Mexican volunteers, mostly women, are increasingly being murdered as they search for bodies of their relatives who have been killed. This puts to the test government promises to support them.
People who continue to fight for justice tell stories of being threatened and watched, presumably by the same people who killed their husbands, sons, and brothers.
Now, threats have been replaced by bullets in the heads searchers who have proven far more successful than the authorities in locating clandestine burning pits and burials numbering in the thousands. In the last two months, two searchers were killed.
Aranza Ramos spent more than a year looking for Bryan Celaya Alvarado after he disappeared Dec. 6, 2020. He was one of Mexico’s 87.855 “disappeared”. Many of them are believed to have been killed in drug cartel violence, with their bodies burned or dumped in shallow graves.
Over the past decade, searchers discovered that gangs frequently use the same locations repeatedly, creating grisly death fields.
It was in one of these fields, Ejido Ortiz in the northern border state Sonora, that Aranza Ramos was helping to search for the victim on July 15, the day she was herself killed.
Ramos’ search team stated in a statement that “In Ejido Ortiz many clandestine crematoria have been discovered, some still burning and smoking when they were first found.” “This ejido is a collective farm plot and an active extermination site.”
They are so active that they say they become nervous when they see burials they don’t recognize. This could indicate that the killers are still at the site.
Ramos was finally able to return to her home in Guaymas after a day of searching. Volunteers dug holes in the soil to release the stench of death. She was taken from her home just before midnight. She was driven a short distance by the killers, and her bullet-ridden body was left on the roadside.
Cecilia Duarte spent three years with the search group “Buscadoras por la Paz (Searchers for Peace) and attended meetings with Ramos the week before her death. Duarte, who discovered the body of her missing son and is currently searching for her missing nephew, stated that Ramos tried to be safe.
Duarte stated, “She tried to not stand out, she wasn’t a spokesperson.” Ramos was able to avoid attention. Two months prior to her death, the Associated Press tried to reach Ramos but she didn’t respond.
Duarte recalls that “Aranza left a message one week before her death, stating she was looking for her husband and not for the suspects.”
Mexico’s volunteer search organizations follow three golden rules:
Human remains are not referred to as bodies or corpses. Because they are precious to grieving families, the searchers refer to them as “treasures”.
When they believe they have found a burial, they call the police. This is because authorities are often reluctant to perform the critical DNA testing without professional exhumation.
Searches are not done to locate perpetrators but to find loved ones.
Volunteers hoped that the latter rule would protect them from retaliation.
“As a searcher, we aren’t looking for guilty. We are looking for treasures,” Patricia Flores (founder of Madres Buscadores de Sonora, Searching Mothers of Sonora), said.
It has meant that for a long time searchers and the police who accompany them often focus on finding graves, identifying remains, and not collecting evidence about how they died or who killed. Sometimes search groups receive anonymous tips about the burial locations of bodies, information that is likely to be only available to the killers and their accomplices.
However, it seems that this long-standing arrangement has been broken.
Flores received a threat phone call the day after Ramos’ death. Flores stated that she received a phone call threatening her life. Police have since assigned Flores a patrol car to guard her Hermosillo home.
Officials from Sonora have committed to providing security to searchers who are in danger. In exchange, the state agreed to send excavation teams to possible burial sites discovered by searchers within three to five working days. Officials seem to be more concerned with damage control. They convinced the searchers not to take photographs of burial sites.
When asked about Ramos’ death, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador made a vague but confident statement. “We will continue to protect all women. These crimes are unacceptable.
Ramos wasn’t the first. Javier Barajas Pina (a volunteer search activist) was shot to death in Guanajuato state, Mexico’s most violent. Since Lopez Obrador’s election, 68 environmental and human rights activists have been murdered.
The searchers have always been accompanied by fear. They travel to remote and abandoned areas where horrible crimes have been committed. They have largely ignored it.
Cecilia Duarte was the Ramos volunteer. She recalled that they sent them a message via a fake Facebook account saying that they would flay our skin. I have always believed that if they really are going to do something, they will not warn you.
Duarte stated that she felt the same feeling at another site — she saw someone watching her group from a hillside nearby. The searchers continued to go.
She said that Ramos’ death changed everything. “That did hit us hard. Some people stopped searching.”
Numerous cartels have been fighting for control over Sonora and the lucrative trafficking routes to the U.S., including Rafael Caro Quintero’s. Quintero was wrongly released from prison for his 1985 murder of a DEA agent. These cartels include two major Sinaloa factions, which operate through local gangs.
Flores de Madres Buscadores de Sonora stated that “the authorities should do more,” because it is not enough. They should provide more security and investigation so that mothers don’t have to search the fields for their children.
Mexico’s U.N. human Rights Office made the same point.