CUAUTLA, Mexico — Two young volunteers dressed in long sleeves, jeans and face masks dig into the steep side of stream bank reeking of sewage that flows from a shopping center.
Neither the overpowering stench, the piles of garbage, nor the suffocating heat stops them in their desperate attempt to find the remains of one of the tens of thousands of Mexico’s disappeared.
The government’s registry of Mexico’s missing has grown more than 20% in the past year and now approaches 100,000. Activists like those searching in this central Mexican town on a recent morning and experts see little chance that the violence plaguing Mexico for more than a decade will change anytime soon.
The surge in disappearances is a reflection of the “strong deterioration” of the security situation in Mexico, said Angélica Durán-Martínez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She said it signals a decline in the government’s capacity to control violence, the growing power of criminal groups and severe impunity that leads relatives and volunteers to undertake the search for the missing.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made getting to the bottom of the disappearances of 43 students from a teachers college in 2014 one of his campaign promises. But three years into his administration, despite the creation of a special commission and the support of international organizations, the infamous crime remains unresolved.
As other searchers worked at the banks of the stream bed, an anthropologist drove a steel shaft into the ground among thick vegetation and declared there was nothing buried there.
The group, which includes relatives of the disappeared, members of the government’s National Search Commission, activists and a couple of National Guard soldiers with dogs, moved on to a different spot.
Anonymous tips that a criminal group had executed people there and tossed their bodies into the ravine had brought them there.
Searchers from groups that have sprung up across Mexico to do the hard work of hunting for the missing convened in the central state of Morelos this month for the sixth National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons — a gathering held in a different state each year.
With only about 2 million residents, Morelos is relatively small, but it has long struggled with gang violence. There are more than 2,600 registered disappeared in Morelos and most homicides go unpunished, said Israel Hernández, president of the state National Human Rights Commission.
There are now more than 160 collectives scattered across Mexico dedicated to searching for the disappeared. For many, actively searching is the salve for the pain of a missing relative.
Tranquilina Hernández has been looking for her daughter Mireya since she disappeared on a September afternoon seven years ago after going out with her boyfriend in Cuernavaca, the state capital.
With a small machete, rake and pail, Hernández combed through the banks of the stream. The petite 44-year-old wore a shirt with her daughter’s photo on it, jeans and rubber boots. On this day, in six hours of searching, she would only find a dog’s jaw and a cow’s ribs, but it did not dampen her resolve.
“Our hope, our faith, doesn’t stop if we go to a place and don’t find anything,” she said. “On the contrary, we continue with more motivation and we keep fighting and we keep searching until we find them.”
Yadira González, one of the national brigade’s founders, has been searching for her brother for 15 years. He went to sell a car in Queretaro state and never returned.
“The fact that we don’t get a positive in the brigade doesn’t mean that it isn’t good work,” said the 38-year-old González. The act of searching is a “blessing” for the area families and “helps them get over the anxiety,” she said.
“The brigade leaves the local families with one less place to work and they can continue advancing at other sites,” González said.
Ely Esparsa, a 38 year-old hairdresser was one of those locals. This month’s brigade is her first. Her son Jesús disappeared in Cuautla six months ago. The 21-year-old left home one April morning for his job as a truck driver and never returned.
“It’s like living dead,” Esparsa said. “It’s the permanent anxiety of not knowing if he is, if he isn’t, if he’s suffering. As a mother you always have the idea that he is going to return sooner or later.”
Before her son disappeared, the phenomenon of Mexico’s disappeared seemed remote, Esparsa said. She didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the problem until it happened to her.
She has had to learn as she goes, absorbing the lessons of Hernández and other members of the local collective. She recognizes that there is little government support, so if her son is to be found she has to search.
“He knows that I am going to search even under rocks,” Esparsa said. “I’m not going to fail him in that.”