disappeared in the drug wars remain unfound.

Araceli has made the journey more than thirty times since the first trip in October 2011, the night I met her. And she will keep doing it without fail until she gets an answer to her question: “Where is my son?”

* * *

I first met Araceli on a quiet, leafy street in central Mexico City, where a group of travelers gathered at dusk. The travelers embraced each new person who arrived as if they were friends, though only some had met before. They were a band of brothers and sisters, an unlikely mix of people with one twisted thing in common: each was the parent of an adult child who had disappeared.

Araceli hung back, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a wall under the streetlamp. She was petite and extremely thin, dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, with a grim expression frozen on her creased face. Her voice sounding fragile and distant, she told me what had brought her here. Her 23-year-old son, Juan Lagunilla García, was a federal police officer. Eight months earlier, on Feb. 20, he and a fellow young officer left the Hotel 88 Inn in San Nicolás de los Garza, a dense city bordering Monterrey, shortly after midnight, reportedly to buy more minutes for their cell phones. Four days later, a colleague of Juan’s called Araceli to say they hadn’t returned.

“That is all we know,” she said. “We don’t know any more.”

In the months following his disappearance, Araceli asked the authorities over and over again for news of Juan, updates on an investigation, anything. She’d been called to Monterrey to identify faces in a video of criminals chopping off police officers’ heads with a machete, but none of the men was her son. Other than that: nothing. “They don’t tell you anything,” she said. “They’re not finding anything, they’re not searching. … That’s why I’m here, so they can help me find my son.”

The 14 of us piled into a white minibus, and our journey took on the atmosphere of a shared adventure. The regulars chatted away, catching up with each other. There were Julia and Jaime, polished and poised professionals, owners of a real estate business, whose son disappeared while on a weekend jaunt to a lake outside Monterrey with friends. There was Melchor, an out-of-work furniture salesman. His son was a stubborn street performer, painted all in silver and calling himself the Galactic Cowboy, who ran afoul of the local cops before he disappeared. (Sometimes, it seemed, the police were the kidnapped, and sometimes they were the kidnappers.)

Araceli’s younger son, David

Araceli’s younger son, David, killing time in Monterrey.

Araceli’s younger son, David, was traveling with her. He was 17, and his long black bangs swept sideways across his forehead. His mood was sullen—he didn’t want to be there. All he wanted to do was come of age so that he could join the Mexican marines and search for his brother with military might. “This is useless,” he said. “They do caravans, but they don’t find the disappeared.”

I understood David’s skepticism. What bound these parents together was not just grief—it was the fact that their clamoring for justice fell on deaf ears. The corrupt government, alternately in league with the drug gangs, intimidated by them, or incompetent, did almost nothing. Except for a handful of high-profile cases, the investigators’ files were as empty as the politicians’ words.

Yet these parents were trying a strategy that no one else had tried. To cut through the apathy, they were traveling in person to the northern state of Nuevo León, where their children disappeared, to meet face-to-face with the state attorney general and press for real investigation and prosecution of their cases. As we pulled out of central Mexico City, looking north through a sea of red taillights, these parents-turned-crusaders wanted to see if they could make something happen, if they could get someone to care. And they were determined to do this every single month until they got an answer to Araceli’s own question: Where is my child?

* * *

The journey that Araceli began that night would open a window for me into a side of the drug wars that the public rarely sees.

Mexican ballads jingled on the bus radio as we tucked into our seats for a 12-hour drive. Two federal police cruisers escorted us, one in front and one behind, the blue lights of the front car casting a jittery blue glare on the windshield. The group possessed an electricity, a singularity of purpose—these parents needed to act, to create a kind of agency in their powerlessness. Their journey was propelled by a need to stay constantly in motion, like the bus wheels beneath us. If the parents stopped moving for more than a moment, they feared their children would be truly gone, forgotten.

I had come to learn. I had been living in Mexico that spring when the issue of disappearances exploded in the media. Everyone knew about the murders. President Felipe Calderón had come into office in late 2006 with the intention to use military force to break the drug cartels, which had previously done their business and bought off officials with a wink and a nod from the government, and with less public bloodshed. Calderón’s strategy backfired. It unleashed a cycle of government-cartel and cartel-cartel battles, and the tally of the dead mounted: to 40,000, then 50,000 and higher. But disappearances weren’t widely recognized.

