Madeleine Wattenbarger,  February 20, 2019

The Searchers

With the Fourth National Brigade in Search of Disappeared People in Guerrero, Mexico

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I arrive in Huitzuco, Guerrero—population 17,475, according to the sign at the town’s entrance—around noon on a Thursday in late January. The bus squeezes through narrow roads to park outside the station, a waiting room and ticket booth in a low blue building. The trip from Mexico City takes just two and a half hours, through tree- and brush-lined hillside highways in the state of Morelos, then the narrow mountain switchbacks of Guerrero. But here, sun blazing, the temperature is twenty or so degrees higher than in the capital. A block away from the bus station sits a white chapel with yellow trim, where a workshop is just beginning. I squeeze into the back; elderly church ladies in neatly pressed skirts and blouses are interspersed with younger, dustier out-of-towners. Among them, a handful of people wear signs hanging around their necks on cords. Some bear just a photo, others a handful of details: height, weight, eye color, scar on chin, location last seen. Slogans flank the images of their loved ones: Dónde están? Where are they?

This is the Fourth National Brigade in Search of Disappeared People (4BNB). Between 150 and two hundred people from collectives all over Mexico have come together to search for the bodies of relatives who went missing and have remained disappeared. Of course, not everyone expects to find their family members’ remains in Guerrero. But the gathering demonstrates solidarity in the face of authorities’ inaction against the epidemic of forced disappearances plaguing the country.

The Mexican government estimates that around forty thousand Mexican citizens are currently disappeared, though the number is likely even higher. The current wave of disappearances began when former president Felipe Calderon set into motion Mexico’s War on Drugs in 2006, first sending several thousand troops to intervene in cartel violence in the state of Michoacán, and then deploying the military to hunt cartels across the country. Corruption and collusion between cartels, security forces, and local governments have created what many call the narco-state: the drug trade has infiltrated Mexico’s institutions so deeply that it’s virtually inextricable from those meant to combat it. This has taken a particular toll on the state of Guerrero, where this year’s brigade is taking place. Though Guerrero is known to generations of American tourists solely through their beach vacations to Acapulco or Zihuatanejo, the state’s Montaña region is one of Mexico’s primary poppy-growing zones. Guerrero is also home to some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with a third of its residents living in extreme poverty. The militarization brought on by the drug war has created an epidemic of violence against indigenous communities, the poor, journalists, and human rights defenders in the state. The disappearance that’s received the most international attention, of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, happened in Iguala, just under an hour from where I sit in the church in Huitzuco.

Everything is upside down in this search party: what we most want is to find a dead body.

The individual collectives making up the 4BNB represent a variety of strategies and political agendas: some dedicate themselves to fighting for changes in laws on the federal level; others protest the inaction of their local officials; still others advocate specifically for an end to the drug war on an international level. In Huitzuco, though, they’ve mobilized around a visceral desire they all share: they want closure. The 4BNB’s stated, most obvious mission is to find bodies; they hope to dig up clandestine graves of disappearance victims. During long evening meetings, in workshops at churches, when talking to strangers in the street, brigade members state over and over that they are not looking for the culprits. They are looking for their family members, who disappeared on their way to work, going to the corner store, or coming home from school. They have been unwillingly trapped in the dense, dark web of state violence, militarization, and the drug trade. Several people sport T-shirts that say as much: Hasta que te entierre, te seguiré buscando. Until I’ve buried you, I will keep searching.

Each day during the brigade, one or two different groups head to points in the Guerrero hills where they have heard there might be bodies. This motley crew of family members and forensic experts, volunteers and security personnel, journalists and federal police—who some consider slightly more trustworthy than municipal police forces, and who have come, at least ostensibly, to provide an extra layer of security—first scans the rocky hillside terrain for depressions or mounds that could be hiding graves. Then, the group will bring in trained dogs, metal rods, and picks and shovels. Everything is upside down in this search party: what we most want is to find a dead body.

In this year’s brigade, the field search is accompanied by outreach in churches, schools, and public spaces. It reflects the 4BNB’s new, multi-pronged strategy: one part consciousness-raising, one part preventative education, one part combing for intel, one part reaching people who may not have reported their family members’ disappearances. We pass out flyers in plazas and talk to vendors in the market. Many people are afraid that digging deeper could make them the next target for disappearance. But sometimes, a stranger will offer a tip: check this hillside, that cave.

In the chapel, workshop facilitators attempt to recreate, just for a moment, the experience of families of the disappeared. As we listen to a song, my friend Daniel taps participants—every third or fourth person—on the shoulders and leads them outside. He beckons me to join the group. We had just finished introducing ourselves to our neighbors and exchanging conversation. Now, Daniel asks us to reflect: What did it feel like when we took you away without telling you anything? Inside, I hear the other group do the same: What does it feel like that your neighbor is gone—your neighbor who just told you about their dreams? One pressed-bloused woman, whose daughter and granddaughter had joined the small huddle outside, begins sobbing on the church pew as she answers. The sun beating down on us, we call out, Búscanos. Look for us.


Forced disappearances are, by their nature, inscrutable. They are unfinished narratives. They are blanks, or fill-in-the-blanks, and many people in Mexico do the latter. Calderón presided over the disappearance of twenty-five thousand people during his six-year term. Of the tens of thousands more who were killed, he claimed that 90 percent were criminals involved in the narco trade in some way, despite plenty of evidence of murdered or disappeared civilians. Calderón’s assumption tacitly encourages silence: they must have been wrapped up in something. But family members in the brigade know otherwise. Maria Herrera, also known as Mama Mary, and her sons Miguel and Juan Carlos Trujillo, have become some of the most visible faces of the movement in search of disappeared people. Two of Maria’s sons were running a business buying and selling fine metals when they were disappeared in Guerrero in 2008; two years later, two of her other two sons were disappeared while traveling in search of work. Journalists from the Spanish newspaper El País recently revealed that dozens of people in the state of Jalisco were disappeared after responding to a job listing for security guards: when they arrived for their training, they were kidnapped by members of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion and forced to work. A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) puts it like this: if the disappearances have anything in common, it’s that the government has done virtually nothing to address them.

The police officer to whom you report your loved one’s disappearance might be the same one who handed them off to be trafficked or tortured or murdered, as in cases documented by HRW. Municipal and state governments often turn a blind eye; when they do take cursory measures to document cases, security forces have been known to alter crime scenes. Relatives of disappeared people sometimes appeal to the federal government, which rarely investigates disappearances in-depth. Federal forces that do recover human remains are not always thorough: in one of the brigade’s searches, they found over a hundred human bone fragments in a site previously examined by a federal forensic team. Authorities are obviously reluctant to investigate links between police and organized crime. In this environment, to look for answers—to attempt to disentangle the web of abuse—can turn anyone into a target.

The drug war is fueled, too, by U.S. support, including the funneling of arms to Mexico through both legal and illicit channels. Since 2006, U.S. arms exports to Mexico have steadily increased. Between 2015 and 2017 alone, the United States exported nearly $123 million of arms to Mexico—more than twelve times the amount sent between 2002 and 2004. While the Mexican military is the only legal importer of arms in Mexico, they often resell them to police units. From there, thousands of arms regularly go missing—in Guerrero, this is true of twenty percent of all legally imported firearms between 2010 and 2016. Others wind up in the hands of security forces with track records of human rights abuses and collusion with cartels: the police forces involved in the Ayotzinapa disappearances, for instance, had access to Colt rifles that were legally imported from the United States in 2013. Then there is the illegal arms trafficking from the United States. Between 2009 and 2016, roughly 70 percent of guns traced from crime scenes in Mexico had been purchased in the United States. Lax gun laws in the United States exacerbate this trafficking, in particular the gun show loophole.

Guerrero sits at the intersection of many levels of corruption, impunity, and violence not only in Mexico, but in our current world order.

The United States has also funded the militarization of Mexican security forces, particularly since the 2008 Mérida Initiative, a partnership which provides equipment and training for Mexican security forces and is intended to combat organized crime on both sides of the border. The U.S. State Department claims that the project’s goals are to “support Mexico’s efforts to improve security, enhance criminal prosecutions and rule of law, build public confidence in the justice sector, improve border security and reduce irregular migration, and promote greater respect for human rights.” The initiative has funded more than $2.8 billion worth of equipment and training to date—funding that has largely served to extend the human rights violations it was ostensibly meant to combat.

Still, the United States continues pouring money into Mexican security forces, allegedly, at least in part, to combat the U.S. opioid epidemic, while simultaneously attempting to cut funding for State Department programs that protect journalists and human rights defenders. The Mexican drug war and the United States’ own war on the opioid crisis are contiguous: rather than focusing on programs to aid those caught in the crossfire of the opioid epidemic, the Trump administration has demonstrated more interested in militarizing against these already marginalized communities. Between 2007 and 2012, drug war violence also contributed to a rise both in internal forced displacement and migration to the United States.

Guerrero sits at the intersection of many levels of corruption, impunity, and violence not only in Mexico, but in our current world order. Many of the disappeared come from poor families in rural areas. Research has indicated that zones where drug production is prevalent, and thus where cartels maintain strong presences, coincide with high poverty rates. Since NAFTA undermined the economies of rural Mexico, many rural farmers, who could no longer compete with the low price of U.S.-imported goods, became easy prey for cartels looking to recruit drug production farmers. Coffee production in Guerrero decreased by 88 percent between 2003 and 2016, and the unused land was largely replaced with drug crops. The drug trade makes billions of dollars in revenue each year, and many in the government look away.

So the brigade does what the government won’t.


On Friday, I accompany a group on a search—a relatively easy one, in a brambled, sprawling field, as opposed to the rocky hillsides many other search parties have covered. When we step off the bus at the site—just outside Iguala, flanked by a hillside where a massive Mexican flag undulates in the wind—the more experienced searchers point out a textbook clandestine grave, a person-sized depression in the dusty earth. Several hours later, when they’ve carefully dug it out, the volunteers find the grave empty. There had been a body there, once, but someone has removed it. Not-finding is also finding, someone reminds us: at least now one site has been ruled out. There is one less place to look.

After the search, we eat a late lunch at the church in Iguala, a tidy building of cinderblock and stained glass. Church ladies scoop chicharrón in salsa verde and black beans onto styrofoam plates, and the group who has been flyering that day tells me that, within a few blocks of the center of Iguala, they met five different people who had not reported the disappearances of their family members. Disappearance is a fact of life here. The other field search group, meanwhile, has made the second discovery of the week—a body at the lip of a cave, a three-hour hike up one of the surrounding hills. The body they found was old, and likely from Mexico’s previous wave of disappearances, during the Dirty War of 1968-1982. The 4BNB includes the children of people disappeared in that period, as well as relatives of those who’ve been disappeared as recently as last year.

The solidarity among relatives of the disappeared makes visible what many of those in power seek to hide.

Many brigade members have overhauled their previous lives to dedicate themselves to the search. Mario Vergara, a wiry man from Huitzuco in his mid-forties, is searching for his brother Tomás, a taxi driver who was disappeared in 2012. He left his job to search full-time and now intermittently sells mezcal to support himself. Vergara even learned to rappel, and trains to endure the undertaking’s physical demands, which are strenuous. Collectives from Veracruz note that Guerrero’s hilly terrain, compared to the flatness of their home state, complicates the search process. A woman from Sinaloa tells me about the difficulties of looking for bodies in mangrove swamps. There, they’ve trained themselves how to recognize a grave, how to distinguish it from a natural scoop in the soil: the way it gives under your heel, the texture of the dirt, the disturbance in growth over the topsoil.

Each night of the brigade, we return to a complex in Huitzuco where most of the participants are staying. Our group spans toddlers and septuagenarians, nuns and university students, activists by choice and activists by circumstance. The slogan displayed across the brigade’s official T-shirts captures some of the symbolism of this motley coalition: Buscando nos encontramos. Searching, we find each other. Forced disappearance, like all facets of the drug war, is inherently alienating. Functionaries laugh off relatives’ demands for investigations into their cases. Officers tell people reporting these disappearances to let it go, that they shouldn’t bother. Neighbors whisper, they must have done something. And cartels and security forces are known to target people who dig around too much. Disappearances lead to more disappearances. But the solidarity among relatives of the disappeared makes visible what many of those in power seek to hide. The forty thousand missing—though disappeared alone or in twos, fives, or forty-threes—are not isolated incidents or collateral damage.

The week after this year’s brigade’s activities concluded, Mexico’s subsecretary of human rights, migration and population, Alejandro Encinas, met with members of the brigade, including the collective Frente Guerrero, one of its primary organizers. Encinas signed a commitment to restructure state institutions focused on disappearance, instate working groups on forced disappearance and to guarantee security for families searching. Meanwhile, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced a new plan to search for disappeared people in Mexico, including a new system for identification of human remains, additional forces to search for missing people, a renewed database of disappeared people, and a strengthened commission to attend to victims and their relatives. Activists from groups including the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico have applauded the measure, though with some skepticism about its execution. AMLO has declared the drug war officially over while simultaneously pushing for the formation of a National Guard that many fear will contribute to greater police violence against civilians.

In the meantime, as disappearances continue each day and U.S. arms and money continue to pour over the border, families search fields and hills, swamps and caves, in search of those who’ve been taken.

Madeleine Wattenbarger is a journalist based in Mexico City, where she writes about politics, urbanism, human rights and migration.

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