When Felipe Calderon, the former president of Mexico and the architect of its decade-long drug war, sat down to talk with families of the dead and missing seven years ago, Maria Herrera Magdalena was there, lambasting him for starting a deadly conflict that her country folk never asked for. Four years ago, when those same families marched into violence-ravaged states to start digging in the dirt for signs of their missing loved ones because the government wouldn’t, Herrera was there digging, and crying, with them.
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So when president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO, promised to prioritize the issue of missing people in Mexico after taking office, Herrera says — controversially — that she could find it in her heart to forgive if the government could give them justice.
Jesús Salvador and Raúl, two of Herrera’s sons, went missing in the state of Guerrero in 2008. Two years later, two more of her eight children, Gustavo and Luis Armando, disappeared after being detained at a military checkpoint.
Following these unimaginable blows, Herrera — whose husband also died the year after her first two sons went missing — dedicated herself to fighting for justice in the thousands of cases of missing people in Mexico. Now 69, Herrera is the first lady of the missing in Mexico. Her mourning and pain, palpable when you meet her in person or see her on screen, has come to symbolize that of the nation, and she leads a movement of civilian search parties and lobbying groups around the country who are banging on the doors of the authorities to do something, anything. Her organization, Families in Search, forms part of a national network of other search groups looking for the missing.
“I asked [the administrations of Calderon and current president Enrique Pena Nieto] for help. Anything they had done would have served for something — but far from feeling that this problem is going away, it has gotten worse,” Herrera says on a sunlit bench in Mexico City outside one of the many conferences she attends on the issue of Mexico’s disappeared.
I don’t want to take anger and resentment to the grave.
Maria Elena Herrera
“That fills us with rage and a sense of impotence, which is why we want change,” she says.
Mario Vergara, who heads up civilian search parties for the missing in Guerrero and is looking for his brother Tomy, who went missing in 2010, says that Herrera is an inspiration. “Thanks to her pain, many families have dared to look for their missing,” he says. “And thanks to her love for her children, many have come out to walk this huge clandestine grave that is Mexico.”
Up until the movement for the missing began, many families were scared of speaking out about what was happening. Since Calderon began his crackdown on organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico in 2006, official statistics show that some 36,000 people have vanished. That’s on top of the estimated 150,000 drug-related homicides, according to the Congressional Research Service, to have ravaged this nation over the last decade. Criminal gangs and cartels are responsible for some of the violence, but soldiers and police reportedly have also been involved in gross human rights violations, most prominently the mass abduction and presumed murder of 43 teaching students in the city of Iguala, Guerrero.
The students were pulled off buses by corrupt police working with a local drug gang in September 2014, and the government’s version of events — pinning the abductions on organized crime — has been rejected by families of the students as well as human-rights observers at home and abroad.
Past administrations have long argued that many of those who are killed or go missing at the hands of drug gangs and corrupt authorities were somehow involved themselves in the drug trade. The families of the dead and the missing reject that, and accuse politicians of using this as an excuse for inaction.
Some advances have happened, such as the creation of a [pretty basic] database of disappeared people, as well as the introduction of a federal law for missing people and a victims law. The movement headed by Herrera was fundamental in the creation of those laws, says Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“They pushed to actually have a law that takes more of an integral approach to handling disappeared cases — how to find them, identify remains and prosecute those involved,” says Meyer, although she also points out how a lack of infrastructure and capacity within Mexico’s institutions are serious obstacles to making progress on the thousands of cases of missing people.
What could be a gamechanger, she says, is that there has been a lack of political will until now to prioritize this problem. As AMLO prepares to take office on Dec. 1, the pressure is on for him to make a difference and, crucially, his incoming team has shown a commitment to prioritizing the problem of missing people and getting to the bottom of the case of the missing 43.
Those intentions are what prompted Herrera to put the possibility of a pardon on the table, but what would that forgiveness look like?
“If I am going to forgive, it would have to be a deal. I have to know who to pardon — they have to be in front of me and present,” says Herrera. She adds that she expects the government to “present me with the person who did it and he explains to me why he did it and they can keep an eye on that person so they don’t recommit.”
But she knows she cannot speak for everyone and says that since she raised the possibility of a pardon, her colleagues and other families of missing people have chastised her.
“To forgive, we have to have justice, and if there is no justice, we cannot forgive,” says Vergara.
But what is justice? For Herrera and thousands of others like her, it is about finding those responsible for the kidnappings and disappearances of their loved ones. But it is also about needing closure.
“If they tell me where my son is and where I can find him, I think I could forgive,” says Herrera, echoing other families of those who are gone, who just want to know what became of their sons and daughters and husbands and wives and sisters and brothers. They want what’s left of them in their hands so that they can give them a dignified burial and say goodbye.
Meyer doesn’t think that AMLO will be able to give closure to every case but says there is value in public gestures that might be forthcoming from his government.
“One key element of reparation is public recognition of government wrongdoing and public apologies,” she says. “The government admitting that they messed things up so much that they may not be able to find your loved ones is an important step. It’s an acknowledgment that they failed your family, and I think that’s a key thing for families.”
Should AMLO do that — it is highly likely that he will — he will differentiate himself from the Nieto administration, which has stubbornly obstructed investigations into the missing 43 students and stuck to its own discredited version of events.
Herrera just wants her sons, and herself, to rest in peace.
“I feel tired,” she notes. “I know I am old, and the years are weighing more on me each day. And I want to die with my heart healthy — I don’t want to take anger and resentment to the grave.”
* Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Maureen Meyer’s last name.