Migrants Bound for US Disappear in Mexico, Leaving Families With Questions

About 150,000 people travel through Mexico with hopes to enter the U.S. illegally and thousands of them have gone missing. Many of them are from Central American countries, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, and their families are left helpless after their disappearance.

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Migrants Bound for US Disappear in Mexico, Leaving Families With Questions

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ México

Priscila Rodríguez Cartagena is one of the almost 40 family members of disappeared immigrants who in December traveled in a caravan throughout Mexico to search for their missing loved ones.

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – Families with missing loved ones struggle in emotional limbo. Is the missing person dead or alive? Should the family mourn or spend every moment searching?

And when a loved one goes missing in a foreign country, the upheaval is even worse. How should the disappearance be reported? Which tools can be used to search for the missing person?

Many Central American families struggle with all of these questions when their loved ones disappear, often in Mexico, while attempting to immigrate illegally to the U.S.

An estimated 150,000 people slip across Mexico’s southern border each year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

But no one knows how many people attempt the trek and disappear along the way, says Rita Marcela Robles Benítez, coordinator of research and advocacy of the Jesuit Service for Migrants Mexico, which provides support for migrants and offers services including legal aid.

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ México

The caravan travels throughout Mexico in search of loved ones who disappeared en route to the U.S. Those searching hang photographs from their neck of the missing person.

Ten years ago, a group of Central Americans, coordinated by the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, which advocates for migrants’ rights, started annual caravans to find their missing loved ones. The caravan travels for a month throughout Mexico, pausing to search for their loved ones in migrant shelters, jails and other waypoints, as well as meet with local officials and others who can help them.

Caravan organizers cobble together funding for each participant. People who join the caravan are selected each year from a larger group of people who register missing family members.

The caravans are an outgrowth of an effort that began in 1999, when a group of Central American mothers set out to search for their missing children, says Marta Sánchez Soler, president of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement.

The most recent caravan, the eleventh since the effort first began, occurred in December. Thirty-nine people participated, including two fathers and three sisters of missing migrants. They came from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – the home countries of most migrants who are known to have tried, but failed, to get into the U.S. via Mexico.

Inside the Story: ‘Knowing how to wait.’

By Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico City

Journalists always aspire to have enough time to find stories and cover them the way we think will be the best. We do not always succeed. For me, the lesson was that no matter how much or how little time you have, don’t rush. To find the stories, we must know how to wait.

Between January and October 2015, about 165,000 migrants traveling through Mexico were admitted to immigration facilities, according to Mexican government data. An estimated 90 percent of those migrants were from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

According to the organizations participating in the caravan, at least 2,223 migrants have disappeared while in transit to the U.S. That number was determined from disappearance reports families file with those organizations. Most disappearances, they said, took place in the last decade.

In addition, an estimated 307 migrants have died at the southwest border of the U.S. in the 2014 fiscal year, according to U.S. Border Patrol.

In the 1998 through 2014 fiscal years, over 6,000 deaths have been registered at the southwest border, according to U.S. Border Patrol.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that between January and September 2014, deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border accounted for about 6 percent of migrant deaths around the world, according to its 2014 report.

While crossing the border, migrants face risks including drowning, motor vehicle crashes, freezing or falling off cliffs, according to the report. The majority of migrant deaths on the U.S. side of the border are due to heat stroke and dehydration in the deserts.

In contrast, the majority of migrant fatalities in Mexico are caused by direct violence, likely from drug trade organizations that are increasingly dominating migrant routes, according to the IOM report.

The report states that these organizations and youth gangs have been known to extort, enslave, torture and kidnap migrants.

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ México

Sebastiana Ajanel Xón’s son traveled from Guatemala to the U.S. for work, but she has not had contact with him since July 2008. She took a loan to pay a smuggler to help him cross the border.

Since it began, the caravan has located about 250 people, both living and dead, says Rubén Figueroa, one of the organization members.

Sonia Iris Mejía Elvir, a 25-year-old Honduran, says she found her brother, Jorge Elvir Joel Gómez, after she and her family looked for 13 years.

The search doesn’t always end with a confirmation of death. Mejía Elvir’s brother was safe and living in southern Mexico. Such discoveries can be difficult for families who have been wracked with worry for years, but they provide closure. And for families still looking, Mejía Elvir says, news of those discoveries motivate them.

“It gives them a new sense of hope, helps them increase their faith, because yes, it is possible,” Mejía Elvir says referring to family members of the disappeared. “There are already several cases, I am one of them, that we found our families. So, yes it can be achieved.”

The family members who have participated in the caravan celebrate every reunion as their own, while they wait to also find their own loved ones.

For me, there is no happiness. For me, it is sad, because I can’t not remember my daughter in these special moments. And, there is no happiness for me.

On Dec. 18, the Mexican national government announced in the Official Journal of the Federation – which publishes the country’s laws and regulations – the creation of a unit and a process to facilitate access to justice for migrants and their families. Both would help search for missing migrants, investigate crimes and prosecute those believed to have committed crimes against the migrants, as well as help families from other countries navigate the Mexican legal system.

Meanwhile, relatives of missing migrants struggle with the emotional and social repercussions of the disappearances. Four mothers who participated in the caravan share their stories.

A Tragedy Repeated: Searching for Two Children

After three years without news from her son, Jorge Orlando Funes Murcia, who had emigrated from Honduras to Mexico en route to the U.S. for work, Clementina Murcia González, 72, had a dream.

In her dream, she found a coffin in her living room and a man sitting in the corner of her dining room. She approached the coffin and saw her son inside. He was dead, but he was smiling.

The man sitting in the dining room slowly moved toward her. His eyes were like honey drops, his skin was pink and he had blonde curls, she says.

“Look at him well, ma’am,” the man told her. “This is your son.”

That night, Murcia González found the peace she lost when her son left in 1987. He was just 17 years old.

That peace came after years of unrest. After he disappeared, Murcia González was desperate to determine his whereabouts. An acquaintance owned a radio station, so the radio announcer called stations in Guadalajara every night asking if there was any news of someone named Jorge Orlando Funes Murcia. Guadalajara, in western Mexico, was the last place where the family had heard anything regarding him.

After a year without news about Murcia González’s eldest son, they abandoned the task.

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ México

Five organizations working with Central American families of people who disappeared in Mexico en route to the U.S. registered more than 2,200 cases of disappearances in roughly the last decade. The groups facilitate caravans, the latest in December, to help search for the missing.

Murcia González says that when she received the news – from someone who heard it from migrants claiming to have known her son –  about his possible death from being struck by a train, she was driven into despair.

“When they told me that my son Jorge, a train had grabbed him from me, it was like I had been injected with ice water. That’s how I felt all the blood,” she says. “And I only cry and cry. I was left hoarse. I could only speak with signs.”

She lived like that for a year and a half, she says. Then, she had the dream.

“Since then, I began feeling peace, tranquility, and only the memory was staying with me. I didn’t cry anymore,” she says. “I don’t have to keep crying because God already presented him to me.”

But years later, in 2002, a second son left, lured by the promise of a better life in the U.S. Mauro Orlando Funes Murcia was 24 years old when he crept away, unbeknownst to Murcia González, to head north. He telephoned a week later from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.

In the next two years, Mauro Orlando Funes Murcia called five times from Chiapas, always asking for money, Murcia González says.

Then one day a man called her to tell her that Mauro Orlando Funes Murcia was at the Mexico-U.S. border, and he needed money. Murcia González asked to speak to her son, but the man never put her in contact with him, she says. She didn’t receive any further news from her son.

Sometimes, when I see that there is work, I don’t sleep. I go crazy without sleep, but, what can one do in order to pay the debt?” she says. “So, what we've done, we have paid, but with great effort.

In the second disappearance of one of her sons, Murcia González felt not only sadness, but also resentment, she says.

“When it happened, that of my other son, I did feel it. But at the same time I felt resentful because he did not tell me he was leaving,” she says.

In Search of Her Son, a Mother Abandons Her University Studies

At 50 years old, the Salvadoran María Aracely Ramírez de Mejía wanted to pursue a psychology degree. But, she only managed to finish the first half of her studies. When her son, Edwin Alexander Colindres Ramírez, disappeared three years ago, she put everything else on pause.

Colindres Ramírez left El Salvador on Sept. 4, 2012, for the U.S. He was 32 years old.

He planned to work and meet with the family he had in the U.S., where he had already lived for seven years until he was deported in 2008.

Ramírez de Mejía spoke with her son for the last time on Sept. 14, 2012. He said he was in Tamaulipas, on the U.S. border.

Two months after her son emigrated, Ramírez de Mejía graduated from high school with the highest grade, she says. She then enrolled in college.

But her son’s absence weighed on her too much to continue studying, she says.

“I took the first semester with the hopes of getting a call that he would return or arrive. But despite that I took the first semester,” she says. “The next one I couldn’t. My strength was ending.”

Ramírez de Mejía has not abandoned the idea of finishing her university studies someday. But for now, her mind and energy are focused on finding her son, she says.

After her son’s disappearance, her health also deteriorated. She has diabetes and hypertension, she says, and she’s depressed.

Even though studying psychology helped her to deal with her son’s disappearance, she found it difficult to combine her studies with her duties at home, on top of finding her son, she says.

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ México

Clementina Murcia González (center), 72, is searching for two sons who disappeared while they journeyed to the U.S. “To my sons, (I want to tell them) that I love them, that we are waiting for them, that their sisters are waiting for them. That we want to see them,” she says.

The Pain of Absence and the Weight of Debt

Sebastiana Ajanel Xón, 50, was hit with a double affliction: the disappearance of her son Edgar Rodolfo Xón Ajanel and the debt that her son left her to pay a smuggler in order to take him from their home in Guatemala to the U.S., where he planned to go work. He left home on July 5, 2008, she says.

The last news she received from her son was of his arrival in Tamaulipas, a state in Mexico that borders the U.S. Her last conversation with him was a July 21, 2008 phone call.

Ajanel Xón says she borrowed 36,000 quetzales ($4,724) from a bank to help her son pay the smuggler taking him illegally across the Mexican border to the U.S. The agreement was that once in the U.S., he would pay the smuggler the rest to complete the total payment of between 75,000 and 80,000 quetzales ($9,843 – $10,499), Ajanel Xón says.

“I was left with the debt and with a sickness,” she says.

When they told me that my son Jorge, a train had grabbed him from me, it was like I had been injected with ice water. That’s how I felt all the blood. And I only cry and cry. I was left hoarse. I could only speak with signs.

As of December 2015, Ajanel Xón had a debt of 10,000 quetzales ($1,312). She says she has to make monthly payments of 1,300 quetzales ($171), but it is difficult for her to do so with the little money she makes selling embroidered belts and huipiles, which are loose-fitting tunic-like garments commonly worn by indigenous women. It’s unstable work, so she sometimes has money, and sometimes she doesn’t, she says.

Ajanel Xón says she had to take her daughters out of school to work to help her pay off the debt.

“What we did, we put everyone to work. We were indebted for the money he paid the pollero,” she says, which refers to the person who is paid to smuggle migrants across the border.

Currently, three of her five daughters help her, she says. On some occasions she had to stop eating in order to have enough to pay the debt.

Ajanel Xón says she works day and night, sometimes without rest.

“Sometimes, when I see that there is work, I don’t sleep. I go crazy without sleep, but, what can one do in order to pay the debt?” she says. “So, what we’ve done, we have paid, but with great effort.”

Nine Years Without Her Daughter

Priscila Rodríguez Cartagena, 58, has missed nine Christmas holidays with her daughter, Yesenia Marleni Gaitan Cartagena, who on December 19, 2007 left Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, to seek work in the U.S.

Christmas, Mother’s Day, birthdays — those are painful days, Rodríguez Cartagena says.

“For me, Christmas is hard because it was when she left. (The) New Year also, because that’s her birthday. They are hard for one to bear. I do not wish this on anyone,” she says.

While traveling across Mexico in January 2008, Yesenia Marleni Gaitan Cartagena turned 18, says Rodríguez Cartagena. That was the first of nine birthdays where she has not had her daughter at her side to embrace.

Every year, Rodríguez Cartagena and her family celebrate Yesenia Marleni Gaitan Cartagena’s birthday.

“We buy the cake, we share it with the family,” she says. They also include Yesenia Marleni Gaitan Cartagena’s daughter in the celebration, who was left in the care of Rodríguez Cartagena when she emigrated. The girl is now 11 years old.

Regardless, all other celebrations are painful for Rodríguez Cartagena.

“For me there is no happiness,” she says. “For me, it is sad, because I can’t not remember my daughter in these special moments. And, there is no happiness for me.”

Carolina Fernández translated this article from Spanish.