Tijuana, Mexico – A convoy of Mexican law enforcement vehicles drove through the dusty roads of Valle de Las Palmas, near the Mexico-US border, escorting a bus of volunteers armed with shovels and dressed to withstand the blistering heat.
The group of about 30 volunteers, including relatives of missing persons, prepared to fight their way through the undergrowth, up and down the hills, in search of loved ones. The expedition in Baja California, ranked Mexico’s most violent state, was part of a larger search effort that attracted dozens of volunteers last month.
“People see it as a family. It unites us all in the same pain,” said Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, whose son disappeared in 2020.
After joining the search squads, Sanchez found her son’s body the following year; today she is taking part in the annual, nationwide effort “to support my fellow women who still can’t find their missing children,” she told Al Jazeera.
Some volunteers engage in “field searches,” which look for bones and other human remains that could be buried or hidden outdoors.
Others conduct “live searches,” targeting locations such as jails, rehab centers, and mortuaries, in an effort to find missing persons — both those who are still alive but hard to reach, and people who have died and been buried without proper identification .
During the two-week effort last month, volunteers in the field found five cases of human remains, while those conducting live searches were able to identify three bodies found in mass graves, Angelica Ramirez, one of the brigades’ coordinators, told Al Jazeera .
More than 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 1964, the vast majority of which occurred since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on drugs and organized crime in 2006, according to official records.
More than 14,000 have reportedly gone missing in Baja California alone in the past 15 years.
That number includes two of Barbara Martinez’s sons, one of whom was “kidnapped by organized crime” in Tijuana in 2018. Her other son was detained by municipal police in 2020 and has not been seen since, she told Al Jazeera.
“I spoke to a witness and the witness said my son fell on gravel and the police officer shot him in the leg,” Martinez said, adding that she personally collected her son’s blood at the alleged scene after forensic authorities had said they couldn’t. get a usable sample. A DNA test confirmed the blood belonged to her son, but police have not taken any further action in the case, she said.
The Baja California State Human Rights Commission has reported on the failure of government agencies to act on thousands of missing persons cases.
The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances went further, noting that “acts of enforced disappearance continue to be committed directly by government officials at the federal, state and municipal levels,” amid “various forms of collusion” between organized crime and government officials .
The commission said it was “particularly concerned about the specific victimization of women who, in most cases, are left to care for their families and search for their loved ones at their own expense”.
Al Jazeera asked the Attorney General’s Office for comment, but received no response at time of publication.
‘We have to take the risk’
Carlos Ivan Robles, a forensic archaeologist hired by the government to help with the search in April, said such efforts have been hampered by a lack of resources. “The work is overwhelming for all of us, all over Mexico, not just Baja California,” Robles told Al Jazeera.
Forensic archaeologists should be in charge of analyzing cases involving bones found in clandestine graves, he said, but there aren’t enough experts in the field and the work is often handed over to other forensic teams.
By March 2022, the state’s forensic medical service in Baja California had collected more than 11,000 unidentified bodies and bones from mass graves, according to the human rights organization Elementa.
During the search squads, volunteers examined photos of unidentified bodies to determine whether their missing relatives were among the dead. DNA testing can be done to confirm a possible match.
For Martinez, the search for her two sons continues to this day, and it has brought many challenges. She used to work in a factory, but lost her job when she joined the search squads.
“You start asking permission at work to go search, and they say yes the first time, but then they say no, and you get fired,” she said. Today, she sells clothes donated to her by friends and family to earn a meager income to support her 11-year-old son.
Several women who took part in the April searches told Al Jazeera that these efforts carried serious risks, including being chased away from search sites at gunpoint.
“Even if it’s dangerous, we have to take the risk, because as a mother we don’t leave our children behind,” said Ana Ruth Cuellar, who came to Mexico from El Salvador to look for her missing son. “We’re here until we find them.”