San Luis de la Paz: The Mass Disappearance of Twenty-Two Migrants

In the middle of a war that they say is not a war, in a State that warrants that term if only for its permanent state of decomposition, a truck disappeared with people in it that we had never heard of, and we know who they are only now that they are no longer here.

Twenty-two men wanted to fulfill the American dream, but the Mexican nightmare got to them first. They were kidnapped in 2011 and to this day we have no certainty of where, why, or by whom they were disappeared. We do not know if they are alive or not. We only know that we do not know what happened to them.

Their relatives have searched for them on highways, at vacant lots, hospitals and jails. In heaven and on earth. Some believe that drug traffickers have them working against their will; others, that they were all killed. One group searches for them alive; others instead dig in mass graves to know where to put the cross. However, every wife, every mother, and every sister hope, deep in their hearts, that one day their loved ones will walk through the door and say: «I am back, dear, heat up some tortillas, I am so hungry I can’t even tell you. «

The authorities have been loyal to their reputation as useless, and as if they were afraid of contradict their history, they have worked to make it seem that they work. The families know it, and understand that justice is blind, but not stupid, that although there are no certainties, something is hidden, because they even disappear their disappeared from the lists of the disappeared. The police tell them that maybe the men already started a life with another family in the United States, that they should take care of their children, that surely one day they will call. Yes, stupid, surely it has taken six years to call, betting to see who could endure longer, because they like to worry their children, their sisters, their mothers.

The Public Prosecutor, tired of always seeing the families there in his office nagging about the same thing, suggests that they be realistic: «they already dead, stop looking for them, there’s no longer any point.» Well, then tell us where they are, what happened to them, who should be locked up in prison so that at least it does not happen again and our men are at peace, that they may rest in their land, close to what they liked, whom they love most, and with justice.

Disappearance is limbo for the families, who live a pain without mourning, which is like living in a room with the clocks stopped at the time their loved ones left. If they disappear your child, your brother, your father, you cannot just move on, but you also cannot go back. There is a slash through the family tree; a hole that eats everything from inside, that says here I will always be, like a worm asleep inside the most mature fruit of your family. It is a pending story, which needs to go on, in some way, in order to be told, to be given meaning, to be healed.

Every so often, in dozens of graves hundreds of bodies are found without a name, but for these cases there are no bodies; neither alive, nor wounded, nor dead.

Unanswered questions multiply; trapped in a threshold that does not end, the mothers, wives, and daughters feel that they are not in a tunnel, but a pit without a floor. That radical incompleteness, that broken story, that uncertainty is a dissonance, a cacophony, a crush, like this text, where I want the words to grind, to bother, to make us uncomfortable, to approach only one centimeter to the worlds that were derailed six years in some ranches of San Luis de la Paz, which is like saying nowhere and in every corner of this world.

THE FACTS

On March 21, 2011, twenty-two migrants met in San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato to travel to the north of the country and cross the border. Its members came from eight different communities in the surroundings of the municipal capital: La Cienega, Los Dolores, La Escondidita, La luz de la Esquina, El Maguey Blanco, Los Pirules, San Rafael, and Los Toreadores.

The group was assembled by Juan Castillo Salazar, whose job it was to gather people who wanted to work in the United States, a common practice in the region. When he had enough people, Castillo Salazar contacted José García Morales to take them to Camargo, where they would be picked up by José Guadalupe Almaguer, who would then get them to Houston, Texas.

On this day, just before five o’clock in the afternoon, seventeen migrants boarded a bus to Nuevo León. Five of them did not get a spot on the bus – José Luis Duarte Cruz, Juan Manuel Duarte Cruz, Juan Manuel Rojas Perez, Miguel Jaramillo Palacios and José García Morales – and decided to take a van to meet the rest of the group in Monterrey. The van left at nine o’clock that evening, and, except for a couple of calls, no one ever heard from them again.

 

THE CALLS

One day after the group had departed, Karla¹, the wife of Jose Guadalupe Almaguer – the pollero who would meet the group in Camargo and take them to Texas – heard his cell phone ring and answered. It was her husband, who said that he had been kidnapped near Monterrey and told her that his captors were demanding a ransom of six hundred and fifty thousand pesos to free him and Jose Garcia Morales, without mentioning anything about the rest of the migrants.

At first Karla didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have that kind of money. She decided to communicate with Luisa¹, the wife of Garcia Morales, to tell her what had happened. Then the phone rang again. A voice asked her how much money she had: «Eight hundred pesos,” was her answer. She asked for time to get more, but was hung up on immediately. Once she was with Luisa*, they waited for Almaguer to call again, to no avail. Although her husband’s phone rang later, Karla would never hear the voice of her husband again.

