Elvira Mendoza Rios is looking for her brother Manuel. He left their small village in Guatemala nine months ago and went missing a few weeks later in the northern Mexican border city of Reynosa. He wanted to get to Florida to work.
"If he had reached the United States he would have called. Manuel is a responsible man, he always communicated with us when he lived there," Elvira said, referring to her brother's first five-year stint in the US before he was deported back to Guatemala in 2010. "It hurts so much."
Elvira was talking towards the end of a three week trip around Mexico along with 40 other relatives of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua who went missing during their journey north. The group covered around 1,500 miles showing photographs of their missing loved ones at the church-run shelters where migrants in transit stay, the prisons where they might just have been locked up, or just in the street in cities and towns where they are known to congregate.
Most in the group are women, many are mothers. The trip — known as the Caravan of Mothers of Disappeared Migrants — has been organized annually since 2006 by an NGO called the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement. It stems from the desperation of relatives of missing Central Americans who they last heard from during the journey through Mexico that has long been plagued by dangers from the criminal gangs that prey on migrants to abuses by officials who do the same.
The Movement claims that around 20,000 Central American migrants go missing each year in Mexico. Activists suspect that a Mexican crackdown that has all but shutdown traditional migration routes — such as the infamous freight train known as La Bestia — could be making the situation worse.
The crackdown began in mid-2014 in response to pressure from the US to stem a surge in unaccompanied Central American children and families reaching the Texas border. According to official figures there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of migrants deported in the first ten months of this year compared to the same period in 2014 when 92,664 Central Americans were sent home. This means that Mexico now expels more migrants than the US, where the numbers have declined.
Migrant activists say the crackdown — known as the Plan Frontera Sur — has also pushed migrants into taking ever more dangerous routes through Mexico in an effort to avoid detection. While many are economic migrants seeking to escape poverty back home, a large proportion are fleeing extreme violence that has made life untenable for many, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras.
"The Plan Frontera Sur has scattered migration routes with the imposition of more controls, forcing people to travel through areas without places where they can get help. This increases the risks for them," said Diego Lorente, of the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center. "The problems that were already there, like institutional violence, kidnapping and forced disappearances, have experienced a huge increase."
Mostly searching for the missing migrants is a thankless task, but every year there have been some moments of sudden joy when one of the members finds a relative. This year they found 14, taking the total to 250 since 2006. Most of these, however, have been identified in investigations carried out by the Movement prior to the trip.
"We find clues on the internet," said Marta Sánchez Solder, one of the organizers. "We follow clues such as, for example, a wire transfer of money to a migrant in transit and we follow any sign of that money and one clue leads to another until we find the person."
Occasionally the caravan itself will lead to an unexpected reunion.
When Gloria Sáenz Santeliz left Nicaragua in November she had no idea she would end up hugging her lost sister Esperanza on the last leg of the journey in Tapachula. She hasn't stopped smiling since
"It wasn't planned but I had faith that I would find her," Gloria said.
Esperanza left their home eight years ago and settled in the Mexican city of Coatzacoalcos in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz working in a beauty salon from where she began sending money home. She was later deported to Guatemala.
She lost contact with her family, she said, after recrossing into Mexico and boarding La Bestia. The train was attacked by youth gang members. The migrants were beaten and raped. Some were killed.
"All of us who woke up after the attack had somebody who had been murdered next to them," she said.
Esperanza said that by the time she had made it back to Coatzalcoalcos and felt able to seek out her family the phone number had changed. Her will to keep trying, she said, was sapped by the shame she felt.
"Today I know that what happened on the train really affected me, as if I had been branded," she said. "When you have been treated that way you feel your family will look at you and know what happened."
When the caravan arrived in Coatzacoalcos in December somebody showed Esperanza a photograph in a local newspaper of her sister Gloria. She decided the moment had come to take action.
"I had the need to feel the family with me," she said, adding that she now planned to return to Nicaragua with her sister.
As she prepared to leave Mexico without her brother Manuel, Elvira said that while she was happy for those who have found their relatives she couldn't avoid feeling some jealousy.
"I am going to return to Guatemala with nothing," she said. "Some women have found their relatives many years later, but I don't want to wait that long."
Elvira made the trip because of a tip received from a Salvadoran woman who was with Manuel as they tried to cross the Río Bravo into Texas on a raft. The woman said that Mexican authorities sank the raft leaving the migrants to sink or swim. Some got away, Elvira was told, but some got arrested.
That is why Elvira clings to the hope that she will find her brother in detention somewhere. She is one of 11 women in the caravan who lodged a complaint about forced disappearance with the Mexican Attorney General's office.
At a meeting in the Mexican Senate earlier this month, Elvira and other members of the group asked the legislators to address the problem of missing migrants within a proposed new law on forced disappearance that they are due to debate early next year.
Mexican migrant activist Rubén Figueroa doubts this will happen.
"It is going to be very difficult to persuade the Congress to take our proposal into account," he said. "The policy is to deliberately not count disappeared migrants, to keep denying them an identity."
Follow Orsetta Bellani on Twitter: @sobreamerica