Los Desaparecidos

Women in Sinaloa, Mexico, are searching for the remains of “disappeared” loved ones — and cooking to keep their memories of the dead alive.

Story by Annelise Jolley, videos and photographs by Zahara Gómez Lucini | The Atavist Magazine | November 2021 | 10 minutes (2,364 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 121, “A Feast for Lost Souls,” written by Annelise Jolley and illustrated by Zahara Gómez Lucini.

 

The last time Blanca Soto saw her husband alive, he blew her a kiss.

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When they arrived around 9 a.m., something inside Blanca told her not to get out of Camilo’s truck. But she did anyway, stepping onto the ground and closing the door behind her. “I remember that he was looking at me,” Blanca said. “He didn’t leave right away—he kept looking at me.” Camilo pressed his lips to his fingers, then turned his palm toward his wife.

Blanca moved to get back in the truck, but Camilo already had his eyes on the road. “That was when he drove away,” she said.

When she returned home on foot later that morning, Blanca was overtaken by an inexplicable sickness. First came a pain in her chest, then green vomit that rose up again and again in her throat. Later she would call this a foreboding, a warning.

She went to bed. When she woke up a few hours later, Camilo hadn’t returned. Blanca called his cell phone, but it went straight to voice mail. She tried again; no answer. Next she called one of her sons—she and Camilo had three—then Camilo’s mother, father, brother, and nephew. No one knew where he was.

Blanca went to the public prosecutor’s office, where officials told her she had to wait 48 hours before filing a missing persons report. She gave them Camilo’s name; her husband was a police officer. They took down her statement as a favor. Blanca went home and waited for a call, but one never came—not from the authorities, and not from Camilo.

When people vanish in Sinaloa, they’re almost never seen again. Sometimes drug cartels are responsible; in other cases state security forces are. Often the two sides are colluding—Mexico’s police and military are notoriously corrupt. People are taken because they work for cartels or because they refuse to. Because they buy drugs, sell them, or get in the way of the business. Because they’re in criminal gangs or are believed to be. Because they might be worth a ransom. Because they’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Every morning, Blanca walked to the gate outside her house fearing that she would discover Camilo’s body dumped in the road. She considered leaving town, seeking political asylum in America. But the desire to find her husband kept her in San Blas. She tried to move forward in small ways. She bought a new bed, rearranged the furniture, donated Camilo’s clothes and shoes. She purchased new appliances for the kitchen, hoping that cooking would steady her hands and keep her mind busy.

Pork pozole, a dark, rich stew, was Camilo’s favorite meal. He liked it spicy, the hotter the better, especially when he’d had several beers the night before and was nursing a hangover. Blanca knew the ingredients by heart: pork ribs, beef, hominy, bouillon, oregano, garlic, onion. But Blanca never made pozole anymore. She missed Camilo’s presence in the kitchen, how he placed his hands on her hips and told her to add more chiles: pasilla, guajillo. How he lifted her hair to blow on her neck. She feared that cooking the dish with only Camilo’s ghost by her side would feel like opening a wound.

Camilo had become one of the more than 90,000 husbands, sons, and fathers, wives, daughters, and mothers haunting Mexico. They are los desaparecidos—the disappeared. Blanca didn’t know what circumstances had led to her husband being taken, what he’d done or not done. And like many of the loved ones of Mexico’s missing, she didn’t care. All Blanca wanted was to find Camilo so that she could grieve properly.

Nothing more and nothing less.

***

The countryside in northern Sinaloa is seared and blistered by heat. The landscape is dotted with low scrub brush and drooping palm trees, the green of their fronds muted by relentless sun. I would call the place dry, but the Spanish translation, seco, seems more appropriate—a word that siphons moisture from the back of the tongue when spoken.

As I drove toward Los Mochis on a July day, I watched Sinaloa’s scenery blur through the window. Men selling watermelons from truck beds. Roadside taco stands. Industrial complexes. Fallow fields. Soccer pitches. I wondered: Are bodies hidden there, or maybe there?

Enforced disappearances—the legal term for the abduction of individuals and the concealment of their whereabouts—have plagued Latin American countries for decades. The syntax of the problem is strained by necessity: People don’t disappear, which implies they have a choice in the matter. Rather, they are disappeared, by forces beyond their control. In Mexico, more than 90 percent of disappearances have occurred since 2006, the year then president Felipe Calderón enlisted the military to fight drug cartels. Today a maelstrom of gang and cartel conflict, as well as government and police corruption, continues to sweep up civilians, most of them poor and male. Impunity exacerbates the problem: According to national figures, there were roughly 7,000 disappearances in 2019, but only 351 legal cases were opened. Of those, two were prosecuted.

In contrast to Mexico’s highly visible violence—bodies strung up on bridges or left mutilated on roadsides as messages of intimidation—disappearances leave only questions in their wake. One day a person is there, and the next they are gone. Their loved ones are left to search for something, anything, tangible to mourn.

The impulse to bury the dead is ancient. It may even predate our species: In South Africa, paleo-archaeologists discovered fossilized bone fragments of Homo naledi in deep, nearly inaccessible cave chambers, hinting that pre-humans as far back as 300,000 years may have deliberately laid one another to rest. Early Homo sapiens made burial a rite. They interred bodies with shells, arrowheads, bird wings, and jewels. In Austria, the remains of babies some 27,000 years old were found buried with ivory-beaded animal skins under the shoulder blade of a mammoth, as if for protection.

Today burial is seen as the final physical act of tenderness the living can offer the dead. It provides a sense of completion, of having accompanied someone as far down the road of life as we can go with them. Funerary rites enshrine stories of faith, love, and sorrow, and graves offer the grieving a place they can return to again and again. “Just as the living need places to inhabit, so it is often in the nature of our memory-making to wish to be able to address our dead at particular sites of the Earth’s surface,” writes Robert Macfarlane in his book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. “The grief of those who have been unable to locate the bodies of their loved ones can be especially corrosive—acid and unhealing.”

This is the double cruelty of enforced disappearances: First comes the loss of a life, and then comes the denial of any chance to lay the body to rest.

I traveled to Sinaloa to meet a women-led collective determined to reclaim that chance. They call themselves Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte (The Trackers of El Fuerte), and they are part of a long legacy of civilian women leading campaigns to find Mexico’s disappeared. Rosario Ibarra was the pioneer. When her activist son vanished in 1975 from Monterrey, Nuevo León—he was allegedly abducted by state police—Rosario began searching for him. Along with other mothers and wives of missing persons, she formed Comité Eureka de Desaparecidos (Eureka Committee of the Disappeared), which demanded investigations and justice. Forty-six years after he vanished, Rosario’s son is still missing. Now more than 60 civilian groups across the country are searching for the disappeared.

Formed in 2014, Las Rastreadoras is one of these groups. It has some 200 members, most of them women from El Fuerte, a municipality in northern Sinaloa. They’ve all been touched in some way by enforced disappearances. Many have lost husbands or sons.

Criminal groups across Mexico dispose of bodies in distinctive ways—some burn them, others dissolve them in acid. In El Fuerte, the disappeared tend to be buried in shallow unmarked graves in the countryside. So Las Rastreadoras search the landscape with basic tools: shovels, machetes, spades, picks. The women dig in the dry earth, knowing that to properly bury their dead, they must unbury them first.

They don’t call what they’re looking for bodies, corpses, or remains. To Las Rastreadoras, the dead are tesoros—treasures.

***

Blanca Soto first heard about Las Rastreadoras before Camilo was disappeared. “I felt admiration for them, and at times sadness,” she said. But once her husband was gone, she was scared to join the women. She was paranoid that her own life might already be in danger, and she was wary of drawing attention to herself through public advocacy. Though Las Rastreadoras don’t seek to expose killers or put them behind bars—they only want to find and inter the dead—members of the group have received death threats. It wasn’t until April 2017, five months after Camilo was taken, that a cousin and a friend in Las Rastreadoras convinced Blanca to join a search.

Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, the group scours El Fuerte for human remains. Women who have yet to find their loved ones wear T-shirts printed with the slogan te buscaré hasta encontrarte (“I will search for you until I find you”). Women who have found their missing wear shirts that read promesa cumplida (“Promise fulfilled”).

Mirna Medina is the founder of Las Rastreadoras. A retired schoolteacher who talks fast and commands attention, Mirna has an uncanny memory for dates; her friends say that she remembers the day and year of every disappearance someone in her group is grieving. Mirna’s own date is July 10—the last time she saw her son Roberto alive. Three years to the day after he vanished, she found his remains: four vertebrae and a shard from an arm bone, identified by DNA analysis. Roberto’s was the 93rd body recovered by Las Rastreadoras. He’s now buried in a cemetery, where Mirna visits him. She lights candles, arranges flowers, and presses her fingertips to the photo on her son’s headstone.

Las Rastreadoras regularly receive tips about where bodies might be located. Sometimes the information is shared anonymously or by the police. In other cases a local resident spots something suspicious, such as a patch of turned soil. The women head out to these puntas (points), often accompanied by armed security. They trouble the earth with their tools, then plunge metal construction rods into the ground. When they pull the rods up, the tips are caked with soil. The women sniff the lingering dirt, hoping for a rotting odor—a tell-tale sign of human decomposition.

María Cleofas Lugo, whom everyone in the group calls Manqui, has searched for her son Juan Francisco since June 19, 2015. A photo of his face dangles in a silver frame from a chain around her neck. Manqui is the oldest woman in the group, and she is famed for her sense of smell. With the help of a rod, Manqui can discern what the earth beneath her holds. A clean musk means nothing is there. Sometimes a heavy funk of spoiled meat and sewage coats her nostrils and throat. When Manqui detects this, the smell of death, Las Rastreadoras dig.

Over the years, Manqui has learned the difference between the scent of a body and that of an animal carcass. “The smell of a human being is more penetrating,” she said. Many women can’t handle the odor. Manqui reminds them, “Yes, it smells bad, but it could be our children.”

When they uncover treasure, whether it’s a tooth or a torso, Las Rastreadoras pause over the site. They say a prayer, an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Then they alert the local government forensics team, which can test the DNA of the remains. The women hope for a match—that the treasure they’ve found belongs to someone on their list. Currently, Las Rastreadoras are looking for more than 1,500 missing persons; many are relatives or friends of the group’s members, but others are strangers whose names were supplied by people living in El Fuerte.

On her first dig, Blanca wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t know how to use the tools or watch out for snakes or steel herself against the odor of death. “I went in eagerly but weak,” she said. “I was not a person who went out a lot.” At home, Blanca wore dresses and kept her long hair loose. She was proud of her delicate, shapely feet, which Camilo had always admired. On the search with Las Rastreadoras, the other women teased her because she showed up wearing gloves and carrying an umbrella, hoping to avoid the scorching Sinaloa sun. When Mirna handed her a shovel, Blanca stabbed it into the dirt with so much force that it rebounded into her chest, bringing tears to her eyes.

Blanca’s first search was a negative, which is how the women describe digs that don’t turn up remains. Her second was a positive. The group uncovered a body lying in the fetal position, still mostly intact. “The impression was something horrible,” Blanca said. When she saw the corpse, the air left her lungs and she fell backward. Other women, more seasoned trackers, were there to catch her. One gave Blanca an inhaler. They stayed by her side until she could stand again.

Week in and week out, Blanca continued to search with Las Rastreadoras. “Little by little, I kept on learning,” she said. But she was honing more than her skills with a shovel. Like the other trackers, she was also learning how, in lieu of a body and the closure it provides, to live with loss.

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