Mexico

Coronavirus Stalls Search for the Missing

The pandemic has hamstrung families’ attempts to recover relatives who have disappeared. Is searching for a lost loved one worth the risk?

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Coronavirus Stalls Search for the Missing

Illustration by Maria Nguyen for Global Press Journal

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Bruno Avendaño was a handsome, square-jawed Navy man who went home for a visit in May 2018. He spent the week in Oaxaca state with his family and girlfriend, and did a bit of construction work. Near the end of his break, on Mother’s Day, he vanished.

His family hasn’t found Avendaño, then 34. Until recently, on the first day of each month, they traveled to Oaxaca de Juárez , the state capital of Oaxaca state, and walked its tourism corridor, still looking.

But the coronavirus crisis interrupted their somber ritual. In late March, the Mexican government enacted measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, halting all nonessential activities. In many states, “nonessential” included searches for the disappeared.

Officials say they are protecting the people. Families of the missing say they are losing precious time, which leaves them with a grim choice: Stop searching for their loved ones, or defy the government and risk exposing themselves and others to a potentially deadly virus.

“If a person wants answers, they don’t have the luxury of taking a break, because as long as the disappearance goes on, we are still affected emotionally, physically,” says Avendaño’s brother, Lukas Avendaño. “Our hands are tied because of this health crisis. We’re hoping it will be over as soon as possible so we have more possibilities.”

In Mexico, an estimated 73,218 people who disappeared between 2006 and 2019 remain missing, according to the National Registry of Missing Persons. Human rights activists say those who disappear are often victims of, among other things, political violence, organized crime and gender-based violence.

Over the years, dozens of groups have sprung up to seek, and advocate for, the missing. Some groups began with just a few families; others include many more.

If a person wants answers, they don’t have the luxury of taking a break, because as long as the disappearance goes on, we are still affected emotionally, physically.

These groups don’t want to harm others by shunning coronavirus prevention measures, so they generally honor the government’s orders. Still, they fume as they await the lifting of the directives.

“If we don’t die from this pain and we do die from COVID, well, it doesn’t matter,” María Guadalupe Aguilar says. “I want to keep looking.”

Aguilar’s son, José Luis Arana Aguilar, was 34 when he disappeared on Jan. 17, 2011, in Tonalá, in the state of Jalisco. She says her son’s car eventually turned up in a city hundreds of miles away. There was no trace of him.

María Guadalupe Aguilar, who founded Familias Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos (Families United for Our Disappeared), an organization made up of relatives of missing persons, says that under the restrictions, she spends three days a week with others from her group at the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Missing Persons. She helps the staff review files of group members’ missing relatives, and she reviews those of her son.

The Avendaños, who live in the city of Tehuantepec, founded the Colectivo de Familiares de Desaparecidos del Estado de Oaxaca (Oaxaca State Collective of the Families of the Disappeared), and Lukas Avendaño says the group of 16 families has shifted to office work. They make phone calls, conduct geolocation research and seek clues that will help authorities retool an ever-evolving search plan.

“I hope that [authorities] are doing that work so that when this period is over, the field work can be done,” Lukas Avendaño says.

If we don’t die from this pain and we do die from COVID, well, it doesn’t matter. I want to keep looking.

As of Sept. 25, Tehuantepec had 227 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 35 deaths.

“We’re in Tehuantepec, and getting around is risky,” Lukas Avendaño says, referring to the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus. “My mother is 65 years old and one of the most vulnerable people. I wouldn’t expose her and I wouldn’t expose myself and get her sick.”

Nonetheless, on May 10, Mother’s Day, his family flouted government restrictions and left their homes to protest. They used public transport to travel to the Office of the Public Prosecutor and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Oaxaca in Tehuantepec. Lukas Avendaño says they wore protective masks on their trip.

Some state-run commissions are still working, but they protect themselves. The 90 employees of the Local Search Commission for the State of Mexico practice social distancing, and they wear gloves, surgical masks and face shields.

“It cannot just be research at the office,” says María Sol Berenice Salgado Ambros, who heads the commission. “We have to keep going out.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Chiapas State Commission for Missing Persons has only five employees. But they too keep working.

“We are obligated not to suspend our activities and to make progress in our work,” says the group’s new director general, Sandra García.

The pandemic has only made things tougher for the Avendaño family.

Lukas Avendaño says Bruno Avendaño, the youngest of seven children, was an inspiration. After leaving school in the third grade because his family couldn’t pay the fees, he ultimately learned construction skills and agriculture, growing corn, sesame, carnations and plantains.

He joined the military in 2011 and decided to become a naval police officer. In 2017, a year before his disappearance, his dream came true. To win his promotion, he had to pass exams in several key courses, including one called Human Rights and Forced Disappearance of Persons.

Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated the article from Spanish.

This article, originally published on July 5, 2020, has been updated.