The Other Disappeared

This comprehensive, interactive multimedia series in Spanish and English tells the stories of those in and around Iguala, Mexico, who had lost family members to kidnappings and killings, living in a purgatory of silence for years, and their quest for answers and justice. Judges described “The Other Disappeared” as a “tour de force,” reported with “incredible depth, rigor and compassion." Originally published by The Associated Press between September - December, 2015.

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Thousands of Mexican families mourn the 'other disappeared'


By Christopher Sherman, Originally published by AP on September 16, 2015

COCULA, Mexico (AP) — On the morning of her high school graduation, Berenice Navarijo Segura was delayed for a hair and makeup appointment by an explosion of gunfire in the center of town. Her mother was up before dawn preparing stewed goat and beans for the celebration, and didn't want her to risk going out. Her sister, who had made enough salsa for 60 guests, tried to hold back the spirited 19-year-old with questions: "Do you have your wallet? What about your phone?"

But there was a reason the family called Berenice "Princess." She'd already paid the salon and was determined to look her best for her big day. Accustomed to dodging gun battles in a region overrun by drug cartels, she waited for only 20 minutes after the shooting subsided before rushing out the door with a promise to be quick.

She hopped onto the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle and vanished into the ranks of Mexico's missing.

Sixteen other people, including Berenice's boyfriend, disappeared from Cocula on that day, July 1, 2013 — more than a year before 43 students from a teachers college were detained by police in nearby Iguala and never seen again. For all those months, most of the Cocula families kept quiet, hoping their silence might bring children and spouses home alive, fearing that a complaint might condemn them to death.

"What if I report it and my daughter is nearby and they know I reported it, they hurt her or something?" reasoned Berenice's mother, Rosa Segura Giral.

Then the disappearance of the students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa became an international outrage. The government rushed to investigate the crime and announced with great fanfare its official conclusion that the youths had been killed and the ashes of their incinerated bodies dumped in Cocula.

Emboldened by the sudden attention to abductions, the families of Cocula began coming forward, and hundreds of other families from the state of Guerrero emerged from silent anguish. They spoke of their misfortune to each other, often for the first time, and signed lists, adding the names of their loved ones to the government's growing registry of 25,000 people reported missing nationwide since 2007. They swabbed the inside of their cheeks for DNA samples. And they grabbed metal rods to poke in the craggy countryside for traces of the family members whom they started calling "the other disappeared."

Sometimes they found evidence of bodies, and sometimes the authorities dug up graves from anonymous fields. More than 100 bodies have been pulled from the soil. But like the students of Ayotzinapa, all but one of whom are unaccounted for, so far the remains of only six of the other disappeared from around Iguala have been identified and given back to their families.

The others are still missing. And their families are the other victims.


At least 292 people have been added to the list of missing from the Iguala area since the 43 students disappeared there on Sept. 26, 2014. The poor region of the southern state of Guerrero, about 110 miles (about 180 kilometers) south of Mexico City, is home to some 300,000 residents, many of them farmers, cab drivers and laborers. While most families are too scared to talk publicly about their loss, The Associated Press has interviewed relatives of 158 of the "other disappeared." Still fearful but also furious, they speak hesitantly of children, parents and siblings dragged away before their eyes, of those who left home for work or stepped out to buy milk and seemed to be swallowed by the Earth.

Or of a daughter who went out to get her hair styled for graduation and never came home.

Precisely what happened to Berenice is a matter of conjecture. Her mother recalls hearing a convoy of pickup trucks skid along the gravel road in front of her cinderblock house on its way to the center of town early that morning. The sound of automatic gunfire pierced the corrugated metal roof over her smoke-blackened hearth, and hours later Segura Giral heard trucks speed past the house again on the way out of Cocula. She never dreamed that Berenice and her boyfriend might be inside one of them.

Who were these people who abducted her daughter? Members of one of the drug cartels that vie for control of Cocula? Police in bed with the cartels? Segura Giral shrugs. No one can say for certain.

Nor can she explain why, though like most people around her, Segura Giral knows there are many possible reasons for abductions: Recruitment to fill a cartel's ranks with young men. Attacks on competitors. Profit from ransom money, or punishment for failure to make extortion payments. The elimination of a witness. Regardless, the abductions sow fear. Berenice's older brother fled to Chicago three years ago after he was twice stopped by gunmen while out selling pizzas.

On the day Berenice disappeared, so did Jose Manuel Diaz Garcia, 43, a farmer and appliance repairman in the nearby community of Apipilulco who heard the trucks stop outside his house before dawn. When the men called for him, he yelled at them not to shoot because he had children. Minerva Lopez Ramirez, his wife, said he went peacefully with five masked men. Three days later she got a call demanding a ransom of about 300,000 pesos (about $30,000), which she eventually refused to pay because they would not put her husband on the phone.

Carlos Varela Munoz, a 28-year-old cab driver, was at his home across the river in Atlixtac when armed men arrived around 5 a.m. in three white pickups without license plates. They broke windows and forced the door. The masked men claiming to be federal police made his wife lie on her stomach as they took Varela away. There has been no ransom demand and no return.

Cocula sits in a valley in Guerrero's mountainous north, surrounded by fields of corn and browsing goats — a bucolic setting for a valuable drug trafficking route. Opium paste collected from poppies grown in the mountains makes the journey to consumers in the United States through Cocula and Iguala. The Guerreros Unidos gang controls the route, and often defends its territory in armed clashes with its competitors La Familia Michoacana and their associates.

The authorities are of little help. Residents say they have seen local police escorting gangsters through town and consider them to be a uniformed extension of Guerreros Unidos.

That relationship was reinforced by the government investigation into the case of the 43 students, which concluded that Iguala and Cocula police had turned them over to members of Guerreros Unidos, who then killed them and disposed of the incinerated remains in Cocula. Berenice's house sits near the turn in the road that leads out to the dump site, where the government said most of the human cinders were too burned even to yield DNA.

The barrage that Berenice's family heard on graduation day came from 20 to 30 men shooting their way into the home of 23-year-old Luis Alberto Albarran Miranda and his 14-year-old brother, Jose Daniel. Cocula's police never came out of the station 100 yards from the house, even as gunmen blasted the door open and shouted that they were federal police looking for weapons. They took the unarmed brothers away barefoot.

Less than a kilometer to the east of the Albarran Miranda home, over a small hill and across a short bridge, armed men also shot their way into the home of their cousin, 15-year-old Victor Albarran Varela. While some relatives hid in the basement, an older brother scrambled over the wall and across the stream. He was shot in the ankle, but escaped. Victor had the bad luck to be in the bathroom when his mother herded the others into hiding, and he came face to face with gunmen looking for another brother. When they couldn't find him, they took Victor instead, "as insurance," his mother Maura Varela Damacio said.

Cocula Mayor Cesar Miguel Penaloza heard the shooting through the phone when his father called him from downtown on the morning of the abductions, but said he didn't send his force out to stop them because there were only seven police on duty and 50 gunmen. In the days that followed, he tallied 17 citizens who disappeared from his town.

"Until it happened again with the (students) from Ayotzinapa, it was as if everything happening here in Cocula was forgotten," said Varela Damacio, the mother of the missing 15-year-old. "Nobody said anything, whether it was kidnappings, abductions, murders, nobody dared to speak."


Families of the missing live in limbo.

A mother with neither a child to embrace nor a grave to visit tells of checking her son's Facebook page every evening, two years after he went missing. A young man keeps dialing his brother's cellphone nearly four years after his disappearance, hoping someone will pick up. Every new report of a body sends them back to the morgue to face a sickening mix of relief and disappointment when they do not find their relative.

Theirs is a purgatory of unfathomable decisions. Among them: whether to report an abduction to authorities despite the terror that those responsible will find out and return to punish them again.

"You have three children and you say, 'You know what, right now it is one (missing), if you keep looking it's going to be all three,'" said Guadalupe Contreras, whose 28-year-old son Antonio Ivan Contreras Mata disappeared in Iguala in 2012. "You better keep the two you have left and forget the one who is already gone. There's no reason to lose two more children. It feels bad. It sounds bad. But you have to make these decisions."

Some families said they were so convinced of police complicity they did not dare report a disappearance, while others who did file a report described bureaucratic indifference, a hand held out for a bribe, or a subsequent ransom demand.

They want to escape. And yet, they cannot bring themselves to move away. What if a missing child comes home one day and they aren't there?

Many of the disappeared were breadwinners in poor families; some illiterate parents were unable to offer a confident spelling of a child's name. Men or boys accounted for all but 15 of the 158 disappeared and ranged in age from 13 to 60 years old, with the majority younger than 30.

Families left behind often spiraled into financial crisis as jobs were abandoned to search for the missing, or money was borrowed to pay a ransom. Belongings and even homes were sold. Meanwhile, many relatives said they became isolated after the disappearances. Either they withdrew because they didn't feel they could trust anyone, or friends and neighbors pulled away, as though the tragedy that had befallen them could be contagious.

Ninfa Gutierrez Pastrana said that after her husband Eliseo Ocampo Avila, a lawyer and politician in Iguala, disappeared in April 2012, even her pastor was too afraid to visit.

"You're left completely alone," she said. "My family used to come to see me. This happened and they left my son and me totally alone. Not even my family that lives here in Iguala visits. No one visited us. We are alone."


After Berenice disappeared, her mother stopped making the pizza that had been her livelihood.

Berenice was the one who had gotten up before dawn and swept the kitchen before Segura Giral returned from the market with the day's ingredients. She knew how to roll out the dough and could light her mother's massive oven. Then Berenice would walk through their neighborhood with a plastic container of Hawaiian and pepperoni pizzas, selling them for 10 pesos (about 60 cents) a slice. On a Sunday, Segura Giral bragged, Berenice could sell four or five pies.

The young woman who cared so much about her appearance also cared about her studies. She worked for her school fees and earned scholarships. Shortly after her disappearance, Segura Giral learned that Berenice had won another scholarship to continue her studies in business administration.

Segura Giral has not found any eyewitness to the moment Berenice and her boyfriend Fernando Villalobos Valero were taken, but the spot is less than a five-minute drive from home, and three blocks from city hall and the police station. It seems to her the couple was unlucky when they encountered their captors on a narrow street with buildings lining both sides. That's where a relative found Fernando's motorcycle and saw that there would have been no escape.

By midday on graduation day, relatives began arriving, packed into the bed of pickups, merry and ready to celebrate Berenice's accomplishment. They were met by anguished faces, instead.

Soldiers made the rounds later, asking what had happened, but the abductors were long gone.

In the days that followed, Segura Giral retreated to her bed inside a darkened house. For months, she did not go out. For more than a year, she refused to make pizzas.

"I never thought this could happen to me. Never, never, never in my life. I never thought that people wanted to harm you so much. Because it's hurt that they cause you," Segura Giral said softly. "A lot of hurt."

Giving in to pressure from the oldest of her three daughters, Segura Giral eventually provided a DNA sample to authorities trying to identify the dead. She reported Berenice's disappearance to authorities and, finally, returned to work.

Most mornings now, she leans forward, driving mounds of dough down into the floured wood plank table where she makes her pizzas, then rocks back on her heels and repeats the motion. Recently, she caught herself laughing at a joke, but then went silent and stared into the distance.

"A lot of people say I don't miss my daughter because sometimes they hear me laugh like that," she said.

It was a crushing admission. Even now, she said, darkness sometimes descends on her, and she sleeps all day to escape the pain.

Escape is difficult, too. Iguala is in the news again a year after the disappearance of the 43 students. Suddenly, the government's explanation that the students' ashes were dumped in Cocula has come into question, rejected by experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after a six-month investigation. If such high-profile disappearances remain unsolved, it does not bode well for the families of the other disappeared, who also want answers.

Segura Giral says she has not lost hope for her daughter. Berenice's dusty, gift-wrapped graduation presents still await her return atop a cabinet. The bereaved mother glances up every time she hears a truck drive by the front door, imagining that Berenice still could walk through the gate beneath a tree bent with the weight of oversized limes, sweep past the papaya sapling beside the kitchen door, and wrap her mother in a hug.

"One has to learn to survive. I tell you, I hope that my daughter shows up. I always have had this impulse," Segura Giral said, her voice fading to a whisper. "I feel like any day she is going to come back. I feel so much like she has been traveling."

30 lives extinguished, but no regrets: A killer's story


By E. Eduardo Castillo, Originally published by AP on September 16, 2015

IGUALA, Mexico (AP) — The killer says he "disappeared" a man for the first time at age 20. Nine years later, he says, he has eliminated 30 people — maybe three in error.

He sometimes feels sorry about the work he does but has no regrets, he says, because he is providing a kind of public service, defending his community from outsiders. Things would be much worse if rivals took over.

"A lot of times your neighborhood, your town, your city is being invaded by people who you think are going to hurt your family, your society," he says. "Well, then you have to act, because the government isn't going to come help you."

He operates along the Costa Grande of Guerrero, the southwestern state that is home to glitzy Acapulco as well as to rich farmland used to cultivate heroin poppies and marijuana. Large swaths of the state are controlled or contested by violent drug cartels that traffic in opium paste for the U.S. market, and more than 1,000 people have been reported missing in Guerrero since 2007— far fewer than the actual number believed to have disappeared in the state.

The plight of the missing and their families burst into public awareness last year when 43 rural college students were detained by police and disappeared from the Guerrero city of Iguala, setting off national protests. Then, suddenly, hundreds more families from the area came forward to report their kidnap victims, known now as "the other disappeared." They told stories of children and spouses abducted from home at gunpoint, or who left the house one day and simply vanished.