Then, in March 2011, criminals miscalculated, killing the son of well-known poet Javier Sicilia. What had been Mexico’s dirty little secret was suddenly national news. Sicilia’s grassroots organization, the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad, led bus caravans on protest tours through three dozen Mexican cities. Thousands of participants flooded city squares, where once-demure mothers from small villages took the microphone to command their government: “Find my son. Find my daughter. Uphold justice.” They contested the standard government line that most of those killed in drug violence were criminals. In a rare act of justice, authorities arrested people alleged to have killed Sicilia’s son. Yet when the caravan concluded, victims’ families found increased visibility and political sway—but very few arrests or solved cases. The status quo remained.

I saw in the parents’ protests a battle for the soul of Mexico, a critical fight for the future of a country that I had come to love. Mexico is deeply layered, a country that lives at the heady crossroads between pulsing, commercial modernity and traditions as old and earthy as making tortillas with bare hands. The Mexicans I got to know included quiet artisans and bohemian surfers, eager mathematicians, auto mechanics who are gorgeous salsa dancers, urbanites with BMWs, and intellectuals with visions of a better day for their nation.

Even now, when I mention disappearances in Mexico, most people I know in the United States are only aware of the 43 college students who disappeared from the town of Iguala in 2014, apparently abducted by some sick combination of drug gangs and local police (and allegedly with the collusion of higher authorities). They don’t realize that there are actually more than 23,000 people across Mexico who have disappeared—and that’s only by government counts. Taken for crossing the wrong person or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these people have vanished into the dark night of the drug wars’ violence and chaos, whether or not they were involved.

Jaime

Jaime

The families on our trip would not accept the vanishing. Beyond the city limits, our bus stopped at a brightly lit gas station amid dark hills. We bought snacks—orange-flavored cookies, spicy peanuts, cinnamon rolls—and shared them, like any other road-trip companions, shivering in the brisk night air. “Let’s go, babies!” chimed Jaime, in English, as he jumped back into the front seat. The first snores began after 11 p.m. We passed through the states of Querétaro and San Luis Potosí, entering flat, empty country where patches of clouds partly obscured the half moon.

Somewhere out there could be unseen graves that held bodies. That was what the killers and kidnappers usually did with their victims: buried them in the mountains, stashed them in caves, or dissolved their bodies in acid. It was not unheard of for abductees to be conscripted into labor for the cartels. But there on the minibus, the overwhelming likelihood was that all these parents’ children were dead. No one spoke about it. Araceli said she still hoped to find her son alive. Far off to the right, I saw the lights of a little town with a neon blue cross atop its church spire.

Monterrey mountains

The mountains near Monterrey, as viewed from the bus.

We arrived in daylight at the offices of the local human rights group Ciudadanos en Apoyo a los Derechos Humanos (CADHAC) and tumbled out into a sea of other searchers. In an instant, this small band of fighters multiplied tenfold. There was Javier Sicilia, the grieving poet, and human rights leader Emilio Álvarez Icaza. The rooms were filled with people like the parents on our bus, carrying photos and handmade signs. One mother held her son’s high school report card and jiu jitsu medals. But Álvarez quickly got down to business; we had to get to the attorney general’s office.

“What do you think?” I asked Araceli.

“It’s nice,” she said. “It’s not the same as finding my son.”

* * *

March

Protesters march to the attorney general’s office.

The crowd marched several blocks to the attorney general’s office and took up residence on the patio in front of the glass doors. Family members of the disappeared began entering the building for meetings in groups of five. Attorneys general in Mexico oversee the public prosecutors, tasked with investigating crimes and determining if there is enough evidence to go to court. The officials were expected to share any new information they’d found, while the families pressed them for more progress. These Monterrey summits had begun four months earlier, when the caravan arrived in town and demonstrators marched from the plaza to the attorney general’s office to demand action. Nearly thirty cases would be heard today, many of them for the first time.

Julia and Jaime 2

Julia and Jaime, center. Melchor at far left.

Outside, the crowd chanted and marched in circles, carrying posters bearing pictures of missing sons, grandsons, brothers, cousins, and daughters, turning the patio into a forest of images of the missing. Araceli and David stood quietly apart, leaning against a wall, awaiting their turn for a meeting. All Araceli wanted to do today was file her official report. She hoped that, with the movement backing her, she could finally get the officials’ attention. “If I go to the prosecutors’ office on my own, they tell me to wait, they say they’ll take my claim later,” she said. “With the movement I’ll get in there quickly and get the investigation started.”

Mother and son wait 2

Araceli and David.

