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Border & Immigration

Grim task: Parents in Mexico search for missing children, sometimes at mass grave sites

The stench of rotting corpses was so strong that volunteers who uncovered a mass gravesite in Tijuana last week could only dig for eight minutes before feeling lightheaded.

So, they took turns.

Roughly 50 volunteers found eight unidentified bodies in the eastern outskirts of Tijuana on June 16. Each volunteer looked for a missing relative.

They are part of the Todos Somos Erick Carrillo collective — just one of 17 similar groups in Baja California and more than 120 throughout Mexico.

These groups are a testament to the Mexican government’s failure to look for missing persons. Each group is made up of people whose relatives have disappeared. None of them trust local law enforcement to find them.

The groups conduct their own investigations, organize search parties and uncover mass graves.

“We shouldn’t be out here looking for the disappeared,” said Eddy Carrillo, who founded the collective. “The police and district attorney should be out here doing this type of work.”

Carrillo founded the collective in 2018, after his own son Erick vanished during a trip to Tijuana. The group has nearly 400 members. They have found hundreds of missing people, most of them dead, he said.

Colectivo Todos Somos Erick Carrillo 03.jpg
Matthew Bowler
Volunteers with the group Colectivo Todos Somos Erick Carrillo search beachside cliffs between Tijuana and Rosarito for dead bodies, June 15, 2022.

Some members of the collective drive from as far away as Los Angeles to join the search parties.

Josefina Martinez woke up at 3 a.m. last Tuesday to make it to Tijuana on time for the search. Her son, who lived in Rosarito, disappeared on Dec. 26, 2021.

Martinez reported her son missing and was told that state investigators were assigned to the case.

“I have not gotten a single phone call from them,” she said. “They never call. And whenever I call them, they don’t pick up.”

She said the police don’t care about her son.

“But I care,” she said. “That is why I have to find him.”

So Martinez launched her own investigation. She contacted her son’s friends to find out where he spent his free time. They told her he likes to hang out at casinos.

Martinez went to several casinos between Tijuana and Rosarito. She discovered a clue at the Mida Casino in Rosarito. That is where her son last used his credit card exactly at 4:26 p.m. the day he disappeared.

After that, Martinez said, the trail went cold.

Colectivo Todos Somos Erick Carrillo 04.jpg
Matthew Bowler
Volunteers with the group Colectivo Todos Somos Erick Carrillo, many of whom are the relatives of missing people, discuss how they are going to search a large field for bodies, Tijuana, June 15, 2022.

There are approximately 12,000 missing people in Baja California, according to state data.

Governor Marina del Pilar Avila said her administration has prioritized these cases. In May, the administration announced that state investigators discovered 90 missing people in 2021 — a significant increase from the 10 they found the year before.

Critics say that’s not enough progress. The 90 people they found represent less than 1% of all of those missing in the state.

“The state only has six investigators,” said Francisco Ocegeda, who founded the state’s first volunteer collective to find missing relatives.

Ocegeda has spent 14 years helping others look for their missing relatives. He has worked with multiple administrations and said none of them have prioritized this issue.

The state agency tasked with leading the search efforts ran out of funding last month, he said.

“There are no investigations,” he said. “They don’t investigate missing persons, they don’t investigate homicides, they don’t investigate robberies — there are no investigations in Mexico.”

The bulk of the investigation is done by the volunteer collectives. He views this as a part of a larger problem with the criminal justice system in Mexico where more than 90% of violent crimes go unsolved.

“There are no investigations. They don’t investigate missing persons, they don’t investigate homicides, they don’t investigate robberies — there are no investigations in Mexico.”
Francisco Ocegeda, founder of Baja California's first volunteer collective to find missing relatives

Carrillo blames some of the government inaction on a a stigma against crime victims in Mexico

Investigators assume that if someone disappeared, it means they were involved in some nefarious activity.

“They are automatically sentenced,” Carrillo said. “When you report them missing, they tell you that your son was involved with the wrong crowd, that your husband was a narco, that your uncle was a thug.”

The collectives offer an alternative to the government’s perceived indifference.

They help relatives navigate government bureaucracy and collect DNA samples so they can cross-reference the results with unidentified bodies in the morgue, in addition to searching for missing people.

“We make our own little family because everyone here shares the same pain and the same desire to find them,” said Raul Cornejo, who joined the collective in February after his brother disappeared in Rosarito.

Nearly six months later, Cornejo refuses to relinquish hope that he might someday be reunited with his brother.

“If I stop looking, it would be like giving up on my brother,” he said. “I have to keep looking. Because today could be the day I find him.”