MEXICO CITY (AP) — The volunteer activists who search for the bodies of their missing relatives have long been under threat in Mexico. But this week one of them took the unusual step of issuing a public plea to drugs lords in the northern border state of Sonora, to allow the “Searching Mothers” to do their work.
Some searchers have been killed, many others have been threatened and men in vehicles — believed to be drug gang gunmen — often keep watch on their search efforts. All of that forced Patricia “Ceci” Flores to flee Sonora in July, after a fellow activist was murdered.
On Sunday she posted a video asking the drug lords to let her search. Flores has two missing sons, and is a founder of Madres Buscadores de Sonora (Searching Mothers of Sonora).
“I have been threatened, and I have been forced to leave Sonora state,” Flores said in the video. “By forcing me to leave Sonora, they have bound me hand and foot, they have taken away my chance to look for my sons and all the missing.”
Her son Alejandro disappeared in 2015, and another son, Marco Antonio, was abducted in 2019. Like many mothers in Mexico, she faced inaction by police, and decided to search the desert where drug gangs often dispose of the bodies of their victims in clandestine graves.
Armed only with shovels and steel rods, the search parties long thought they were bothering no one. They have long said they aren't looking to prosecute anyone for their relatives' deaths; they just want their bodies back.
But in July 2021, another Sonora searcher, Aranza Ramos, was abducted and her bullet-ridden body was dumped on a road. Flores began receiving threats. So Flores fled and enrolled in a government program to protect activists. But that meant leaving behind Sonora and any hope of finding her sons.
“I have a need to keep searching for my sons, so I find myself in the position of asking you, the leaders of the cartels of Sonora, Salazar and Caro Quintero and the others, don't kill us, don't threaten us, let us continue to search for our children,” Flores said.
Multiple cartels, including one run by Rafael Caro Quintero — improperly released from prison while serving a sentence for the 1985 murder of a DEA agent — have been fighting for control of Sonora and its valuable trafficking routes to the U.S. They include the two main factions of the Sinaloa cartel, one operating through a local gang known as The Salazars.
She reminded the cartels of the searchers' longstanding position.
“We are not searching for the culprits, we don't seek justice, all we want is to bring them home,” she said.
Mexico has more than 95,000 disappeared, according to government data. More than 93,000 of those disappearances occurred since 2006, when the government began is war against organized crime. Most are thought to have been killed by drug cartels, their bodies dumped into shallow graves, burned or dissolved.
The government has struggled to identify even the bodies that have been found. Some 52,000 await identification.
When the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances recently visited Mexico they concluded the problem was “an almost absolute, structural” impunity when it came to the disappearances. The committee called Mexico’s security efforts “not only insufficient but also inadequate.”