SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Haydee Posadas had waited eight years for her son to come home. On the last night of her long vigil, she was too agitated to sleep.
Her son had fled Honduras for the U.S. in 2010 in part because of gang threats, just as thousands are doing today in the migrant caravans headed north, including men from the same neighborhood. But en route in Mexico, again like so many others, Wilmer Gerardo Nunez disappeared into the vortex of drug violence that he was trying to escape in the first place. Left in limbo, his anguished mother prayed for an answer.
“I am between a rock and a hard place,” she begged God through the years. “I know nothing about my son, whether he’s dead or alive.”
Nunez’s story is part of the hidden toll of migration to the U.S. through Mexico: In the past four years alone, almost 4,000 migrants have died or gone missing along that route, The Associated Press has found in an exclusive tally. That’s 1,573 more than the previously known number, calculated by the United Nations. And even the AP’s number is likely low — bodies may be lost in the desert, and families may not report missing loved ones who were migrating illegally.
These Latin American migrants are among about 56,800 worldwide who died or disappeared over the same period, the AP found.
While migrants everywhere face risks, the Mexico route holds the added danger of drug trafficking and gang violence. More than 37,000 people have gone missing throughout Mexico because of this violence, with the highest number in the border state of Tamaulipas, through which many migrants cross. The sheer numbers of the disappeared, along with crushing bureaucracy and the fear of gangs, makes it difficult for families to track what happened to their loved ones — as Posadas found out.
Ciudad Planeta in San Pedro Sula looks like an ordinary working-class neighborhood, with one-story concrete houses with metal roofs. Only the bars that hem in nearly every porch let on that it is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
This is the neighborhood Nunez left for the first time in the 1990s to go to the United States at 16, when his mother lost her factory job.
“He did not say anything to me. One day he simply left,” said Posadas, a diminutive 73-year-old grandmother known in the neighborhood as “Mama Haydee.”
Nunez was not the oldest of the 10 children in the family, but he was the one who looked out for the others. He sent money home, some of which Posadas used to build metal bars around the porch. And he called his mother almost every day.
Nunez was deported twice but returned to the U.S. each time. In 2007, he fell in love with a Mexican woman, Maria Esther Lozano, now 38, and they had a child, Dachell. When Lozano was about to give birth to another child, in July 2010, Nunez was deported a third time.
Posadas was happy to have him back home. He would make lunch with her, stewing meat, kneading tortilla flour and frying up ripe bananas.
“He cooked better than a woman,” Posadas said, her face lighting up at the memory.
But the neighborhood had grown more dangerous, with organized crime moving in and frequent bloody raids. All of Posadas’ children left except for one who stayed, and one who died of illness.
Once Posadas’ daughter was handcuffed to the bars of the house, while men who said they were police went inside and shot her grandson because they suspected his involvement with gangs. Other nights there were shootouts in the streets. Sometimes Posadas awoke to the thunder of footsteps from someone fleeing across the metal sheet roofs of houses.
Posadas has a mantra for survival in Planeta: “If you saw it, you didn’t see it. If you heard it, you didn’t hear it. And everyone keeps quiet.”
The third time Nunez was deported, in 2010, things were so bad he barely went outside the home.
“He seemed very pensive,” Posadas said. ”‘I’m afraid,’ he told me.”
He was also anxious to get back to California and meet his new daughter. After just a few days in San Pedro Sula and an apparent threat from gang members, he left earlier than planned.
“I have to get out of here now,” he told Lozano, without further explanation.
Nunez, his nephew, Joao Adolfo, and two neighbors hopped on a midnight bus that takes dozens of migrants daily to the Guatemalan border.
In the past, Nunez had crossed the U.S. border in California. But this time he hurt his ankle while fleeing from the Zetas gang in Veracruz state, Lozano said. So he struck out for the border with Texas, a shorter but more dangerous route.
