Rastreadoras del Fuerte, the dungarees of the disappeared in Mexico
States like Sinaloa are a hotbed of clandestine graves, but a group of 300 families are arming themselves with shovels and patience to find their "treasures."
It's 9 a.m. in El Fuerte, in the north of Sinaloa, Mexico, but Mirna Medina Quiñonez has been walking the dry hills for some time now using her heart as a compass. I can hear her walking with a sure step and shouting to the other searchers.
"No, go away", "Hurry up, let's go!"
At times the signal is lost.
"Mirna? Mirna, are you there?"
And her voice returns, energetic and panting. Today is Friday, a day of exploration: a group of Rastreadoras del Fuerte, more than 300 families looking for their missing children in the mountains, roads and rocks, have gone out to map the terrain.
In the six years that these women and men have been tracking the thicket, they have found some 207 "treasures" — that's what they call them. More than half are relatives of members of the organization, the rest are the husbands, brothers and children of other people who, upon recovering their treasure and being able to mourn and bury it, decided to join together to help other families.
"At some point, they called us 'las locas con la pala,' because we were going out without a destination to see if we could find something. We would put in a broom stick with a pick, but then we used rods that are more practical," she explained.
Mirna Medina is the president of Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte. She founded the group on July 14, 2014, after witnessing how Mexican authorities washed their hands of the search for her 21-year-old son, Roberto.
"When my son disappeared, I went to the authorities to ask where they were looking, but they told me they were only investigating. So I made a promise to my son that I would search until I found him because of the indolence of a government that did not want to acknowledge the disappearances, much less search. A week after the group was formed, on July 20, we found the first graves in the mountains. That's how we got the idea to keep searching," said the tracker, who found her "treasure" in 2017, but that didn't stop her from continuing to help other families and fighting to give the government a "cachetada de guante blanco" (a slap in the face) and to assume its part of the responsibility.
The Trackers got the Sinaloa government to create a genetics laboratory to identify the bodies.
"There was a moment when we organized a demonstration and showed them folders of the disappeared that they had forgotten about in the state of Sinaloa," she said. "We obtained a Law on Forced Disappearance in 2017, which states that families must work and be taken into account, and also a National Search Commission with local commissions that support groups that search for missing treasures. The family must always be present because who better than a mother or wife to search with the heart?"
Currently, the government of Sinaloa has a genetics laboratory to identify the bodies that are found. They dig them up, sometimes with the help of radars, but the most important thing, said Mirna, is intuition.
"Seventy percent of the bodies we've located are because someone pointed out to us that they saw something strange, a truck or disturbed soil. Then we go there on Wednesdays and Sundays, to search with that shovel, machete, pickaxe and with a lot of love," said the mother for whom all searches, even those that come back empty-handed, are positive because they can move on from an area.
The genetics laboratory is a fundamental part of the work, as well as the coordination with the authorities who have had to "turn around" to see them. "More than 150 bodies have been given to the families through genetic identification and this is very important, because it is not enough to have them piled up as it happens in other states," she said.
Since 1964, when Felipe Calderón's "war against Narcos" began, Mexico has recorded around 178,000 disappearances, of which more than 75,000 remain unresolved. The statistics were announced by the Secretary of the Interior during the International Day of Victims of Forced Disappearances, which was celebrated yesterday, Aug. 30, at the request of the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico for the creation of a new law that focuses on the search for disappeared individuals, both dead and, above all, alive.
"We demand that the identification of dead persons be a priority for the authorities of the current government, however, we also consider that the search for living persons should have the same level of importance," declared the Movement.
For this reason, they are asking the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to identify more than 37,000 people who are still in unidentified morgues, semi-morgues, and cemeteries.
The majority of the 75,000 people who are still missing in Mexico are young people between 15 and 35 years old.
This is an enormous task that should be accompanied by a more energetic impulse to the investigation — to which López Obrador seems committed — especially if one considers there are almost 4,000 clandestine graves throughout the country and most are located in the states of Veracruz, Colima, Guerrero, Sonora and Sinaloa.
The victims are mostly young people between the ages of 15 and 35. But who are the culprits in these deaths and why?
"It is very important that we talk about contexts," said Mirna Medina. "In the northern zone of Sinaloa, the majority of the disappeared are young people and those responsible are organized crime groups, because there is a struggle for power and it is, as in the Wild West, the law of the strongest. Here in the northern zone of Sinaloa there are almost no missing women — only 10% — most are young boys who used to consume or sell, but not criminals. They were simply in the wrong place."
For the tracer, it is essential that authorities study the context of disappearances at a national level — if they have occurred, as is the case of Juarez because of femicide, sexual abuse, or human trafficking.
This would be the way to point out the perpetrators and prevent further occurrences.
This week, the Mexican president will present an initiative to the Senate so the United Nations can investigate the disappearances in the Latin American country, something that previous executives had rejected.
If this instrument is approved, the victims will have "an additional channel to access justice in the international arena," said the Office in Mexico of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN-HCHR) in a statement. They also urged the judges to "guarantee the rights" of the disappeared and their families, since they are "the last hope in the domestic sphere in the face of the abuses and negligence of other authorities," said Jesus Peña, its representative.
This could be a historic moment for Mexico and for those who, like Mirna Medina and Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte, are breathlessly searching for their tragically lost "treasures" buried somewhere in a country that has been plagued by extreme violence for years.