David smoked some of his mother’s cigarettes and looked bored. “This is only for filing paperwork,” he said. “But finding them? I don’t think so.” David remembered his brother as peleonero, a fighter. They used to skateboard and go to parties together. “He liked adrenaline,” David said. His mother remembered him as caring and responsible, a boy who hung his head when she scolded him for not doing what he was told. As a teen, Juan trained at a competitive soccer academy until his family couldn’t afford the fees anymore. As a federal police officer, he sent money from his paycheck home. When he disappeared he was studying online for a bachelor’s degree in law, though he did not plan to become a lawyer; he liked being police.

Since Juan’s disappearance, David had taken to drinking. His mother said the pink scars on his neck and chin were from a recent fall. Late one night, drunk, he had toppled off the roof of their three-story apartment building.

Protesters at the front doors of the attorney general's office.

Protesters at the front doors of the attorney general’s office.

The meetings went slowly. As the hours wore on, the crowd started inviting people to step into the center of the circle and call the name of their desaparecido. For each person, the group chanted in response, “We want them here!” Araceli watched from a distance. Then, to my surprise, she got in line. When her turn came, she pronounced her son’s name and that of the other officer who disappeared with him, speaking in a clear, strong voice. It was the first time she ever publicly called her son’s name as a member of the missing. The crowd enveloped her with their response:

“We want them here!”

 

Candles 2

Jaime sat to the side in his black-and-plum striped shirt, his posture straight, gazing quietly around. He was waiting for Julia to emerge from the building and tell him what the investigators had to say. He said he was prepared to find his son alive or dead. Even if he were found dead, Jaime said, “Then at least you can bury him. You can cry. You can bring him flowers, and then move on to whatever comes next.” This was the cruelty of having a desaparecido, not a muerto: uncertainty.

The patio that day felt so distant from the drivers of the drug trade and the drug war. Beyond Calderón and the criminals, the other people whose decisions had brought us here couldn’t even see us. The United States, for example, supplies hundreds of millions of dollars a year in equipment and training to Mexican federal forces to back the drug war. Additionally, high-powered guns, sold freely in the U.S., flow over the border and into cartels’ hands (some 70 percent of weapons recovered by Mexican law enforcement originated in the U.S.). And American drug buyers help pay for those guns, unconscious of the killing of innocents that their $100 billion a year in drug purchases are funding, while the rest of us do little to heal their addictions. Even the recreational user, buying on the illegal market, makes a contribution. As everyday citizens in America, we read the abstract numbers of Mexicans killed in the drug war and don’t connect them to ourselves.

Julia walked out, and Jaime sprang up. She said the authorities had told her “nothing important. Same as usual.”

After 9 p.m., with the meetings concluded, the band from the bus retired to a nearby house belonging to local social-service organizations. The day’s report was mixed: Melchor, father of the Galactic Cowboy, had received bad news. Two of the police suspected to be involved in his son’s disappearance were supposed to be arrested, but they went on vacation and didn’t come back (a third was already arrested). He figured someone had tipped them off. Was he surprised? He crinkled up his nose as if to say, “Naah.” Araceli, however, had filed her papers, and she was content with that. It was a start.

Our group bedded down with thin blankets on a hard concrete floor. A few people lingered outside, chatting and smoking, until the mistress of the house shooed them inside. Just two nights ago, she said, cartel members parked a truck at the end of the driveway and stayed a while, who knows why. We didn’t want to attract more attention. A fellow traveler made a machine-gunning motion to make sure I understood.

We left at dawn, passing by concrete shops and offices, people walking the streets and waiting at bus stops on their way to work—the tenacity of everyday life. The parents, at last, relaxed, joking about how they were going to buy an island where everyone who wants to live in peace could live. They were in stitches remembering how Melchor had suggested in a media interview the night before that one significant advance would be for the attorney general to resign. The key now, Jaime said, was an upcoming hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Araceli and David returning home.

Araceli and David returning home.

Around midday, someone got a call saying another bus would be leaving from Mexico City’s main square at 1 a.m. that night for a weekend protest in Guanajuato. Who was in? Jaime, Julia, and several others said yes. David napped with his head in his mother’s lap.

We reached Mexico City in the evening. Araceli said the journey had been worth it; she planned to go on the next one. David said they had accomplished nothing. He still wanted to join the marines, despite his mother’s objections. “There’s no way she can convince me not to,” he said.

