Vanishing victims: The ‘open wounds’ of Mexico’s drug war

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in an occasional series looking at the violence tied to Mexican drug cartels, their expanding global connections and how they affect people’s daily lives. The first article in the series appeared Jan. 15.

Story highlights

Human rights commission: More than 5,300 people have disappeared in five years

Parents band together in their search for answers

Missing victims' families are vocal members of a national peace movement

Hope that their loved ones may be found alive fuels their fervor

Mexico City CNN  — 

The blue plastic envelope is packed with papers: security camera photos, cell phone records, business cards and letters asking for help.

“My folder, this is my son,” Alfonso Moreno says.

The young man left Mexico City on a road trip to Texas last January. His parents say 33-year-old Alejandro, a computer systems engineer, vanished just an hour away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

They have been searching for him ever since.

On this day, a wood-paneled meeting room at a Mexico City peace foundation is the next step in their hunt. They sit at a table with parents of a street performer, a real estate agent and a group of gold salesmen.

A year ago, they all were strangers. Now, they greet each other like old friends, with smiles and warm embraces.

A brutal drug war has brought them together.

Their children are among more than 5,300 people who have gone missing in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on cartels five years ago, according to the country’s National Human Rights Commission. Officials fear the total number could be far higher, because many disappearances go unreported.

The drug war’s mounting death toll grabs international attention, but forced disappearances are one of the most troubling problems that Mexico faces, says Rodrigo Escobar Gil, a human rights representative for the Organization of American States.

As the number of cases grows, Moreno and other parents of the missing have become vocal members of the country’s high-profile Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which has staged nationwide protest marches demanding a new drug war strategy, better treatment of victims and greater efforts to find the missing.

Hope that their loved ones may be found alive fuels their fervor.

Moreno says he and his wife, like many who are frustrated by sluggish responses and scarce results from officials, felt forced to launch their own investigation. Their search for clues has taken them from the quiet confines of their gated community in Mexico’s capital into some of the country’s most dangerous areas.

“I have more than the authorities do,” he says. “Unfortunately, organized crime is organized. Our authorities aren’t.”

Retracing the trail

This is what Alfonso Moreno knows: His son Alejandro climbed into a red Mazda 3 and left Mexico City at 7 a.m. on January 27, 2011. Late that night, he planned to reach Laredo, Texas, visit a friend and pick up a new computer.

Alejandro never made it to the border. He disappeared. So did his car.

But he left a trail. A systems engineer for IBM and lifelong technology lover, he sent regular updates throughout his journey, firing off text messages and posting details about his location on Foursquare and Facebook.

“I just passed the Tropic of Cancer,” he wrote on Facebook as he drove through the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

A few hours later, another status update compared rush hour in the northern industrial city of Monterrey with traffic jams in the nation’s capital.

Just before 7:30 that night, his mother sent him a text message: “Where are you, son?”

“I’m in Monterrey,” he replied.

At 8:55 p.m., he posted on Foursquare that he was at a toll booth 107 kilometers (about 65 miles) away from the industrial city, in the town of Sabinas Hidalgo.

Just after 9 p.m., he posted his location again. There was no message – just his coordinates. His parents suspect he sent them when he spotted something suspicious along the highway.

He hasn’t been heard from since.

Time and time again, Alfonso Moreno and his wife, Lucia Baca, have flown to Monterrey and retraced their son’s path. But they can only go so far. Officials have warned them to stay out of nearby towns in the area, a stronghold of the Zetas drug cartel.

“I wanted to go looking for him,” Moreno says, “but the authorities told me, ‘No, if you go in, you won’t come out.’ “

This is what the father keeps in his blue folder: a grainy toll booth security camera photo that shows his son’s hand, reaching out to pay 186 pesos in Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon. Business cards of lawmakers, journalists and human rights organizations who’ve listened to the family’s story. Pictures and descriptions of others who disappeared the same way – driving on highways near the northern city of Monterrey.

He knows their stories as well as his son’s. Off the top of his head, he rattles off the dates they went missing.

This is what Alfonso Moreno said when he met their families: Go to the toll booths now, because they only save the security camera photos for two months.

A growing problem

In October, Mexico’s president said the “very high” number of missing people was a growing concern. He listed them among the victims of violence that he described as “open wounds” in Mexican society.

“We don’t know the size of the problem,” Calderon said during a speech inaugurating a new prosecutor’s office aimed at helping victims.

“There are different statistics,” says Gil of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “but what is certain is that this is a massive phenomenon in which a very high number of people are victims of this scourge. … It consumes family and friends and the whole community with anguish and uncertainty.”

Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity has documented 600 recent cases of “forced disappearances” as demonstrators from the group travel across the country, protesting violence and collecting victims’ stories.

There are thousands more, says Valentina Peralta, who keeps track of information about victims’ cases for the movement.

For every death reported, she hears of at least eight other disappearances. But fear stops many from turning to authorities for help.

“They tell us, ‘We don’t want to file a complaint, because they’ll kill us,’ ” Peralta says.

Some who do go public have managed to wrangle meetings with Calderon and other top Mexican officials

“Thanks to the movement, doors have been opened,” Moreno says. “We are no longer invisible victims.”

But the burdens they carry are often hidden from view, masked by the steely determination of their fight for justice.

A father closes his family business. A mother eyes the world with distrust. A grandmother fears for her grandchildren’s future. For Moreno, old friendships faded. Acquaintances find it too difficult to ask about a missing child.

“A family of pain has been born,” Moreno says. “All, all, all hope and pain.”