Dawn Paley

This Mother’s Day, Hortensia Rívas Rodriguez wasn’t at home enjoying brunch with her family. Instead, she traveled from her home in Piedras Negras to join thousands of other mothers searching for their disappeared children in Mexico. Rivas Rodriguez, a retired police officer, founded a group called the Association of Families United in Searching and Finding Disappeared People in August, 2013, just over a month after her son Víctor Manuel Guajardo disappeared. 

Since its founding, the group has gone from representing eleven families to including over 160 cases of forced disappearances in a region directly across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, that includes the city of Piedras Negras, and the towns of Allende, Morelos, Nava, Villa Unión, and Zaragoza. Rivas claims that in less than two years, her group has managed to find around eighty of those disappeared. Some were found dead. Others were tracked down to police stations, army bases, and prisons where they were found alive, but tortured and beaten by government officials.

Rivas Rodriguez’ son Víctor was taken from his house while his wife and children watched. The kidnappers were members of Coahuila’s elite SWAT team (Special Weapons and Tactics Group-GATE), which was formed in 2009. When Rivas went to the GATE’s headquarters in Piedras Negras, she was received by one of the men who participated in the disappearance of her son. She managed to catch a glimpse of Víctor in one of their vehicles, but has never heard anything since.

“I know, we all know, it’s an open secret what is happening in Coahuila,” said Rivas in an interview in Mexico City, and it has to do with the SWAT team operating in the state. The GATEs “are a group that the governor allowed to operate in Coahuila, to increase security, he said. But in reality, what they’re doing is disappearing. They are the criminals, because it is them who took my son, all of our disappeared, the majority, were taken by [the GATEs]. It is the authorities, that’s what is happening in Coahuila.”

Families United say the GATEs have been involved in at least sixty cases of forced disappearance in the region. The group has also been accused of carrying out threats, arbitrary detentions, intimidations, robberies, and beatings, and even of planting explosive devices at a police station and a city hall in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. According to Ariana García Bosque, a lawyer who works with Families United, GATEs routinely detain and torture people for two or three days before handing them over to authorities. They justify their actions by allegedly claiming the detained were involved in organized crime. Meanwhile, the governor of Coahuila has dismissed out of hand claims that the GATEs are involved in criminal activity.

The swelling ranks of Families United is a testament to the ongoing crisis of forced disappearances in the state of Coahuila. Two other members of the organization I interviewed at the Mother’s Day march told me how their sons were disappeared and how, in both cases, government agents were involved in perpetrating or covering up the crimes.

Ana María, from Allende, Coahuila, told a chilling story that puts official involvement in forced disappearance on full display. On March 2, 2012, after he had gone out to run an errand, her son, José Willyvaldo Martinez Sandoval, didn’t return home. When she called local police to ask if they’d seen her son, Ana María was told he’d been arrested for drinking in public. 

The next morning he was dropped off at his house by a municipal police officer, badly beaten and tortured. Later that day, an armed commando entered the family home and kidnapped Willyvaldo’s older brother who was beaten and eventually brought to hospital by municipal police. The armed men returned to Ana María’s house yet again and snatched Willyvaldo a second time, disappearing him. Willyvaldo has never been seen again. “I want answers about the disappearance of my son three years ago,” said Ana María. “I want to know where they left him.”

And though she marched together with thousands of people in Mexico City, Ana María was afraid to give her full name for fear of reprisals. Allende is a town of approximately 20,000 people where everyone knows everyone, she said. Fear reigns.

Yolanda Gonzalez Gómez traveled to the march and walked, holding an image of her son Julian Prieto Gonzalez, who was disappeared March 31, 2010 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, together with two other youths and an older man. The men were crossing from McAllen, Texas, and were last heard from when they stopped for something to eat along the way. In August of the same year, the family was provided with an updated photo of Julian, and was alerted that their son had been located. He was at the District Attorney’s Office in Escobedo, on the edge of the city of Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon. Upon arriving, the family was told by authorities that the young man had never been there. 

Gonzalez Gómez has since seen new photographs of her son with serious wounds posted on Facebook, leading her to investigate a hospital in the Dominican Republic where the young man is alleged to have been interned, without success. Gonzalez Gómez and her husband, who live on approximately US$300 a month, borrowed money to be able to make the trip to Mexico City and hold their son’s face up among the multitude of images of the disappeared during the march that day.

Being linked with a group like Families United helps the women in their search, and connecting with other families searching for their disappeared relatives provides some solace, they said. But the pain and heartbreak of not knowing where their children are is something they live with every day. 

The crisis in northern Coahuila, which is driven by state forces and maintained by iron clad impunity, is but one of the violent epicenters of the war on drugs in Mexico. At least 27,000 people have been disappeared in Mexico since the war on drugs began in Mexico in December, 2006. The mass disappearance of forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero has raised national and international awareness about state involvement in these crimes, which appears to increase in frequency as militarization increases in the name of fighting the drug war.

It is difficult to understand exactly why these disappearances happen. Unlike in Argentina in the 1970s, or in urban areas in Guatemala during the internal conflict, authorities are not known to be working from lists in order to target victims. Rather, entire groups of young men of a certain age and from poorer families appear to be targeted en masse, though of course people from other demographics are also among the disappeared. The question of why this is happening in Mexico is one that may become clearer as time passes. 

But for people directly affected by this war, like Hortensia Rivas, such questions are of little import. “I used to ask myself why they would take [the young men away]… Now, I don’t even ask that, now, I just ask where they are, that’s the only thing I want to know,” she said.

Feature Image: Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images

Dawn Paley is the author of Drug War Capitalism. She is based in Mexico. Follow her on Twitter at @dawn_.