August 30th marks International Day of the Disappeared, a day to remember those who’ve gone missing and stand in solidarity with their loved ones. In Mexico, there are more than 100,000 people reporting missing in the last six decades, mainly as a humanitarian consequence of violence, but the number is likely higher. Behind each missing person there’s a family searching for answers and wanting to know what happened to their loved one.

In this episode, we’re going to learn about how the ICRC works with what are known in Mexico as colectivos, or groups of families and friends who unite to search for their missing loved ones and defend their rights. We speak with Beatriz Adriana Martinez about her husband, Juan Alvarez Gil’s disappearance in 2013, to understand what a family goes through when a loved one goes missing and how these colectivos support Beatriz and the hundreds of thousands of other families. We also speak with Marlene Herbig, an ICRC delegate with the Missing Persons Program in Mexico, who works to help those who are searching for their missing loved ones know their rights, and how and when to seek mental health counseling.

Kids, taking part in ICRC’s programme to assist the families of missing persons, hang messages on a tree for their missing relatives in Jalisco, Guadalajara, Mexico. Credit: Brenda Islas

Important Links

Our press release on the 100,000 missing over the last six decades.

Mexico’s Database For The Missing

Learn more about the ICRC’s Missing Persons Global Response.

ICRC’s music video with “Playing for Change,” featuring artists from around the world performing a cover of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

This episode is now available for the hearing impaired.

SCRIPT

In Mexico, there are more than 100,000 people reported missing in the last six decades —a humanitarian consequence of violence—but it’s likely an under count. And behind each missing person there’s a family searching for answers and wanting to know what happened to their loved one. We’ll speak to one of them.

But first a note before we begin: Views expressed here don’t necessarily represent those of the ICRC as a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization.

[INTERCROSS MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

[Narration Intro] I’m Dominique Maria Bonessi and this is Intercross, a podcast that offers a window into the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and shares the stories of those affected by war and violence.

This episode is part of our series on the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency. It’s been a crucial resource for families affected by conflict, disaster and other situations of violence to restore contact with their loved ones.

Today we’re going to learn about how the ICRC works with what are known in Mexico as “colectivos,” or groups of families and friends who unite to search for their missing loved ones and defend their rights.

Later in the episode, we will hear from Marlene Herbig, my ICRC colleague responsible for the Missing Persons Program in Mexico City. Marlene helps colectivos and families navigate the legal system and seek mental health services, among other things. She’s going to help us understand more about the ICRC’s role in missing cases. But first, to understand the challenges families face in searching for their missing loved ones we’re going to hear from someone who knows them personally.

[Underlay music here]

[BEATRIZ] “Mi nombre completo es Beatriz Adriana Rivera Martínez. Soy originaria de Chilpancingo, Guerrero, México.”

Beatriz Adriana Martinez lives in Guerrero, Mexico, where in each of the last five years more than 230 people have reported missing as the numbers nationwide dramatically increase, according to a government database. But unofficial numbers in Mexico, are unknown since some people don’t report their loved one missing out of fear of retribution by those who caused the disappearance.

[BEATRIZ] “Mi esposo se llamaba. Se llama Juan Álvarez Gil.”

Beatriz’s husband is Juan Alvarez Gil. Before Juan’s disappearance the couple had been separated and living apart, but always in constant communication about their three kids.

[BEATRIZ]“Él era abogado, estudiaba mucho, le gustaba leer y pues eso se lo transmitía a mis hijos…”
[BEATRIZ ENGLISH TRANSLATION OVERLAY] “He was a lawyer and studied and read a lot, and he passed that on to my kids. He would always give them books and magazines to read. He cared a lot about reading. He was very loving and that’s what they miss most about him. As a couple, even though we were separated, I felt supported by him emotionally and economically.”

[PAUSE]

Juan disappeared on July 6th 2013.

[BEATRIZ] “Él desaparece el 6 de julio y yo me entero de su desaparición a finales de julio, porque pues los niños ya iban a entrar a clases.”

When Juan disappeared, Beatriz didn’t find out about it until the end of that July, when her kids were supposed to be going back to school. Typically, Juan would buy the kids’ school supplies and uniforms. So Beatriz called Juan because she was surprised she hadn’t seen or heard from him.

[Sound of phone dialing and then ringing]

The phone rang and nothing, it went to voicemail. So Beatriz called Juan’s brother saying…

[BEATRIZ] “Oye, [bleeped name out], este…dile a tu hermano que me dé su número, o sea, cambió de número y no me informó.

She thought maybe Juan had changed his phone number and didn’t tell her. But then Juan’s brother told her what had happened.

[BEATRIZ] “El estaba en un poblado, en una comida, en un poblado cerca de Chilpancingo y de acuerdo a la ley es de investigaciones o narrativas que hacen. Es que él sale de ahí, este de la comida y se dirigía aquí a Chilpancingo.”

