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The Presence of Absence

Two films grapple with disappearances at the US-Mexico border.

Here’s a story: someone leaves their home, they head out to a store, or to school, or on a date, or maybe they set out to cross a national border—and they never arrive. They never arrive, and they never return. Nobody, not their parents, their children, their lovers ever hear from them again, ever find a trace of them. They are in a state more wrenching and unending than death. They are not even dead. They are disappeared.

In Mexico, that story has played out nearly eighty thousand times in the last fifteen years. Eighty thousand victims have been lost to the country’s misguided, escalating drug war, which has unfolded in a context of impunity, creating Latin America’s worst crisis of disappearance since the Cold War era. Some were killed when their neighborhoods were usurped by criminal groups; others were targeted by police and soldiers for ransom or revenge; others still were squeezed out of their towns by poverty and free trade policies, finding their way to maquiladoras in the borderlands, where they met grisly, mysterious ends. The protracted violence of these years seems to have strained, and broken, grammar itself, changing the meaning of to disappear from a vanishing—an evanescing into airiness—into a crushing, transitive act: something done with a gun, a hood, a helicopter. In contemporary Mexico, people are forcefully disappeared. The forty-three students kidnapped from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero state in 2014 have become the face of this crisis. But their case was an exception only in degree, not in kind.

Across the country, there are more than sixty organizations searching for the disappeared, turning up thousands of mass and clandestine graves, pleading for an end to the violence or for any ending at all. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has even set up a federal commission to investigate the matter, though justice remains as remote as ever. In describing an earlier era of disappearances in Mexico—the Dirty War of the 1960s and 1970s, when the government brutally cracked down against guerilla and student groups—Elena Poniatowska wrote of an “eternal anguish.” The death of a loved one kills hope, she admitted. But “a disappearance is intolerable because it neither kills nor allows one to live.”

With a disappearance there is neither end nor catharsis.

A series of recent Mexican films have grappled with the pained ambience of disappearances. These include Heli (2015), La Libertad del Diablo (2017), and The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo (2020). And yet the focus shouldn’t only be on Mexico. United States foreign policy, drug policy, and border militarization has everything to do with the disappearances of migrants. Two new films, made on either side of the border, bring this reality into view.

In Identifying Features (2020), her feature debut, Mexican director Fernanda Valadez follows one mother as she searches for her son who disappeared on his way north to the United States. Eschewing overt drama, the film dwells on the “eternal anguish” family members experience losing a loved one to inexplicable circumstances, as well as the incredible courage it engenders. Jeff Bemiss and Lisa Molomot’s documentary Missing in Brooks County (2020) is about a series of families engaged in a similarly hopeless search in Brooks County, in the bottom crevice of Texas. In recent years, the county has become a graveyard for migrants who, after crossing the border, are forced to take to the desert scrubland to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint. Every year, between three hundred and six hundred people—there are no reliable numbers—perish this way in the United States, never to be properly mourned. A report from National Institute of Justice has called this the nation’s “silent mass disaster.”

Still from Identifying Features.

A few years ago, I was walking close to the border wall in Nogales, Sonora, in the dry bake of a bright afternoon, when a truck hard-braked in front of a small convenience store and two men jumped out—one brandishing an AK-47, another a pistol. I partially ducked behind an electrical box and watched as the horror unfolded, my blood pulsing in my feet. The men stormed into the store. A few seconds later, they burst back out, dragging another man by his scruff. They threw him into the back of the truck, jumped in themselves, and squealed away. I am witnessing a kidnapping, I remember numbly thinking.

It was hard not to judge suspiciously fancy trucks while strolling in northern Mexico after that. Context, in life as in film, is what generates panic. So when a truck pulls up early in Identifying Features, as Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) is heading north to look for her boy, I wondered if she was next. But that would be a nothingness of closure, and that’s not what the film is after. The subtle strength of Identifying Features is that it holds back on portraying such violence; with a disappearance there is neither end nor catharsis.

The holes torn into hearts when loved ones are disappeared are also torn into the social fabric.

Magdalena, with a susurrant voice and a never-explained split lip, is looking for her beautiful, baby-faced, teenage son, Jesus, who has gone north and gone missing. She and her friend, the mother of Jesus’s traveling companion (also missing) go to the local authorities in the state of Guanajuato to ask for help in finding their sons.  The official they speak to first claims incapacity and then, after being prodded by the intractable, eye-pleading mothers, plops down a binder as heavy as a body part. It is loaded with shots of the dead. “The feds send them regularly,” the official says. Morbid photo / morbid photo / morbid photo / morbid photo / morbid photo—“from the last two months,” he adds.

Magdalena flips peremptorily through the heavy binder, not finding Jesus: wrenchingly, you both do and don’t want her to. But she does spot his friend, from the distinctive patches of white on his face, which stand out even as his body is broken. The next scene introduces a third mother with a missing son. She is a doctor, and the scene’s first shot is of an eyeball being sliced open—ostensibly a corrective surgery the woman is performing, though hard not to think of Buñuel—the lens gently mangled with a hooked probe. There is hardly a better metaphor for the intimate, agonizing search for a missing loved one; it is as if our sight itself is mutilated.

With little help coming from the state, Magdalena takes matters into her own hands. At the local bus station, she asks the manager if she can speak with a driver who may know something of her missing son; the manager informs Magdalena that the back room she is in is not for clients. You sense that the bureaucratic deflection is also a shield from the terror, a measure of self-protection for a woman who is confronted with violence on a daily basis. The same woman later finds Magdalena in a bathroom stall and whispers that she should not be asking such questions in the open. She gives her the name of a manager at a migrant shelter who may be able to help. There are dozens of such shelters scattered throughout Mexico, run mostly by church groups and non-profits.

The shelter manager, who we never actually see, repeats the process: I can’t help, you should go home, she says, and then gives Magdalena the name of a mysterious Zapotec man who might know something. The long, steady, patient takes—a boy walking through a field, a man stepping out of a boat,  Magdalena listening to officials—draw our attention to what is off-screen, to all that is lost and those who have gone. The minimalism, as if the camera lens were blindered, highlights the absences at the heart of the film.

In an interesting and devastating narrative reversal, we later meet a son, Miguel, with a missing mother. We first see him in a hielera, or icebox: one of the miserable, freezing Border Patrol short-term holding centers. From there, we follow his deportation back to Mexico. When he is thrust across the borderline, the soundtrack builds into a sustained screech—it’s a quiet film, but this scene sounds like Arvo Pärt on a chalkboard—and Miguel stares wide-eyed at his sinister reception. Given the context, you expect him to be kidnapped. But the film instead lingers in the non-happenings, and the tension just builds.

I won’t spoil the end of Identifying Features. But Magdalena’s search itself provides a lesson. The holes torn into hearts when loved ones are disappeared are also torn into the social fabric; society, as much as individual families, cries out for closure and mourning. In Chile, there is a memorial for the disappeared in a cemetery in Santiago: a wall with three thousand listed names. When human remains are found, the corresponding names are marked as deceased instead of disappeared. There is no such general memorial in Mexico or in the southwestern borderlands of the United States. Bodies in Identifying Features, often against black or flat backgrounds, look like holes ripped in the screen.

Still from Missing in Brooks County ( (2020), dir. Jeff Bemiss and Lisa Molomot. | Doc NYC

Over the years, as a volunteer with migrant rights organizations and as a journalist, I’ve watched hundreds of people being deported. The whole long and mostly invisible process, which begins sometimes days in advance, can include being shackled for hours, periods of starvation, nightmarish middle-of-the-night transfers, and the theft or “loss” of personal belongings, cash, and identifying documents. At the end, people are often literally  dumped into dangerous border cities where they may have never been before.

