Nearly 90,000 Mexicans have vanished in the nation's war on its ruthless drug cartels. It's fallen to families to pick up a shovel and dig for their dead.
Mirna Quiñones was having a beer and seafood with a good friend on a sunny afternoon the day her life would change forever. In the coastal Mexican city of Los Mochis, she was reminiscing about her 21-year-old son, Roberto Corrales Medina. Mirna had married young at 14-years-old and struggled for nine years to fall pregnant.
"We were talking a lot about Roberto," Mirna says, "the amount of love I had for him, how I thanked God for having such a wonderful child. And while I was talking about that, someone was planning to take his life."
Roberto was selling CDs outside a petrol station in Los Mochis when he was abducted. "The last time I saw my son was on July 10, 2014. He said a proper goodbye to me. I remember he hugged me; he gave me his blessing."
When Roberto didn't come home, Mirna filed a missing-persons report, but the authorities and police were indifferent and refused to help. So she went home, grabbed a shovel and a pickaxe, drove to the fields on the outskirts of town and started digging in the dirt for Roberto. She made a promise to herself: "Te buscaré hasta encontrarte" — I will search for you until I find you.
"I thanked God for having such a wonderful child. And while I was talking about that, someone was planning to take his life."
Almost 90,000 people have disappeared in Mexico, the vast majority since 2006 when the government began waging war on the country's powerful drug trafficking cartels, unleashing an epidemic of deadly violence. The victims are mostly young men, some but not all of them involved with the drug cartels.
The perpetrators have been harder to pin down. Hitmen from warring cartels are behind many of the disappearances, but Mexico's military, police and security forces have also been implicated in hundreds of cases. A 2019 report found more than 3,000 secret graves containing the victims of the drug war have been found across the country.
The crisis of Mexico's "disappeared" has burdened thousands of families with the emotional torment of not knowing what happened to their lost loved one. In 2018, a National Search Commission was established to lead the search for the missing and bring certainty to desperate families. Later that year, Mexico's current president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came to power vowing to step up efforts to find and identify bodies. But the number of missing has continued to grow. Last year nearly 7,000 more were reported as disappeared, down only slightly from a record 8,804 in 2019
Los Mochis, on Mexico's north-western Pacific coast, has long been in the grip of one of Mexico's most notorious organised crime syndicates, the Sinaloa drug cartel. It's the city where Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, once Mexico's most powerful drug lord, maintained a secret lair before he was arrested in a blaze of bullets in 2016.[IMAGE map as embed]
Until Roberto disappeared, Mirna had given little thought to the pall of gang violence hanging over her hometown. "I lived in a bubble," she says. "I wasn't interested in the disappearances or the homicides because my life was very separate from the violence." But when Roberto vanished, she knew enough to know what had happened to him.
Bodies had been found in shallow pits, in farmland, atop low hills, in vacant plots and besides riverbeds. So this is where Mirna went to search for her son. She would look for disrupted dirt and mounds in vacant fields on the outskirts of town. After a while, other mothers asked to join her. Then they started getting tip-offs, finding bodies, bits of bone, fingernails.
Javier Valdez, a burly journalist with a Panama hat, started covering Mirna's work in the local newspaper in Culiacan, the large regional city of Sinaloa state. Word got out, donations came in and this once retired schoolteacher set up shop in an old crumbling building on the poor side of Los Mochis.
Now Mirna leads a local group of more than 200 people. Teams of volunteers, mostly mothers of the disappeared, go out two to three days a week and scour the city's surrounding countryside throughout the region of El Fuerte, just north of Los Mochis, searching for bodies. When writing for an article on Mirna, Javier Valdez dubbed the group "Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte", or the Trackers of El Fuerte and that became their official name.
"The moment they walk through the office door, the missing person stops being thought of as missing and starts being thought of as a treasure we have to find."
Over the years the two became good friends. Javier kept covering Mirna's work, partly to keep the tip-offs coming in and to give families hope, and partly out of protection for Mirna herself. She was disrupting more than dirt in the fields just as his investigations on the drug cartels were making political ripples throughout Mexico. Javier became a prominent and internationally recognised author of books on the Sinaloa cartel, corruption and the narco-state. And the risks were great.
Over 120 Mexican journalists have been murdered for their investigations into the cartel economy and Mexican drug wars. Back in 2017, Javier had tweeted at the death of one of his colleagues, "Kill us all if that is the death sentence for reporting this hell. No to silence." He often talked about it with Mirna and worried for her safety. "In 2017 I was out on a search and gunshots were fired into the air and they told us to get out," Mirna says. Her group received many threats during this time.
Mexican journalist Javier Valdez warned Mirna to stay safe. Then he became a victim of cartel violence.
Supplied / Reuters: Jesus Bustamante
On May 15, 2017, Javier was brutally gunned down in broad daylight outside his office in Culiacan, murdered by suspected sicarios, or cartel assassins. His death sparked an international outcry for Mexican journalists' safety and journalistic freedom. Mirna had lost a dear friend. "Javier thought I would be killed first, but it was the other way round," she said in an interview at the time. Since then, the Trackers of El Fuerte always travel with armed security.
