One night last March, Jessica Molina was awake in bed, recovering from surgery at her home in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, when she heard pounding at her front door. Her husband, José Daniel Trejo García, a car mechanic, slept through the noise and didn’t stir until Mexican Marines in full combat gear burst into the couple’s bedroom.
“They entered in a completely straight line, as if it was an operation,” Molina recalls. “There were around six who came into the bedroom, and 11 in all in the house.” A red laser dot appeared on Trejo García’s forehead as a Marine trained his weapon on him.
Molina says she heard the Marines say twice that they had the wrong house, and she tried to calm her husband, assuring him that it was all a mistake. But the Marines insisted that Trejo García used the alias “Willy” and was the suspect they were looking for. He shouted in protest as the Marines pulled him out of bed and forced him, shoeless, out of the house.
The other Marines in the house went after Gabriel Gaspar Vásquez, a friend of the couple’s from the southern state of Oaxaca, who was resting in Nuevo Laredo before attempting to cross into the United States. A Marine who noticed the couple’s security cameras asked Molina where the information from them was stored. They seized not only the data contained in the security cameras, but also the couple’s modem, their CPU, a scanner, a computer, watches, phones, and a stash of dollars and pesos. In total, the Marines were in the couple’s home for 32 minutes.
“When they dumped my purse, while they were taking him away, my passport fell out, and one of them turned around and asked, ‘Are you a US citizen?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir,’” Molina adds, because she was born in Houston. Upon learning this, the Marines’ attitude toward her changed immediately. “Respect her—she’s a US citizen,” said the one who emptied her bag. “I think my citizenship saved my life,” Molina concludes.
Yet Trejo García and Gaspar Vásquez haven’t been seen since that night of March 27, 2018, when the Marines dragged them from their beds and took them away. They are among the 51 recorded cases of disappearances at the hands of Mexican Marines between January and May of last year in Nuevo Laredo. And they are part of a much longer list of people who have disappeared in Mexico since the country’s War on Drugs took off in December of 2006—officially, that number is more than 37,000.
The crisis over these disappearances in the past 12 years is perhaps the deepest wound in this battered country inherited by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO. In his inaugural speech on December 1, López Obrador mentioned the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero who have been missing since September 2014. On his first working day as president, he issued a decree authorizing resources for a new investigation into their disappearance.
But beyond the 43 young men, López Obrador has said little about the tens of thousands of other desaparecidos. He campaigned on a promise of “hugs, not bullets,” and his security plan states that his administration will implement a “paradigm of public security that is radically different from that which has been applied in previous sexenios,” or six-year presidential terms.
In November 2018, a controversial internal-security law authorizing the Mexican Army’s participation in law enforcement was struck down by the Supreme Court. By the end of the first week of AMLO’s presidency, 50,000 troops—made up of units of the Military Police, Naval Police, and Federal Police—were deployed to patrol 150 regions of the country. López Obrador has promised that this combined force will be enlarged and shaped into a new National Guard over the next three years. Under his proposal, which requires congressional approval and constitutional reforms, the National Guard will be under the control of the Army. In the interim, the Marines, which fall under Navy command, will retain control of the coastal and border regions. López Obrador insists that a new National Guard is necessary to bring security to the country, but his critics say that his plan is a repeat of the militarization from the previous two administrations. Before securing congressional approval of the plan or legalizing the National Guard, the president announced that recruitment would begin immediately, according to procedures similar to those of the army.
While López Obrador was being inaugurated in Mexico City, I traveled to Nuevo Laredo, the epicenter of the most recent rash of government-involved disappearances, to interview survivors and witnesses. The city is ringed by truck stops and parking for semi-trailers. Indeed, transportation drives the local economy: A whopping 38 percent of all trade between Mexico and the United States passes through the port of Laredo, on the Texas border. Nuevo Laredo is also a key transit point for drug traffickers and is considered the cradle of the powerful Zetas cartel, which is said to have gained control of trafficking in the city in the early 2000s.
The first documented wave of disappearances at the hands of the Marines took place in June 2011, the second in 2015, and the third—and largest—in the first half of 2018. The bodies of nine of the 51 people disappeared by the Marines in Nuevo Laredo last year, including two minors and three women, were later discovered by their families or the authorities.
“In the cases from 2011 and 2015, and now in 2018, the Attorney General’s Office has refused to investigate the Marines,” Raymundo Ramos, president of the nongovernmental Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo, tells The Nation. “They open investigations, and first they investigate and criminalize the victims, then their family members—but they never, ever touch the Marines.” Ramos and people like Molina whose family members were disappeared have received death threats and have been smeared in the media—including being accused of associations with criminal activity—for raising their voices about the role of the Navy in these disappearances.
Nor are these abuses limited to Nuevo Laredo: Since 2007, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has issued 46 recommendations, or calls for investigation, regarding possible crimes committed by the Navy (compared with seven such recommendations in the previous 10 years). “We saw it in 2011, we saw it in 2015, and now in 2018,” says Ramos, who calculates that, since 2010, the number of disappearances (and extrajudicial executions, in which the victim’s body was later found) committed by the Marines in Nuevo Laredo is around 70.
The abuses don’t just include disappearances. In March of last year, after a day of shoot-outs with cartel members in Nuevo Laredo left one Marine dead and 12 wounded, Marines firing from a helicopter killed three members of the same family, including two children. A surviving eyewitness claims that the Marines rappelled down from the helicopter and prevented an ambulance from arriving while the victims bled out. The Navy initially denied involvement in the civilian deaths and later claimed that the family was killed in the cross-fire during a battle with cartel gunmen.
There may be a US connection to the disappearances as well. Leaked State Department cables reveal that the United States has been extensively training and sharing information with the Mexican Marines and the Army since 2009, while cooperation between US and Mexican police goes back decades. In 2012, US Marines began deploying to Mexico to train their counterparts under the umbrella of Security Force Assistance training, while three Black Hawk helicopters were delivered to the Mexican Marines under the Mérida Initiative. In early 2018, the head of the US Northern Command, Gen. Lori Robinson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that US Marines had trained over 1,500 Mexican Marines in 2017 “to help prepare those troops for the fight against the cartels.” This means that over one-third of the nearly 4,000 Mexican Marines active in anti-narcotics activities from January to September 2018 may have had US training.
According to Ramos, the Mexican Navy has the closest relations “in terms of training, supply, information exchange, and operations” with US forces. “It is the institution that the US chooses to ensure the lives of its federal agents—DEA agents or otherwise—when they are in Mexico,” he adds.
Nuevo Laredo’s downtown was bustling with shoppers on the day López Obrador took office. A few dozen non-Mexican migrants sat along the main pedestrian bridge connecting the city to Laredo, Texas, unable to get past the Customs and Border Protection officers policing the US half of the bridge. Not far off, members of 12 families whose loved ones had disappeared at the hands of the Mexican Marines earlier in 2018 gathered at Estación Palabra, a former train station that is now a community center.
Many of the family members present expressed hope that the new president would prioritize the search for the disappeared. Gabriela and Erika Castro, two sisters in their late 20s, survived a Marine attack on a political gathering in a junkyard in Nuevo Laredo on May 16 of last year. Over 100 people had come together to decide whom they would support in the city’s mayoral race when the meeting was interrupted by three truckloads of Marines, who pulled up firing warning shots.
After forcing everyone who couldn’t run away to lie on the floor, the Marines confiscated jewelry, money, and phones from those present. “They insulted me, saying they were going to kill me, that they were after me, after all of us, and that they would kill us like the dogs that we are,” Erika Castro said. “They were Marines, from head to toe in tactical uniforms. They had helmets, the helmets had cameras—their faces were covered.” The sisters didn’t recognize their accents but said they thought the Marines were from Mexico City.
“They beat me, they pulled me by the hair across the junkyard’s offices out to where they had everyone lying down—more than 50 people, all face-down,” Gabriela Castro recalled. “They humiliated us, they beat us, they insulted us, saying it would be the last time we would see the light of day.”
Relatives and friends eventually arrived on the scene, together with local journalists. Video footage shows women pushing past the Marines, who shouted insults at them and began to retreat. Those on the ground stood up and gathered to do a head count. No one had been shot, but many had been beaten. And one man—José Luis Bautista Carrillo, Erika’s long-term partner and the father of her two children, who had also been beaten and interrogated by the Marines—was missing.
The Castro sisters went straight to the naval base to demand that Bautista Carrillo be returned. Since then, they’ve been searching for his body, eventually meeting up with other families to look in ditches around the city. There they found the bodies of two other men disappeared by the Marines earlier in the year.
The Attorney General’s Office has thus far refused to consider the video and photographic evidence made available by the sisters. In a demonstration of the flagrant impunity enjoyed by the Marines, no one has been charged, despite videos showing their participation in the raid and more than 100 eyewitnesses who can testify to the events of that day. Also among the disappeared is Jorge Antonio Hernández Domínguez, a US citizen born in Dallas. He was only 18 when, on April 4, 2018, he and Juan Carlos Zaragoza González were forced off the street in Nuevo Laredo into vehicles belonging to the Marines. Neither man has been seen since.
On May 30, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement demanding that the Mexican government “take urgent steps” to end the wave of disappearances. Two days later, the Marines were withdrawn from Nuevo Laredo. Three captains, 24 officials, and 230 Marines were sent to Mexico City as part of an internal investigation into their conduct. However, they were never interviewed in person by the Attorney General’s Office. The Marines under investigation have since been redeployed in different parts of the country, and there have been no arrests or detentions.
Nuevo Laredo is part of a much larger constellation of sites where massacres and disappearances have been carried out over the past 12 years under the pretext of a War on Drugs, funded and supported by the United States. Family members in other border states, especially those who have spent years searching for their loved ones, are skeptical about the change in government.
“I’ve been through three presidents: Fox, Calderón, and Peña,” said Silvia Ortiz in an interview at her kitchen table last November. “They made so many promises, and none were kept.” Her daughter, Silvia Stephanie Sánchez Viesca Ortiz, was disappeared on November 5, 2004. Every Saturday for the past three years, Ortiz has led a search team composed of family members of the disappeared into the dry fields surrounding the city of Torreón, about 330 miles southwest of Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Coahuila.
Ortiz and others from the collective, known as Grupo Vida, participated in a so-called “pacification” forum held by López Obrador’s transition team in August. “I think we made it clear to the incoming government that we do not agree with what they were proposing in terms of the means of pacifying the country, especially with regards to forgiveness. We don’t agree with that,” Ortiz said. “We proposed a Truth Commission, and made sure they understood that it isn’t something to be taken lightly.” Only a handful of the pacification forums initially planned by the government were held before the remainder were canceled or closed to the public. Officials said that the cancellations were necessary to properly evaluate the information already gathered, and because the conditions of respectful listening had been broached.
Thus far, Grupo Vida has found more than 120,000 human remains. Most are charred and broken into tiny pieces, but they still contain DNA that could lead to a positive match. “That’s how we’re finding [the disappeared], and that’s why we can’t forgive,” Ortiz said. “We want justice.” I asked her what justice meant to her, and she said it would mean finding all the mass graves, identifying all the human remains, and returning anyone who is disappeared and still alive back to their families.
On the road between Torreón and Nuevo Laredo is Monterrey, the 10th-largest city in Mexico. There, I spoke with Leticia Herrera, whose son Roy Rivera Hidalgo was disappeared on January 11, 2011, during a home invasion by uniformed police. Rivera Hidalgo, who was 18 at the time of his disappearance, was studying translation at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León. His mother has since become the leader of the United Forces for Our Disappeared in Nuevo León, whose Spanish acronym is FUNDENL.
At her mother’s house, not far from the city center, Herrera talked about why her organization started carrying out land searches for human remains. “If we don’t go, they don’t go,” she said, referring to state and federal investigators’ unwillingness to act unless pushed by family members. Herrera emphasizes that pressuring politicians is central to FUNDENL’s work, but she is skeptical about the possibility for change.
I asked Herrera the same question that I asked Ortiz: What does justice mean for her? “Finding them,” she answered. “For us, that’s justice—there’s nothing else. There’s no concept of justice beyond going out and searching for and finding them. [The government is] offering a lot of other things, but we’re not hearing them talk about searching—and for us, for all the family members, that’s basically the only objective.”
The families I met with in Nuevo Laredo were more hopeful. “We have a lot of faith in López Obrador; we voted for him, and we expect change,” said Erika Castro. “We have faith he will give us answers. It’s what he promised.” The Nuevo Laredo families, who have been gathering informally since June, eventually decided to create an organization to demand answers as López Obrador stood before the nation in Mexico City’s central square. They selected Jessica Molina, a witness and survivor, as their group’s first president.
On the new government’s fifth day in office, Molina and Raymundo Ramos were in Washington, DC, presenting their case against the Mexican Marines in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Across the table from them sat Alejandro Encinas, the new sub-secretary of human rights, migration, and population in López Obrador’s administration. In January, Encinas will visit Nuevo Laredo together with other representatives from the Mexican government to hear more testimony from families searching for their loved ones.
Encinas acknowledged the 37,000 disappeared as well as 2,000 clandestine graves, the majority of which are not being properly investigated or exhumed, and the 26,000 unidentified bodies held at state morgues and in common graves around the country. “That’s how big the problem is,” Encinas said. “Pretending to act or negating the existence of the problem won’t be how we…resolve it.” However, the proposed federal budget for 2019 commits fewer resources to the search for the disappeared than in the previous year.
For Ramos, the outcome of this first meeting with the new government was positive, and the terms of engagement are clear: Within six months, they expect searches for the disappeared, as well as investigations into the Marines, to show results. And they expect social and economic support for the victims or their families.
“Things have already changed in our country,” Encinas told those present at the hearing. “We have to acknowledge that Mexico is in the middle of a profound humanitarian crisis—a crisis of human-rights violations.”