The last known photo of 18-year-old Debanhi Escobar was taken on April 10. She stands with her arms folded on the edge of an empty highway in the middle of the night. She is wearing a black face mask and looking away from the camera. The lights of a passing car illuminate her long, brown skirt, creating an eerie image against the mountains and the dark sky behind her.
It’s still not clear what happened next or the exact moment when she disappeared. Her family noticed she was missing the next morning, when she didn’t come home.
The photo, which went viral and was featured on the front page of many Mexican newspapers last week, is now a central piece of evidence in the search to find Escobar. It was allegedly taken by a driver hired by her friends to take her home after leaving a house party in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León.
For reasons still unknown, the driver left her in the middle of an empty federal highway at around 5 in the morning, and sent the picture to her friends as proof that she was alive when he dropped her off.
The driver is now under arrest as the main suspect in Escobar's disappearance. And the young woman’s vanishing has shone a light on a mounting crisis of disappeared women in Nuevo León.
In Mexico, seven women go missing every day and more than 70 percent of them are concentrated in Mexico State, Morelos, Jalisco, and Nuevo León, according to Mexico’s National Missing Persons Commission.
Escobar is the 20th woman to be reported missing in the last four weeks in Nuevo León, a state that’s been host to a bloody war between the Sinaloa and Northeast cartels.
Escobar’s family pieced together her final hours via her Instagram account.
“On April 8th, Debanhi went to a house near the PGR [the branch of the national attorney general’s office in Nuevo León] along with two other friends, who later went home without Debanhi. They left her alone in that place,” the text under Debanhi’s photo reads.
“Her friends said they called a ‘trusted driver’” who didn’t work for Uber or Didi (another ride service) apps. The photo was taken by the driver before she “was abandoned” and sent to Debanhi’s friends, said the post.
Nuevo León’s governor, Samuel García, has since created a special group tasked to look for missing women. He deployed more than 200 officers around the state looking for her, as well as the more than 1,800 other women who have been reported missing since he took office in August 2021.
The number of people registered as disappeared in Mexico stands at over 95,000, and more than 98 percent of those disappearances happened between 2006 and 2021, according to a United Nations report published this week. Former President Felipe Calderón launched a nationwide crackdown on drug cartels when he took power at the end of 2006.
The U.N. committee "urged Mexico to strengthen the search and investigation processes, provide adequate human and financial support to the National Search Commission.”
"Victims and authorities also reported disappearances for the purpose of trafficking and sexual exploitation," the report said.
“The main factor behind women disappearances is impunity. Authorities are not enforcing the protocols of missing persons, the search protocols are not being activated on time and all of this is helping criminals to keep disappearing women,” Claudia Muñiz from the Nuevo León’s Feminist Assembly told VICE World News.
From April 1 to April 12, the Nuevo León’s special group to search for missing persons (GEBI for its Spanish acronym), published 32 missing women reports, including María Fernanda’s and Debanhi’s. Sixteen have been found, but the rest are still missing.
“Debanhi disappeared in a high-risk area, on the highway to Nuevo Laredo. But what is interesting is that the place where she was left off is a few meters from the PGR headquarters. There should have been surveillance,” Muñiz said.
Escobar’s family and friends started their own search the day after she went missing, sweeping the area around where she was last seen. They took over her Instagram account to receive tips on her whereabouts, but to date nothing substantial has come from those efforts, Muñiz said.
Mario Escobar, Debanhi’s father, said there is a lot of inconsistent information around his daughter’s disappearance.
“We don’t know why he [the driver] dropped her out of his car. We want to know how it is possible that someone is going to a party with friends and just like that they leave you alone… something is not making any sense,” he said in a radio interview.
But while the search for the teenager continues, activists have little hope that anything will change for women in Nuevo León.
“Women in Nuevo León are afraid of being the next victim. The younger generation is growing up with that fear every day,” Muñiz said.