TIJUANA, Mexico -- Cristina Palacios is an elegant woman in her late 60s whose family owns multiple businesses in Tijuana. For years, her only concern in life was shopping, and catering to her kids and grandchildren. That was the case until her son, Alejandro, was kidnapped 17 years ago.
On a recent evening, Palacios asked a local priest to lead a mass for the thousands of family members of the disappeared, like her, currently living in Tijuana. During the short mass, the priest asked the parishioners to hold on to hope. The altar was flanked by blown-up pictures of some of the missing, estimated at about 500 in Tijuana.
According to Mexican law enforcement, Alejandro had ties to Tijuana’s notorious Arellano-Felix criminal organization, responsible for much of the violence in this border town’s recent history. His mother insists Alejandro was not involved. Still, almost 20 years since his disappearance, Palacios believes the authorities have not done enough to solve the crime.
“Whether you are rich or poor, it doesn’t matter. There are simply no investigations of disappearances," said Palacios, standing outside the church. "Lately, the government seems to have tried to make up for its past mistakes by opening old crime files, by calling witnesses and continuing on with investigations. But they chose to do this when it’s already too late.”
It is too late, said Palacios, because a majority of the disappearances recorded in Tijuana took place between 2007 and 2008, during the peak of the drug cartel violence. Many of those crime files lack evidence, or credible witnesses.
In fact, since 2006, the United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 people have disappeared throughout Mexico.
In Tijuana, most of the kidnappings for ransom or disappearances are believed to be carried out by a mix of local criminals, drug cartels or even law enforcement. But less than 20 percent of those cases are currently under investigation. So, for most families of the disappeared, trying to get a response from the government or law enforcement is like shouting into the wind.
Our own repeated requests for interviews with Mexico’s attorney general (PGR), or with SIEDO, its organized-crime division, went unanswered.
At a recent press conference, the former Mexican government's security spokesperson, Alejandro Poiré, said the PGR has been working to clean its ranks of corrupt officials with possible ties to drug cartels.
“The important thing to remember, is that the PGR must continually search for the truth," Poiré said. "We must guarantee to the public that we’re here to serve them, that we’re here to follow the law.”
In the meantime, citizens' groups like United for the Disappeared and the Citizens' Association Against Impunity have been working on their own, trying to get other family members to come forward and report disappearances. They have even created a forensics checklist for law enforcement, so that officers can better identify bodies in mass graves and keep track of evidence.
Every Friday afternoon, people congregate outside the Tijuana municipal government building. They hold signs, pitch tents, and yell into their loudspeakers, hoping a local government official will pay attention to them.
Rosario Villanueva makes an appearance here every week, almost religiously. On a recent afternoon, she held a picture of her son, Oscar, and three other young men –they are Oscar’s friends who were last seen with him in June 2009, when they all disappeared after allegedly being pulled over by police.
For the last two years, Villanueva has tirelessly met with government officials, law enforcement, human rights workers, and even criminals currently in jail. She has exchanged stories with other parents, and dug up a lot of the details of her son’s disappearance.
“We did our very own research, and realized we had very similar cases," Villanueva said. "Even though we passed this information on to the police, they refused to investigate further. We have given the authorities so much information and they have done nothing about it.”
Villanueva said she found enough evidence to link nine police officers to her son’s disappearance. Unlike most other parents of the disappeared, she accomplished something: All nine officers were fired. Five of them are still in jail.
“Justice is a concept that does not apply to the reality we are living in Mexico right now. Society and its morals are lost," said Villanueva, flanked by two other working-class mothers, whose sons are also missing. "How can you ask for justice given the enormous tragedy we’re living? There is nothing that justice could do to fix this.”