As we pulled up to our stop in the center of the city, one of the travelers turned around in the bus doorway and called out to the others: “See you in the square at midnight!” Their mission would keep moving.

* * *

I saw Araceli again last summer in Mexico City. Her husband, Gerardo Lagunilla Gomez, a mild-mannered taxi driver, picked me up in a downpour. He and Araceli had been separated and estranged for twelve years until Juan’s disappearance reconnected them as friends.

The political landscape we traveled through was largely the same as four years before—and it remains so. President Enrique Peña Nieto replaced Calderón in 2012. He campaigned in part on a promise to change the bloody drug-war strategy of his predecessor, but it’s unclear what is different now. The violence has eased in Monterrey, yet it’s getting worse in other places, including Mexico City. The total body count since the drug war started now stands at over 80,000, with some estimates putting it far higher. Peña Nieto in 2013 signed a much-anticipated General Victims’ Law, which allows for financial compensation for victims’ families and spells out protections for those seeking justice. However, human rights watchers say it hasn’t made a dramatic difference.

In fact, for most victims’ families, little has changed. The hearing at the Inter-American Commission that Jaime was so hopeful about did take place; Julia testified. But the commission is not empowered to force Mexico to do anything. Poet Javier Sicilia, exhausted, has partly withdrawn from public life. His Movimiento por la Paz is less active now, though CADHAC and several other grassroots groups remain.

David photo 2

David at a rest stop in the state of San Luis Potosí.

Against all odds, however, it turns out that the recurring meeting strategy in Monterrey has made some impact. CADHAC has registered nearly 400 disappearance cases involving more than 1,300 victims since 2009. Among those cases, state attorneys have brought at least 87 suspects to court—18 of whom had worked as police. Twenty people have been sentenced. One local police officer was even convicted of taking part in the disappearance of a 17-year-old.

Melchor 2

Melchor.

Among the cases in Monterrey that appear to have been solved is Melchor’s. Francisco Romero, a lawyer working with the families, provided the alleged details. A witness surfaced who said that the Galactic Cowboy and other innocent bystanders were picked up along with a friend who had gotten in trouble with a cartel. The idea was to rough them up, not necessarily to kill them. But one of the men died in the beating, so then they were all killed. Local police allegedly took part at least in the disappearance, if not the killing. However, Romero expects it will be difficult to try or convict the suspects, as there is only one witness. Melchor learned all of this last summer at a meeting in Monterrey.

There has been no such resolution in Jaime and Julia’s case. Or in Araceli’s.

Gerardo drove me across the rain-drenched city. “The police keep telling us to wait and wait,” he said. “But I don’t know what we’re waiting for.” He pulled up at Araceli’s apartment in a working-class neighborhood called Ciudad Neza. At the base of the stairs, 4-year-old Casandra scampered toward Gerardo and leapt into his arms. This was Juan’s daughter, born months after he vanished, visiting the family today—a grandchild I didn’t know they had.

Photo of Juan from Araceli's wall.

Photo of Juan from Araceli’s wall. Courtesy of Lagunilla García family.

I found Araceli even more shrunken than before. Her apartment was a low-ceilinged place dimly lit with bare bulbs. Above the couch was a dark purple wall with family photos: black-and-white shots of all three children when they were little, and a stunningly beautiful portrait of Araceli around age 18, with full cheeks and piercing eyes. There were also her daughter’s academic degrees (she teaches elementary school) and a framed photo of an adult Juan in his police uniform, sitting relaxed on a set of stairs, carrying a gun the size of his arm, checking his cell phone. Araceli said David was still drinking. He had not yet managed to pass the marines placement exam, but he wanted to try again. Even now, Araceli said she still hoped to find Juan alive.

When I asked about Juan’s case, Araceli produced manila envelopes full of official minutes of her meetings with the attorney general. They contained lots of procedural language, some unfollowed leads, and no answers. The minutes of the most recent meeting included this list of commitments from state prosecutors:

  1. Petition federal prosecutors to search for and locate the missing federal police officers.
  2. Request a copy of the statements made by suspects in the investigation conducted in San Nicolás de los Garza.
  3. Ask the National Security Commission for the employment status of the federal police officers who were probably involved.

The documents named several people—the suspects mentioned above—who were arrested on other charges and who said while in custody that they’d taken part in the kidnapping and killing of a couple of federal police in San Nicolás around the time the two officers disappeared. The criminals did not provide the police officers’ names or say where they took them. Yet, inexplicably, the criminals weren’t questioned further. Could this really be all investigators had found in four years?

