When I texted Mirna Medina on a Tuesday afternoon, a little more than a year ago, she replied with a voice message that was cordial but abrupt: “Hi, yes, good afternoon, we’re working now, we just found a body, but yes, I’m available.” I had flown to Culiacán, the capital of the west-coast state of Sinaloa, Mexico, several days before, not anticipating that she would be nearly impossible to get ahold of. Replying to her message, I offered awkward condolences and asked when and where we could meet, but she didn’t respond that day, or the next.
Mirna lives in Los Mochis, a town three hours north of Culiacán, in a region called El Fuerte. There she leads a group of about two hundred, with more than a hundred active members who scour the city’s surrounding countryside searching for the bodies of desaparecidos—the disappeared—men and women, usually in their twenties or thirties, victims of cartel-related violence. The group consists mostly of mothers hoping to find their children’s remains. The journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, who reported on drug cartels before his death, dubbed Mirna’s group las Rastreadoras de El Fuerte, the Trackers of El Fuerte. (Valdez was murdered in 2017, likely by sicarios—assassins—working for one of the cartels.)
The story of the Rastreadoras is not unique. Across Mexico, there are more than sixty similar collectives: groups of civilians, the family and friends of those who have vanished, combing the fields for the bodies of people who might otherwise be forgotten. The disappearances began nearly fifteen years ago, shortly after Felipe Calderón became the President of Mexico and launched the country’s war on drug trafficking—a war that Calderón waged, in part, with the Mexican Army. In December, 2006, his first month in office, he dispatched six and a half thousand soldiers to the state of Michoacán. Soon after that, he sent troops to Sinaloa, home of one of the world’s most powerful cartels, and the state where I spent my adolescence, in Culiacán, just before and after Calderón’s election. I remember horror stories from the earlier years, but they were mostly about things that happened in the countryside. During the last few years that I lived there, military vehicles began to multiply on the streets, their cargo beds carrying men in balaclavas who patrolled the city, rifles pointed at the sky. Encobijados—dead bodies wrapped in blankets—started regularly turning up in the river that crosses the city.
Then the bodies stopped turning up at all and began to simply disappear. The victims were overwhelmingly poor, brown, and male. They were not all involved in the drug trade; sicarios tasked with abductions often mistook people for their real targets, then killed and disposed of them anyway, as a precaution. The cartels had so much power that local police forces were believed to be working for them. In the country’s most violent places, it is said that assassins charged as little as two hundred pesos, about ten dollars, to “disappear” someone. They buried the bodies in shallow pits, atop low hills, in farmland. At the time Calderón was elected, two such pits had been identified. Five years later, the number had grown to three hundred and fifty. By the beginning of this year, secret graves—fosas clandestinas—were being found, on average, nearly every other day.
In the nineteen-seventies, when politically motivated disappearances were rampant in Mexico, the journalist Elena Poniatowska reported on the particular sorrow of women whose children had gone missing. In her book “Silence Is Strong,” she wrote, “For a mother, the disappearance of a child signifies a truceless torment, an eternal anguish in which there is no resignation, no consolation, no time for the wound to heal. Death kills hope, but a disappearance is intolerable because it neither kills nor allows one to live.” Clinical psychologists use the term “ambiguous loss” to describe the agony, not yet grief, experienced by people whose loved ones have disappeared. The idea is that, in order to fully grasp that someone has died, we need to see their body, need to participate in the traditions of mourning.
This past January, the Mexican government reported that the official tally of the disappeared had surpassed sixty thousand. I recall the number seemed staggering to me then. (The total is now above seventy-three thousand.) It was around this time that the first reports of a novel coronavirus that appeared to have originated in Wuhan, China, were published in North American news outlets. In the ensuing months, as much of this continent shut down, and public funerals, in many places, were barred, millions of people became newly familiar with an awkward and uncertain sort of mourning. Meanwhile, in a corner of Sinaloa, one of the states in Mexico that has been hardest hit by the pandemic, women wept for their missing children, sequestered in their modest homes, with no indication of when their search could resume.
Several days after my first exchange with Mirna, she agreed to meet me on a Monday morning in Los Mochis. I headed north from Culiacán, and settled in at a café, but I couldn’t get through to Mirna’s phone. Then I saw on Facebook that she had just left for another search. Around noon, she texted me the location of her office, and explained that she’d be headed there shortly.
Los Mochis is a small city, a tidy grid of streets surrounded by farmland. A few chain hotels have opened, but most buildings are simple concrete structures, many without paint. Locals speak in the brash Sinaloan accent that other Mexicans often mistake for aggression. From the café, I walked along a dirt path that lines the city’s roads, passing homes and shops; outside an abandoned house, dogs hovered over a pile of old oranges. Next door was the office of the Rastreadoras: a small building with a glass façade plastered with signs for missing people. There were ninety-one photos; eighty-five of them were of men. Many of those pictured had names tattooed on their bodies, listed under “Particular Traits.” “Christopher” on a right hand, “José” scrawled across an ankle, “Jesús” and “Esther” on a pair of wrists. One man’s chest bore the name Luis Armando on the right side and a baby’s footprints on the left.
Prior to the pandemic, the office had become a place where the family members of the disappeared, particularly those who are hesitant to go to the police, could find guidance and support—many of the rastreadoras joined the group after going there for help. In six years, the Rastreadoras have located a hundred and ninety-eight bodies. DNA testing by government forensics teams has identified a hundred and twenty of them; sixty-six were related to members of the Rastreadoras. The forty-third body they identified was Mirna’s son, Roberto, who disappeared in July, 2014. The group found him three years later.
I sat on the sidewalk and waited. At 3 P.M., Mirna pulled up in a truck, smiling and beckoning to me to get in. In the back seat was the smallest Chihuahua I had ever seen. It seemed determined to avoid a polystyrene plate of kibble that Mirna was coaxing it to finish. Apologizing for the wait, Mirna told me that she had received an anonymous tip the night before: the exact location of a body. When the searchers reached the spot, they found a dummy made of sandbags, fully dressed and drenched in an oily red liquid. “I’m sad but also a bit worried,” she said. “We can’t really know if it was done just to mock us, or to set us up.”