Women from the collective "Voice of the Missing" pay homage to their colleague Esmeralda Gallardo, behind a picture of her with her missing daughter Betzabé. Esmeralda was searching for Betzabé when she was killed. Photo: Mireya Novo /

Her Daughter Vanished. Then She Was Killed for Searching for Her.

Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo, who was looking for her missing daughter Betzabé, is the latest activist searching for a disappeared family member to be killed in Mexico.

MEXICO CITY—When Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo’s 22-year-old daughter vanished in 2021, Gallardo went to every nearby bar and club, convinced she’d been the victim of sex trafficking. When her daughter still didn’t turn up, Gallardo hunted for clandestine graves that might contain her remains. 

But the mother’s search came to an abrupt end last week at 5 a.m. on the side of the highway, when hitmen riding a motorbike gunned her down as she waited for a bus to take her to work. 


Gallardo, who was assassinated on October 4, is the second search activist in a little over a month to be murdered because, human rights defenders believe, of their efforts to find their missing children. More than 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico since 2006, many by drug cartels but also by government officials, including the police and the military. The killing of families searching for their missing loved ones reflects the criminal impunity that reigns throughout Mexico, where roughly 95 percent of homicides go unpunished.

“We see ourselves reflected in Esmeralda,” said Maria Luisa Núñez Barojas, founder of the Collective Voice of the Missing in Puebla, a group of civilians that looks for the remains of the missing in the state of Puebla, which Gallardo belonged to. “There’s fear of being alone. At what moment are they going to attack us? Who’s the next victim? We are truly worried but at the same time we can’t stop looking or stop speaking out.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered his condolences to Gallardo’s family at his morning press conference last week, and blamed her murder on the “rot that stems from the hand of neoliberal policy,” a reference to the policies of his predecessors. Since taking office in 2019, he’s increased funding and empowered  a national search commission to locate missing persons. 

But the commission’s efforts pale in comparison to the size of the crisis, leaving relatives of the disappeared to do most of the searching. With little government support, dozens of civilian groups around Mexico have sprung up, organizing search parties to comb sites across the country, digging in the dirt looking for the telltale smell of human remains.


For Gallardo, that mission began on January 13, 2021, after her daughter, Betzabé, vanished from a low-income neighborhood in the state of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. In a tearful interview with Imagen Television before her death, Gallardo said she prayed someone would leave her an anonymous message indicating where Betzabé could be found.

“I have descended the ravines, I have dug up the ground, and my daughter doesn't appear, alive or dead,” Gallardo said.

Then, on September 27, a local news outlet published an article indicating a local drug dealer was behind Betzabé’s disappearance, referring to him by name and citing information from anonymous sources. Gallardo was terrified, Núñez said, and asked anyone who had shared the article on social media to delete their posts.

“She felt like she was being followed and watched.” 

A week after the article’s publication, Gallardo was murdered on the side of the Mexico-Puebla highway, steps from the neighborhood where her daughter was last seen. She had more than a dozen bullet wounds, said attorney Victor León Rueda, who advised Gallardo after her daughter disappeared. 

“[Gallardo] said she had been receiving threats to stop searching for her daughter, that if she didn’t, she would regret it,” Rueda said. “It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude this was the reason she was killed.” He said she leaves behind a son and a granddaughter—her daughter’s child. 

On Tuesday, the governor of Puebla, Miguel Ángel Barbosa, pledged in a statement to “apply the law with all its weight against those responsible” for Gallardo’s death. But search activists in Puebla accuse Barbosa himself of stigmatizing and criminalizing disappeared persons. He’s said most people “voluntarily go missing” and that missing women have been found with their boyfriends

At least five search volunteers have been murdered in Mexico in the last two years. On August 30, Rosario Lilian Rodríguez Barraza, whose son disappeared in 2019, was abducted near her home and killed. In July 2021, Aranza Ramos was kidnapped from her home and her bullet-riddled body dumped on the side of the road, one day after her search group found a clandestine grave filled with bodies. In May 2021, search activist Javier Barajas Piña was assassinated at point-blank range, two years after his brother went missing. In October 2020, Rosario Zavala was assassinated in the door of her house, hours after carrying out a search for her son.  

Gallardo’s assassination is a “new painful reminder of the high risk and lack of protection for many relatives of disappeared persons who find themselves responsible for carrying out searches and demanding justice,” Guillermo Fernández-Maldonado, representative for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights in Mexico, said in a statement. “It is urgent that Mexico has an effective strategy to guarantee safety for those who are looking for their loved ones.”