Pubdate: Sat, 27 Aug 2016
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Page: IN6
Copyright: 2016 The Toronto Star
Author: Marina Jimenez


Families of People WHO 'Disappeared' Amid Mexico's Violent Drug Wars 
Are Forced to Continue the Search for Truth and Justice on Their Own, 
As Authorities Often Refuse to Help

QUERETARO, MEXICO - Socorro Arias unlocks the door to her son's 
bedroom. A faintly musty smell wafts out. Other than a layer of dust, 
everything is just as Raymundo Isaac Rico Arias left it on Feb. 12, 
2012, the day the 27-year-old teacher disappeared.

A stack of Valentine's Day hearts - cut from red construction paper - 
lies on Rico's bed, intended as gifts for his students. Clothes are 
piled in the corner, along with shoes and leather belts. Marilyn 
Monroe smiles seductively from one wall, while a Virgin Mary statue 
sits on the bureau, gazing pensively in front of the mirror.

Rico is one of 28,000 people who have been officially registered as 
missing in Mexico in the last nine years. Human rights experts say 
the number is much higher, as many families do not report cases, 
fearing reprisals.

Arias, 54, begins to cry. "My son wanted to open a daycare. He loved 
to give people presents and decorate the house for Christmas and 
holidays," she says. "He was so big-hearted."

Arias's search for the truth - and for some kind of justice - has 
been a painful journey that reflects the complex challenges the 
country faces as the disappeared become, in one critic's words, "a 
stone in the government's shoe."

"I will never really know what happened to him. And that is the 
hardest part," says Arias.

As of 2014, there were just 13 federal convictions for enforced 
disappearances, the legal term for cases that involve state actors, 
while 95 state-level investigations had resulted in no convictions.

The missing are a byproduct of the decade-long war the government has 
waged against the cartels like the Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel and 
others, that control Mexico's multi-billion-dollar drug trade.

Since the government deployed the military to fight the cartels in 
2006, an estimated 100,000 people have been killed and thousands have 
been kidnapped for ransom or disappeared, by either the cartels or 
the police and military. The violence happens amidst cartel power 
struggles, and during fiery crack downs by the government's forces.

But in Mexico a disappearance can also happen when a minor crime goes 
awry, or in a case of mistaken identity. Often, the reason someone is 
"disappeared" will never be known.

Among the many victims are the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa 
teaching school in Iguala, Guerrero, who were taken in Sept. 2014 and 
presumed killed by police and local officials - a tragedy that struck 
a chord in Mexico and around the world.

Searchers have since found the remains of 129 bodies in Iguala, but 
the 43 are not among them. (To date only one bone fragment found in a 
river has been identified as belonging to a missing student.)

"Who are these other people? What happened to them? It is such a 
shock," says Carlos Zazueta, a researcher with Amnesty International 
in Mexico City. "The government has been in denial about what a big 
problem this is."

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was elected in 2012, spent the 
first few years in office focused on economic reform and 
modernization, and pledged to quell violence against civilians. His 
predecessor had been criticized for his all-out war on the drug 
cartel kingpins, which had caused a spike in kidnapping and murder rates.

At first, Mexico's overall homicide rates did drop under Pena Nieto. 
But by January this trend had reversed. Homicides rose 15 per cent to 
9,400 in the first half of this year, compared to last. Over the same 
time, organized-crime killings have risen by 48 per cent.

The strategy of focusing on taking down cartel heads such as Joaquin 
"El Chapo" Guzman - the head of the Sinaloa cartel, who was captured 
in January - has led to pitched battles between rival cartels vying 
to fill the vacuum.

On Aug. 15, El Chapo's son, a prominent cartel leader in his own 
right, was abducted from a restaurant in the resort town of Puerto 
Vallarta by the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel. Observers fear 
the kidnapping could lead to new rounds of brutal retaliation.

There are 10,000 unidentified bodies in Mexico. So why, then, isn't 
the government investigating cold cases and searching for mass graves?

The reasons are complex: police and the judiciary lack resources; the 
agencies in charge of investigating are not co-ordinated; and the 
government itself is not willing to make the issue of the disappeared 
a serious priority.

"We don't know why but the government is not motivated to improve. 
Some prosecutors and police are fearful to work on cases and lack 
protection and backup," says Zazueta. "That makes it difficult for 
everyone in the system."

