Mexican mothers take to the streets every year on Mother’s Day to ask the government to help find their missing children. The T-shirt asks: ‘Where is Pamela?’ Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy
Mothers whose children have been abducted or are missing in endemic cartel-fueled violence have little cause to celebrate
Her final Mother’s Day feels like it was yesterday. It was a May morning in 2020, and Rosa Valdés Vázquez had gone out to the store. When she returned, her daughter Piedad was waiting to surprise her with flowers, a cake and a wooden heart painted crimson.
Piedad, who had taken the day off work, sang the traditional Mexican birthday song Las Mañanitastogether with her two sisters; then they got to work making lunch for their mother. The four of them spent the afternoon downtown and went to the movies.
“It’s something you can’t forget,” Valdés said in a recent interview. “Her joy filled us with life every day.”
A few months later Piedad, who had gone to a pool party with a friend, was snatched away by unknown assailants. Her friend’s mother and younger brother were shot dead. Piedad, her friend and three others had vanished.
“For me, there is no Mother’s Day until she returns, or until I at least know where she is,” said Valdés. “It’s a day of grief, of sad memories. There’s nothing to celebrate.”
For decades, Mother’s Day – celebrated in Mexico on 10 May – was among the country’s most important celebrations: people are known to hire mariachi bands to serenade their mothers before dawn, florists have their best sales of the year.
But in recent years, as cartel-fueled violence has overwhelmed the nation, the holiday has taken on a more sinister tone: more than 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 1964, according to government figures, leaving tens of thousands of mothers across the country bereft.
Many take matters into their own hands, searching the streets or digging in fields for signs of dead bodies. Valdés, who is part of a collective of mothers, has made two such grisly discoveries, though there is still no sign of Piedad.
“At least someone has found their relative,” she said. “At least someone will be able to rest.”
On Wednesday, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of women are expected to take to the streets in cities across the country to demand justice for their missing relatives.
“The mothers of the disappeared have absolutely nothing to celebrate,” said María Herrera Magdaleno, who has four missing sons and helped found a national network of collectives searching for the disappeared. “It’s a day of pain, of suffering and of indignation because we feel unheard.”
For Lucía de los Ángeles Díaz Genao, who founded a collective of mothers in eastern Veracruz state, the date is a double reminder of atrocity: first for her own disappeared son, who has been missing for almost a decade.
But it was also on Mother’s Day in 2016 that the group received an anonymous tip: a map that pointed them toward a property with more than 150 hidden graves. Eventually, they located nearly 300 bodies.
“It was said to be a ‘macabre gift’,” Díaz said ruefully.
Of late, the movement of mothers who lead the search for the disappeared has been marked by an even greater cruelty: since 2021, six searching mothers have been murdered across the country.
The latest, Teresa Magueyal, was killed last week, the second such killing in the violence-plagued state of Guanajuato in under six months.
“She was a very happy person,” said Valdés, who is part of a search collective called “A Promise to be Kept” that Magueyal also volunteered with. “She was always cheering us up.”
Early last Tuesday, Magueyal sent off her good morning text to Valdés and the other mothers as usual. Hours later, as she set off from her home by bicycle, she was shot deadh by two assailants on a motorcycle, according to local media reports.
Her death has been widely condemned, including by the United Nations.
“It is shocking to receive the news of another searching mother murdered in Guanajuato,” said Jesús Peña Palacios, deputy representative in Mexico of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, in a statement. “Families deserve protection and justice, not death or the misfortune of dying without knowing where their loved one is.”
For Valdés, this last has been one of the hardest parts of her colleague’s death.
“To think that one day we could leave this world without knowing anything about our relatives, even more so as mothers – it’s a different kind of love,” she said. “To think that it could have happened to any one of us, that it could still happen to any of us.”
But for many searching mothers, who spend hours under the blistering sun looking for clandestine graves that could hold the remains of their missing children, danger is a constant: many work in territory run by violent cartels; death threats are common.
María Isabel Cruz Bernal runs a search collective of nearly 1,000 women in the state of Sinaloa, among Mexico’s most dangerous. As a group, they have found nearly 500 bodies, and more than 18,000 burnt bone fragments, according to Cruz.
Only the remains of about eight people have been identified, she said, a common issue in Mexico where thousands of bodies remain unidentified, many of them sitting in government morgues.
“The authorities aren’t doing their jobs,” Cruz said.
But searching for dead bodies in a state that is a stronghold for the Sinaloa cartel, Cruz’s work has often put her in danger: she has received death threats seven times, and survived two attempted kidnappings. Last week, she began noticing young men standing outside her home who would make phone calls every time she came in or out – cartel lookouts, she believes.
“It feels awful, being trapped in your own home,” she said.
On Sunday, Cruz sounded the alarm under a protection mechanism for human rights activists: the police showed up, arresting one of the supposed look outs on Monday morning – the surveillance has stopped, for now.
Still, the deaths of so many of her colleagues are a reminder that no one is safe.
“It affects all of us mothers who search,” Cruz said. “It’s like they’re sending us a warning that we could be next.”
Original text by Oscar Lopez at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/10/mexico-disappeared-mothers-day
Oscar Lopez is a fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation