Pandemic puts a sudden stop to search for thousands missing in Mexico

For nearly five full years, Virginia Peña Zamudio has been searching: trawling prisons, markets and forensic records for the slightest trace of her missing son.

Rosendo Vazquez Peña was kidnapped from a car repair shop in Mexico’s Veracruz state in September 2015 and has not been seen here since.

Since then Peña Zamudio has, like thousands of Mexican parents and spouses, thrown herself into a life of hunting, joining a search “brigade” of grieving relatives determined to find their loved ones, dead or alive.

But the coronavirus, which has killed at least 5,000 people in Mexico, has brought the hunt for its desaparecidos to a sudden and traumatic halt.

“We’re shut inside, we can’t even move,” said Peña Zamudio. “As a mother, I want to be able to break all of these barriers, but I can’t.”

Up and down Mexico – where nearly 62,000 people have vanished since its “war on drugs” began in 2006 – families have found themselves in a similar position, seeing their quests to locate loved-ones frustrated by the pandemic.

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

“Hugs not bullets”

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

“The searches are stopped right now. I’m not sure when they’re going to start again because of the virus,” said José Barajas, a US citizen who has been looking for his father since he was seized from his ranch in the northern state of Baja California by gunmen in April 2019.

Last year a series of edgy and gruesome desert hunts – one witnessed by the Guardian – failed to find any sign of Barajas’ father, who is also called José. Relatives suspect he was snatched by cartel members operating near the US border and is likely to have been murdered.

This year, Barajas said he felt the searchers were making progress: during one recent mission activists found eight or nine bodies buried in shallow graves and a bag full of human bones.

“And then, right after that, everything stopped,” added Barajas, who said he was anxious to resume his hunt.

Peña Zamudio’s plans have also been derailed by the shutdown, which has seen the government institutions tasked with offering logistical support or protection to the search teams suspend or reduce their activities.

In February, she spent two weeks with a 200-strong search brigade in the city of Poza Rica. While some members searched for human remains on riverbanks and abandoned oilfields, Peña Zamudio visited penitentiaries, rehab centers and local medical forensic departments in search of her son, who would now be 27.

Wherever she went she carried his laminated photo and asked strangers if they’d seen someone with Rosendo’s characteristics, including a tattoo on his chest reading: “La vida no es fácil” (“Life isn’t easy”).

The Poza Rica searches would be Peña Zamudio’s last for a while.

Her “collective” had been planning to visit Tijuana and Oaxaca to search for their loved-ones, many of whom disappeared during the same several-day period in 2015.

The last time she travelled to Oaxaca, last September, 18 people in the city’s central market told her they’d seen her son, who she suspects was abducted by police and may still be alive. Peña Zamudio had hoped the latest trip would shed further light on his whereabouts – but then came the coronavirus.

“As long as we can’t go out and search, the authorities should still be doing it,” Peña Zamudio said.

In an open letter the Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México, a nationwide coalition of the families of disappearance victims, announced its members were temporarily suspending their expeditions.

“Just as we don’t want any more people to disappear, we also value everyone’s wellbeing,” they wrote.

“For the families of the disappeared, compulsory social isolation means lost days in trying to ensure our loved ones can come home,” the group admitted.

“But it’s clear to us that now is the time to put lives first. If we aren’t healthy, we won’t be of any use searching for the more than 61,000 people we have lost.”

“Sadly the disappearances have not stopped [because of the pandemic],” the group added, urging Mexico’s government to develop a plan to continue conducting some searches despite the health emergency.

As Peña Zamudio waits out the crisis at home, she said she had been dreaming about her son and worrying about his safety during the pandemic. “I think about whether he’s living in the street, if he’s in a really crowded place, what will happen to him,” she said.

Whatever the future held, the hunt would have to go on.

“However long this will last – a year, two years, three, I don’t know – we need to search,” Peña Zamudio said. “For us, this is our life, searching for our children.”