Volunteers hunting for Mexico’s ‘disappeared’ become targets

Published : 24 Jul 2021 01:40 AM

AP, Mexico City

The mainly female volunteers who fan out across Mexico to hunt for the bodies of murdered relatives are themselves increasingly being killed, putting to the test the government’s promise to help them in their quest for a final shred of justice: a chance to mourn.

Those who carry on the effort tell tales of long getting threats and being watched — presumably by the same people who murdered their sons, brothers and husbands.

But now threats have given way to bullets in the heads of searchers who have proved far better than the authorities at ferreting out the clandestine burial and burning pits that number in the thousands. Two searchers have been slain the past two months.

Aranza Ramos had spent over a year searching for her husband, Bryan Celaya Alvarado, after he vanished Dec. 6, 2020. That day he became one of Mexico’s 87,855 “disappeared” people. Most are thought to have been killed by drug cartels, their bodies dumped into shallow graves or burned.

Searchers have learned over the last decade, since the height of Mexico’s 2006-2012 drug war, that the gangs often use the same locations over and over again, creating grisly killing fields.

It was at one such field, known as Ejido Ortiz, in the northern border state of Sonora, where Aranza Ramos had been helping search on July 15 — the day she herself was killed.

“In Ejido Ortiz several clandestine crematoriums have been found, some still smoking and burning when they were found,” Ramos’ search group said in a statement. “This ejido (collective farm plot) is an active extermination site.” 

So active that searchers say they get nervous when the burials they happen on are too fresh. It means the killers may still be around and using the site.

After a day of searching — the volunteers plunge metal rods into the soil to release the tell-tale odor of death — Ramos returned to her home near the city of Guaymas. Just before midnight, she was abducted from her home. The killers drove her a short distance and dumped her bullet-ridden body on the roadside.

Cecilia Duarte, who has spent three years working with the search group “Buscadoras por la Paz” (Searchers for Peace), attended meetings with Ramos in the week before she was killed. Duarte, who found the body of her own missing son and is now searching for a missing nephew, said Ramos always tried to play it safe.

“She tried not to stand out, she wasn’t a spokeswoman,” said Duarte. Indeed, Ramos avoided attention. The Associated Press had tried to contact her two months before she was killed, but she did not answer messages.

“Aranza posted a message the week before she died, saying she was searching for her husband, not for the suspects,” Duarte recalled.

There are three golden rules that Mexico’s volunteer search groups follow:

—Human remains aren’t referred to as corpses or bodies. The searchers call them “treasures,” because to grieving families they are precious.