A few days after the group’s departure, a rumor spread in the area that all of the migrants had been kidnapped. In response, their families organized meetings to formally file a report and to demand an expedited investigation from the authorities that would shed light on the whereabouts of their family members. A crucial piece of information is that the relatives of Raul Trejo, a young man from San Luis de la Paz who disappeared on the same date and in the same area as the twenty-two migrants, although in a totally different situation also attended those first meetings: Trejo lived in Monterrey and had obtained an American work visa, which is why he had sought to cross with papers to the United States. According to available information, he boarded a bus in route to the border, but never reached his destination. Since he did not belong to the group of twenty-two migrants, legally his case was investigated separately, leaving another question unanswered: Why did so many migrants disappear in the same timeframe in the same area?

 

POLICE REPORTS AND INDIFFERENCE

From the outset, authorities were reluctant to investigate the disappearance of the migrants, although the missing person reports were submitted in a timely manner to the Guanajuato Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Attorney General’s Office. That is why the relatives of the twenty-two migrants have had to overcome not only the pain of uncertainty, but also the labyrinth of investigations and systematic apathy of authorities.

When the relatives requested the support of the local government, Javier Becerra, then Mayor of San Luis de la Paz, ignored the request of the families. Subsequently, they sought to meet with the Governor of the State of Guanajuato, Juan Manuel Oliva, but also failed to obtain a satisfactory response. Refusing to give up, a delegation traveled to Mexico City and a neighboring state, San Luis Potosí, to demand answers. However, the authorities of those states were also unwilling to commit themselves to investigating the case.

Still, six years after the disappearance, the families have not even received the financial support that the Executive Commission for Assistance to Victims (CEAV) is obligated to provide them. Although the representatives of the institution have meet with the families, they have not disbursed a single cent to the families, who have seen their income wither in face of the investigations.

THE CASE OF JOSÉ GARCÍA MORALES

On April 1, 2011, the Mexican Army located a group of clandestine graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, where the remains of one hundred and ninety-three people were found. In response, the Attorney General of Tamaulipas undertook four investigations that were eventually given follow-up by the Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) – in the preliminary investigation AP / PGR / SEIDO / UEIS / 197/2011.

According to the investigations, one of the identified bodies corresponded to José García Morales, who was in charge of taking the group of migrants from San Luis de la Paz to Camargo. Although the body was identified in April, his remains were delivered to his relatives nine months later. That delay, however, would be just one of the many irregularities that they would have to contend with.

After the Deputy Attorney Specialized in the Investigation of Organized Crime – now the SEIDO – called the family of García Morales notifying them about the identification, the remains were then moved to the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Mexico City. Luisa, the wife of Garcia Morales, requested to see the body and that all of the information about the procedure for identifying the remains of her husband also be released.

In response, the authorities at the PGR and the SEIDO refused to provide this information and objected to letting the body be reviewed by Mrs. Luisa*. Upon her insistence, they blocked her communication with any member of the Institute of Forensic Sciences and assured her that the issue was due to a «typo» in the death certificate of García Morales: in the original document it was specified that the cause of death was a traumatic brain injury, but in the review of his remains, the staff noticed that his body was incomplete – his head was missing.

The delivery, for this reason, was delayed three days. Finally the remains of Garcia Morales were taken to his community, but the family was not allowed to see them – the coffin was guarded during transport by federal police and at his funeral by municipal police, who prevented the coffin from being opened supposedly for hygienic reasons – totally unfounded, and despite the fact that the family had the right to review them.

For all of the reasons listed above, a complaint was made to the National Human Rights Commission to report the irregularities committed during the investigation. In this complaint, the then officials Guillermo Meneses Vázquez, Gualberto Ramírez Gutiérrez and Rodrigo Archundia Barrientos were held responsible for errors committed in procedure. Consequently, on April 10, 2017, a forensic commission went to San Luis de la Paz to collect genetic samples from the family of José García Morales, and eight days later they would exhume his body to corroborate his identity.

As a result, on April 10, 2017, a special forensic commission went to San Luis de la Paz to collect genetic samples from the family of José García Morales, and eight days later the body was exhumed to corroborate his identity. Thanks to the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic State of Law, which has given follow-up to the case since 2011, we know that the studies carried out by the expert group of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and the PGR confirm that the remains delivered do in fact correspond to Jose García Morales. The current demand for his case is the search and recovery of his skull.

QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS

The main line of investigation of the PGR maintains that the twenty-two migrants were handed over to the Zetas cartel by José Guadalupe Almaguer and José García Morales. Under that assumption, both were charged with the crime of trafficking immigrants and organized crime, as stated in the detailed proceedings PGR / SIEDO / UEITMIO / AC / 066/2011.

The problem with this version of the facts is that it does not explain why Garcia Morales would have been killed; it also leaves unexplained Almaguer’s request for rescue and the reason for which only the remains of García Morales have been found, without any evidence as to the whereabouts of the rest of the migrants.

As reported by MásDe72, on March 25, 2011 – that is, four days after the twenty-two migrants left San Luis de la Paz – Omnibus de México filed a report with the PGR for the hijacking of buses in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. For that and other reasons, search protocols were activated that resulted in the discovery of graves on April 1st in the region – the official figure would reach forty-seven, with one hundred and ninety-three bodies inside.

According to the same investigation, mass kidnappings of passengers were a constant in the area during that period of time: on March 17, 2011, thirty-six migrants were abducted in a bus that passed through Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas; on March 24, forty-eight passengers who were traveling from Guanajuato to Reynosa were taken off the bus and disappeared. Then, on April 5, another bus, coming from the Yerbabuena, Querétaro, was sequestered with forty-eight people on board.

What was the logic behind these attacks against migrants? Although with the available information we can not draw a conclusion, one hypothesis suggests that the Zetas recruited groups of people to work for them. The profile of the abductions is consistent with this version: they were men, migrants, of working age, who traveled to be employed, especially in the United States.

A complementary response can also be found in a 2014 article published by El Faro – a newspaper project based in El Salvador – which tells the story of a coyote who in 2010 made a trip from Central America to the United States to transport a group of migrants to Texas. According to testimonies, the coyote spent the money that he had to pay to the Zetas to pass through other controlled territories, which is why he ended up leaving the group to fend for itself. The response of the cartel was to assassinate a group of seventy-two migrants in the Ejido de La Joya, belonging to the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in order to send a clear message: «he who does not pay, does not pass.»

For now, we have only hypotheses. The information available suggests, in any case, that these were not isolated events, but a series of systematic maneuvers taken place in the same corridor of Tamaulipas during a period of time that coincides with the struggle between the cartel of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel to control the flow of drugs, people, and money between Mexico and the United States.

TESTIMONIES

MARÍA ÁNGELA :

My name is María Ángela Juárez Ramírez. My husband disappeared six years ago. He, like many, went in search of the American dream. He wanted a better life for our children and for me.

R0A8450-Edit.jpg

On March 21, 2011, my husband left for the United States. Some days passed, then a week, without any news about him. He usually took a while to get in touch with me, so I thought he had not crossed the border yet and that he would eventually call me. When fifteen days passed without news of his whereabouts, I got really worried.

Before he left I wanted to know everything about his trip. I asked him about his travel companions – to have a contact in case of an emergency. He replied that he had no knowledge of who else would try to cross the border as part of the group with which he was leaving. Over time I learned that two cousins of mine were also in that group, as well as some neighbors from my community and acquaintances from neighboring ranches.

When my husband left, I was five months pregnant with our fourth child. Due to his work, my husband had never been able to be with me when they were born. That’s why I said:

«You better not go. Wait until the child is born and then cross. Our other children are already growing; I feel that I will not be able to handle them anymore: you know how they get in adolescence. «

But other migrants told him that there was a lot of work and he decided to take a chance. He told me:

«This is the last time I’m leaving. I just want to finish building some stairs for the house, put a roof for the patio for the sun and the rain, and set aside a little money to come and set up a small carpentry workshop. «

He liked wood a lot. Every time he left he did it with a project in mind and with hopeful excitement, but this time …

At first it was very difficult for my children and for me. The truth is that I never hid anything from them. I simply told them: «You know what children … we don’t know anything about your dad.» Each one processed it differently. I had to take my oldest child to a psychologist, because it affected him a lot. The youngest, however, first asked me:

«Why can’t you find my dad? Why aren’t you looking for him? «

And I answered him,

«Son, we already went to the police, we already reported it, but nobody tells us anything.»

Then, suddenly, he said to me:

– «Mami, I would like to be Hulk».

-Hulk? What for, son?

«To go get my daddy.»

At first I was very angry with these people. Over time I learned to forgive. Every night, with my children, we pray. I tell them: «Come on, let’s pray, for those people who had something to do with the disappearance of your father and the others, because those people cannot truly know how much pain they caused.» I ask God to have mercy on them, because here we can do right or do wrong, but in the afterlife…

For two and a half years I worked in a factory. I got out of there because there were long shifts, very difficult work. Between caring for my children, attending meetings at school and searching for my husband, couldn’t do it all. I thought, «If I get sick and I’m the only thing left for my children, the situation would be even harder.»

So I started working in a bakery, helping a lady who supports me. I don’t earn much – six hundred and fifty pesos a week – and with that I hardly have enough for the children’s uniforms, their school supplies, their shoes, their food. However, I am much calmer there and I can spend more time with my children, who are the ones who give me the strength to keep demanding answers from the authorities.

My neighbors know about the situation, but they do not get involved. Sometimes someone asks me if we have heard from our missing relatives. Others tell me plainly, «Why search, why tire yourself out, if they are all dead?» But I respond: «Leave us alone for continuing to search. They are our relatives, we will not stop until we find them, even if five, ten, twenty, thirty years go by… «.

My husband has always been a responsible man. I think that if he could, he would contact us. It is difficult, because the cell phones from back then have already changed, they no longer work…

The government has always failed us. First Oliva, the Governor of Guanajuato. We went to an event to ask for support to locate our relatives. He was giving his speech, and I hung around, but they did not let us get closer. I told the security guy that I just wanted to say hello, and he let me in. When I was in front, I introduced myself:

«Hi, Governor. Nice to meet you. My name is María Ángeles, and I just want to ask that just as we gave our vote to put you in office, you help us to find our relatives. «

When they saw what it was about, the people around Oliva told me: «Do not make Governor’s food taste bitter.» And I replied: «I am not bittering his food and I am not offending. I’m just asking you for help with our case. » Then Oliva assured me: «Yes, we are going to help, this person will help them …». The person who he pointed out, who worked at the DIF, asked us our name, but that’s it. He did not arrange a meeting, he did not propose a plan, nothing. He left us just as we were.

Then the CEAV said it would help us feed our children. They came, they organized meetings, they made us fill out paperwork, we registered, and as of March a year had gone by since they were supposed to start giving support, but there is nothing. There is no sign of that money.

Hopefully the people in the government realize that they not only must create more sources of employment, support companies, and expand bridges. I see the president signing reforms: he reforms one thing, then reforms another. But why did he not make a reform for disappeared people? For me that is the priority, because it is about people, not things.

The president also has a mandate, and a specialized group should be set up to search for disappeared persons and, like a natural disaster fund, there should be a fund for humanitarian catastrophes, such as having disappeared persons. All resources must be exhausted to look for them until they are found.

MARÍA DEL CARMEN:

When they left for the United States, Jose Luis was twenty-four and Juan Manuel was thirty. They had gone before and had been working in Texas for some time. Jose Luis had plans: he wanted to build a home to form a family with his girlfriend. Juan Manuel, as well, wanted to save his money to get ahead.

They left in a van, with the coyote, because there was no longer space on the bus. They would see each other in Monterrey to cross, but they never communicated with us again …

From the moment they left, we were worried. One worries so much thinking if they will make it or not, because it is not easy. After a couple of weeks, we began to hear rumors that they had been kidnapped. We did not believe it at first: perhaps we did not want to think that in Mexico there is a lot of corruption and money is what drives people.

Then we began to get the relatives together and look for them in San Fernando, and some went there, but did not find out anything. Many people went, to see if anyone recognized the missing, with no luck.

I felt a great sadness and uncertainty about not knowing anything. Nothing! Days passed and we got no response. We went to San Luis Potosí, to Guanajuato, but always with the same result. They did not take us seriously. We left the pictures of them, but not like that. No one gave us any clues. Unfortunately we had to suffer through this, something that no one wishes on any one.

R0A8461-Edit.jpg

Not knowing what happened to them breaks my soul. One does nothing but think and think things that are not even the case, but just what comes to mind. If they are in such a place, if they have them working, if they eat or not eat, if they get dressed…

The authorities call us to ask us questions, but they do not give us answers. It is always the same story: they do nothing. I would like the government to do their job, to tell us where they are. In the worst case, that they would just return their bodies to us so that we can bury them properly.

One would like to imagine that we will be with them soon…

NAMES OF THE TWENTY-TWO

Valentín Alamilla Camacho

Alejandro Castillo Ramírez

Héctor Castillo Salazar

Antonio Coronilla Luna

Gregorio Coronilla Luna

José Luis Duarte Cruz

Juan Manuel Duarte Cruz

José García Morales

Isidro González Coronilla

José Antonio Guerrero López

Fernando Guzmán Ramírez

Samuel Guzmán Castañeda

Miguel Jaramillo Palacios

Mariano Luna Jiménez

José Humberto Morín López

Ángel Padrón Sandoval

Rafael Paz Guerrero

Santos Eloy Peralta Hernández

José Manuel Pérez Guerrero

Miguel Ángel Ramírez Araiza

Juan Manuel Rojas Pérez

Ricardo Salazar Sánchez

CREDITS

Story: César Alan Ruiz Galicia
Photos: Annick Donkers
Web Design & Layout: Francisco Trejo
Illustrations: Jav Ramirez

Footnotes

  1. Luisa* and Karla*. Their names were changed to protect their identities.
Leer Más: