Searching with the Mothers of Mexico’s Disappeared
More than seventy thousand people have disappeared in Mexico, victims of drug-related violence. Their loved ones are grieving, searching, and, now, keeping their distance.
August 5, 2020
Three women embrace as they contemplate the body of a man they discovered after identifying and digging up a burial pit last year.Photographs by Mallika Vora for The New Yorker
When I texted Mirna Medina on a Tuesday afternoon, a little more than a year ago, she replied with a voice message that was cordial but abrupt: “Hi, yes, good afternoon, we’re working now, we just found a body, but yes, I’m available.” I had flown to Culiacán, the capital of the west-coast state of Sinaloa, Mexico, several days before, not anticipating that she would be nearly impossible to get ahold of. Replying to her message, I offered awkward condolences and asked when and where we could meet, but she didn’t respond that day, or the next.
Mirna lives in Los Mochis, a town three hours north of Culiacán, in a region called El Fuerte. There she leads a group of about two hundred, with more than a hundred active members who scour the city’s surrounding countryside searching for the bodies of desaparecidos—the disappeared—men and women, usually in their twenties or thirties, victims of cartel-related violence. The group consists mostly of mothers hoping to find their children’s remains. The journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, who reported on drug cartels before his death, dubbed Mirna’s group Las Rastreadoras de El Fuerte, the Trackers of El Fuerte. (Valdez was murdered
in 2017, likely by sicarios—assassins—working for one of the cartels.)
The story of the Rastreadoras is not unique. Across Mexico, there are more than sixty similar collectives: groups of civilians, the family and friends of those who have vanished, combing the fields for the bodies of people who might otherwise be forgotten. The disappearances began nearly fifteen years ago, shortly after Felipe Calderón became the President of Mexico and launched the country’s war on drug trafficking—a war that Calderón waged, in part, with the Mexican Army. In December, 2006, his first month in office, he dispatched six and a half thousand soldiers to the state of Michoacán. Soon after that, he sent troops to Sinaloa, home of one of the world’s most powerful cartels, and the state where I spent my adolescence, in Culiacán, just before and after Calderón’s election. I remember horror stories from the earlier years, but they were mostly about things that happened in the countryside. During the last few years that I lived there, military vehicles began to multiply on the streets, their cargo beds carrying men in balaclavas who patrolled the city, rifles pointed at the sky. Encobijados—dead bodies wrapped in blankets—started regularly turning up in the river that crosses the city.
Then the bodies stopped turning up at all and began to simply disappear. The victims were overwhelmingly poor, brown, and male. They were not all involved in the drug trade; sicarios tasked with abductions often mistook people for their real targets, then killed and disposed of them anyway, as a precaution. The cartels had so much power that local police forces were believed to be working for them. In the country’s most violent places, it is said that assassins charged as little as two hundred pesos, about ten dollars, to “disappear” someone. They buried the bodies in shallow pits, atop low hills, in farmland. At the time Calderón was elected, two such pits had been identified. Five years later, the number had grown to three hundred and fifty. By the beginning of this year, secret graves—fosas clandestinas—were being found, on average, nearly every other day.
In the nineteen-seventies, when politically motivated disappearances were rampant in Mexico, the journalist Elena Poniatowska reported on the particular sorrow of women whose children had gone missing. In her book “Silence Is Strong
,” she wrote, “For a mother, the disappearance of a child signifies a truceless torment, an eternal anguish in which there is no resignation, no consolation, no time for the wound to heal. Death kills hope, but a disappearance is intolerable because it neither kills nor allows one to live.” Clinical psychologists use the term “ambiguous loss” to describe the agony, not yet grief, experienced by people whose loved ones have disappeared. The idea is that, in order to fully grasp that someone has died, we need to see their body, need to participate in the traditions of mourning.
This past January, the Mexican government reported that the official tally of the disappeared had surpassed sixty thousand. I recall the number seemed staggering to me then. (The total is now above seventy-three thousand
.) It was around this time that the first reports of a novel coronavirus
that appeared to have originated in Wuhan, China, were published in North American news outlets. In the ensuing months, as much of this continent shut down, and public funerals, in many places, were barred, millions of people became newly familiar with an awkward and uncertain sort of mourning. Meanwhile, in a corner of Sinaloa, one of the states in Mexico that has been hardest hit by the pandemic, women wept for their missing children, sequestered in their modest homes, with no indication of when their search could resume.