At the offices of Las Rastreadoras in Los Mochis, the faces of the missing cover the walls, each poster with a brief description of the lost under the heading "Has Visto a?" — have you seen them? Painted in black on the back wall is the group's logo, a shovel digging for a buried heart.
Mirna works around the clock, always on call waiting for tip-offs, or consoling people who have lost someone. "We take in people whose family members have disappeared and from the moment they walk through the office door, the missing person stops being thought of as missing and starts being thought of as a treasure we have to find."
It's not always clear to the families why their loved ones have been kidnapped or killed. Sometimes it's for ransom, other times young men are forcibly recruited to join criminal gangs or lured in by the money and lifestyle, while others known as "grasshoppers" are killed for switching or belonging to a rival gang. Young women are abducted to be trafficked while others are punished for being the girlfriend of a particular cartel member. Mirna believes more than 70 per cent of the disappeared are caught up in the cartel underworld.
The reason for the disappearance is not important to Mirna. It does not matter what they have done. "Their past is erased," she says. Her only goal is to end the uncertainty for an anguished family. "That is the job of the search team of El Fuerte."
Outside Los Mochis in the fields of Mochicahui, Mirna and two of her fellow Rastreadoras unload their gear and walk down a dusty road through farmland.
Mirna has had an anonymous tip-off that dead bodies are buried in the fields here — the same spot where she found the first body in 2014.
On a bare patch of cracked earth in the corner of a field, the women start to dig.
The methods they use to find the remains are basic — shovels and pickaxes to loosen the surface where they suspect a body might be buried.
Then a long stick is driven into the ground, which the women sniff to detect any smell of decomposition.
Joining Mirna on the dig is Delfina Herrera Ruiz, whose brother Reynaldo disappeared in January 2016 near Los Mochis.
She's been searching for him ever since, having vowed to her mother that she wouldn't rest until he was found.
Reynalda Isabel Rodriguez Peñuelas is here looking for her son Eduardo, who disappeared in February 2016 on a stretch of highway between Los Mochis and Guasave.
Days after Eduardo disappeared, Reynalda joined the Rastreadoras.
Mirna remembers trembling the first time she found a body, but over the years she's become more adept at her grim work and attuned to the stench of death — a "soggy" smell she says sticks in your nose. These days Mirna says she can tell a cow's bones from human remains, or estimate how long a body has been buried. "We're almost anthropologists, expert witnesses, researchers, because of all the training we've done," she says.
If the Rastreadoras find anything — a body, a bone, a set of teeth — it's sent in for DNA testing. If it is a match to one of the more than 1,500 local missing people in the Trackers of El Fuerte records, they go and inform the families in person.
Local government forensics teams have identified over a 120 missing people, more than half related to members of the Trackers of El Fuerte.
The 93rd body they identified was Mirna's son, Roberto. The group found him three years after his abduction. "They killed him, they left him lying there, they buried him," says Mirna. "Why did I only find four vertebrae and a part of his arm? But I am thankful God allowed me to even find pieces of him because the doubts ended." Mirna gave Roberto a full funeral and laid him to rest in a grave she visits regularly.
The Trackers of El Fuerte lobbied the current government to do more to help them find their missing loved ones. They met with the National Search Commission's president who promised they would spare no expense for the searches. They were able to get funding for three forensic cemeteries in Sinaloa and a forensic institute in the northern region to help identify bodies.
"The act of joining the search team eases their emotional toll ... grabbing a shovel and finding the treasures acts as emotional therapy."
Mirna is advocating on the community level where she believes things can change if people just open their eyes and work together. The next generation is an important focus if anything is going to change. "I have worked with many young people and I ask them, 'Do you know you'll be killed?' and they reply, 'I don't care. I know my grave has already been dug'."
This has inspired Mirna to return to the classroom where she reaches out and talks to youth about the pitfalls of cartel life, much of which has been glamourised on popular reality shows, TV series and in music. "Most young people want to be hitmen, dealers, chiefs of gangs… so unfortunately this leads to the cycle of drug usage, selling drugs and finally, belonging to a gang."
Mirna holds workshops in universities, primary and high schools. The first question she asks: who knows or knows of someone that has gone missing? "I can assure you that more than 80 boys will raise their hands saying, 'Me. My neighbour, my cousin, my uncle, my brother…'" Some children whose father or brother have disappeared keep quiet, or reach out to Mirna discretely, fearful of the stigma that comes with a family connection to drug trafficking.
There are now over 60 organisations across Mexico like the Trackers of El Fuerte, where mothers and family members comb the countryside for their missing loved ones. The eternal anguish and grief that families are going through with these disappearances is intolerable. There is no consolation. "When someone disappears you are no longer alive," says Mirna. "You are half alive. You're worn out physically, you lose morale."
But Mirna has found a way to live and work through the loss of Roberto. "There's something really beautiful that has made a mark on me which I share with the women in the search team which is: the act of joining the search team eases their emotional toll. Going out, searching, grabbing a shovel and finding the treasures acts as emotional therapy. It lightens the weight of losing a family member. You feel supported since you're surrounded by people that feel the same pain."
Watch Foreign Correspondent's 'Cartel Country' tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and iview.