MONTERREY, Mexico – If Debanhi Escobar were alive today, she might have been shouting for justice on Monday afternoon alongside the dozens of young girls gathered outside the motel where her body was found last week, protesters said.
The 18-year-old Escobar—who vanished after being left on what activists are now dubbing the “highway of death” on the outskirts of Monterrey—was at a number of protests against missing women until she was abducted, killed, and dumped in a water tank.
“She always cared for other women, she came to protests whenever she could. She was aware of what is going on in Monterrey these days,” a 25-year-old activist called Mayra told VICE World News.
Her kidnapping and murder is the tip of an iceberg, and the latest in a wave of women’s disappearances sweeping the state, according to protesters.
Escobar’s body was found inside a water tank behind a wall painted with the initials AMLO, by which Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is known. After her body was discovered, López Obrador said women shouldn’t worry because disappearances were not exclusive to this state, they are “happening everywhere.”
But more women go missing in Nuevo León than in any other state in Mexico.
In the last four years, hundreds of people have been killed, kidnapped, or disappeared in towns along the “highway of death” or on the road itself, activists told VICE World News. Most of the people who were taken used to be young men—truck drivers who were kidnapped by armed men and never seen again. But in August this year, a new trend emerged: Young girls started to disappear almost every day.
“In only two months, [the town of] Sabinas Hidalgo became the municipality number six in Mexico for the number of missing girls,” Claudia Muñiz from FUNDENL, a non-profit that works with the families of missing people, told VICE World News. Sabinas Hidalgo lies at a midpoint between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo on highway 85.
“In two months we saw ten girls disappear from the same town, with a very similar profile,” Muñiz said.
Just weeks before Escobar went missing, 26-year-old Yolanda Martinez disappeared on March 31 on the outskirts of Monterrey, close to where Escobar was last seen. Martinez left her home after breakfast for a job interview and remains missing.
“Debanhi’s death broke our hopes,” Martinez’s father, Gerardo Martínez, said as he handed out photos of his daughter in downtown Monterrey. “We really were hoping that she would be found alive, but after they found her body, we started to feel nervous.”
On April 3, between Escobar’s and Martinez’s disappearances, 27-year-old María Fernanda Contreras also went missing when driving towards the Apodaca municipality, on the same highway where Escobar was last seen.
A few minutes after 10pm, Contreras sent a message to her parents saying she was on her way back from a friend’s house. That was the last time they heard anything from her.
What lies behind this dark trend remains unknown. Authorities have said nothing about their investigations, and almost no one has been arrested for the disappearances. Activists believe sex trafficking could be a possibility.
VICE World News reached out to Nuevo León’s Attorney General’s Office, which said Escobar’s case was now part of the Office Specialized in Crimes Against Women who could not comment on the case either.
"We know that Nuevo Laredo is a hot spot for human and sex trafficking and that’s a line that should be investigated,” Muñíz said.
Monterrey has seen a spike in violence over the last year, according to government figures. In 2021, the city went from number 30 on Mexico’s list of most violent states to number 15. In January, the government sent the military to take over public security.
Nuevo Laredo, which lies at the end of the “highway of death” in the state of Tamaulipas, is one of the most violent places in Mexico, and a constant battle ground for drug cartels fighting for control of the border for smuggling drugs into the U.S. Migrants have been burned to death here, and kidnappings are rife. Recently, parts of the city were turned into a war zone by cartel members after the Mexican government captured one of their bosses. Women are often caught up in the violence.
Activists and families of missing women are disappointed at the lack of action on the part of state authorities.
“We have been stuck with the same information for 24 days,” Martinez said. “The government forgot about us.”
After Debanhi’s disappearance, Nuevo León’s governor, Samuel García, created a special group to look for missing women. He deployed more than 200 officers around the state to look for her and more than 1,800 other women who have been reported missing since he took office in August 2021.
But few believe that will change anything. Mario Escobar, Debanhi’s father, is cynical from experience.
“They searched this place [the motel] four times and only on the fifth time they found the body of my daughter,” Escobar said during a press conference this week. “How is that even possible?”
The taxi driver who left Escobar on the edge of the the highway in the early morning that she disappeared was arrested but then released by the authorities.
Muñiz said that she has little hope the new resources will bring results. “They are not prepared or trained as a search task force. They are local police officers gathered by the governor and tasked to do something they have no clue how to do.”