Several days after my first exchange with Mirna, she agreed to meet me on a Monday morning in Los Mochis. I headed north from Culiacán, and settled in at a café, but I couldn’t get through to Mirna’s phone. Then I saw on Facebook that she had just left for another search. Around noon, she texted me the location of her office, and explained that she’d be headed there shortly.
Los Mochis is a small city, a tidy grid of streets surrounded by farmland. A few chain hotels have opened, but most buildings are simple concrete structures, many without paint. Locals speak in the brash Sinaloan accent that other Mexicans often mistake for aggression. From the café, I walked along a dirt path that lines the city’s roads, passing homes and shops; outside an abandoned house, dogs hovered over a pile of old oranges. Next door was the office of the Rastreadoras: a small building with a glass façade plastered with signs for missing people. There were ninety-one photos; eighty-five of them were of men. Many of those pictured had names tattooed on their bodies, listed under “Particular Traits.” “Christopher” on a right hand, “José” scrawled across an ankle, “Jesús” and “Esther” on a pair of wrists. One man’s chest bore the name Luis Armando on the right side and a baby’s footprints on the left.
Prior to the pandemic, the office had become a place where the family members of the disappeared, particularly those who are hesitant to go to the police, could find guidance and support—many of the rastreadoras joined the group after going there for help. In six years, the Rastreadoras have located a hundred and ninety-eight bodies. DNA testing by government forensics teams has identified a hundred and twenty of them; sixty-six were related to members of the Rastreadoras. The forty-third body they identified was Mirna’s son, Roberto, who disappeared in July, 2014. The group found him three years later.
Official signs for disappeared people in the office of Las Rastreadoras de El Fuerte, in Los Mochis.
Mirna Medina pictured outside of her home on the outskirts of Los Mochis.
I sat on the sidewalk and waited. At 3 p.m., Mirna pulled up in a truck, smiling and beckoning to me to get in. In the back seat was the smallest Chihuahua I had ever seen. It seemed determined to avoid a polystyrene plate of kibble that Mirna was coaxing it to finish. Apologizing for the wait, Mirna told me that she had received an anonymous tip the night before: the exact location of a body. When the searchers reached the spot, they found a dummy made of sandbags, fully dressed and drenched in an oily red liquid. “I’m sad but also a bit worried,” she said. “We can’t really know if it was done just to mock us, or to set us up.”
Mirna is average in height but seems taller, even when she isn’t teetering on a pair of platform shoes, which she usually is. Her dark brown hair is cropped, and streaked with platinum highlights. She has broad shoulders and skin that is perpetually tanned from her constant hunts under the Sinaloan sun. There is a lightheartedness about her that can seem perplexing, given the nature of her work. After describing the dummy doused in red liquid, she asked if I’d had lunch, and, before I could respond, told me about the mariscos spot we were headed to, which serves her favorite shrimp cocktail in Los Mochis. When we arrived, she led me in, her phone buzzing incessantly. We took our seats, and she placed the phone face down on the table, offering me her full attention.
Up until a few months ago, the Rastreadoras were conducting searches at least two days a week, often more. About a third of them were in response to tips. For the rest, the searchers went to places where bodies had been found in the past, or where witnesses had reported levantones
, a colloquial term for abductions. (The word does not translate neatly into English; it refers to picking up something large.) Each search costs at least a thousand pesos, or fifty dollars, in gasoline, food, water, electrolyte drinks, and equipment. If a search is fruitful, shovels and boots will need to be discarded, as they are nearly impossible to fully decontaminate. The group pays a hundred and thirty-five dollars a month to rent an office, and another seven hundred dollars in maintenance fees and to pay for a secretary. These expenses are mostly covered by grants and donations; the group has also recently published a cookbook to raise money. In 2018, the American Jewish World Service gave four thousand dollars, one of the largest contributions the group had ever received. This year, it has granted an additional eight thousand dollars.
In 2012, the Mexican government created the National Registry of Victims. Those identified as “indirect victims” of disappearances, family members or dependents of the disappeared, are entitled to around two hundred dollars per month, plus three hundred dollars for rent. Several of the rastreadoras receive this stipend, but Mirna has refused it, relying instead on her husband’s income and the rent she charges for a small house she acquired during a previous marriage. “I don’t want people to think I do this for the money,” she told me. She asks each rastreadora to chip in a monthly fee of twenty pesos—about a dollar—but finds it difficult to insist. Many of the women, like herself, have forgone full-time jobs so that they can spend all of their time searching for their children’s remains.
Death, for all the pain that it causes, is at least comprehensible. But the uncertainty of a disappearance can drive someone not only to a deep depression but to a kind of madness. Sonia Chanez, whose son, Pablo Sandoval, went missing in May, 2018, told me that, since his disappearance, she experiences life in waves of anger, desperation, and paralyzing grief. Two months before we spoke, she had been bedridden for twenty days, surviving only on yogurt and milk. “It was as if I was so sad, I wanted to let myself die,” she said. At one point during our conversation, she removed her shoe to show me that, during the worst moments of her despair, she had ripped off all her toenails.
Mirna’s son, Roberto Corrales Medina, was twenty-one years old and selling CDs outside a gas station in Los Mochis when he was abducted. Mirna was nearby, having a beer with a friend, and talking about Roberto. She had been unable to get pregnant during the first nine years of her marriage; her son was a special blessing. The very day he disappeared, she had spent hours recounting how long it had taken her to conceive, the difficulty of the birth, the several years that she had breastfed him. “At the same time,” Mirna told me, still sounding bewildered by the thought, “someone was thinking about how they were going to take his life.”
When I first brought up Roberto, at our lunch, Mirna’s brisk manner shifted. She let out a long sigh. “First, I should tell you we didn’t find all of him,” she said, slowly. “We found some vertebrae, an arm, a part of his knee, a tooth, a part of a finger. I buried him in a beautiful coffin, just like he deserved.” She began to cry. “It was a different grief after that. That day I also buried the hope that he would come back, and so many questions I would ask myself. Where is he? Does he eat? Is he cold?”
When Roberto didn’t come home, Mirna filed a missing-persons report, but local authorities seemed indifferent to her despair, she said. “People disappear around here all the time, and we can’t look for all of them,” she recalls them saying. (The office where Mirna reported Roberto’s disappearance has since been dissolved.) Until then, Mirna hadn’t paid much attention to the news of the burial pits. Suddenly, the information seemed crucial. After leaving the police station that day, she made a promise to her son: Te buscaré hasta encontrarte—I will search for you until I find you. She collected shovels and pickaxes and headed to the Sinaloan fields, and word spread in Los Mochis about her searches. Other mothers of the disappeared asked to join her. Many of them had also failed to interest the authorities, Mirna told me. Some hadn’t filed a report at all, because they didn’t trust the police, and were wary of having their DNA samples taken.
Juany Escalante gained custody of her ten-year-old grandson after his father disappeared, in August of 2018.
María Refugio Ruiz looks at a photograph of her son Jorge Alberto Ramos Ruiz, who disappeared in October of 2013. The Rastreadoras found his body in June of 2016.
In 2017, the government created local search commissions in a number of states, including Sinaloa. The following year, a national commission was established. Its current director is the human-rights lawyer Karla Quintana Osuna. “In Mexico, crimes go unreported due to distrust in authorities,” Quintana Osuna acknowledged when I spoke to her. “And, in the case of disappearances, it’s also linked to fear—to the suspicion that the authorities themselves were involved in the disappearance, that they won’t do anything, and, of course, the fear that there will be reprisals against other family members for reporting.”
A few months after the launch of the National Search Commission, Mexico elected a left-wing President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador
, who had the overwhelming support of the country’s working class. As a candidate, López Obrador insisted that stemming the drug-related violence in Mexico required “hugs, not bullets.” After he was sworn in, he declared that Mexico’s drug war was over. In the year and a half since, the violence has only worsened, and López Obrador has lately expanded the role of the military in combatting the cartels. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Mirna said, of the President. “His intentions may be good, but he’s in over his head.” (She voted for the candidate of the pri, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, José Antonio Meade, a centrist.)