This is a story from the other side, the tale of a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills for a drug cartel. His story is the mirror image of those recounted by survivors and victims' families, and seems to confirm their worst fears: Many, if not most, of the disappeared likely are never coming home.

"Have you disappeared people?" he is asked.

"Yes," he replies.

In Mexico and other places where kidnapping is common, the word "disappeared" is an active verb and also an adjective to describe the missing. Disappearing someone means kidnapping, torturing, killing and disposing of the body in a place where no one will ever find it.

To date, none of the killer's victims have been found, he says.

For months, the AP approached sources connected with cartel bosses, seeking an interview with someone who kills people on their behalf.

Finally, the bosses put forward this 29-year-old man, with conditions: He, his organization and the town where he met with reporters would not be identified. He would appear on camera wearing a ski mask, and his voice would be distorted. And one of his bosses would be present throughout.

In jeans and a camouflage T-shirt, the hit man looked younger than his 29 years. He wore a baseball cap with a badge bearing the face of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and "prisoner 3578" — Guzman's inmate number before he escaped through a tunnel from Mexico's maximum-security prison in July, cementing his image as a folk hero.

"Of all the bad lot," the killer said, Guzman "seems to be the least bad."

The killer — who does not work for Guzman — does not see himself as bad. Unlike others, he says, he has standards: He doesn't kill women or children. He doesn't make his victims dig their own graves. He raises cattle for a living and doesn't consider himself a drug trafficker or a professional killer, although he is paid for disappearing people. While he acknowledges that what he does is illegal, he says he is defending his people against the violence of other cartels.

The killer wears a bag with a strap over his chest in which he carries several walkie-talkies and cell phones, one of which he used to take calls and issue orders: "Muevanse," he said — move on. "Esperense ahí" — wait there. Just before the interview begins, he puts the bag aside, and slips on the ski mask. He sits in a plastic armchair.

There are many reasons people are disappeared, the killer says. It may be for belonging to a rival gang, or for giving information to one. If a person is considered a security risk for any reason, he may be disappeared. Some are kidnapped for ransom, though he says he does not do this.

Each kidnapping starts with locating the target. The best place is at a home, early in the morning, "when everyone is asleep." But sometimes they are kidnapped from public areas. If the target is unarmed, two men are enough to carry out a "pickup" or "levanton," as the gang kidnappings are known. If he is armed, it requires more manpower.

The victim is taken to a safe house or far enough out into the woods that no one will hear him during the next step: "getting information out of them by torture."

He rests his forearms on the chair and moves his hands over his knees as he speaks about torture. He describes three methods: beatings; waterboarding, or simulated drownings in which a cloth is tied around the mouth and nose, and water is poured over it; and electric shocks to the testicles, tongue and the soles of the feet.

He has no training in torture. He learned it all by practice, he says. "With time, you come to learn how to hurt people, to get the information you need."

It usually takes just one night. "Of the people who have information you want, 99 percent will give you that information," he says. Once he gets it, he kills them. "Usually with a gun."

The problem is that people under torture sometimes admit to things that are not true: "They do it in hope that you will stop hurting them. They think it's a way to get out of the situation."

That may have happened to him three times, he says, leading him to kill the wrong men.

The dead are buried in clandestine grave sites, dumped into the ocean, or burned. If the organization wants to send a message to another cartel, a victim's tortured body is dumped in a public area. But the 30 people he has "disappeared" all have been buried, he says.

By the official count, 26,000 Mexicans have been reported missing nationwide since 2007, just over 1,000 of those from Guerrero. But human rights officials and the experience of families from the Iguala area indicate that most people are too afraid to report kidnappings, particularly in areas where police, municipal and state officials are believed to be operating in tandem with the cartels. The official tally has just 24 missing from the Costa Grande area, where the killer says he has been involved in the killings of 30 people.

"The (disappeared) problem is much bigger than people think," the killer says.

The killer has a grade-school education. He wanted to continue studying, but when he was a child there was no middle school in his town. "I would have liked to learn languages ... to travel to other places or other countries. I would have liked that," he said.

Some in his circumstances use drugs, but he says he doesn't. "When people are on drugs, they're not really themselves," he says. "They lose control, their judgment."

He says no one forced him to join his organization. His parents and siblings don't know what he does, but he thinks they can guess, since he is always armed: He usually carries a .38-caliber pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle.

He isn't married and has no children. Although he would like to have a family, he knows his future is uncertain. "I don't really see anything," he said. "I don't think you can make plans for the future, because you don't know what will happen tomorrow."

"It's not a pretty life," he says.

Life in an area torn by drug disputes is rarely pretty. For years, Guzman's Sinaloa cartel controlled drug production, coastal access and trafficking routes in Guerrero. The Beltran Leyva brothers took over until the Mexican government killed Arturo Beltran Leyva in a shootout in December 2009, and then the state's opium and marijuana business was divided up among half a dozen smaller cartels, including Guerreros Unidos, los Rojos, Los Granados and La Familia, from neighboring Michoacan state.

Besides running drugs, some Mexican cartels operate extortion rackets and control human trafficking to the United States. Where needed, they buy off politicians and police forces to make sure nothing gets in the way of business. When necessary, they kill those who fail to cooperate.

The violence spikes when cartels are fighting each other for control of territory, or when the military launches operations to strike the cartels. An anti-narcotics military operation prevented the killer's arrival at a pre-arranged location on the first try, but the next day he and his bosses made it to a house on a humid stretch of the Pacific Ocean known as the Costa Grande, an area lush with groves of coconuts and mangos — other exports for which cartels take a cut.

In recent years, residents of a number of towns and cities have taken up arms to protect themselves against drug cartels. In several cases, authorities have claimed these vigilantes are allied with rival gangs, and pass themselves off as self-defense groups to gain greater legitimacy.

Federal authorities told the AP that several drug gangs in Guerrero, including those that operate on the Costa Grande, act as self-defense groups to generate support from local residents.

"I can't say I'm a vigilante," says the killer, "but I am part of a group that protects people, an autonomous group of people who protect their town, their people."

He recognizes he would be punished if caught by the authorities. "For them, these (killings) are not justifiable under the laws we have, but my conscience — how can I put this — this is something that I can justify, because I am defending my family." A rival gang, "would do worse damage."

The killer fears dying, but he fears being captured by a rival gang even more. He knows better than most what will happen to him: "If I died in a shootout, for example, the suffering wouldn't be as bad."

With the same lack of emotion with which he described torture, the killer addresses his murders.

"Whatever you want to say, you're hurting someone and in the end, you kill them, and that leaves people hurting, the family hurting," he said. "It's the kind of thing that causes stress and remorse, because it's not a good thing."

But he tries not to think about it too much, and while he can remember the number of people he has killed and the places he buried them, he says he cannot recall his victims. "Over time," he says, "you forget."

In Mexico, fear as victims vanish at hands of police


By Christopher Sherman, Originally published by AP on December 15, 2015

TELOLOAPAN, Mexico (AP) — Carlos Sanchez lay in the backseat of a Honda sedan with his head in his wife's lap, an oxygen tube in his nose, IV in his arm and three bullets in his body. The 36-year-old taco vendor cried out in pain at every bump on the pitch-dark highway to the city of Iguala.

Hang on, his cousin Armando implored, just 10 more minutes to the hospital.

Then suddenly, the interior of the car lit up like a flare. Armando de la Cruz Salinas was blinded by the spotlight trained on them from a Guerrero state police truck on the shoulder of the road. He continued to drive slowly through the thick night, but collided with another state police truck parked in the middle of the highway with its lights out.


A stocky man wearing a dark state police uniform with black steel-toed boots opened the front passenger door and pulled Carlos' sister out of the car. He threw her up against the trunk, handcuffed and frisked her. A passing ice truck paused, but when the officer yelled, "it's not your problem," it pulled away. Then he pushed her onto the floor of the police truck's backseat, along with her cousin and sister-in-law. Another officer sat in the back with them.

They thought they had been arrested, until the truck left the asphalt for a dirt road into the mountains. Then they knew they had been kidnapped by police.


The four family members were from Guerrero state's Tierra Caliente, a blistering region of marijuana crops and opium poppies, where drug cartels decapitate their enemies and even priests are not spared a violent death. In the spring of 2013, it was common knowledge that police were errand runners for gangsters, but it was not widely acknowledged that local and state police were disappearing people, too.

So by morning, when Tania Martinez Figueroa still had not heard from her husband Armando, she turned to law enforcement for help. She went to the state prosecutor's office in Teloloapan to file a missing persons' report. Less than an hour later, she received a phone call warning her to withdraw the complaint, or her family would be killed.

She withdrew the report.

The next day, Tania received another call, this time demanding a ransom of 100,000 pesos (about $8,000). The family paid the money, but the kidnappers went silent and so did Tania. She had learned to keep her mouth shut.

And she would keep it shut for almost a year and a half, until the disappearance of 43 students at the hands of Iguala police on Sept. 26, 2014, began to unveil the scope of police involvement in Mexico's nearly 26,000 recorded disappearances since 2007. Amid national outrage over the students' abduction, hundreds of families came forward at an Iguala church to report their missing relatives, many of the cases involving the complicity of police. Mexico's deputy attorney general for human rights, Eber Betanzos, told The Associated Press that municipal police had participated in scores of abductions around Iguala during the term of Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who faces charges in the case of the 43 students.

A government investigation into the students' disappearance stated that a top commander of Iguala's police managed the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel's police payroll, distributing 600,000 pesos a month (about $45,000) from the mafia to members of the force. Francisco Salgado Valladares also oversaw police roadblocks at all of the highway entrances to Iguala — roadblocks that ensured drug loads moved through, that suspected enemies of the cartel were intercepted, and that kidnappers were free to bag their prey.

Members of the extended Sanchez family agreed to speak about the police abductions on the condition of anonymity. They wanted to tell the story of the violence that surrounds them like the air they breathe, and of police responsibility for many of what are now called "the other disappeared." But they are deathly scared of the captors and cops who still live among them and operate with impunity, returning at times to abuse or threaten those who might talk.

Thus they speak quietly, behind closed doors, with a seemingly irreconcilable mixture of liberation and dread, knowing that telling the truth could be fatal.


Carlos Sanchez and his wife had just returned from the market on the evening of April 2, 2013, when a white car pulled up outside their home in Teloloapan, a mountain plain city of about 55,000 people. She took diapers and milk into the house and returned for more groceries in time to see a man point a gun at her husband. "You're confusing me with someone else, check me out," Carlos told the gunmen.

It is not uncommon in these parts for men to be led away at gunpoint to be held for ransom, pressed into service by the cartels or punished for failing to pay extortion. Carlos sold tacos from four street stands and off the back of his motorcycle, a business that offered ample opportunities to cross paths with gangsters. The attackers tried to take Carlos in their car, but he resisted and so they shot the father of three once in the chest, once in the arm and again in the leg.

At Teloloapan's community hospital, Carlos was bandaged, given oxygen and an IV, but was told no surgeon was available to operate on his gunshot wounds. Staff said he needed to go to the hospital in Iguala. To get there, the family knew, they would have to traverse a winding, two-lane highway that connects Arcelia and Ciudad Altamirano and other towns that are notorious in the drug trade. They would have to pass through three military and police checkpoints along the way.

Hospital staff provided a letter on Carlos' need for urgent care that was meant to get them through the roadblocks, but told his family the ambulance would not transport him without an armed escort. When Carlos' sister went to the army post at the entrance to town to ask for an escort, she was told she needed permission from higher up. She drove back downtown to speak with the commander, who said that only the local office of the state prosecutor could grant such permission. At that office, a woman refused her request.

"Leave it be, there's nothing you can do now," she advised.

Meanwhile, Carlos' wife desperately called private clinics around Teloloapan and eventually found one willing to take him. But when the ambulance arrived and the staff saw Carlos had been shot, they changed their tune, saying that the doctor was no longer on duty. Refusing care to gunshot victims is not unusual in areas controlled by gangsters, as shooters have been known to come back to finish the job in the clinic, putting medical staff at risk.

Carlos did not want to go to Iguala. He told his wife to let him die at home. His wife said she would fight for his life even if he would not. A friend of theirs offered his car for the unescorted trip to Iguala, and Armando volunteered to drive. He and Carlos had grown up together and felt more like brothers than cousins. As they moved Carlos from the ambulance to the car, they noted a man parked in a car nearby who smiled and typed something into his phone.

The group set out about 9:30 p.m.: Armando and Carlos, along with Carlos' wife and sister. They made it through the first road block in Teloloapan. They made it through the second one at Ahuehuepan. But they didn't make it through a third roadblock.


On the outskirts of Iguala, Carlos' wife, sister and cousin were transferred from the state police truck to the back seat of a beige SUV. They heard Carlos groan from the back.

After about 10 minutes of an uphill drive, they arrived at a walled compound with a large gate. Someone whistled and the gate swung open. They were pulled out of the SUV and marched toward a single-story, unpainted concrete house with an apple green front door and a black window frame without glass.

They entered the darkened house by the light of their captors' cell phones and quickly realized they were not alone. Fifteen to 20 other people sat on the floor, blindfolded and tied at their wrists and ankles.

The police took their shoes, belts and anything of value, and pulled their shirts over their heads to obscure their vision, but the cellphone light shone through the thin material and so they saw when Carlos was dragged in. He was naked, except for the bandages, his paper hospital gown lost along the way. The guards tried to sit him up, but he slumped onto his side at his cousin's feet.

They were surrounded by 10 to 15 men armed with rifles, most wearing the same dark state police uniform. The one woman among the captors clutched Carlos's wife's purse. Another kidnapper went to Carlos with a notebook. He asked his name, where he was from, how many children he had, what he did. Carlos answered every question. They beat him anyway, kicking and punching. Then the interrogator gave him a list of names and asked if he knew these people. He said he did not.

The beating intensified. The man accused Carlos of stealing horses from a ranch in Teloloapan. But Carlos was not a horseman. He liked hunting and cockfights. He said he had been to that ranch only to sell tacos to the masons who were building stables. He rattled off his list of taco varieties.

Another captor put the barrel of a rifle to Carlos' head. Incensed, Carlos lashed back, yelling at the gunman "kill me," or he would kill him and his whole family.

About six men pounced on Carlos kicking him furiously. When they paused, Carlos turned his face toward his wife, breathed deeply and said the name of his youngest son, Santiago. Then he closed his eyes.

One of the police looked at his watch — 11:45 p.m., he said. Another bent down to take Carlos' pulse. Then he grabbed Carlos' head in both hands, wrenching it violently until his neck snapped.

The gunmen stuffed the taco vendor into an army green sleeping bag and carried him outside. The others heard his body land in the back of a truck before the female captor was called over to mop up Carlos' blood.

Armando was questioned and beaten next.

In the following days, Carlos' wife and sister were guarded by a rotating group of police and civilians who spent much of the time smoking marijuana and watching videos on their phones. They sat by as others were beaten with boards or a length of hose filled with cement, and listened as guards talked of how they had killed a rapist and tore off his face, as though this offered moral justification for their work. People arrived and departed; they came to believe that if captives were allowed to leave with their shoes on, they were released, and if they left barefoot, they were killed.

They were petrified 10 days later when they were led out of the building barefoot — and shocked when they were released.

Armando, however, was not with them.

"All he wanted was to take his cousin to the hospital so he'd be saved," Tania said.


About a month later, the Sanchez family heard that a few unidentified bodies had been taken to the morgue in Iguala, and they went to see if any of the cadavers belonged to Carlos and Armando. They didn't. And late that night after the family returned to Teloloapan, they received a call with a threat to kill the whole family if they kept looking. Carlos' wife fled Teloloapan.

After news of the 43 disappeared students ignited the national firestorm, a neighbor who was searching for her son told the Sanchez family that relatives were gathering at a church in Iguala to file reports with federal authorities and give DNA samples. They agreed to join the hundreds of other families putting names on a list, many of whom also revealed stories of police taking their loved ones.

Among them were the relatives of Adilene and Jorge Alberto Garcia Valverde, a 19- and 21-year-old sister and brother who were stopped by police on their way home from dinner in Cocula on June 29, 2012, and never seen again. Iguala police told their father they had no record of the arrests or of patrol cars in the area that night.

There was the family of Angel Alberto Mejia Mazon, a 19-year-old student who got into a fight with a stranger at Iguala's annual fair in February 2013. Police arrested Angel, according to his brother, Marcos Mejia Mazon, but when their grandfather went to the station to look for him, he was told they had no record of the arrest. The officer who turned him away was Francisco Salgado Valladares — the alleged bagman for the Guerreros Unidos cartel.

Even some police ended up on the list of disappeared. Saturno Giles Beltran, a 47-year-old a retired soldier, joined the Iguala police department's stolen vehicles unit; he told his wife, Maria del Carmen Abarca Bahena, he was the only clean member of his unit. He disappeared on March 8, 2014, while driving to classes he was taking to earn a law degree. He called his wife and said "they" had allowed him a phone call, and he was clearing up some questions before he could return home. That was the last she heard from him.

After adding the names of their missing to the lists, many families organized to go into the hills around Iguala to search for bodies of the disappeared. Over many weeks and months, government crews dug up the remains of at least 104 people from unmarked graves found by the families, only 13 of which have been identified by DNA and telltale bits of clothing.

Or, by other articles. In January, the Sanchez family was told that the gravediggers had unearthed a green sleeping bag with a skeleton inside. Next to it, they found an IV and an oxygen tube.

A grandmother's ordeal in the hands of Mexican kidnappers


By E. Eduardo Castillo, Originally published by AP on September 30, 2015

AHUEHUEPAN, Mexico (AP) — The kidnappers promised that nothing would happen to her, that after she paid the ransom she would see her husband. Yolanda Alvarez Antunez believed them. The mother of five sons, grandmother of 13, saw no other option.

Her brother-in-law drove their old truck to the intersection where she had been told someone would be waiting, but no one was there. They debated whether to turn back and decided to go on.

Around 10:30 p.m., they arrived at a mountain town in the southern state of Guerrero. Two pickups full of armed men pulled out to block their way. A man approached on foot.

"You're the one from the phone," he said.

She recognized his voice, too. They had been talking for a week.

He asked for the money and she handed him a plastic bag full of bills, but her husband was nowhere to be seen.

"Get out!" yelled the man.

"But why?" she asked. "You told me that I had your word and you wouldn't hurt us."

He ordered Yolanda into one of their trucks and her brother-in-law into another.

Two gunmen sat beside her. The man she would come to know as El Nico got behind the wheel. "You're going to stay because your husband escaped," he said, "and you're not leaving until we find him, or he comes back."

He started the engine.

"And we don't want you to scream," he said, "because we don't like women who scream."


EDITOR'S NOTE: More than 25,000 Mexicans have disappeared in recent years, and a lucky few have survived kidnappings. When Luis Alberto Castillo was abducted, his wife tried to gain his freedom — and fell into her own harrowing ordeal. Most survivors are unwilling to tell their stories. Yolanda Alvarez Antunez is one of the few to step forward.


"Give me your hand, ma'am," the young man said. "Give it to me, don't be scared." He was as polite as the others were aggressive. They started up a small trail that began at the highway and climbed a mountain into the darkness.

In front and behind them, armed men walked surefootedly. Clearly, this was not the first time they had been up this path, Yolanda thought.

When they arrived at the camp they blindfolded her brother-in-law and tied his hands; her, they only blindfolded. They ordered them to lie on the ground, and gave them a blanket.

Before dawn she felt someone rifling through her pants pocket. A man asked her what she had there. "Two hundred pesos that I brought in case we ran out of gas," she said. He took the bill and did not check her other pocket, where she hid a silver rosary.

Their captors said if they needed the bathroom they should ask and not get up without asking or they would be shot. At some point, someone asked her to lift her head and placed two pairs of folded overalls under her like a pillow.

That night she could not sleep. The same idea kept coming to her, more a hope than a certainty: perhaps her husband had not escaped, perhaps they had sent him home in a taxi.

"Lord, how good that I came to relieve some of his suffering," she said to herself. She felt crawling insects under her back. At least her "Beto" was home now.

They had met in the late 1970s in Iguala, a city that sits in a valley surrounded by mountains in the northern part of Guerrero, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Mexico City. Yolanda was studying there to be a teacher; Luis Alberto Castillo had just given up the same course of study in Mexico City to be with his recently separated father. Soon, she would leave school, too, to marry him.

In 1991, Luis Alberto lost his job and the couple decided to move to Ahuehuepan, a community of slightly more than 500 people with one public phone and no cellphone service. They opened a small grocery on the shoulder of the highway, next to a handful of restaurants catering to travelers, and they had five sons. They led a quiet life and made a decent living, even as Luis Alberto developed diabetes, which began to cost him his eyesight.

But in 2012, sales fell as fewer people traveled the highway that connects Iguala and Altamirano, two cities where rival drug-trafficking gangs imposed terror through killings, extortion and kidnappings. Their aim: to control key routes for moving opium paste from poppy fields in the surrounding mountains to the U.S. market for heroin.

According to the government, more than 25,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2007, many of them drawing little attention — until Sept. 26, 2014, when the disappearance of 43 college students after a clash with police in Iguala provoked outrage.

Nationwide, hundreds of bodies have been discovered in mass graves, although most of those remains have not been identified. The rest of those kidnapped off of buses, abducted from roadsides or dragged out of their homes, simply are missing. In contrast with the missing students, they are known as the "other disappeared."

On the morning of Jan. 10, 2013, a Thursday, Yolanda headed to Iguala to see if the public hospital had an appointment yet to treat her husband's diabetic retinopathy. Luis Alberto stayed behind in Ahuehuepan to tend the store.

That's when a red pickup pulled up out front, and one of the men burst in, ordering Luis Alberto to come with them.

Beto, as he was called, was broad and tall, still strong at the age of 54. He tried to resist and grabbed onto a pipe outside the store. When a second man got out of the truck and stuck a gun in his side, he stopped fighting, a woman who watched from a few meters away told Yolanda later that day.

Hours later, Yolanda received the call: "I'm the one who has your husband. If you want to see him again alive you must give me 500,000 pesos," the man said.

That was nearly $40,000. Yolanda told him it was a fortune for a family like theirs. He repeated that if she wanted to see her husband alive, she'd get the money.

The pattern repeated itself over the next week. The man demanded money, and Yolanda told him she had some, but could not meet his price.

Around 6 p.m. the following Wednesday, the phone rang again. This time, she heard another voice — her husband's.

"You know what, Shorty?" he said. "Do what you have to do, sell what you have to sell." He could barely see, Beto said, and his captors didn't care.

Yolanda urged him to have faith, to pray, but before she could say more the kidnapper's voice blasted in her ear.

"We're tired of taking care of this old man," he said. The phone went dead.

The phone rang again three hours later. How much more money did she have? Altogether, 120,000 pesos (about $10,000), she said.

"Bring me what you have." He gave her directions and assured her that after she paid, her husband would be sent home in a taxi.

Yolanda put the money in a plastic bag, changed her sandals for tennis shoes and put on a warm vest. She and her brother-in-law set out in the pickup.


As time passed, the blindfold slipped. She saw that there were 18 armed men, most of them in their 20s.

El Nico, the one with whom she had negotiated the ransom, was a thin man, tall, dark-skinned and with shoulders that slouched forward. The one who had been in the front passenger seat was called the Toucan, a man of medium height with light brown skin. He acted as second in command and was directly responsible for the men in the camp.

They had fired questions at her in the pickup: Who are the richest people in town? How much had her parents given her? Did she have more money? Yolanda was sure if she gave more details it would put her family and others in danger.

No, they didn't have money, she said. She told them they had taken out a loan to pay for Beto's ransom, that they already had debts. Before the kidnapping, they even had gone to Nayarit, another Pacific state north of Guerrero, to see if she could find a job, because her husband's illness was worsening and his deteriorating vision made it difficult for him to work.

"If you want to work, we'll give you a job. And you could pay your debts," El Nico said. They offered to let her become one of them. "Kill, cut off heads, torture ..."

"Oh my God, I was not born for that," she told them.

The first night, some of the young guys smoked marijuana and she heard them snorting something through a straw. They showed each other pictures of naked women on their cellphones and suddenly some of them started fighting.

"There was an intense argument among them and it scared me," Yolanda said. The 53-year-old grandmother had no experience with drugs but heard they made people do crazy things. These boys were younger than some of her children. Would they touch her? "I was scared that they were doing drugs and were going to do something to me."

Yolanda feared that if she took the silver rosary from her pocket they would steal it from her, so she used her fingertips as beads and began to pray silently, the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary.

"Them saying such things and me praying and praying ...," she said, her voice trailing off.

But they did not mistreat her. And in the morning, the men shared a breakfast of cheese in chili sauce, beans and handmade tortillas, food that had been prepared in a nearby town, she learned. Later, she and her brother-in-law were fed instant soup and pork cracklings in salsa verde.

Yolanda is a short and thin woman with curly hair that falls to the middle of her back. Her eyes are a brown so light that when they catch the sunlight they could pass for green.

"Ah! The woman is pretty! She has light eyes!" one of the men said on that first morning. "Don't you have daughters?" he asked. "No! I only have sons," she said, twice. And she thought: What must my sons be thinking? How are they? And again, she thought of Beto, and she prayed.

The men usually talked about gunfights, about having to watch out for the police, about the territory they controlled, the area they had to avoid because it belonged to rivals. They said they were from La Familia Michoacana, a drug cartel based in the neighboring state of Michoacan. All of this drug business and the violence she heard about on TV had been distant problems for her — "Nothing more than you would hear rumors that it was bad, that there were armed men." Then her husband was kidnapped. And now, here she was, a prisoner in the midst of it. She couldn't believe it.

After she was captured, El Nico complained the ransom she had brought was 5,000 pesos short. She denied it — she had counted. Perhaps, he said, she was nervous and she had miscounted. She would have to explain it to "El Patron," the boss.

The next morning they brought her a telephone. She heard the voice of a man who she would not meet, nor hear from again — El Patron.

"What happened with the money, ma'am?" he asked.

Again, she was struck by the odd mix — an implied threat and a polite 'ma'am.'

"Maybe because I was nervous I counted wrong," she answered.

What else could she do?


When El Toucan asked her who he should contact to negotiate her ransom, she was astounded.

"How is that possible?" she cried. "I told you that we don't have money."

He raised his voice, and insisted. Would it be one of her sons? "No, my brother," she said. The same number, the phone booth in Ahuehuepan.

Mostly, unless she was asked a question, she did not speak. She sat on a rock, watched and listened. She heard the sound of a helicopter pass overhead, blocked by the treetops.

"If I could signal them that we are here," she thought. "Like in a movie." But she could not.

She obeyed when they told her to stay seated or to go to bed, though she did not sleep. She did not complain when she had to ask permission to go to the bathroom and the man who accompanied her stayed close by. She believed that by being agreeable, she was improving her odds of survival.

Though they were high on a peak, it seemed like a regular camp: the ground was clear of leaves and rocks had been placed to form low walls around the perimeter. Occasionally, she would hear a far off hum carried on the wind, the sound of cars from a highway. The scent of plants and earth hung in the air until it was overtaken by the odor of sweat and cigarettes from the men guarding her.

Her own odor began to bother her. She was used to bathing daily but in captivity she could not clean herself, except with a bit the water they gave her to drink in a plastic bottle. "To get up and feel like your clothes, well, are already sweaty... You're in the countryside, there on the mountain...." This was not how she lived, how most human beings lived.

The hours passed slowly, as though in a nightmare from which she could not awaken. Her mind was blank from shock and fear. But there was resignation, too: "What do you do, other than give yourself over to what's coming?" She thought of her husband, and she prayed, convinced that her faith would protect, if her good behavior failed to do so.

On Friday, El Toucan had a new complaint: What was going on in her town? She didn't understand. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm here with you," she said.

After her abduction, the people of Ahuehuepan had closed the highway and demanded a police checkpoint to prevent more kidnappings. The kidnappers were not happy with all of the commotion while they were trying to negotiate a ransom for their captives, whom they called "squirrels." All she knew was that, suddenly, they were on the move. They went down the mountain, then back up again, higher this time.

Night settled over their new camp and Yolanda whispered to her brother-in-law that he should stay awake to keep watch for a scorpion. She knew that if they were stung or bitten, they would never make it to a hospital in time and would die. But the kidnappers forced them to lie down and after two nights without sleep, Yolanda was overcome with exhaustion.

Saturday morning they awoke to news that they would be moved back to the first camp. But before midday the radio crackled again. They were loaded back in the truck and taken down to the highway.

"You're going, ma'am, it appears as though you're going if they give us the ransom," one of the guards said.

Hours passed. They went to a cemetery where the men collected their pay. Then they were taken to a highway intersection where an old Volkswagen Beetle approached. At the wheel was Yolanda's youngest son and beside him her brother-in-law's son. They had the money — 100,000 pesos, bargained down from the kidnappers' initial demand for 500,000.

But the ordeal was not over. El Nico came over to her. "They are 2,000 pesos short," he said. "Who stays, you or the boys?"

"Let them go already, what's 2,000 pesos?" said another gunman. "That's it, let them go."

El Nico hesitated. "Get out of here."

She climbed into the car. "And your father?" she asked her son. "Is he at home or with your grandparents?"

"No, Mama," he said. "Dad has not come back."


When Yolanda was freed, her mother and sister hugged her and cried, but Yolanda could not. The next day, she moved to Iguala with her youngest son and only then, safe but far from her old life with Beto, "when I felt the weight of loneliness," the tears finally flowed.

Eventually, Yolanda moved back to Ahuehuepan, and reopened the store, where rumored sightings of her husband reach her from time to time. Once, two people said they'd seen Beto in a drug camp. Another time, a former customer told her that a friend who was kidnapped reported having seen Beto — that he was ill, they took him out for air, and he never came back.

She still wakes every morning hoping for a miracle, that Beto will reappear. But of course, he is never there.

She still struggles to make sense of a world in which good people routinely are abducted, where one victim survives and another does not. But there is no sense in this random violence, no victory in having made it home from her own kidnapping to suffer the eternal pain of her husband's. So Yolanda turns to her faith — a faith tested by God.

"I asked myself if I could handle this situation alone," Yolanda said. "And yes, I said, 'I have to do this because it happened to me for a reason.' And, because they have told us in our religion that God doesn't test weak hearts. When the pain is so great, God knows which hearts to give it to, because we are the ones who can overcome."


EDITOR'S NOTE _ More than 25,000 Mexicans have disappeared in recent years, and a lucky few have survived kidnappings. When Luis Alberto Castillo was abducted, his wife tried to gain his freedom _ and fell into her own harrowing ordeal. Most survivors are unwilling to tell their stories. Yolanda Alvarez Antunez is one of the few to step forward.

Mexicans search for remains of loved ones in countryside


By E. Eduardo Castillo, Originally published by AP on December 4, 2015

GUALA, Mexico (AP) — The first time the men and women set out to dig for their missing relatives in Iguala, they didn't know how.

Leaders of the expedition told them to look for discoloration in the dirt, evidence of recently turned soil. Look for depressions in the ground, they said. That may signal a clandestine grave.

They headed for the mountains with picks and shovels, and stopped at a field where someone recalled having detected a foul odor. Amid purple and yellow flowers, they dug — 10 centimeters, 20, 40. At 60 centimeters, they hit a human bone.


The gravediggers cried and prayed, and kept burrowing into the ground until they had unearthed six graves.

"We knew we were going to look for buried bodies, but we never imagined that was what we would find," said Mario Vergara, whose brother had disappeared two years before. "What we saw broke us."

The expeditions began shortly after 43 students from a rural teachers college were detained by police in Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014, and vanished.

Emboldened by a national uproar over the students, and eager to find their own relatives, hundreds of families came out of a scared silence to report kidnappings for the first time, adding names to a list of 26,000 missing nationwide.

About 30 people gathered at the first meeting in the basement of the San Gerardo church, where each family told a story worse than the next about how their relatives went to work one day and never came home, or how armed men took them from their homes, or how they were last seen at police roadblocks, and then never heard from again.

They gave DNA samples and decided to scour the verdant mountains of Iguala for their abducted sons and daughters, spouses and siblings who became known as "the other disappeared."

The remains of Gerardo Alcocer's son, Gerardo Alberto, were among those recovered on that first excursion. Alcocer's epilepsy prevented him from joining the search parties. He is grateful for their efforts, though they brought heartache.

"In life, children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around," Alcocer said. "And it feels awful, too awful."

In the early days, Miguel Angel Jimenez, an activist and community police officer, taught the searchers to look for campsites, because traffickers often held their victims for ransom before killing them, he said, and the graves could be close by.

They searched through thickets and thorny acacia trees for garbage and shreds of clothing, and saw that some of the tallest trees had steps cut into their trunks so lookouts could climb into the canopy.

They found hot plates and disposable cups, beer, whisky and tequila bottles. "Farm workers don't use disposable plates," Jimenez said, according to another gravedigger, Xitlali Miranda.

Jimenez eventually parted ways with the group and was shot to death last summer. As with so many killings in the area, no motive has been established and nobody has been charged with the crime.

For the first two months, the families went out daily to the mountains of northwestern Iguala. They tried to search in an organized manner, walking in a line to comb an area, but within a few minutes they'd usually break ranks and spread out across rough terrain. "We're a bit disorganized," Miranda said.

Authorities quickly prohibited them from digging up the graves themselves, saying they had broken bones and contaminated crime scenes. But the families didn't stop looking. Instead, they started using metal rods as a detection device: They push a rod into the ground and if it smells when they remove it, they know they have a grave to mark with a flag for authorities.

"The more recent the body, the more it smells," Miranda said. "Like rotting flesh. It's a penetrating smell. It gets inside you and you end up smelling like you still had the rod. It's not a smell that goes away."

But there was a learning curve. Miranda said the rod is not foolproof. "There are older bodies and they don't smell. We know now that not even the rod is 100 percent accurate."

After the families mark the suspected gravesites, authorities move in with a forensic team, a detective and an anthropologist escorted by federal police. They start by filming and photographing an area, then set up posts and run string from side to side to make a grid. They dig in each square with shovels and picks until they think they are close to human remains and switch to a mason's trowel. Once they find a bone, they switch again to a brush to remove the dirt. Then they film and photograph the area once more before removing the bones one by one and placing them in boxes to take them to forensic labs in Mexico City.

Even though the authorities tell the families not to interfere, sometimes the anthropologists ask for help.

"I have gone into the graves to dig. I pick up the little bodies, the skeletons," said Bertha Moreno, who searches for the remains of her son, Manuel Cruz Moreno, a construction worker who was 21 when he disappeared in Iguala on Jan. 2, 2009.

At first, the diggers almost always encountered at least one possible gravesite each day. But as the weeks wore on they found fewer and fewer graves, and scaled back to searching only on Sundays.

Each week about 15 people, most of them women, assemble at San Gerardo church at around 10 a.m. and set off. They return about five hours later with scratches on their arms and legs and dirt in their shoes.

Before suspending their search for the summer rainy season, the diggers had located more than 60 clandestine graves with the remains of 104 people, all but 13 of them still unidentified.

When the families resumed the search Nov. 8, they found what appeared to be human remains, and in the following days they found more. The authorities have exhumed the remains of 11 more bodies, some of them with police uniforms.

Moreno is among those who have given up Sunday Mass and dozy afternoons with family to search for her son. She believes God will forgive the lapse in her religious duties and protect her, even if her husband does not agree with her decision to risk the wrath of gangsters who are likely responsible for so many disappearances.

"He lectures me. He says, 'Don't you see the danger?'" Moreno said. "But I don't mind giving my life to see (my son) again."

Moreno lost her job cleaning the house of a teacher, who said the grave diggers were troublemakers putting everyone in danger in a region dominated by drug traffickers. Moreno pushed back. "'How are we troublemakers if we're looking for our relatives?'" she said. "And she fired me."

Moreno realizes it is not normal to search for the dead on Sundays, but in Iguala it has become normal.

"It is something our heart asks of us," Moreno said. "And it makes us feel, well, even good."

After students disappear, a Mexican city tries to turn page


By Christopher Sherman, Originally published by AP on December 21, 2015

IGUALA, Mexico (AP) — The previous elected mayor is in jail, and the new one wants to "turn the page" on the ugliest chapter in the history of this southern Mexican city.

Fifteen months ago, when 43 rural college students disappeared at the hands of local police and cartel thugs, Iguala became the symbol of Mexico's narco-brutality. Now, federal police are in charge of security, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party controls city hall — and Mayor Esteban Albarran Mendoza wants to move forward.

"Ask the businesspeople, ask the cab drivers, the housewives, those who live daily here in the city, what they are enduring right now ...," Albarran said. "There is anxiety. There is not peace. There is not security. We want to turn the page on all these kinds of things."


But how can this city move on when, according to a local newspaper's count, there were five murders during Albarran's first week in office, and 25 in his first two months?

Disappearances continue, and most of the missing have not been found. For hundreds of families around Iguala there is no possibility of turning the page as long as they have no proof of death or a body to mourn.

On Tuesdays, they gather in the San Gerardo church basement to listen to the new numbers from the attorney general's office: bodies found, bodies identified, bodies returned to their families. Most leave without answers and return home to await a call to view photos of clothing or evidence of a genetic match.

While seeking resolution of old horrors, there are new ones.

Zenaida Candia Espinobarro already spent her Sundays with other families searching the mountains around Iguala for hidden graves, looking for the remains of a son who disappeared two years ago.

But while she was looking for the bones of one son, she lost another: Armando Velazquez Candia was shot by two men on a motorcycle in front of his girlfriend's house the afternoon of Oct. 26 and died 10 days later.

Along with the bloodshed, the drug trade goes on. Despite the presence of federal and state police, and the military, there is no sign that trafficking has abated around Iguala or elsewhere in Guerrero state — a producer of marijuana and opium paste for the U.S. heroin market.

Again this month, state and federal officials promised to secure Guerrero and eradicate more poppy fields, recognizing that efforts of the past year had little impact.

Not that Iguala is unchanged. Former Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez was arrested and charged with murder in connection with the disappearance of the 43 students, and 66 police from Iguala and neighboring Cocula have been jailed.

Authorities have disbanded the local police force that allegedly turned the students over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, which officials say was closely allied with Abarca.

Albarran, 47, was sworn in as mayor on Sept. 30. He has fine plans: a transparent government, a growing and more prosperous city. But he acknowledged at a news conference this month that Iguala remains insecure.

"Exactly one week ago I was saying ... that we had nine, 10 days when nothing happened," he said. "And disgracefully, unfortunately that same day at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. two terrible situations occurred."

The first victim that evening was a taxi driver shot multiple times in his car by men on a motorcycle, according to the local newspaper El Sur. The second, a 14-year-old boy, was shot repeatedly an hour later, just a block from the San Gerardo church where many families of the disappeared have met weekly since November 2014.

Albarran said recent killings have been "very targeted" — a euphemism government officials use to suggest the victims were involved in illegal activities and likely murdered by rivals. He also noted that Iguala's violence is less than in larger cities in the state, such as Acapulco and the state capital of Chilpancingo, "where crime is out of control."

From January to October, murders in Iguala were up 25 percent from the same period the previous year, with 81 deaths among a population of 150,000. In the once glamorous beach resort of Acapulco, 751 people were killed — a 59 percent increase.

Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio and the national security cabinet travelled to Iguala this month to open a new intelligence center and pledged continued government support for the state.

That day, across town, a woman and her two young children were taken from their home near an army checkpoint by heavily armed men. The mother, shot twice in the head, was found dead the following day. The children were added to the ranks of the 26,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2007.

Ten other disappearances in Iguala have been reported to authorities since the 43 students vanished, according to the government's registry. But since few people report such incidents when they happen, the actual number is likely much higher.

Meanwhile, residents adapt in ways large and small. Leticia Salgado Pedro, an elementary school teacher, no longer wears a helmet when riding her motorcycle — better to risk being hurt in a traffic accident than to be mistaken for a hit man's target.

Her neighbors stay at home now, especially at night.

"The people who used to go out to drink, mostly young people, don't do it anymore, they don't hang out on the corners like before," said Yazmin, who has lost a husband and a brother-in-law. She declined to be identified with her last name.

And if Igualans talk about the violence at all, most do so privately. If asked their names they politely decline, "for safety."

But the parents of the 43 students are not silent and they continue to protest, demanding to know what happened to their sons. The families of the other disappeared are still coming forward, seeking answers.

Until then, they refuse to turn the page.