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Forced Disappearances, Uncounted Missing Haunt Mexico

The case of the 43 missing students in Mexico has galvanized discussion and efforts to locate thousands of others who remain missing. Many of them are not included in official figures.

by Melissa del Pozo
Mar 2 2015, 7:26pm

Photo by Melissa del Pozo/VICE News

"They took my son with his car and everything," said Jovita Cruz.

Jovita Cruz's son, taxi driver Hector Ivan Flores Cruz, is one tens of thousands of people who have disappeared in Mexico in recent years, a crisis that international human-rights organization call the most significant challenge facing Mexico after almost eight years of the US-backed drug war.

Hector Flores went missing last July 23 in Iguala, Guerrero. The city in southern Mexico came under the international glare for the dozens of clandestine graves there were found in its surroundings after the September 26 police attacks against students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School.

Seven months later, Hector Flores's mother still has no lead on his whereabouts. She never reported his disappearance — fearing for her own safety — so her son's kidnapping is not included in the government's official figures.

But Cruz, 56, does claim that two months after her son disappeared, she noticed Hector's cab, abandoned, parked inside the army battalion base in Iguala. Personnel at the base have been accused of forced disappearances in the past.

Shortly after he was kidnapped, Cruz said, she received a frantic call from Hector, who told her two armed men he said were soldiers had gotten into his taxi and were taking him away. He said they were going to kill him.

"They called hours later," Cruz told VICE News in a recent interview. "I heard my son's voice saying, 'Help me, mom! Help me!' I decided to hang up."

Cruz said she knew her son's kidnappers would ask for a ransom, and she was certain there was no way she could come up with money to pay it. "I closed my eyes, and prayed to God," she said.

Related: An Entire Police Force in Mexico Is Held For Questioning Over Kidnapped Journalist. Read more here.

Jovita Cruz is looking for her son, Hector Ivan, since last July. He is not officially reported as missing. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo)

Amnesty International Mexico on Friday presented in Mexico City the organization's annual global report on the state of human rights, which this year makes a special mention of disappearances in Mexico and the apparently widespread state use of torture.

"There are several countries that severely worry us," Perseo Quiroz, the head of Amnesty International Mexico, told VICE News in an interview. "But when it comes to disappearances, Mexico is number one internationally."

The group points out that of the 22,611 people that the Mexican government acknowledged as missing as of August 2014, almost 10,000 have disappeared under the current administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which began in December 2012.

That official figure has fluctuated since the end of the term of the previous president, Felipe Calderon, who left office with a tally of 26,000 missing.

The report also highlights the fact that the government did not disclose how exactly it arrived at its latest figure, which human rights organizations estimate to be much higher.

The issue has dogged the presidency of Peña Nieto since police and cartel hitmen forcibly disappeared 43 young Ayotzinapa students in Iguala. Only one of those victims has been positively identified from remains that the government says were collected in a river near a dump where the 43 were allegedly executed and incinerated.

Until that day in July when Jovita Cruz's son disappeared, Hector, who would be 24 now, had been the sole provider for his mother, and his sister Flor, who was just 12 years old. Hector gave up school at a young age in order to provide for his family.

The three lived in a modest home in the hills on the outskirts of Iguala, the same hills that after the Ayotzinapa incident became a focal point for the discovery of grave after grave that turned out to be unrelated to the attacks on the normal school students.

'We grew tired, we got organized, and we created this organization to do the job that the government is not doing.'

Citizen-led forensics teams began working in Guerrero after families began to speak out about the unreported missing in the state.

According to the national registry of missing or disappeared people, Guerrero ranks fourteen out of 31 states in Mexico, plus the Federal District, in numbers of missing people from 2011 to the present. In Guerrero, Iguala is the city with the highest number of missing people.

Guerrero, after the border state of Tamaulipas, registered the most cases of forced disappearance in the country, with 56 complaints against authorities in the state.

It's "the state that is most worrisome," Quiroz said, referring to forced disappearances in Guerrero.

In Iguala, "to speak to the police about what has happened to one of us, is to sign your own death sentence," Cruz said. "I knew that if I went to the police, my son would be killed."

"A few days after [Hector] Ivan disappeared, I went to the infantry battalion, with the soldiers, and was surprised to see my son's car, the one he used as a taxi, abandoned, right outside the military [base]," Cruz told VICE News.

She said she approached soldiers to inquire about the car, but "they didn't say a word." She said she was sure it was her son's car, because the license plate numbers matched.

As the months have dragged, Cruz said she has grown exhausted. She has spent all of her savings on private investigators and on bribing people for possible information on her son.

Since November, she has sold snacks to children leaving school campuses and on the streets of downtown Iguala to make enough money to put her daughter through school.

"I live with the hope that my son will return, because the bad guys — we don't know who they are anymore — took him," Cruz said.

Related: Parents Call on UN for Help in Search for Missing Mexican Students. Read more here.

Mothers of missing people in Iguala, Guerrero, gather with others looking for lost loved ones at a meeting called by Ciencia Forense Ciudadana. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo)

Amnesty International also said it's seen a 600 percent increase in torture cases reported in the last decade in Mexico. The organization said Mexican authorities use torture to coerce confessions from suspected criminals, often for crimes they did not commit.

"I think it is time for a change in the official discourse," Quiroz said. "[They] have stopped paying attention. That doesn't mean that there has been a marked improvement in security, on the contrary, we are way worse off than ten years ago, or during the previous term. It is a subject that is not talked about."

Forced disappearances and attacks against journalists and press workers are also on the rise. Of the close to 200 cases of forced disappearances recorded between 2005 to 2010, Amnesty International said, only seven people have been charged with the crime.

Julia Alonso, director of a citizen-led forensics team called Ciencia Forense Ciudadana, said the group has documented more than 320 cases of forced disappearances just in the city of Iguala, which has less than 140,000 inhabitants.

Alonso, who founded the organization after her own son disappeared in the state of Nuevo Leon in 2008, told VICE News that cases like Hector Flores's are increasingly common.

"In just two months, hundreds of families have come to tell us about their child's disappearance," Alonso said. "Most of them were taken by police, military, or armed people."

Her organization has been gathering DNA samples from relatives of people considered missing, to later compare the results with those obtained by investigators from the dozens of corpses that have been discovered in the graves around the city of Iguala since October.

"Faced with so many years of impunity, and the government's disinterest, we grew tired, we got organized, and we created this organization to do the job that the government is not doing," Alonso said, as she sifted through her file on Hector Flores's disappearance.

Alonso said she is confident that they will be able to create a national DNA database, that will give other parents — who like Cruz live with uncertainty about the fate of their children — some peace of mind and resolution.

Jovita Cruz has not given up hope, despite the fact that her son remains uncounted among the missing.

"Dead or alive, I know there are many possibilities, but the uncertainty is the worst that could happen to a mother," Cruz said.

Related: The Executioners: What the Government Hasn't Said About the Mexico Student Massacre. Read more here.

Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter @melissadps.