According to the family, Juan was in a restaurant in a town close to Chilpancingo, the capitol of Guerrero, and left in his car around four or five o’clock in the afternoon.

[Sound of car starting and driving away]

As he was driving through Chilpancingo, he was stopped between a gas station and a hotel.

[BEATRIZ] “Justo ahí este. Lo interceptan dos camionetas. Este Suburban de ese tipo. Una adelante de él y otra atrás en la cual ya no le permiten avanzar. En su auto… Y también se lo llevan sin rumbo.”

Juan’s car was intercepted by two large Suburban SUVs. And that’s when a group of men kidnapped him.

[Sound of car screeching and the underlay]

[BEATRIZ] “Ya no supimos más. Este…al mes encontraron su auto en otro poblado.”

After that night, that was all the information Beatriz and her family had. Then, at the end of August, police found Juan’s car abandoned with blood inside.

[BEATRIZ] “Desafortunadamente, pues aquí también el proceso de investigación es a veces nulo, a veces lento.Entonces, no sabemos.”

From there, the trail stopped. She says never found out if the blood in car belonged to Juan. So since the end of August 2013, Beatriz, Juan’s brother and their family don’t have any information about Juan’s potential whereabouts.

[PAUSE with music]

[BEATRIZ] “Inició mi preocupación, porque yo no sabía cómo hablarle a mi hija o a mis hijos de ese tema, porque mi hija la que le refiero.” [BEATRIZ ENGLISH TRANSLATION OVERLAY] “When it first happened, I was worried because I didn’t know what to tell to my daughter, Alessandra, or my kids. She cried a lot and asked me why her dad wouldn’t talk to her. She said “he always talks to me, does he not love me anymore?”

She was very confused and I didn’t know what to tell her. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of other families in Mexico identify with Beatriz’s suffering.

In 2021, the number of missing persons was 10,000, an all-time high for a single year.

[BEATRIZ] “Yo creo que cualquier familia que sufre una desaparición es un impacto muy fuerte. No estamos, obviamente, preparados para una situación así.” [BEATRIZ ENGLISH TRANSLATION OVERLAY] “I think that for any family that suffers from the disappearance of a loved one, it has grave consequences. Obviously, we aren’t ready for this particular situation to occur. It changes your life completely, it changes the day-to-day rhythm of life, all your plans, for you and, ofcourse, for your children.”

[BEATRIZ] “O sea, existe el miedo. Ya no quieres que salgan, ya no quieres…es que quisieras tenerlos en una burbuja contigo, a tu lado, en la casa.”

On top of that, there’s a sense of fear. Beatriz says she no longer wanted her kids to go out for fear of something happening to them. She says it’s as if you want to keep them in a bubble, by your side, at home.
In addition to suffering, there’s a social stigma attached to a family member going missing.

[BEATRIZ] “Desafortunadamente tenemos o estamos llenos de prejuicios.Este…cuando hay una desaparición siempre empezamos a juzgar, a poner etiquetas de que.”[BEATRIX ENGLISH TRANSLATION OVERLAY] “Unfortunately, people are full of prejudices. When people disappear, others start judging and putting labels on them it. They say “he must be in something bad, he must be with someone”. Sadly, it also happens within families. The family, or the majority of families will distance themselves because they think they’re in danger. They say “why should we be associating with someone who is going down the wrong path. Families are the first to distance themselves from us.”

She knew she needed to do something to search for her husband.

[BEATRIZ] “Yo me di cuenta de que yo tenía que hacer algo, porque esta incertidumbre de no saber dónde estaba.”
[BEATRIZ ENGLISH TRANSLATION OVERLAY] “The uncertainty of not knowing what happened to Juan was agonizing. I also wanted my kids to know I was looking for their dad because of humanity and the love we shared as a family.”

It was around that same time that Beatriz found out that Juan’s cousin, Lupita, started a colectivo of her own, for families in Guerrero. Lupita had a similar tragedy when her son went missing in 2014.

Lupita’s colectivo would meet at a local hotel, but some people attending the meetings would try to scare families and tell them to stay silent.

[BEATRIZ] “Y pues Lupita, como siempre fue con un carácter muy fuerte, una guerrera, era abogada.”

Beatriz says Lupita risked her own security to raise awareness of those who had disappeared. But, Lupita was a fighter and a lawyer and didn’t give up.

So Beatriz began attending meetings alongside other family members.

[BEATRIZ] “Hay una empatía, hay una, eh… pues donde sufrimos de lo mismo, nos cobijan, podemos expresar, podemos llorar.”

Beatriz says she feels like there’s empathy in this group for those who have suffered from the same kind of loss. They can express themselves, cry. They can talk about how they feel without others judging them.

Being part of this group, the largest colectivo in Guerrero, also gives its members respect from the authorities.

[BEATRIZ] “También nos hemos solidarizado con algunos colectivos, nos hermanamos y nos presentamos a sus mítines, a sus marchas.”

The colectivo does a lot in the community. They join in solidarity with other colectivos in the state and attend meetings and protests with them. Whenever someone goes missing, Beatriz says, the colectivos take to the streets to march.
The search for that person starts immediately.

But it wasn’t until 2017 when Lupita connected with the ICRC, to help the colectivo learn about the legal framework of the new laws taking effect in Mexico that created search mechanisms to find missing people.

[BEATRIZ] “Este… y pues también orientamos a las familias a que tomen los cursos, precisamente aqui con la Cruz Roja.”

Beatriz and other members of the colectivo also guide family members to take classes offered by the ICRC, so they know their rights as loved ones of the disappeared and where and when to seek mental health counseling.

From these classes, the colectivos organize among themselves to run meetings, learn the local and federal laws, and participate in spirituality.

[BEATRIZ] “De los cuerpos que se han encontrado, han coincidido con familias de nuestro colectivo, afortunadamente, y estamos con ellas en ese proceso también, en la entrega de su ser querido.”

Lupita’s colectivo has also found bodies of missing people connected to their group.

[BEATRIZ] “Yo admiraba mucho a Lupita, cómo subía los cerros, este… más que nosotras un poco más jóvenes que ella.”

Beatriz says she admired the way Lupita would climb up hills in the countryside with a shovel and rod in hand since some in the group were a bit younger than her.

The group learned how to assess where a potential body had been buried, if there was a pile of dirt that looked like it had been moved. They would gently put rods into the ground and move them around, then take them out and see if they had an odor, which would indicate a potential body decomposing.

All in all, Beatriz says they’ve found a handful of bodies belonging to those in their colectivo.

It’s this activity, along with the group’s relentless searching, that helps Beatriz hold on to hope that maybe one day she’ll find Juan.

[BEATRIZ] “Nunca perdemos la esperanza.” [BEATRIZ ENGLISH TRANSLATION UNDERLAY] “We never lose hope. We are always believers that at some point we’ll find him.”

Beatriz says she had to reclaim the moment and see the good in the bad. The good in feeling happy about how she has raised her kids, how they thrive in school and sports. She says she’s not perfect, but every day she tries to make sure her kids are good people and see the good in the bad, like her.

As for Lupita, she died on August 27th, 2021 due to complications with COVID, just three days before International Day of the Disappeared. Beatriz asked her family if they could rename the colectivo after Lupita to honor her hard work and memory.

[BEATRIZ] “Así nos presentamos, ¿no?, como Colectivo de Desaparecidos. “Lupita Rodriguez Narciso.”

A year ago on International Day of the Disappeared, el colectivo Lupita Rodriguez Narciso Bueno gathered to demonstrate and remember Lupita’s legacy.

[Sound of chanting from the colectivo during a demonstration: “Hijo, escucha, tu madre está en la lucha. Hijo, escucha, tu madre esta en la lucha.”]

Today the colectivo has around 400 families and continues their work.

[PAUSE with music]

We’re with Marlene Herbig, who is in charge of the ICRC’s Missing Person’s Program in Mexico. Marlene has been with the ICRC for a little over three years and in that time has helped people who are searching for their missing family members in seven out Mexico’s 32 states.

[BONESSI] Marlene, first explain to me how did the ICRC get involved with these colectivos in Mexico?

[MARLENE] “We work in about six states with family associations, and as well as on the national level, we have direct dialogue with these family associations. So in constant bilateral dialogue, together with the families, we define the priorities they are interested in strengthening. So in the case of Guerrero, for example, currently, we are working with the families on a local law for disappearances because this was one of the issues the families have raised that they would like to impulse in their state. So the ICRC accompanies the families in translating or helping and accompanying them to define what are the elements we would need to be… we need to be integrated in to the local legal framework. In practice this means, for example, that we do some workshops, explaining the current legal framework, the public policies in place for the search, identification of missing persons and how this legal framework could be translated on the local level to provide local mechanisms that respond to the needs of the family in a particular region. In other states, we have developed accompaniment programs based more on the psychological and psychosocial consequences deriving from the absence of a family member. For example, in Veracruz and in the state of Mexico, and also in Jalisco, we’ve implemented programs that accompany families throughout various sessions to develop mechanisms of peer, accompany and peer to peer support, so they can themselves develop these capacities to provide accompaniment among peers.”

[BONESSI] So the ICRC is providing technical assistance we’re not sitting down with families in Guerrero to draft legislation for them right?

[MARLENE] “That is correct. It’s not the ICRC drafting the bill, but accompanying both families and authorities to guarantee that family’s needs are reflected in these public policies, as well as international standards and good practices and national standards for the search of missing persons.”

[BONESSI] So what makes these colectivos so significant to the Mexico context of missing persons?

[MARLENE] “Over time they have become important social actors. Also, in the definition of public policies in the Mexican context, and I think this is very unique.The National Register in Mexico today registers over 100,000 missing persons. These numbers date back to the 1960s until today, so almost from the 1960s, from these first missing cases, families began to organize themselves in collectives to not only accompany themselves… each other, but also to impulse the search of their loved ones. So there has been this historic dynamic of social organization that when missing cases at the beginning of the 2000s, 2005, 2006, when the missing cases began to rise in Mexico, new family collectives emerged, especially in the north of Mexico, but now almost in the whole country, and these collectives, I think, and this is very, something, also the ICRC recognizes, is that the support they provide, the peer support they provide has transcended from only looking for an individual… their individual cases, but transcended towards impulsing and participating in the development of public policies dedicated to search and identification mechanisms.”

[BONESSI] What is the value added for these family colectivos to work with the ICRC?

[MARLENE] “So what the ICRC can offer families through their accompaniment programs is information, as one of the main aspects. The main goal of the families in Mexico and everywhere is to receive answers on the need to know as one of their central elements of everything they do, of all the activities, of all these organizational processes that they have constructed throughout the years.”

“Many of the families they don’t need the ICRC, they are doing this work because they want to do it and they have the need to know, but I think at least we can provide some information, some accompaniment that responds to all of these questions that arise in their past of searching for their loved ones. So concretely, this can be dissemination sessions on what are your rights, what kind of mechanisms exists, what authorities we can occur to report a missing person cases, to receive legal counseling or to receive psychological support.”

[BONESSI] Prior to 2018, each state in Mexico had their own database or system for tracking missing persons, but what has Mexico’s federal government started doing in recent years to track and investigate these disappearances?

[MARLENE] “I think one of the most important steps in the Mexican context has been the general law, the passing of the general law on disappearances in 2017, going into action in 2018. It’s a general law, which creates specialized mechanisms for search of missing persons. So, something that is created in Mexico is the National each Commission, as well as local search commissions in each one of the 32 Mexican states. This general law also creates a National Search System, which consists of the main authorities that are involved in search and identification; this includes prosecutors, offices, police, as well as institutions dedicated to attend family needs. So, this is a national search system with the main objective of creating, guaranteeing coordination between different authorities and different states on the matter. And the creation of these specialized mechanisms also includes specialized prosecutor’s office as well on national level and local level. So, this is something which has been a huge advance. So, from 2018 till now, many of these mechanisms drafted in the bill are being implemented and still consolidated and constructed.”

[BONESSI] What challenges do the ICRC and these colectivos still face even after this general law was passed?

[MARLENE] “One of the main challenges regarding the implementation of the general law on disappearances, which creates these specialized mechanisms, is the coordination between all the institutions involved, especially search commissions and Prosecutors Offices. This is especially relevant as Mexico has 32 different states and a federalized system. So, communication and coordination and centralization of information regarding missing persons is one of the main challenges. So, if some, if a person disappears in the south of Mexico, and searching for them, for example, in a North requires exchange of information communication between local authorities in different regions of Mexico.”

“Nowadays, we have a centralized register, which counts over 100,000 cases of missing persons, but this is also one of the advances that the general law brought to us that we have this general register today, but not all states, not all cases are being registered on a day to day basis. So, there is still some work to do. Also an important advancement and implementation of search mechanisms and Mexico is the national protocol for the search of missing persons.”

“Families in Mexico, with the creation of the National Search Commission, have the possibility to report a missing persons case anonymously, without the obligation of denouncing at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. And this is something very important because many families in Mexico, when there was discussions regarding the law, mentioned that they are afraid to approach certain authorities, but nevertheless, they, they have to need to know about the whereabouts of the family members. So, these are one some on to mention some of the important advancements. And what we have today in Mexico is a context where people continue to disappear day to day and I think this is one of the most important challenges, because in many countries these kind of search commissions or specialized mechanisms for search and identification of missing persons are created in post conflict contexts. And here in Mexico also we are not talking about a traditional conflict, but other situations of violence where the consequences of violence, including disappearances have significant humanitarian consequences.”

Thank you Marlene.

[PAUSE with soft music]

Thank yous this week go to my colleagues Marcela Martinez, Maria Christina Ochoa, and Jose Luis Michelena with our delegation in Mexico for helping to produce and edit this episode. And finally to Beatriz, for sharing her story with us.

If this story resonated with you, we’d love to hear from you.

You can contact us on Twitter to our handle @ICRC_DC or contact us through our website, that’s intercrossblog.icrc.org.

See you next time on Intercross.

*Just because we feature something or someone here doesn’t mean we endorse or agree with the institutions they represent. Views expressed here don’t necessarily represent those of the ICRC.