Every year, ICE sends tens of thousands of migrants to Mexican border cities like Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Juárez, Nogales, and Tijuana, places for which the U.S. State Department issues severe travel warnings. It was common practice during the Obama administration to deport migrants far from where they crossed; the Alien Transfer and Exit Program (ATEP), as the policy was known, was intended to make it harder for migrants to try recrossing the border. The Trump administration took it a step further, forcing asylum seekers to wait out their cases across the border in these same cities, where they were subject to robbery, assault, rape, kidnapping, murder, and disappearance.

What insistent deportations, or ATEP, overlook, are the conditions driving people to cross borders. Whether fleeing in fear, hoping to reunite with family, or simply seeking opportunity or dignity, hundreds of thousands of people take to the Rio Grande, the southwestern deserts, or jump the border walls lining cities every year. Hundreds of them die. Since 2000, at least eight thousand people are known to have lost their lives crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Humanitarian aid groups put the number at two or more times that. The difference is made up by the disappeared, whose bodies never turn up.

It’s easy not to find someone when you’re not looking for them.

They are the subject of Missing in Brooks County, which explores the fate of migrants who took to the desert scrubland, and have gone missing. The documentary, which unfolds over the past few years, follows family members, a pioneering human rights volunteer, Eddie Canales, and a group of forensic anthropologists who set out to find the disappeared. They are accompanied by recalcitrant ranchers who refuse to allow water stations on their property, forcing thirsty migrants to drink out of putrid cattle tanks, if they can find them. The ranchers justify their inhumanity with discourses on legality—the migrants are breaking the law by crossing the border—as well as dubious claims that they, and even those looking for the missing, are in cahoots with violent cartels.

Missing in Brooks County doesn’t directly disabuse these claims. Rather, it zeroes in on the unsettling, and unsparing sight of families looking for their loved ones. The moral weight of the desperation is juxtaposed against the worry ranchers decry about smugglers trampling their fences. The sister of one man, Homero Roman Gómez, reflects on the drawn-out disaster of his disappearance: “When you’re having fun or you’re smiling, you think, ‘This is wrong. Are we supposed to be having fun or are we supposed to be looking for our brother?’” Another family finds their eighteen-year-old son on a forty-five thousand-acre private ranch: his bloated, skin-blackened body is slumped against a tree, a hoodie draped over his head, a love note in his pocket. As a Border Patrol agent remarks, “We don’t call them people anymore. We call them bodies. If you call them people, then it starts getting to you.”

This January, nineteen charred bodies were recovered from a set of vehicles in Santa Anita, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. At least thirteen of the victims were Guatemalan migrants. The bodies appeared to have been moved after they were killed and before they were set on fire, apparently in an attempt to disappear them. Twelve police officers were arrested in connection with the massacre; three of them, a Mexican newspaper reported, had received training from an international anti-narcotics bureau of the U.S. State Department. A State Department official, speaking to me on background, said that the agency will continue to “focus on building capacity across Mexico’s criminal justice system and provide assistance to support a comprehensive and sustainable approach to improve security for the long term.” In February, another group of migrants, again from Guatemala, were shot at in southern Mexico, leaving one dead and two seriously wounded. The stories don’t get much play north of the border. It’s easy not to find someone when you’re not looking for them.

A couple of years ago, I spent a bleak afternoon in San Pedro Sula, listening to the stories of mothers of disappeared children who had formed COFADEH (the Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras). That was when I first glimpsed the intolerable suffering of someone whose family member has been disappeared. Two women and I were drinking weak and oversweetened coffee out of thin Styrofoam cups, sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs. One of them told me, in her hoarse, quiet voice, that she had never stopped looking for her son who had been missing, at that point, for a decade: it’s why she ate and slept, she said, to give her strength to keep looking. It’s why she was talking to me right then. It’s why she opened her eyes in the morning, and why, she told me, fixing her eyes on mine, she opened her eyes at all.