COCULA, Mexico On the morning of her high school graduation, Berenice Navarijo Segura was delayed for a hair and makeup appointment by an explosion of gunfire in the centre of town. Her mother was up before dawn preparing stewed goat and beans for the celebration, and didn’t want her to risk going out. Her sister, who had made enough salsa for 60 guests, tried to hold back the spirited 19-year-old with questions: “Do you have your wallet? What about your phone?”
But there was a reason the family called Berenice “Princess.” She’d already paid the salon and was determined to look her best for the big day. Accustomed to dodging gun battles in a region overrun by drug cartels, she waited for only 20 minutes after the shooting subsided before rushing out the door with a promise to be quick.
She hopped onto the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle and vanished into the ranks of Mexico’s missing.
Sixteen other people, including Berenice’s boyfriend, disappeared from Cocula on that day, July 1, 2013 ‚Äî more than a year before 43 students from a teachers college were detained by police in nearby Iguala and never seen again. For all those months, most of the Cocula families kept quiet, hoping their silence might bring children and spouses home alive, fearing that a complaint might condemn them to death.
“What if I report it and my daughter is nearby and they know I reported it, they hurt her or something?” reasoned Berenice’s mother, Rosa Segura Giral.
Then the disappearance of the students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa became an international outrage. The government rushed to investigate the crime and announced with great fanfare its official conclusion that the youths had been killed and the ashes of their incinerated bodies dumped in Cocula.
Emboldened by the sudden attention to abductions, the families of Cocula began coming forward, and hundreds of other families from the state of Guerrero emerged from silent anguish. They spoke of their misfortune to each other, often for the first time, and signed lists, adding the names of their loved ones to the government’s growing registry of 25,000 people reported missing nationwide since 2007. They swabbed the inside of their cheeks for DNA samples. And they grabbed metal rods to poke in the craggy countryside for traces of the family members whom they started calling “the other disappeared.”
Sometimes they found evidence of bodies, and sometimes the authorities dug up graves from anonymous fields. More than 100 bodies have been pulled from the soil. But like the students of Ayotzinapa, all but one of whom are unaccounted for, so far the remains of only six of the other disappeared from around Iguala have been identified and given back to their families.
The others are still missing. And their families are the other victims.
At least 292 people have been added to the list of missing from the Iguala area since the 43 students disappeared there on Sept. 26, 2014. The poor region of the southern state of Guerrero, about 110 miles (about 180 kilometres) south of Mexico City, is home to some 300,000 residents, many of them farmers, cab drivers and labourers. While most families are too scared to talk publicly about their loss, The Associated Press has interviewed relatives of 158 of the “other disappeared.” Still fearful but also furious, they speak hesitantly of children, parents and siblings dragged away before their eyes, of those who left home for work or stepped out to buy milk and seemed to be swallowed by the Earth.
Or of a daughter who went out to get her hair styled for graduation and never came home.
Precisely what happened to Berenice is a matter of conjecture. Her mother recalls hearing a convoy of pickup trucks skid along the gravel road in front of her cinderblock house on its way to the centre of town early that morning. The sound of automatic gunfire pierced the corrugated metal roof over her smoke-blackened hearth, and hours later Segura Giral heard trucks speed past the house again on the way out of Cocula. She never dreamed that Berenice and her boyfriend might be inside one of them.
Who were these people who abducted her daughter? Members of one of the drug cartels that vie for control of Cocula? Police in bed with the cartels? Segura Giral shrugs. No one can say for certain.
Nor can she explain why, though like most people around her, Segura Giral knows there are many possible reasons for abductions: Recruitment to fill a cartel’s ranks with young men. Attacks on competitors. Profit from ransom money, or punishment for failure to make extortion payments. The elimination of a witness. Regardless, the abductions sow fear. Berenice’s older brother fled to Chicago three years ago after he was twice stopped by gunmen while out selling pizzas.
On the day Berenice disappeared, so did Jose Manuel Diaz Garcia, 43, a farmer and appliance repairman in the nearby community of Apipilulco who heard the trucks stop outside his house before dawn. When the men called for him, he yelled at them not to shoot because he had children. Minerva Lopez Ramirez, his wife, said he went peacefully with five masked men. Three days later she got a call demanding a ransom of about 300,000 pesos (about $30,000), which she eventually refused to pay because they would not put her husband on the phone.
Carlos Varela Munoz, a 28-year-old cab driver, was at his home across the river in Atlixtac when armed men arrived around 5 a.m. in three white pickups without license plates. They broke windows and forced the door. The masked men claiming to be federal police made his wife lie on her stomach as they took Varela away. There has been no ransom demand and no return.
Cocula sits in a valley in Guerrero’s mountainous north, surrounded by fields of corn and browsing goats ‚Äî a bucolic setting for a valuable drug trafficking route. Opium paste collected from poppies grown in the mountains makes the journey to consumers in the United States through Cocula and Iguala. The Guerreros Unidos gang controls the route, and often defends its territory in armed clashes with its competitors La Familia Michoacana and their associates.
The authorities are of little help. Residents say they have seen local police escorting gangsters through town and consider them to be a uniformed extension of Guerreros Unidos.
That relationship was reinforced by the government investigation into the case of the 43 students, which concluded that Iguala and Cocula police had turned them over to members of Guerreros Unidos, who then killed them and disposed of the incinerated remains in Cocula. Berenice’s house sits near the turn in the road that leads out to the dump site, where the government said most of the human cinders were too burned even to yield DNA.
The barrage that Berenice’s family heard on graduation day came from 20 to 30 men shooting their way into the home of 23-year-old Luis Alberto Albarran Miranda and his 14-year-old brother, Jose Daniel. Cocula’s police never came out of the station 100 yards from the house, even as gunmen blasted the door open and shouted that they were federal police looking for weapons. They took the unarmed brothers away barefoot.
Less than a kilometre to the east of the Albarran Miranda home, over a small hill and across a short bridge, armed men also shot their way into the home of their cousin, 15-year-old Victor Albarran Varela. While some relatives hid in the basement, an older brother scrambled over the wall and across the stream. He was shot in the ankle, but escaped. Victor had the bad luck to be in the bathroom when his mother herded the others into hiding, and he came face to face with gunmen looking for another brother. When they couldn’t find him, they took Victor instead, “as insurance,” his mother Maura Varela Damacio said.
Cocula Mayor Cesar Miguel Penaloza heard the shooting through the phone when his father called him from downtown on the morning of the abductions, but said he didn’t send his force out to stop them because there were only seven police on duty and 50 gunmen. In the days that followed, he tallied 17 citizens who disappeared from his town.
“Until it happened again with the (students) from Ayotzinapa, it was as if everything happening here in Cocula was forgotten,” said Varela Damacio, the mother of the missing 15-year-old. “Nobody said anything, whether it was kidnappings, abductions, murders, nobody dared to speak.”
Families of the missing live in limbo.
A mother with neither a child to embrace nor a grave to visit tells of checking her son’s Facebook page every evening, two years after he went missing. A young man keeps dialing his brother’s cellphone nearly four years after his disappearance, hoping someone will pick up. Every new report of a body sends them back to the morgue to face a sickening mix of relief and disappointment when they do not find their relative.
Theirs is a purgatory of unfathomable decisions. Among them: whether to report an abduction to authorities despite the terror that those responsible will find out and return to punish them again.
“You have three children and you say, ‘You know what, right now it is one (missing), if you keep looking it’s going to be all three,’” said Guadalupe Contreras, whose 28-year-old son Antonio Ivan Contreras Mata disappeared in Iguala in 2012. “You better keep the two you have left and forget the one who is already gone. There’s no reason to lose two more children. It feels bad. It sounds bad. But you have to make these decisions.”
Some families said they were so convinced of police complicity they did not dare report a disappearance, while others who did file a report described bureaucratic indifference, a hand held out for a bribe, or a subsequent ransom demand.
They want to escape. And yet, they cannot bring themselves to move away. What if a missing child comes home one day and they aren’t there?
Many of the disappeared were breadwinners in poor families; some illiterate parents were unable to offer a confident spelling of a child’s name. Men or boys accounted for all but 15 of the 158 disappeared and ranged in age from 13 to 60 years old, with the majority younger than 30.
Families left behind often spiraled into financial crisis as jobs were abandoned to search for the missing, or money was borrowed to pay a ransom. Belongings and even homes were sold. Meanwhile, many relatives said they became isolated after the disappearances. Either they withdrew because they didn’t feel they could trust anyone, or friends and neighbours pulled away, as though the tragedy that had befallen them could be contagious.
Ninfa Gutierrez Pastrana said that after her husband Eliseo Ocampo Avila, a lawyer and politician in Iguala, disappeared in April 2012, even her pastor was too afraid to visit.
“You’re left completely alone,” she said. “My family used to come to see me. This happened and they left my son and me totally alone. Not even my family that lives here in Iguala visits. No one visited us. We are alone.”
After Berenice disappeared, her mother stopped making the pizza that had been her livelihood.
Berenice was the one who had gotten up before dawn and swept the kitchen before Segura Giral returned from the market with the day’s ingredients. She knew how to roll out the dough and could light her mother’s massive oven. Then Berenice would walk through their neighbourhood with a plastic container of Hawaiian and pepperoni pizzas, selling them for 10 pesos (about 60 cents) a slice. On a Sunday, Segura Giral bragged, Berenice could sell four or five pies.
The young woman who cared so much about her appearance also cared about her studies. She worked for her school fees and earned scholarships. Shortly after her disappearance, Segura Giral learned that Berenice had won another scholarship to continue her studies in business administration.
Segura Giral has not found any eyewitness to the moment Berenice and her boyfriend Fernando Villalobos Valero were taken, but the spot is less than a five-minute drive from home, and three blocks from city hall and the police station. It seems to her the couple was unlucky when they encountered their captors on a narrow street with buildings lining both sides. That’s where a relative found Fernando’s motorcycle and saw that there would have been no escape.
By midday on graduation day, relatives began arriving, packed into the bed of pickups, merry and ready to celebrate Berenice’s accomplishment. They were met by anguished faces, instead.
Soldiers made the rounds later, asking what had happened, but the abductors were long gone.
In the days that followed, Segura Giral retreated to her bed inside a darkened house. For months, she did not go out. For more than a year, she refused to make pizzas.
“I never thought this could happen to me. Never, never, never in my life. I never thought that people wanted to harm you so much. Because it’s hurt that they cause you,” Segura Giral said softly. “A lot of hurt.”
Giving in to pressure from the oldest of her three daughters, Segura Giral eventually provided a DNA sample to authorities trying to identify the dead. She reported Berenice’s disappearance to authorities and, finally, returned to work.
Most mornings now, she leans forward, driving mounds of dough down into the floured wood plank table where she makes her pizzas, then rocks back on her heels and repeats the motion. Recently, she caught herself laughing at a joke, but then went silent and stared into the distance.
“A lot of people say I don’t miss my daughter because sometimes they hear me laugh like that,” she said.
It was a crushing admission. Even now, she said, darkness sometimes descends on her, and she sleeps all day to escape the pain.
Escape is difficult, too. Iguala is in the news again a year after the disappearance of the 43 students. Suddenly, the government’s explanation that the students’ ashes were dumped in Cocula has come into question, rejected by experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after a six-month investigation. If such high-profile disappearances remain unsolved, it does not bode well for the families of the other disappeared, who also want answers.
Segura Giral says she has not lost hope for her daughter. Berenice’s dusty, gift-wrapped graduation presents still await her return atop a cabinet. The bereaved mother glances up every time she hears a truck drive by the front door, imagining that Berenice still could walk through the gate beneath a tree bent with the weight of oversized limes, sweep past the papaya sapling beside the kitchen door, and wrap her mother in a hug.
“One has to learn to survive. I tell you, I hope that my daughter shows up. I always have had this impulse,” Segura Giral said, her voice fading to a whisper. “I feel like any day she is going to come back. I feel so much like she has been travelling.”
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