After lunch, Mirna took me to her home, a modest one-story structure in the middle of a large garden, surrounded by dirt roads. She and her husband were still finishing construction; the house did not yet have running water. There I met Reyna Rodríguez, a rastreadora
whose son Eduardo was abducted in February, 2016, along with his friend, a woman named Zumiko Félix. She, like Eduardo, was twenty-one years old. Eduardo asked Zumiko to tag along as he shopped for a Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend. Her mother grew worried when she didn’t come home. She called Zumiko, who answered her phone, but sounded agitated. “We’re being followed, but don’t worry, Mom, I love you all,” she said. Eduardo’s voice could be heard in the background, yelling for Zumiko to run. Her phone was turned off soon afterward. She and Eduardo have not been seen since.
“The first time I went on a search was painful,” Reyna told me. “I thought, how can I possibly be looking for my child among garbage, sewage, weeds?” Reyna has big, curly hair in nearly every shade of yellow and sleepy-looking eyes that belie a brassy disposition. “As a mother, how it pains you when your child is little, to see them fall and scrape their tiny knee,” she told me, through tears. “How is it possible that you protect them from every little scratch, and later someone comes along and tortures them, kills them, and on top of that, disappears them?” Reyna said that she doesn’t remember much from the days that followed Eduardo’s disappearance, beyond crying and looking out her window, praying that someone had thrown her son’s body in front of her house.
The day after Mirna and I had lunch, the Rastreadoras received another anonymous tip. The following morning, around six o’clock, I hopped into Mirna’s truck with five other women to join them on their search. We drove an hour south of the city. On the way, we met up with twenty-four more women, from the neighboring town of Guasave, who had created their own satellite search committee five months before. They had not yet found anything on their expeditions, which isn’t unusual—Mirna estimates that nothing is found nine times out of ten. The women were cheerful, teasing each other and gossiping. As we approached the cornfield where we would conduct the search, Mirna asked each of the women how many treasures—a term they use for bodies—we would bring back. Two, three, four tesoros, they said.
Before arriving at a search location in Ahome, Sinaloa, last November, Mirna Medina stopped by a landfill, explaining that bodies are sometimes dumped near areas where garbage is burned.
During the second stage of human decomposition, enzymes begin producing gases that can make a corpse double in size until they’re released. About three days after a body is buried in dirt, the gases it emits lift the earth—only slightly, a few centimetres, too little to be noticed by untrained eyes. On their expeditions, the rastreadoras carry a thin, T-shaped steel rod, about two feet long. When they find a raised patch of dirt, they push the rod into the ground, lift it, and smell the tip, hoping for the particular odor of death that would indicate a potential “positive.”
At the site, we put on surgical masks, and began looking. Less than half an hour had passed when we noticed a fetid smell about a hundred feet from where we’d parked. Then someone found the source: a dead dog among the cornstalks, whose corpse had inexplicably been dressed in jeans.
“Don’t let this get you down,” Mirna said. “We’re already here, and we’re going to keep searching.”
The author helps one of the rastreadoras rinse the steel rod during a search in November.
María Cleofas Lugo has been looking for her son, Juan Francisco Angulo, since June 19, 2015.
We split up into two groups. After an hour of roaming the area, a woman in the group I’d joined received a text from the other party. “It’s positive,” she shouted. “Bendito Dios, it’s positive!”
We hurried toward the other group. When we reached them, a rastreadora pointed to a hole in the ground. Flashes of white bones pierced the dry dirt; in the center was a charred jaw with three molars attached. Sonia Chanez, Pablo’s mother, collapsed, gasping for air between keening howls. Several women picked her up and held her, whispering in her ear and wiping away their own tears. She told me later that there was nothing to suggest that the remains were her son—it was just that the reality of their mission had hit her all at once. These were the conditions under which she was looking for Pablo. He had possibly—probably—been murdered and sepulchred in dirt.
dug for hours. Time was marked by announcements of new findings, new bodies, each one intensifying the smell of death in the air, seeping through our paper masks. Somehow, it had not occurred to me that we could find anything other than bones. But someone handed me a shovel, and I began digging, and I felt the shovel bounce back: I had hit the midsection of a woman who, judging from her state of decomposition, had likely been executed no more than two weeks before. As we dug up the dirt around the body, the women spoke tenderly to the remains: “Ay, mi amor,
just look at what they did to you.”
A belt buckle found near a burial pit that the women uncovered in November of 2019.
