Mayra Vergara Hernandez and 25 others walk with pickaxes and shovels through an arid field searching for bodies. They come across a mound of recently disturbed dirt and begin to dig. Mayra is looking for her brother, Tomás, who has been missing for almost four years. She searches with The Other Disappeared (Los Otros Desparecidos), a makeshift group of about 400 families in Guerrero, Mexico, who are seeking to discover what happened to their family members who disappeared in the country’s drug war. So far they have uncovered 145 bodies.
Mayra is 37 and slight, with delicate features. She wears a camouflage boonie hat and a laminated picture of Tomás pinned to her T-shirt, that reads, “I will look for you until I find you.” Though she has a gentle voice, she can be forceful. Earlier that day the group debated in a church courtyard about whether they should cancel the search. The Federal Police who often accompanied them had refused to come, citing the elections. This meant that the U.N. group that was there to record their stories wouldn’t come either. “I say the people who want to go, let’s go,” Mayra said to the circle of about 20 searchers, most of whom are mothers, between middle age and 60, in jeans and tennis shoes. “Human Rights will come with us,” Mayra added, looking for confirmation from an official from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, standing nearby. The official looked at his feet and said it was too dangerous. “That’s why you should accompany us,” Mayra retorted. The Human Rights Commission does not accompany them. They go anyway.
On the night of July 5, 2012, Mayra couldn’t reach her brother, Tomás. There had been a wave of violence in Iguala, sending people into a state of “psychosis,” Mayra said. At 11 pm, she got a phone call from a man who told her that they had kidnapped her brother. He demanded 300,000 pesos (about $22,000 in 2012) and instructed her not to contact the authorities. Then he played a recording of Tomás’s voice. He was calm and asked for the family’s help. Mayra and her family spent the next week scrambling to pull the money together. On the eighth day, they only had 75,000 pesos, so they decided to contact the authorities. The agents instructed Mayra and her family to demand proof that Tomás was alive, but no proof came. “You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life,” one of the kidnappers told them. Then the calls stopped. “And here we are,” Mayra said, “as if we had killed him.”
Mayra’s group is called “The Other Disappeared” to distinguish itself from the search for the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, who were kidnapped and presumably murdered in Iguala in 2014. The disappearance of the 43 shocked Mexicans and the rest of the world, inspired protests all over the country, and incited an international investigation. Emboldened by the reaction to the 43, many families of “other” disappeared are now breaking their silence and joining these makeshift investigations.
Guerrero is at the center of Mexico’s drug war and is considered the country’s most violent state, as rival cartels vie for control. According to the DEA, Mexico is the primary supplier of heroin to the United States, where demand has skyrocketed. Guerrero is Mexico’s top poppy producer.
Despite the group’s grim task, there is an unexpected lightheartedness among them. They tell jokes. They laugh when a searcher’s Coke bottle explodes. There are shouts of delight when a rabbit bounds by. For one day a week, they are released from their helpless grief because they feel like they are doing something. Mayra told me that she searches because of the possibility of “saving” her brother — but it’s not clear what “saving” means. She begins to cry and her other brother Mario interjects, “We still have hope. It’s illogical, isn’t it?”
For Mayra and the other families, finding the dead is a form of protest. Mayra told me that they want to find them, “even if they are bones, because it is going to save the life of an entire family,” that is, by releasing them from the ever-compounding agony that disappearance causes. Mayra nods as Mario explains that since their brother’s disappearance, their mother has become like “the walking dead.”
Disappearance is classified differently than murder under international human rights law and is considered a crime against humanity. Victims are abducted, held for ransom, and often tortured and killed. Their bodies are hidden, leaving their families in a powerless state of uncertainty, haunted by the sense that perhaps they are still alive and in need of help.
Mayra said they want answers but don’t bother with justice: “We don’t look for justice because we live in a country where there isn’t any.” They don’t trust the government at any level. An investigation by a group of independent international experts revealed that state and federal officials and military were present on the night that the 43 students from Ayotzinapa disappeared, and that the federal government at least mishandled the investigation, at worst attempted a cover-up. Many families feel that if the government won’t investigate what happened to 43 students whose disappearance captured international attention, they will never investigate their own lesser-known cases.
So they search alone. Their methods are crude. To find the bodies, they stick a metal pole into the ground. If a putrid smell emerges, there may be corpses and they dig. There are no experts among them. Mayra is a chemical engineer. On the day Women in the World traveled with them, there were carpenters, waiters, stay-at-home mothers, and an alcohol distributor. They receive no money or training from the government. When they find a body, they mark the area and alert the police. Then they wait, and mostly hear nothing. Of the 145 bodies they have found, only 17 have been identified.
They undertake this task at enormous risk to themselves. They search in isolated places, and the cartels in Guerrero and the rest of the country have shown no compunction about killing large groups of people. Often these cases are covered up by the government at each level. Last year, Miguel Ángel Jimenez Blanco, the founder of The Other Disappeared, was murdered in his taxi. He had requested protection from the state police and was ignored. Eight months before he was killed, he told The Washington Post, “All the authorities were participating [in the criminal activity].” Many remaining members of the group have received threats, and Mayra says that she lives in fear of retaliation both because she reported her brother’s disappearance and because she continues to look for him.
In a field outside Iguala, the group determines that the mound where they are digging isn’t a grave. They decide to search the base of a nearby mountain and find disintegrating clothing half-covered with dirt. Mayra’s brother Mario explains that often when they find graves, they find clothes first and then a more remote burial site. Leading several others, Mayra disappears up the side of the mountain, through the thick brush. She returns half an hour later announcing that they found nothing at the top. But the clothes and a bottle with bullet holes are ominous signs.
Mayra both wants and doesn’t want to find Tomás in these hills. Mario said that every time they open a grave, they hope it’s not Tomás, “because we want him to come walking back one day.” But they also just want to know. The area surrounding Iguala is rural. You could spend your life scouring those hills, ranches, and mountains. Other searchers have grown tired and are sitting near the forest’s edge, but Mayra bounds across the field to another possible search place. Alone in the middle of the field, I can still read her shirt: “I will search for you until I find you.”