At the state level, there are still no uniform protocols about how to 
conduct investigations, collect forensic evidence or check with other 
jurisdictions when bodies are found or people go missing.

Authorities in Queretaro, central Mexico, where Rico is from, won't 
register a disappearance until 72 hours have passed. Police often 
blame victims, saying they have ties to organized crime, are involved 
in a love triangle, or went to the U.S. in search of work, even when 
there is no evidence to support these theories.

Pena Nieto did create a special unit in 2014 for disappeared people, 
with 29 prosecutors and dozens of investigators. The government is 
also working with the International Red Cross to create a national 
DNA registry (Guatemala, a smaller and poorer country, already has 
one). And the president introduced a draft law in December to create 
a national search system and to improve protocols for investigating 
disappeared cases. However, the bill has not yet been passed.

Mexico's Interior Ministry, which is in charge of public security, as 
well as the President's international press office declined the 
Star's request to discuss the disappeared.

Without the government to help them, Arias, and others, say they have 
been forced to take matters into their own hands. "We are los 
olvidados de los olvidados, the forgotten of the forgotten," she says.

To find her son, Arias joined Desaparecidos Justicia, founded in 2009 
by Queretaro lawyer Brenda Rangel after the disappearance of her 
brother. In 2013, Rangel says she spent 17 days sleeping in the 
street in the capital to demand justice for him. There are about 30 
similar groups across the country.

Thanks to Rangel's aggressive lobbying, the group has managed to find 
nine of the missing alive. Several were victims of sex traffickers. 
Another, a physician who was kidnapped by a cartel, escaped. The 
group has also recovered six bodies.

Rangel's doggedness has taken its toll. She had to seek state 
protection after receiving death threats. The attorney general's 
Agency of Criminal Investigation removed her bodyguards suddenly on 
July 6 - less than two weeks after Rangel visited Ottawa to publicly 
condemn Mexico's human rights abuses in advance of Pena Nieto's state 
visit. "Why is the Mexican government leaving ordinary citizens like 
me without any protection when I am doing the work the state should 
be doing?" says Rangel, who is six months pregnant.

(The Star raised Rangel's case with the Agency of Criminal 
Investigation in Mexico City, but received no reply.)

Neither Rangel nor Arias will be silenced. "I am fighting for all the 
disappeared. They are all my children," says Arias. "When one parent 
cries, we all cry."

The forgotten of the forgotten

It is hard to imagine atrocities in Queretaro, the largest city in 
the state of the same name, 220 kilometres from Mexico City and far 
from drug trafficking corridors to the east and west. The city of one 
million boasts more than a dozen technology and industrial parks, 
home to global giants like Bombardier Aerospace as well as two dozen 
other Canadian companies.

These economic ties will be a central issue when Ontario Premier 
Kathleen Wynne arrives in Mexico for a trade mission starting Monday.

Queretaro has preserved its colonial downtown, which has narrow 
cobblestone streets and squares with manicured fig trees and 
fountains. Cartel members are said to send their wives and children 
to live here, convinced this is the safest place in the country.

Arias lived peacefully in Queretaro for many years, running a 
mechanic's garage with her husband and raising four children. The 
family kept a gun in the garage, just in case, but never had cause to use it.

When Arias learned her eldest son planned to travel to Veracruz, a 
port city 470 kilometres east, for the annual Carnival celebrations 
with boisterous street parties and live music, she tried to dissuade 
him. The Zetas cartel - one of the country's most ruthless - wields a 
lot of influence in Veracruz, and she feared for his safety.

"I begged him not to go and cried when he left," recalls Arias. "He 
said, 'Don't worry. I'll be fine.' He said, 'If you feel I'm in 
danger, pray for me.'"

Rico left on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, in his red Renault. When he 
failed to return on Sunday, his mother called his school. She found 
out he had travelled with Anterro Lopez Cruz, a 24-year-old 
hairstylist. She tracked down his father, Jose Anterro Lopez 
Gonzalez, and then reported the pair missing to Queretaro's attorney 
general. She also called Rico's cellphone; a strange voice answered, 
swore and then hung up. She told police, but she says they didn't 
follow the lead. "The police said, 'they are gays,' and you didn't 
support them, so they ran away," recounts Arias. "I said, 'no, that's 
not true.'"

Arias and Lopez drove to Veracruz to search the city's hospitals and 
morgues. They reported the case to the Veracruz attorney general, as 
well as to the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons. 
They gave DNA samples to authorities and asked them to check for 
matches against any unidentified bodies.

When Arias learned the two young men had stayed at the house of a set 
of twins whom they knew, and that one of the women was reportedly 
married to a Zetas cartel member, she feared the worse.

"For months, I would call officials to press them to solve the case, 
and they would say 'the investigation continues.' Nothing," she says. 
In the middle of it all, her husband, who ran the garage, died; he 
asked not to be buried until his son was found.

Feeling overwhelmed - and broke - Arias contemplated suicide. "I sold 
the gun so I wouldn't be tempted," she says. "I knew I had to stay 
strong for my other three children."

Finally, in January, 2016, nearly four years after she had kissed her 
son Rico goodbye, a break came in the case. Fingerprints of two 
bodies buried in the general morgue in Xalapa, the capital of 
Veracruz, matched those of Rico and his friend Lopez. The bodies had 
been there since Feb. 18, 2012, shortly after the two men were 
reported missing.

"Why didn't authorities tell us earlier? Why did they make us suffer 
for four years?" says Arias.

She and Lopez, accompanied by Rangel, drove to Xalapa for the 
exhumation, on March 5. "It was horrible. Very unprofessional," says 
Arias. "They had to dig up several graves until they found the bodies 
of our sons."

The bodies were decayed, and covered in signs of torture. Both had 
been decapitated.

The Veracruz government refused to pay to have the bodies transferred 
to Queretaro.

Arias complained to the attorney general of the Republic, Arely Gomez 
Gonzalez, whom she had met in Mexico City. Gomez arranged to have the 
bodies flown to Queretaro. On March 16, Rico and Lopez finally came 
home, and Arias borrowed money to give them both a proper burial.

"We think cartel members targeted them because they thought they were 
homosexual," she speculates. "But we will never know what happened to 
them. Nobody has ever been charged and I doubt they ever will be."

There are tens of thousands of similar cases across Mexico. As 
families of the disappeared grieve, they feel re-victimized by a 
seemingly dysfunctional justice system and a government that does not 
help them. Incompetent, disrespectful and dismissive investigators 
add to their trauma and leave them with the suspicion the government 
itself is implicated.

Pena Nieto has been dogged by the case of the 43 missing students, 
and by charges it is part of a larger pattern of corruption and 
impunity. His approval ratings have dropped to 23 per cent.

"There is a reasonable basis to believe that both Mexican government 
forces and the Zetas drug cartel have committed crimes against 
humanity against civilians over the past decade," concluded a June 
report by the Open Society Foundation, which works on criminal 
justice reforms around the world.

The government rejects the report's findings and says human rights 
abuses involving officials remain the exception, not the rule, in Mexico.

As for Arias, she draws solace from the other families she has met 
who have suffered similar losses. "I don't know what I'd do without 
them," she says, fingering the St. Benedict medal around her neck, 
meant to ward off evil. "We need to organize ourselves so it isn't 
just the criminals who are organized."

Four years later, she cannot muster the courage to clear out her 
son's room, which remains frozen in time, his teddy bear on the bed, 
green curtains drawn, as though waiting for him to come home.

'I want my daughters to know what happened'

Rogelio Castillo Gomez, 35, an athletic man with green eyes and a 
neatly trimmed beard, began his career as a city inspector. Three 
years ago, a friend offered him a role with the Institutional 
Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political party which ruled Mexico, 
and many states, for 71 years. He didn't share details of the job 
with his wife, Alejandra Alcala Tovar, or their two young daughters - 
they knew only that he worked in Queretaro, for the party's intelligence unit.

On Nov. 12, 2014 at about 7:45 p.m., someone from work called 
Castillo. "I'm going to meet my colleague," he told his wife, saying 
he would return within the hour. At 8:30 p.m., police knocked at the 
door of their home - an officer had found Castillo's red Chevrolet 
Aveo just down the block, the keys in the ignition and the radio on. 
Could she please come and get the vehicle?

"I went to the car and saw Rogelio's hooded sweatshirt and sandals 
scattered on the ground, like he'd left in a hurry," recalls Alcala, 
33. "I feared something very bad had happened."

A neighbour told her he had seen a grey Honda truck pull up and force 
Castillo from his car. "I went to the police and tried to give them 
the evidence but they wouldn't take it. They could have shut down the 
highways to search for him but they didn't. They said he'd gone off 
with another woman. But I knew it wasn't true," Alcala says.