Romero, the lawyer, would later fill in the gaps. He said the state prosecutors charged with investigating crimes seemed sincere about their task, but they struggled to get any useful information out of the federal police. And after four years of that, their efforts were losing steam. Their meetings with families have waned from monthly to bi-monthly to quarterly—though the federal Executive Commission for Victims Assistance pays for the families’ travel. Patricia Manzanares, mother of the other officer who disappeared, had a less charitable interpretation: “I believe they don’t really want to investigate,” she said. “Once they see clearly that there were government officials participating in this business, they pull back.”

What of the story about how the two officers left the hotel to recharge their phone minutes, then disappeared? “That’s the official version, from their bosses,” Romero said. But there is no evidence that they ever exited the hotel, which served as their unit’s headquarters, and the “facts” provided by the officers’ unit commander leave a chasm of doubt.

Romero suspects the officers actually were taken directly from the hotel. His recounting went like this: The commander said an officer logging comings and goings at the hotel reception area saw Juan and his colleague leave after midnight that night, but no such clerk has ever testified. The commander said that officers assigned to investigate the case watched a security camera video showing the men leaving at that time—but when state investigators asked for the video, the commander said he didn’t know where it was. It was this same commander who purportedly questioned the criminals who purportedly had knowledge of the crime, but didn’t pursue those leads further.

And one more thing. When the two officers supposedly left the hotel to refill their mobile minutes, the second officer, Juan Manzanares, left behind two critical things: his wallet and his cell phone. These items were recovered in the hotel, minus the cash and cards in the wallet.

“If there’s one thing that’s very clear, it’s that they [the federal police unit] did not investigate,” Romero said. It’s unclear, however, what could have been the motive for the men’s abduction, or why that federal police unit would want to keep its business private.

I called and emailed the Nuevo Leon prosecutors’ office and the National Security Commission, which oversees the federal police, multiple times for their perspective. They did not respond.

* * *

“I dared to write this,” Araceli said, and showed me a one-page letter she’d penned the year before to President Peña Nieto, after he publicly honored a number of federal police killed—but not disappeared—on duty. A secretary at work helped her type the letter, which asked Peña Nieto for a meeting to discuss the details of her son’s case. Desperate, Araceli hand-delivered it to the federal executive office on Mexico City’s main square. She hasn’t received a reply.

Juan in his mother's living room.

Juan in his mother’s living room. Courtesy of the Lagunilla García family.

Our visit happened to take place just a week after the infamous drug kingpin El Chapo’s second escape from prison. Mexicans, keenly aware of collusion between government and organized crime, joked that the elaborate tunnel through which El Chapo reportedly escaped was merely a decoy; Mexico’s most wanted man actually walked right out the prison’s front door.

Thinking about that, at last Araceli animated. Her voice became stronger, quicker, alive with anger. “It would have been better if I’d schooled my son to be a criminal, not an honest person,” she said. “I think the government protects the criminals more than it protects honest people.”

What could fix the country’s corruption? The government seems too sick to heal itself. Many Mexicans I spoke with wanted the United States to legalize drugs and turn off the firehose of illicit money flowing to the violent gangs—a staggering cash flow that has helped El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel reap more annual revenue than Univision. To that end, human rights groups have organized another caravan that’s currently making its way through Central America and the United States, to conclude at the United Nations session on drugs on April 19. Foreign investors also hold powerful influence and could potentially pressure Mexico to create a stable place to do business. Gerardo, driving me home that afternoon, said he thought the solution was a new wave of independent politicians. He thought Mexico’s first independent governor, a tough-talking rancher known as El Bronco newly elected in Nuevo León, could be the beginning. Time will tell.

That night, I worried acutely that, as one of the only outsiders who has recently shown interest in her son’s disappearance, my own visit might give Araceli hope. At least four times during our hour-long discussion, I’d said to her: “I don’t think my article is going to make a difference. I don’t think my article can make them find your son.” Eventually she seemed to accept the idea that the article could, at least, help inform the world of what is happening in Mexico—of the exquisite human cost of a military-grade drug war, one promulgated by Mexico, equipped on both sides by American firearms, and fueled substantially by America’s appetite for drugs.

Until that changes, Araceli and the other families will remain in motion.

* * *

Grace Rubenstein is a journalist, editor, and producer specializing in immigration and the science of health and society. You’ll find her forging stories at the San Francisco Writers Grotto.

* * *

Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles