MEXICO CITY — While the FBI and the Mexican National Guard scrambled to find the four abducted Americans, María Isabel Cruz Bernal has spent years searching for her missing son herself with the help of family and friends.
Reyes Yosimar García Cruz disappeared in 2017 in the state of Sinaloa, but the investigation stalled two years ago.
So from dawn to dusk, in deserts and open fields and at gravesites, she looks for her son — or for his remains. He was 28 when he went missing.
“It makes me very sad that those Americans were kidnapped, and two were killed. But the Mexican government found them quickly, dead and alive, but they found them. We have been searching for years, and they don’t help us,” Cruz Bernal said.
According to data from the National Search Commission in Mexico, more than 14,000 people disappeared in the country last year, at least 27 people every day. Last March, the country reached more than 100,000 missing.
“We feel that it is a mockery because there is no investigation, there are no searches, there are no guarantees that our family will return," she said. "The years go by and we are dying hoping to find our loved ones."
The abduction of the four U.S. citizens carried out last Friday in plain sight of many passersby drew heavy condemnation from Mexico’s president and a pledge of a thorough investigation. After a joint U.S.-Mexico search and investigation, they were located Tuesday. Two were dead and the other two were returned to the United States.
For most Mexicans, there is no quickly deployed, heavily resourced search or investigation for their abducted or missing loved ones. And there is no knowing whether those who go missing are alive or dead.
Ricardo Ainslie, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who made the 2007 documentary film “Ya Basta!: Kidnapped in Mexico,” said the “quick” resolution in the abduction is pretty unusual.
“In Mexico, there are people who haven’t been found in years who are still disappeared. People don’t know what happened to them. People are taken off the streets, just like you saw in the video. A pickup truck pulls up. An armed gunman takes them and they never appear again,” he said.
Cruz Bernal is helped by others in a group she formed, Sabuesos Guerreras (Warrior Bloodhounds), a Sinaloa association dedicated to tracking down the remains of disappeared people.
'It sort of points out how big the problem is'
“There is a lot of gun violence in the United States that doesn’t get reported. And a lot of gun violence that doesn’t get reported in Mexico, or there is no prosecution or no punishment,” said Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “So the problem is obviously much more than what happened last Friday. It sort of points out how big the problem really is.”
Mexico has battled violence for decades. President Felipe Calderón, who was in office between 2006 and 2012, declared an aggressive war on its drug cartels and deployed troops across the land.
It was supported by the Mérida Initiative, a U.S.-Mexico security agreement. He also launched the Todos Somos program in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. It made massive investments in the city’s infrastructure across multiple areas in response to the violence in Juárez, which was some of the worst in the country. It helped crime numbers fall in the region, Ainslie said.
But Calderon's approach has been criticized for unleashing even more violence as smaller drug gangs proliferated. Mexico's current president, Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, often referred to as AMLO, took a different approach.
“When AMLO came into office, his policy was hugs, not bullets,” Rudman said. With that policy was the promise to prioritize job creation and job opportunities, believing it would keep people from joining gangs or engaging in criminal activity.
But López Obrador's strategy has also come under fire.
“I think, conceptually, the idea that you need to create alternatives to joining gangs makes sense in the long run, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Rudman said.
López Obrador replaced the federal police with a civilian-led national guard. Amid the ongoing horrific violence, much of it perpetrated by cartels and gangs, he moved the guard to military control in September.
“Mexicans in some parts of the country live in fear; that they’re going to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, innocent bystanders. Even though they may not have supported the security policies of the past, I don’t think they’re seeing the kinds of change that AMLO promised or that they were looking for,” Rudman said.
'People duck their heads'
What likely strikes many in the U.S. who have seen the video of the Americans' abduction is that there were other people and cars there as the violence took place, but no one seems to mobilize following the abduction. Ainslie said that shows the impact on communities when brazen violence becomes part of the ordinary. It's what he saw in Juárez around 2010.
"When violence reaches a pitch that makes it sort of ever more present, then people duck their heads," he said. "They realize there are dangers in saying too much and knowing too much."
In Mexico, women are usually the family members conducting the searches. They dedicate themselves to the preservation of memories and the location of remains, bones, bodies or anything that brings them a little closer to knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.
“We women have had to go out looking for our lost people because the state does not do it, nor the state governments, nor the federal ... we have subsidized their work and they do not even accompany us,” said Grace Fernández, a member of Movement for our Disappeared, who also has a missing family member.
“We are very sorry for what happened to the U.S. people in Mexico. No one deserves something like that, but in this country that situation happens every day. People disappear every day," she said.
Searchers are targeted
The groups of searching mothers say that they are looking for treasures, and avoid talking about corpses or the dead. They usually receive death threats that force them to leave their homes and regions. Their searches can be dangerous — they usually receive death threats that force them to leave their homes and regions.
In 2021, Aranza Ramos was killed in Sonora while she was searching for her husband. That same year, activist Javier Barajas Piña was shot dead in the state of Guanajuato, the most violent in Mexico. Last year, activist Esmeralda Gallardo, who had been searching for her 22-year-old missing daughter, was shot to death in Puebla and Rosario Rodríguez Barraza was killed in Sinaloa.
“They keep killing us searchers, those of us who are looking for our disappeared,” Cruz Bernal said. Her face lights up when she remembers that Sabuesos Guerreras, the organization she founded four years ago, has brought together 850 women and three men who have located more than 480 bodies and 19,000 burned fragments — in addition to finding 70 people alive.
But it's a temporary salve.
“This void is not filled one bit. What I want is for our family to no longer be suffering and suffering, because what happened to me," Cruz Bernal said, "I don’t wish on anyone."
Albinson Linares reported from Mexico City, Suzanne Gamboa from San Antonio and Carmen Sesin from Miami.