A private investigator obtained phone records and found calls between 
her husband and two work colleagues after he had left the house the 
night he disappeared.

Alcala reported the case to the attorney general's office, the 
National Human Rights Commission, and to the Special Prosecutor's 
Office for Victims of Crimes.

But the case remained stalled until the PRI was voted out of office 
in 2015. Alcala lobbied the new state government to reopen the case.

She learned a farmer had discovered her husband's body in a cornfield 
in the neighbouring state of Guanajuato just four days after he 
disappeared. It was exhumed six months later. "They identified him 
first through fingerprints and then they dug up the body and did a 
DNA match," said Alcala. "The body was covered in signs of torture 
and I couldn't even bear to look at it. But I recognized my husband's tattoos."

In June, two of Castillo's former PRI colleagues were charged with homicide.

"It was the PRI itself who captured Rogelio. He was done in by his 
own party," Alcala says. "He must have discovered something really 
valuable, more valuable than his own life."

By going public with details of the case, she knows she is putting 
herself at risk. But Alcala says she must be vocal, to ensure the 
case goes ahead.

Every Sunday, she and her daughters, aged 11 and 8, place daisies on 
her husband's grave. "I want my daughters to know what happened and 
why they were left without a father. I want the truth," she says.

'They treated us like we were enemies'

Jose Esau Ugalde Vega, a website designer and charismatic musician 
with intense brown eyes, joked with his mother in the wooden doorway 
of their tiny but immaculate home in central Queretaro. It was 7:30 
p.m., Sept. 14, 2015 and he was headed out to see friends. "We 
laughed together," recalls Maria Elena Vega. "It was a normal 
evening." When Ugalde, 25, didn't come home that night, Vega tried 
calling her son's cellphone. A stranger answered and then immediately husng up.

The friends he had gone to see claimed Ugalde never turned up. Her 
son, it seemed, had simply vanished. "We filed a complaint with state 
attorney general but they were very dismissive. They treated us like 
we were enemies," recalls Vega.

The family hired a private investigator. For three months, Ugalde's 
parents and younger sister Lorelei walked the streets of their 
beautiful city, with its squares and burbling fountains and 18th 
century aqueduct. "I worried about whether he was cold and hungry, or 
waiting for us to rescue him," Vega says. Overcome with grief, her 
husband, Jose Ugalde Mejia, quit his carpentry job. "I had heard 
about disappearances in other parts of Mexico but I never thought it 
could happen to us," he says.

On December 18, a workman found Ugalde's remains in an abandoned 
quarry south of the city - a forlorn spot covered in thorn bushes and 
cacti beside a highway. The man had gone into the bush to relieve 
himself when he saw a torn black plastic bag with bones sticking out 
that had been partly eaten by animals. He called police and they 
identified a femur, clavicle, part of a skull and the remnants of 
Ugalde's headphones and clothing. DNA testing confirmed it was him.

"The moment he was found," recalls Vega, "I felt a profound sadness 
knowing I would never see him again. Uncertainty changed to 
certainty. It was a different kind of pain."

Adds her husband: "We always thought of Queretaro as so safe. It was 
as though our city had let us down."

The private investigator discovered that Ugalde had arrived at the 
house of his friend - and her boyfriend - the night he disappeared. 
Two neighbours heard a voice crying for help that evening, and called 
police. An officer came to the house, and the couple reassured him 
everything was fine. "Imagine if police had gone in, then Ugalde 
would still be alive," his father says.

Thanks in part to the evidence the private investigator found, police 
charged Enrique Cruz Romero, the boyfriend, with murder.

Cruz confessed to police that he killed Ugalde after an argument, and 
then disposed of his body. Court documents obtained by the Star show 
he later recanted his confession, and that his lawyers have filed a 
constitutional challenge to its legality.

Ugalde's parents fear Cruz won't be convicted, and worry they will be 
targeted if he is released on bail.

Still, they know it is rare for authorities to lay charges in such 
cases. They remain grateful that at least they won't spend the rest 
of their lives searching for their son. Vega reads over entries on 
his website and is comforted, as though a voice from the grave is 
reaching out to her. Day by day, her pain lessens, though the thought 
of wild dogs desecrating her son's body will forever haunt her.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom