A group of women has been turning up soil in Sinaloa, a state in northwestern Mexico, in a desperate hunt for the bodies of missing loved ones. It’s dangerous work, but these women say it’s necessary, as Mexican authorities are doing little to find the tens of thousands of people who have gone missing in the country.
The women call themselves "Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte" ("The trackers of El Fuerte"). El Fuerte, a town in the north of Sinaloa state, is where they carry out most of their searches for the bodies of missing people.
On November 19, these women found six bodies in hidden mass graves on the outskirts of Los Mochis, a town located 80 kilometres south of El Fuerte. And these are far from the first bodies that these women have found. In the past three years, they’ve uncovered 113 bodies, 88 of which were later returned to families.
The women found six bodies on November 19, the day that this Facebook Live was filmed. .
The women have undertaken most of their work in this state, which has the third largest number of missing people in the country (only the states of Tamaulipas and Mexico have higher numbers). According to the National Registry of Missing or Disappeared Persons, an estimated 2,852 people have gone missing in Sinaloa alone. Across the country, the number of missing persons rises to a frightening 32,000.
The perpetrators of these disappearances include both state actors (public servants, police officers or members of the army) and members of organised criminal groups, according to human rights organisations like Amnesty International. The victims include everyone from students to journalists, drug dealers and migrants from Central America, to young women.
"Our priority is to find our loved ones, not the perpetrators"
Mirna Nereida Medina Quiñónez, 47, lives in Los Mochis. She founded the group "Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte" after her son disappeared on July 14, 2014.
When my son disappeared, I went to the office of the Federal Ministerial Police [Editor’s note: A Mexican federal agency tasked with fighting corruption and organised crime]. But they said that they didn’t look for missing people. So, I decided to look for my son myself.
At first, it was just me and my family searching for my son. Then, through social media, I connected with other families in the same situation. In this way, I met 14 other women from El Fuerte who all had missing relatives and I founded the "Rastreadoras" group. The group has grown, little by little. We offer each other immense psychological support.
Currently, there are 60 women from four different towns – El Fuerte, Los Mochis, Guasave and Choix – who take part in our search parties. There is a core group of 25 of us who take part in all of the searches. Most of the other members only take part in the searches near to their homes. Usually, there are about 40 of us each time we go out.
The women look in a six-metre deep hole. Video posted on August 31 on the Facebook page "Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte".
"We are currently looking for 594 missing persons"
Our group is mostly made up of women, most of whom are missing a husband, son or brother. Of the 594 missing people who we are currently looking for, 570 are men. [Editor’s note: Nationally, 74 percent of missing people are men.]
Medina Quiñónez’s group shares missing persons notices on social media.
Every Monday and Friday, our group goes to places where we think that bodies could potentially be buried-- on the outskirts of towns, river banks, etc.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, we focus on places where we are almost positive that we’ll find bodies. To locate these places, we scour the media and find articles that mention areas where bodies have been found in the past.
Moreover, people regularly come to see us or contact us via Facebook if they’ve seen something suspicious. On a few different occasions, we’ve had notes slipped under our door by people who claim to actually have participated in the crimes. These notes actually indicate where the body was buried.
That’s one reason why we haven’t installed a camera. We want people to be able come and give us information without fear of being identified. It’s important because our priority is to find our loved ones, not the perpetrators.
The group searches near an abandoned house in Los Mochis, after getting information that there were three bodies there. Video posted on September 10 on the Facebook page "Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte".
"The smell lets us know if there is a body underground"
When we are searching, we push sticks into the ground. When we pull them out, if they have a certain smell, we know that there is a body under there.
When we find one, we look to see if there are any clues that might help us to identify it – the clothing, for example. We can then compare this information with what we have got from the families of the missing. We also check if there are any bullets or handcuffs nearby. Then, a medical examiner removes the body. It is taken to a funeral home, where it is DNA-tested. If the body is identified, then it can be returned to the victim’s family.
"You might think that finding a body brings some relief, but, in reality, it doesn’t at all"
This summer, I found my son’s body, three years after he disappeared. I was able to bury him on July 28.
You might think that finding a body brings some relief, but, in reality, it doesn’t. In fact, when you are searching, you still have hope of finding the person alive, even if it is just a tiny bit of hope. Before looking for hidden graves, we always start by looking for people in the street, in hospital, in prisons, in bars and online.
However, when you find your loved one’s body in a grave, then you have to come to terms with the fact that the person is never coming back. You can grieve, but it is extremely painful. It’s like turning the page of a book that you never wanted to open in the first place.
"We’ve already been shot at four times while searching"
Our work is dangerous. During our searches, we’ve already been shot at four times by people who want us to stop looking for bodies. Thankfully, none of our members have ever been injured. We have also gotten threatening phone calls and messages from people who tell us to stop our work or else we are going to have problems. Some people say that we are brave, but we are always afraid. However, the need to find our loved ones is stronger than the fear.
One day a week on Wednesday, we do have a police escort staffed by officers who work for the Attorney General’s office. However, on the other days of the week, we are alone. We never get support from the local police, because – as I’ve come to understand from the past three years working in my group – the local police are either directly or indirectly responsible for the majority of disappearances.
We don’t get any external support for our work. Instead, each member of the group contributes a little bit. We use most of the contributions to pay for fuel for our pickup truck. Each time we go out looking for bodies, it costs us about 3000 pesos [€136 euros].
In 2014, another group of people, angered by a lack of action on the part of the authorities, started looking for bodies in Guerrero state after 43 students disappeared from a school in Ayotzinapa.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Mexicans seek missing relatives in mass graves
However, a new law on forced disappearances, enacted on November 16, might change things somewhat. Commended by the UN, this law calls for the creation of a national system for seeking missing persons, which Medina Quiñónez says is essential.