SALTILLO, Mexico -- Rogelio Elizondo’s son went to buy a used car in Nuevo Laredo. He never came back.
He and a companion simply vanished on May 8, 2011. Because they were carrying the equivalent of $5,000 for the purchase, suspicion turned to foul play.
Alarmed, Elizondo fretted over what to do. Friends offered advice.
“People said to us, ‘Don’t report this.’ They said, ‘Let us look into this,’ ” Elizondo recalled. After 10 days, growing more desperate, Elizondo went to the Coahuila state police, only to find utter lack of interest.
“They said it wasn’t their jurisdiction. It happened in another state,” Elizondo said. Indeed, Nuevo Laredo is in neighboring Tamaulipas, not Coahuila. “They said, ‘We aren’t going to investigate. There’s nothing we are going to do.’ ”
In much of Mexico, Elizondo’s tragedy would remain the anguish of a solitary family in a country where the problem of people who’ve disappeared is worse than anyplace else in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico’s government acknowledged in February that it has a list of 26,121 people who’d vanished without a trace during the government of President Felipe Calderon, who left office Dec. 1.
But in Coahuila, a slightly more positive story is unfolding. The number of “disappeared” is still high here – 1,600 or so, the governor has acknowledged – but Elizondo wasn’t alone. He joined scores of other families looking into the cases of 298 missing persons in the state.
The families, gathered in a group called United Efforts for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, raised a clamor. They met with the governor, who agreed early last year to set up a special prosecutor’s office for the disappeared.
The fears of relatives melted somewhat as their ranks grew. They called for greater use of DNA testing to match human remains with the disappeared. They began to map the cellular phone calls of their missing loved ones in their final hours before vanishing. They demanded – and got – regular meetings with authorities.
“We’re sitting down every two months with the governor and the state attorney general. This is a big advance. We think it could be a model for other states,” said Diana Iris Garcia, who’s a leading activist with the group. Her son vanished in 2007.
There’s no easy answer to why Mexico has so many disappeared people. Its numbers dwarf the better-publicized cases of Argentina, Brazil and Chile during the years that military governments ruled those countries.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that the military or police had played a role in 149 of the 249 Mexican cases the group examined in depth, which suggests official involvement in many of the disappearances. Hundreds more may be people who ran afoul of the country’s brutal criminal syndicates. The lack of interest among police departments means that most cases are never investigated, the New York-based advocacy group found.
Even the extent of the problem is uncertain. The list of 26,121 cases that the new government of President Enrique Pena Nieto acknowledges is not definitive, authorities say, and the number might be higher. Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced last month that he’d assigned 20 police officers to look into the cases full time.