Mirna had contacted the police as soon as the first discovery was made, and they arrived about two hours later, setting up crime-scene tape around the burial pits. I had a pen and a notebook with me, and Mirna asked me to record a detailed description of each grave and its contents, assigning numbers to the pits and letters to the bodies. The government forensics team arrived soon after the police, in full hazmat suits, and began exhuming the remains. (Though anyone can search for bodies, it is illegal to remove them yourself.) They placed two sufficiently intact bodies onto stretchers, and piled up the rest in surprisingly small mounds: bones, sometimes mixed with flesh, that were later placed in heavy-duty garbage bags. Mirna was courteous but aloof with them; she dislikes the way they treat the bodies, she told me. If it were up to the police, she said, they would only take a bone or two, all they need to carry out a DNA test, and leave the rest, because what’s it to them? They’re not looking for family members. At one point, a member of the forensics team straddled a body that was not entirely decomposed. “Careful, careful! fuck! ” Mirna screamed, as the man attempted to pull the body up by the belt loops of the jeans it was wearing. Everything came apart, and he was left holding a pair of legs, and a spinal column that hung limply. “That’s somebody’s child! ” Mirna yelled.
I wrote down the distinguishing characteristics of the remains. In pit No. 1, Subject B was male and had a black cursive tattoo scrawled across his left biceps: “Albertito.” On his right arm was a red-and-blue tattoo: “Carmen.” I thought of the faces on the signs glued to the Rastreadoras’ office. I’d spent hours looking at them. Ninety-one photos; how easily people become numbers. I had managed to keep an emotional distance up to this point, to act as I believed a reporter should, but writing down those names undid me. I fell to my knees and sobbed. Mirna picked me up and held me to her chest. After a few seconds, she took me by the shoulders. “It’s O.K. if you can’t handle this,” she said. “But if you can’t, I need you to step away.”
Once they arrive at a search location, the rastreadoras spread out, scanning the ground for peculiar patches of dirt where a burial pit may be uncovered.
I walked back to the truck to gather my composure and have some water. By then, news of the bodies had reached a nearby town, and reporters had arrived. Families of desaparecidos had come, too, some with small children. They gathered behind the police tape, yelling out descriptions of their missing family members—the clothing they had been wearing, their ages, complexions, names. Reyna, Eduardo’s mother, had not come with us, but she drove over as soon as she heard about the find. She saw that I’d been asked to catalogue the bodies, and frantically grabbed my arm, asking whether any of them had braces.
Behind the police tape, Juany Escalante, a short, round woman who goes by the nickname Machete, watched silently. She has diabetes, which causes extreme pain in her feet, and she had not been able to dig that day. A few years ago, she was awoken at night by the sound of gunshots: her eldest son had been murdered in her home as he slept. A younger son disappeared in 2018. Witnesses say that the men who took him must have confused him with someone else, because they were calling him by the wrong name. “Two sons now,” she said, as I sat with her. “What is happening? Is it me?”
By the end of the day, the rastreadoras
had uncovered twelve bodies in eight burial pits. Five of the people that they found had been killed recently. All of the remains were taken for DNA tests. None of them matched any of the people the women were looking for.
n mid-October, Mexican soldiers captured the heir to the Sinaloa cartel—Ovidio Guzmán, the son of El Chapo
—in Culiacán. He was released five hours later, after citizens were terrorized by a standoff between sicarios
and members of the military for an entire afternoon. Buses and cars were set on fire, closing off the city’s main avenues; more than fifty inmates from the local prison were set free. Sitting in my apartment in Mexico City, I watched the events unfold on Twitter, half of the tweets coming from news agencies, the other half from home-town friends, posting their own photos and indicating that they were safe. Officials said that at least fourteen people had been killed; everyone I spoke to believes the number is much higher. The event is now known locally as jueves negro
, Black Thursday.
Two weeks later, I flew back to Culiacán myself. At the airport, I got in a cab and headed to my parents’ house. On the way, I realized that I had been bracing to encounter a place transformed—since the siege, I kept hearing that a new chapter had begun in the city. But it all looked exactly as I remembered. Restaurants with dirt floors on the side of the road, advertising seafood with gaudy cartoon shrimp painted on signs made of sheet metal. Desolate strip malls of recent construction (for money laundering, according to local rumor). The cab stopped at a red light, where a man was sitting idly on a curb, holding three bundles of red roses.
“This guy doesn’t ever sell one rose,” the driver said, laughing. “Who do you think he’s working for?” I said that I didn’t know, and he laughed harder. “He’s an halcón! ” he said—a hawk, a lookout. “You’re not from here, are you?” the driver said. I told him that I was, but may have answered the question too defensively. The rest of the ride passed in silence.
The next day, I took a bus to Los Mochis and went to see Mirna in a new office that the Rastreadoras had rented, a couple of blocks from the previous one. “Well, look who’s here,” she said, smiling, as I walked in. “We thought you had forgotten about us.”
Machete was spread out on the couch. Mirna sat at a desk, smearing glue on a photograph. It was November 1st. In Mexico, it is the general belief, held with varying degrees of conviction, that the dead are able to visit the living during the first two days of November: Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. People spruce up the graves of their departed loved ones, and gather around them, playing favorite songs, recounting funny stories. Mirna had printed out a new portrait of Roberto to replace the one she’d pasted on his grave last year. “The sun and rain really fuck it up,” she said. “But this year I’m sealing it with a layer of glue, to protect it.” She caressed Roberto’s face with her finger as she worked. “Ay, mi hijo,” she said. “So handsome, wasn’t he?”
Roberto’s remains are buried in Mochicahui, a small town about fifteen minutes north of Los Mochis. We drove to Mirna’s house to pick up a large speaker and a cooler, which her husband, Ricardo, filled with cans of Tecate on the way. When we reached the cemetery, it was ablaze with candles and flowers, both real and artificial. The Day of the Dead is a celebration, but it is always marked by tears, especially at the graves of those who died unexpectedly or unfairly. The cemetery in Mochicahui was full of them: men who died in their twenties and thirties, buried under humble sepulchres. Their images, many of them photoshopped over green landscapes or cloudy skies, were fastened atop the graves.
Mirna Medina caresses a photograph of her son, Roberto Corrales Medina, at his grave, in Mochicahui, Sinaloa.
Above Roberto’s grave, ten smaller portraits surrounded a larger one, with his nickname, Chacharitas, written in the center. Mirna had brought a variety of artificial flowers to plant in the gravel. When she took out a shovel, Ricardo offered to help. “What,” she said, “you think I don’t know how to dig?”
A middle-aged woman came to say hello. Her name was Jessy Torres; her brother, Jorge Ramos, disappeared in 2013. Their mother’s health was too fragile for her to search for her son, but Jessy joined the Rastreadoras soon after the group was formed. They found Jorge’s remains in 2016, and he was also buried in Mochicahui.
I walked with Jessy to Jorge’s grave. “I knew it was him as soon as I saw his T-shirt,” she recalled, of their search. She said she had been relieved that her family could finally bury him, that they could light candles and place flowers—she thought that they would find peace. “But, believe me, it’s not like that,” she told me. For years, her mother continued to set food aside for Jorge. “She has to take medication to sleep—the drops she used to take have no effect on her anymore,” Jessy said.
Mirna had told me, months earlier, about the complicated feelings that arise during searches when a body is found. “You approach a pit with uncertainty, and sometimes you pray your family member is in there, so you can get this over with,” she said. “And you pray and you hope but when you look in and it isn’t them, you feel joy. Because they’re not dead. And so you think they could be alive.” In December, Sonia Chanez was informed that her son Pablo’s remains had been uncovered by another search collective in Sinaloa, Las Rastreadoras por la Paz. “I went to the district attorney’s office with the hope that it wasn’t him, that they would tell me they made a mistake,” Sonia said. But the DNA results were conclusive. Far from finding relief, Sonia succumbed to another depression after burying her son.
I walked back to Roberto’s grave. Mirna looked cheerful, sitting next to a family friend. With those who knew him, she loves to talk about her son: how he was an easy child, letting her dress him up however she wanted, how hardworking he became, how many friends and girlfriends he had. A car with tinted windows drove up and parked near the grave. Several minutes passed before a man got out and approached Mirna. Holding back tears, he told her that he was a friend of Roberto’s.
“Tell me what song he liked, señora
,” he said. “I’ll play it for him.” Mirna requested “Me Pegó la Gana
,” by Traviezoz de la Zierra, and the man blasted it from the car’s speakers. Mirna belted out every word.