He called Lozano every day, sometimes from the phone of the smuggler taking them across the border. He liked the guide but worried that the group was too big, with dozens of migrants in two trucks.
About a week after he left Honduras, he spoke to his mother for the last time, telling her to pray that everything would turn out well. A day later, he spoke to Lozano, for nearly an hour. Rula — Nunez’s nickname — seemed relaxed, making jokes, she said.
They were in Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass in Texas. Lozano was supposed to wait for a call to pay the smuggler half the money, about $3,000. Then she needed another call from Nunez’s sister to confirm his safe arrival before paying the remaining $3,000.
The calls never came. Lozano never heard from Nunez. She talked to the smuggler a couple of times, who told her they were still waiting to cross. Then the phone went unanswered.
At first Posadas and Lozano weren’t too worried. They were used to losing contact with Nunez, then 35, for a few days during his trips, for example when his cellphone failed.
But about two weeks after he left, when Posadas turned on the television news, fear suddenly seized her. Authorities had found 72 corpses of migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas, the report said.
“I started to weep like a crazy person. There were no names, but I was shaken,” said Posadas.
It turned out that gang members in vehicles marked with the letter Z — the calling card of the feared Zetas drug cartel — had stopped two tractor-trailers with dozens of migrants in northern Mexico. They were taken to the ranch and asked to join the cartel. Only one agreed.
The rest were blindfolded, tied up on the floor and shot dead. An Ecuadorian managed to escape and alerted the navy.
A list of victims released days after the massacre included the names of Posadas’ grandson and the two neighbors who had been traveling with them. But there was no trace of Nunez, and authorities told Posadas that if he was not among the dead, he could be alive.
Posadas asked local prosecutors, the Honduran foreign ministry and Mexican authorities about her son, but no one had information for her. Her ex-husband, Nunez’s father, offered a DNA sample to be compared with the cadavers that had not yet been identified. Photos of those cadavers did not include Nunez.
Hoping against hope, Posadas and Lozano worked to find Nunez. They tried jails, detention centers and hospitals. Nothing. Lozano gave the Honduran consulate names, photos and descriptions of Nunez’s tattoos, including one of Dachell and another of the number 8. She went there every day.
Then they heard that the Ecuadorian survivor said another man — a Honduran — also had escaped the massacre and helped him get away from the ranch. Honduran and Mexican authorities refused to give Lozano any more information because the man was under protection. They would not even confirm whether it was Nunez.
There was no luck with the Ecuadorian embassy, either, when Lozano asked to convey a photo of Nunez to the Ecuadorian survivor.
“I didn’t want to see him, or even talk to him, just for him to look at the photo and tell me if it was the same person who helped him,” Lozano sobbed.
In Honduras, Posadas also ran up against hurdles. She went to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to consult with Honduran and Mexican officials, but nobody could even say what had happened with her ex-husband’s DNA sample. She called and called for a year, until finally they stopped answering.
The only thing left was to go to Mexico. But how could a sick old woman do that? Lozano was in no better position to do so, with five children depending on her and no legal residence in the U.S.
Lozano hired a lawyer to help relatives search prisons in Tamaulipas. That’s when they thought they had a breakthrough: The lawyer said he saw a man resembling Nunez in one of the prisons. Posadas asked herself, “Has God heard my pleas?”
But that lead also vanished. They heard nothing more from the lawyer, and Lozano’s brothers had to abandon the search because of threats from the Zetas.
Posadas told herself that if her son were alive, he would have called her. Yet without information or a body, she still held on to hope.
After three years of searching, that began to diminish. She spent nights awake in her small living room, decorated with knick-knacks and photos, including one of Nunez as a teenager. Days were just as desperate.
“I felt like I was falling into a terrible depression,” Posadas said. “I would walk down the street and people would see I was smiling, but it was on the outside ... nobody knew how I was on the inside.”
Posadas had no way to know, but she could have had her answer days after the mass killing.
The official report on the massacre stated that body No. 63 was a male with tattoos, including “Dachell” and the number 8. Documents note the finding of a Honduran driver’s license in the name of Wilmer Gerardo Nunez Posadas, with a photo of a man with a moustache and beard. Yet nobody made that information public, and body No. 63 was eventually buried in a common grave.
In September 2013, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and other groups reached an agreement with Mexican prosecutors to identify more than 200 bodies from three massacres, including the one at San Fernando. All the bodies in the common grave were exhumed for new autopsies. In March 2015, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to the Honduran Supreme Court asking for help locating the relatives of two men, including Nunez.
When the Argentine team found out about Nunez’s ID, they tried to track down the family, but did not want to set foot in Planeta.
“I made it clear that I could not enter that area,” said Allang Rodriguez, a psychologist with the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso, a group working with the Argentines.
The Catholic church helped in the search, and talked to nuns who worked with migrants. One woman, Geraldina Garay, knew a taxi driver who lived in Planeta. He offered to leave a scrap of paper with a phone number that Posadas could call in one of the neighborhood’s oldest stores, behind her home.
A neighbor saw the message and brought it to Posadas late last year. Confused, she called the number. The voice on the other end wanted to meet to talk about her disappeared son.
“Today I finally have hope,” she thought.
When they met, the forensic experts told her about the driver’s license and the tattoos. They arranged for DNA tests for her and for Wilmer Turcios Sarmiento, 18, who was thought to be Nunez’s son from a teenage relationship before he left for the U.S.
In May, Posadas learned the DNA tests had come back positive — one of 183 matches for dead migrants found with help of the Argentine team since 2010.
“My heart hurt so much ... most of all because of the death he suffered, not even knowing who killed him, with his eyes blindfolded, hands tied ...” Posadas said, her voice trailing off, tears in her eyes.
The DNA tests also proved Nunez was Turcios’ father. It was like finding and losing a father at the same time, he told his grandmother.
One question continued to rattle around in Posadas’ mind, and it was what pained her the most: “Why? Why, having the proof, did they hide it so long?”
The report she was given spoke of errors and inconsistencies in the handling of the case, and called for an investigation into the delay. To date, nobody has been convicted for the killings, and nine people are still unidentified. Mexican officials did not comment.
On Oct. 31, Wilmer Gerardo Nunez came home to Honduras.
The coffin arrived at the airport in San Pedro Sula, packaged in cardboard with a thin black ribbon and Nunez’s name, and was transported to the morgue. When it was opened, the odor of death filled the room, softened by chemical products.
Posadas, holding a small red towel to wipe away tears and sweat, approached with her husband, her sister and a psychologist. A forensic worker unwrapped the cadaver. By now the head was just a skull, but on the arms some of the skin remained, along with tattoos. Posadas didn’t need to see any more.
About 20 people came to the brief wake at the house in Planeta, where the coffin took up most of the living room in the baking sun. After eight years, the final goodbye lasted about two hours. Posadas feared that if it went any longer, the gangsters who control the neighborhood would show up.
Then a bus from the Planeta Baptist Church took the family to a small cemetery with a motley collection of unkempt tombs.
“I am finally sure. It is him. It is him. I give thanks to God,” Posadas sobbed before collapsing next to the coffin.
Several mourners took cellphone video for relatives in the United States to see, but Nunez’s children in Los Angeles still don’t know he is dead. His younger daughter, Sulek Haydee, now 8, talks more and more to her grandmother online, and often asks: “Where is my daddy? Why doesn’t he come to see us?”
“He can’t, mamita,” Posadas answers with a knot in her throat. “He’s working.”
Nunez’s son in Honduras dreams of going to the U.S. himself to seek a better life. “Anything is better than this,” Turcios said.
Eight years and three months after the last hug from her son, Posadas says she feels peace for the first time, although she still wants justice.
In her prayers now, she asks for her grandson not to migrate.