Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
We met at 7:30 am in the cafeteria of an austere monastery in the city of Cuernavaca, about an hour and a half by car from Mexico City. Maria Herrera, who is searching for four of her sons — disappeared in 2008 and 2010 — arrived with her husband, and they sat down together at the head of a wooden table. Family members of other disappeared persons welcomed and hugged the couple, who are in their mid 70s, and brought them plates of eggs and beans from the kitchen.
The family members and volunteers who gathered that morning formed part of Mexico’s Sixth National Search Brigade. After breakfast, they split into three groups. The first went to meet with local religious groups as part of a mission to educate and inform about enforced disappearances. The second met with local authorities to review photos of corpses retrieved from clandestine mass graves in Tetelcingo and Jojutla. And the third traveled to the rural municipality of Yecapixtla, to continue the search for human remains.
By 9:30 am, the 15-passenger van carrying the third group pulled off a dirt road in a lush valley, edged by rust-colored fields of sorghum, dotted with concrete houses. The van rolled to a stop in a small clearing and the door slid open. The searchers, all women, laced up their boots and secured their hats. We gathered in a circle for a short prayer; the organizers did a headcount and divided amongst us the tasks at hand.
I joined the women who fanned out around the trenches searching for fresh evidence of human remains along the riverbed, in the brush, and over the steep hills. The heat was intense, without a hint of breeze. I took notes, my mind moving away from the task at hand with every distraction: lines of ants clamoring across exposed dirt; a pair of red boxer briefs suspended in the bush; white butterflies fluttering around a tree.
One of the searchers, a mother whose son was disappeared just over a decade ago, poked a metal rod into the dirt and lifted it to her nose, smelling for the odor of the dead. After three weeks of land searches as part of the Brigade, she told me that she thinks she smells death all the time now.
A few hundred meters away, a small group hung square wooden sieves from the branches of two large trees, a technique passed on by a supporter who had seen it being used in Vietnam. The women poured buckets of earth onto the sieves and moved their hands over the screens, feeling for bone fragments. They chatted quietly as they worked behind an abandoned structure believed to have belonged to a man connected to multiple killings in the area.
In between the ground searchers and those sifting through the earth, another woman was busy overseeing the excavators at work. Three trenches, each about a meter deep and eight meters long, had been opened side by side across a flat plain surrounded by steep hills. The Brigade discovered a human bone here on October 14, 2021, prompting an official response that included the arrival of the excavators and a federal forensic team.
Eleven bodies have since been found in the rich soil known as “La Mina” and nearby areas in Yecapixtla. Each body and bone fragment found by members of the brigade represents the possibility of a genetic match with family members, which could help give closure and allow them to grieve.
When it was time for lunch, we sat together in front of the open grave. Someone had taken the table and chairs out of the lunch tent, so we set the vitrolero, heavy with ice and sweet hibiscus tea, a warm stack of tortillas, and two enormous casseroles filled with chiles in cream and red rice on bare earth. As we ate, the excavators drove back and forth, belching thick, black smoke.
I sat beside a mother from Sinaloa searching for her son, a machete strapped to her hip. She’d spent most of the afternoon perched on the edge of the excavator, looking over to see if bones were appearing in the trench. On a ledge just behind us, members of Mexico’s National Guard stood watching the machines.
As the National Search Brigade went to work in Morelos, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) visited Mexico, in accordance with Article 33 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance.
The CED visit was spurred in part by Mexico’s share of 782 urgent actions, which are requests for follow-up with the host state following a disappearance. Between 2012 and September 2019, 371 urgent actions came from Iraq. 357 came from Mexico.
At the end of their visit, the CED released a statement expressing “serious concerns” about ongoing enforced disappearances in Mexico. It also noted that “as of 26 November 2021, the last day of CED visit to Mexico, 95,000 people were officially registered as disappeared in Mexico. Out of these, more than 100 disappearances allegedly took place during the Committee’s visit from 15 to 26 November.” As I made my final edits to this story on January 9, 2022, the total number of disappeared had climbed to 96,628.
Most of the nearly 100,000 disappearances recorded in Mexico have occurred in the context of Mexico’s so-called war on drugs, which began in December 2006. Some of the family members active in searches today have been at it for the last 15 years, if not longer. Tita Radilla has been searching for her father Rosendo Radilla Pacheco since his disappearance in Guerrero state in 1974, and remains involved in the National Search Brigade.
The 2021 Brigade in Morelos was especially meaningful because it took place a decade after the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MJPD) was founded in Cuernavaca by writer and poet Javier Sicilia after the murder of his son Juan Francisco and six others. The MJPD was the first large-scale victim-led movement against the war in Mexico. Its caravans and public events raised awareness and helped break the stigma associated with being a victim of the war.
In many ways, the lineage of today’s National Search Brigade can be traced back to the MJPD.
The Red de Enlaces Nacionales was formed by a group of collectives that were convened by the MJPD and the caravans, it started with eight collectives… and it’s grown since, from eight to 160.Montserrat Castillo, coordinator of the National Search Brigade and solidarity volunteer with Maria Herrera’s Familiares en Búsqueda collective.
Castillo observed that the flexibility of the articulation between families and organizers in the Red de Enlaces Nacionales, together with the possibility of using our bodies (poner el cuerpo) to search for the disappeared have helped accelerate the growth of the movement.
The whole point of the Brigade is to strengthen the work that the families are already doing. It is not an agenda item, it is not someone else’s agenda, it is theirs.Montserrat Castillo
Castillo has been a part of all six Brigades and has helped shape the Red de Enlaces Nacionales into a sustainable organization that accompanies family members from around the country. Over the past years, the Red de Enlaces Nacionales has worked to develop a holistic model through which to approach the mounting crisis of disappearance.
The Red de Enlaces Nacionales organizes the National Search Brigades, which have at their core humanitarian intervention, prevention, the construction of peace, and rebuilding the social fabric.
The humanitarian intervention aspect consists of land searches for human remains, identification, and searches for the disappeared while they are alive. Prevention, construction of peace, and reconstruction of the social fabric are addressed through a combination of educational work in schools, outreach with faith communities, sensitivity training for authorities and local security forces, awareness building in public spaces, psychological and social accompaniment for family members, and media and communications work.
While I chatted with the searchers, who were mostly family members, but also volunteers and activists, it became clear to me that their aim is to build organizational structures that will be able to continue to support the searches for as long as necessary. This is not a six-month project, or a three-year project. Tita Radilla’s struggle serves as a powerful and painful reminder of this: she has been searching for her father for nearly 50 years. In many other cases, children and even grandchildren of the disappeared have kept the searches going over generations.
Some are choosing to stay in the struggle even after their loved one has been found. Edith Hernández Torres, who is from Cuernavaca, became a searcher after her brother Israel Hernández Torres was disappeared in 2012. She eventually found his body in a clandestine grave created by local officials in Tetelcingo, also in the state of Morelos, in 2016.
During the whole process of searching I met many families with disappearances and we searched together, we struggled together, we did advocacy together. They were with me when Israel came home, and when he was buried.Hernández Torres, member of the Regresando a Casa collective in Morelos.
But that wasn’t the end. Viri is still missing, Juan Manuel is still missing, Juan Carlos is still missing. They are the ones that [my compañeras] are still missing, and now they’re missing for all of us.Hernández Torres