At the end of February, Mexican doctors detected the country’s first two cases of the coronavirus—one of them in a man from Sinaloa who had recently travelled to Italy. Three weeks later, the country began shutting down. The rastreadoras stopped conducting searches, but continued to receive tips. Mirna told me that she passed these tips on to the local authorities. She added, “The women didn’t agree with this too much, because, as you know, there’s no one better than us to treat our treasures.”
In April, López Obrador decreed drastic budget cuts to a number of government programs, including the Executive Commission of Attention to Victims (C.E.A.V.), which manages the National Registry of Victims. Two months later, the National Brigade for the Search of Disappeared People organized a sit-in outside the National Palace, in Mexico City, where the President lives. The square has become a palimpsest of protest: on the day I visited, blurred feminist graffiti from a demonstration in March (“My mother taught me how to fight”) was still visible on the ground; the American abolitionist slogan “acab” (“all cops are bastards”) had been scrawled, more recently, on a street sign. The National Brigade was targeting Mara Gómez, the director of the C.E.A.V., who they say has been cruel and dishonest with them. Gómez did not respond to a request for comment; a spokesperson for the C.E.A.V. told me that “communication between the protesters, C.E.A.V., and the Secretariat for Home Affairs is constant,” though a protester I spoke to disputed this.
The rastreadoras are not affiliated with the brigade, and Mirna, when I asked her about the protest, spoke highly of Gómez, insisting that her critics are angry because she is enforcing the law instead of letting them have their way. Mirna believes that some of the families of victims have become overly dependent on the money the government gives to them. “I don’t like bullshit, and I’ve never received the stipend, but I’m not saying families shouldn’t,” she told me. “Of course, it’s their right, but it’s not O.K. to abuse it.” A few days later, Gómez resigned, insisting that the C.E.A.V. was not receiving the support it needed from the government to do its work.
Mirna and I spoke again in late July. Thirteen of the rastreadoras had tested positive for the coronavirus, she told me. Most were no longer experiencing the worst of the symptoms, though two were still recovering, including Juany, who was too sick to talk on the day I called to check in. A couple of weeks before, the group had finally decided to resume expeditions, in smaller groups—“Ten women, in two cars, to keep our distance,” Mirna explained.
Ever since I met her, I had been struck by the contrast between Mirna and the women she leads. Mirna is not a pietà, consumed by her pain. She is a political activist now, one who has built strong and often friendly relationships with public officials. When I accompanied the group on a search, she had been almost ruthless in the fields, yelling more orders than reassurances. Several of the rastreadoras referred to her reverently as “my leader.” She has embraced everything that comes with the role that was forced upon her—the danger and the pain but also the spotlight, and even something like glory. A feature-length documentary about the women was released in 2017; another is in the works. “I don’t know if this happens to all the women, but I’ve become addicted,” Mirna told me during one of our first conversations. “When I search, I feel like I’m looking for Roberto. Sometimes I feel like it’s an obsession.” When we spoke in July, the Rastreadoras had gone on three searches since the lockdown. “Yesterday we found a treasure,” Mirna said proudly.
Sonia Chanez got her son’s nickname tattooed on her arm after he disappeared in May of 2018. His remains were identified in December of 2019, after a different search collective uncovered them.
In the group’s office, there is a pair of T-shirts that Mirna had nailed to the wall, one white and one a bright green. The white one bears the promise that Mirna made after Roberto disappeared: “Te buscaré hasta encontrarte”—“I will search for you until I find you.” The green one reads “Promesa cumplida”—“Promise fulfilled.” On their searches, those rastreadoras who are not wearing personalized shirts, with photos of their missing sons or daughters, wear these. Most wear the white one; the green shirt is reserved for the fortunate few who have found their tesoros.
Mirna was wearing hers on the day we met. She pointed it out to me after we took our seats at the restaurant, before she ordered her mariscos. “People wonder why I’ve kept doing this, if I’ve already found my son,” she said. “But I’m going to introduce you to the rest of the women later. You’ll see. Their pain has become my pain.” Later, picking at her shrimp cocktail, she recalled a dream she’d had just days before. “We were all there, marching down one of the main streets of the city, and it was like a sea of green,” she said. “We were all wearing this shirt. We had all found our children.”
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