The last time the family of Jorge Antonio Parral Rabadán saw him alive was about four months before he disappeared. They were visiting him at his job administering a Mexican border bridge at the international line with the United States, around Christmas in 2009.
Amid worsening cartel violence in Mexico's northeast, shots rang out at night in the tiny border hamlet of Ciudad Camargo, Tamaulipas, a few miles from the international bridge where Parral worked, just across from Rio Grande City, Texas.
Jorge's family begged him to give up his job, to return to his hometown of Cuernavaca in the center of the country. He told them not to worry.
"I'll never forget the expression on his face," Jesica Parral Rabadán, his sister, recalled recently. "It was like, 'I know you're right.' But he tells me, 'I have to pay for my house … We'll see.'"
On April 24, 2010, at around 9:30 am, a commando of armed men entered the Camargo border bridge facility. It was a Saturday, and Jorge Parral was resting in the administrator's quarters, where he lived in order to attend to the crossing 24 hours a day.
The gunmen stormed his room, yanked Parral from bed, and kidnapped him.
Two days after that, Mexico's military would later report, army soldiers entered a ranch in the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon to investigate reports of an organized-crime group holed up there, and to liberate "several people held against their will." It was one of several such confrontations Mexico's army reported in 2010, after security forces poured into the state of Tamaulipas in an attempt to quell the warfare between the Zetas and Gulf cartels.
A firefight ensued with unidentified armed men at a ranch called "El Puerto" in Nuevo Leon near the Tamaulipas border, and three "sicarios" — cartel gunmen — were killed by military fire, the army said.
At first, the two incidents had no apparent connection.
In a country suffering waves of drug-related violence since former President Felipe Calderón sent the military to the streets in 2006, Tamaulipas — like Jalisco, Guerrero, and Michoacán — had become merely another perpetual "hot spot" among many where shootouts, kidnappings, and executions were commonplace.
But through persistent pressure, the family later figured out that Mexican soldiers had killed Jorge Parral in the ranch shootout and covered it up by burying him as a nameless hitman. Ever since they've been calling for justice, in a little-known case that reflects the worrying toll taken on Mexican society since the government began employing the armed forces to combat organized crime.
A First-Place Applicant
Jorge Parral studied communications sciences at Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, and practiced kung fu avidly.
He got his job at Caminos Y Puentes Federales (Capufe), the highway and bridge agency that belongs to Mexico's communications ministry, by beating more than 1,000 other applicants in an open call held in 2003, his family recalled.
Jorge scored first place out of all other candidates on a series of exams. "He should have gotten last place," Parral's mother remarked bitterly in an interview.
It was a dream job: stability, responsibility, a way to use his skills. At 38, Jorge spoke with his mother every day.
When Alicia Rabadán de Parral called her son at around 1:30 pm that April 24, 2010, an unfamiliar voice answered his cell phone. The man on other end told her that it was no longer Jorge's line.
She asked repeatedly that Jorge be put on, and each time she was denied.
'We were so insistent.'
Indeed, Jorge's phone was on and in use — therefore potentially trackable with government technology — for months after he was abducted. That apparently didn't happen, his parents said.
After they realized he had been kidnapped, the family began a desperate search for Jorge with almost no help from officials. Instead, they say they were batted around by bureaucrats and law-enforcement authorities in both the government of Calderón, whose term ended in 2012, and in the current government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The family was certain that if officials looked for Jorge's truck or phone, which were taken in his kidnapping, he would be found. "They said they were going to check phone records, track the phone via satellite, that they'd listen in, just a series of lies," said Jorge Parral Sr.
The family pulled some strings and asked to meet with Calderón, but were met with a deputy interior minister instead. They then met with government agencies formed expressly to handle and care for victims of serious crimes in Mexico. One of the officials they met at the time was Juan Manuel Llera Blanco, then chief of the Calderón administration's network for attention to citizens.
"We were so insistent," Jesica Parral said. "I think [Llera Blanco] saw us, with so much insistence, so much feral will to find him, that we must have moved his heart."
That insistence led Llera Blanco to ask the army if a vehicle similar to Jorge's white truck had been decommissioned at El Puerto after the April 26, 2010 shootout.
A potential link should have been easy to spot.
Jorge Parral and a Mexican customs agent were kidnapped from the Camargo bridge two days before the Mexican army raided a ranch where kidnapping victims were supposedly being kept.
At the family's behest, the army eventually confirmed that Jorge Parral's truck and ID had been found at the ranch.
It wasn't until February 21, 2011 that Jorge Parral was identified among bodies in a Nuevo Leon state common grave where the supposed sicarios killed by the army at the ranch were buried without being identified.
"They told us in a very ugly way that one of the bodies was positive" for Jorge Parral Rabadán, Jesica said.
'They rushed in, shooting like crazy.'
The weapon that took his life belonged to a Mexican soldier who was participating in a military raid of the El Puerto ranch, according to a November 2013 report on the case by Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
Parral had evidently been taken to the ranch by his captors. When the army patrol arrived, he was shot repeatedly as he held his arms up in a defensive position, the CNDH study found. Ballistic tests showed he was also shot at point-blank range.
Parral's family said a Capufe official later admitted to them that the soldiers had done nothing to minimize deaths of kidnapping victims when they entered the ranch. "She blurted out that [soldiers] basically rushed in, shooting like crazy," Jesica said, in reference to a Capufe manager. "She had no idea what to say next."
When the Parral family found this out, their kidnapping case morphed into a possible extrajudicial execution of Jorge Parral, according to the non-profit group acting as the family's lawyers, the Mexican Commission of the Promotion of Defense of Human Rights (CMDPDH).
A video about Jorge Parral's case by the CMDPDH.
The incident occurred during the peak of violence in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon and during a spike of claims of human-rights abuses against Mexico's army and navy. Allegations that the armed forces were overstepping their mandate of "supporting" police in their efforts to contain drug cartels made little imprint in broader public opinion at the time.
This has since changed, especially over the last year, as mass killings at the hands of state security forces have gripped the country: Ayotzinapa, in which 43 teachers college students were forcibly disappeared by police; Tlatlaya, in which 22 civilians were killed by soldiers, and Tanhuato, in which 43 men died in a supposed "shootout" with security forces in which only one federal agent was killed.
Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government to withdraw the armed forces from policing duties in the war on drugs in the face of mounting abuse claims.
"Many of the issues denounced by the high commissioner have been in the sphere of public discussion for at least a decade, and we've not seen true changes," said Perseo Quiroz, director of Amnesty International Mexico, which is not involved in the Parral case.
Nearly six years after Jorge Parral was kidnapped and with no concrete progress, the Parral Rabadán family decided to make their case public.
"We love Jorge," Alicia Rabadán told VICE News. "For me, as a mother, my love for my son moves me." She clutched her forehead delicately as if in pain. "This isn't right."
In October 2013, Mexico's Secretariat of Defense (Sedena), the formal name for the army, ceded its jurisdiction over its investigation into the El Puerto ranch killings, and handed the case over to civilian authorities during a nationwide push to try military abuse cases in civilian courts. But ever since, the matter has languished in the court system in Nuevo Leon.
The military has said it made four arrests in connection to the case and freed seven captives, but none of these individuals have been publicly identified. A request for more information from Sedena was not answered.
And although government documents identified the weapon that killed Parral and the only soldier authorized to carry it, that soldier, who is also not named in reports, has yet to face charges in relation to the killing.
The Parral Rabadáns said military officers have also approached them at home to offer them money — with an implicit request of silence.
"They get surprised, why people say they don't trust the institutions," Jesica Parral said. "This is why."
"Jorge's was one of the first such cases in this country," she added. "We didn't have any of these references, didn't have Ayotzinapa, none of that."
Incidents of Callousness
Separately, the family is also suing so that Capufe could pay Jorge Parral's last paycheck, after they discovered that the agency had discounted his salary for the remainder of the month of April 2010 while his whereabouts were still unknown, records show.
Before he was kidnapped, as bloodshed from the drug conflict in Tamaulipas increased, Jorge Parral had asked his bosses at Capufe for more security at the Camargo bridge. But the response was negative: not enough in the Capufe budget to protect the Camargo bridge and its employees, he was told.
Capufe, through Mexico's Secretariat of Communications and Transportation, did not return calls seeking comment.
Llera Blanco, the Calderón era official who met with the Parral family, told VICE News on Friday he was sympathetic to the family's anger.
"I understand perfectly that they feel they were not completely attended to, because at first there was little interest to push for the search," Llera Blanco said, adding he dealt with "hundreds" of similar disappearances. "I think the [government] response was good in some respects, and bad in others."
Today, the family remains adamant in their pursuit of justice for Jorge, a process they described as plagued by incidents of callousness.
The family said, for example, that in a meeting with Marisela Morales, a former Mexican attorney general under Calderón, the prosecutor challenged the family to "go to Monterrey" and confront Jorge's alleged kidnappers themselves.
In January 2013, current president Peña Nieto signed Mexico's General Law for Victims. The Parral Rabadán family was present at the signing. Alicia Rabadán said she had the opportunity to greet Peña Nieto and hand him papers about her son's case.
The president told the grieving mother that he would "personally" take charge of the matter and find some answers for her family.
A spokesman for Peña Nieto confirmed the exchange, but offered no further details. The Parral Rabadáns said they've not heard from Peña Nieto since.
Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth