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Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series, “Terror in Coahuila.” In light of the 43 Mexican students who went missing in the southern state of Guerrero last year, Al Jazeera is investigating earlier atrocities that occurred in the northern state of Coahuila but escaped the world’s attention. Part two of this series explores links between the region’s vast energy reserves and its so-called drug war, and part three will look at how violence and corruption in the state’s prisons mirrored what was happening on the streets.
SALTILLO, Mexico — Anita had just returned from a chemotherapy session in Monterrey, an hourlong bus ride away, after waiting two hours for her pain to subside after the radiation. The following morning, another difficult journey awaited her. She and several other mothers were meeting with Rubén Moreira, the governor of the northern state of Coahuila, to discuss the case of their missing children.
“I’m a strong woman. I have to be strong and keep going until I die because I want to find my son,” Anita said while slowly eating a bowl of vegetable soup at a local restaurant. The temperature at the eatery was pleasant, but Anita remained bundled up in her coat and a winter hat to cover her head, bald from the chemotherapy. “I’m a bit cold, but it doesn’t matter. The heart is colder when you’re missing a son.”
After 43 poor students from Ayotzinapa Normal School, a teachers’ training college in Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero, went missing in September,mass demonstrations across the country called for their return. Police abducted the 43 students and handed them over to a drug cartel to be executed. The killings were allegedly ordered by Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca, according to a series of confessions.
Besides unleashing a scandal of immense proportions, the case of the 43 missing studentshighlights the need to review the long list of victims of the war among drug cartels, which is most severe in northern states like Coahuila.
While the 43 Ayotzinapa students captured headlines around the world, atrocities in Coahuila two years earlier went virtually ignored —confined to oblivion by an information vacuum created by fear, impunity and government intimidation. Like Iguala, the violence in Coahuila is marked by collusion between authorities and criminal groups such that victims and residents are never quite clear who the perpetrators are. They are left with a sense of enormous complicity.
José Willibardo, 20, Anita’s younger son, was violently abducted from their home on March 5, 2012. The gunmen who took him carried high-caliber arms and were guarded by local police. The testimony offered by one of José’s older brothers, Luis Ángel, and two of his sisters-in-law states that José was dragged from his bedroom to a pickup truck that whisked him away.
“He is a good boy. He’s 20 years old but has the body of a 15-year-old,” said Anita. “But he wasn’t a coward like the people who took him.” She said the gunmen were merciless with José, who had no criminal record, because he refused to work for them as a hired assassin or kidnapper. She identified the man who directed the beating as one of José’s childhood friends from Allende, a 20-minute drive from Eagle Pass, Texas.
The gunmen also abducted Luis Ángel. His pregnant wife told authorities that the gunmen handcuffed him and beat him unconscious before placing him in a second waiting car. The kidnappers then sped away.
Luis Ángel returned alive. The same police officers who supervised his kidnapping took him home, according to Anita, his legs and torso covered in burns, his ribs broken, his face disfigured. “Instead of tears, he was crying blood,” she said.
His captors covered him in diesel fuel and lit him on fire after torturing him, Luis Ángel told his family. His mother bombarded him with distressed questions. “Please don’t look for Wily any longer,” he told her. “He’s dead.”
José’s body has not been found.
‘There is no doubt that you could camouflage an attack by some politician as an assault by organized crime. And the blame was always going to be placed on the criminals.’
The Zetas, a criminal enterprise originally formed by deserters from the Mexican army in the early 2000s, violently penetrated Coahuila in 2009, imposing a reign of terror through extortion, kidnapping, torture, disappearance and murder of civilians. Meanwhile, no government authority confronted them, explaining the violence as a war among cartels being waged for control of the border.
In March and April of 2011, the Zetas kept the northern municipalities of Allende, Piedras Negras, Nava, Zaragoza and Morelos — all close to the U.S. border — under constant attack. They fired their arms, set fire to several businesses and disappeared at least 300 people, according to testimony from residents. Gang members operated without a trace of military or civic intervention.
The majority of these cases happened in Allende, so that time referred to as the Allende Massacre.
Local media, fearing reprisals, did not report the violence until years later. Armando Castilla, the publisher of the newspaper Vanguardia de Coahuila, says his publication was the first to report the case, in December 2013. In April of 2014, Allende’s Mayor Luis Reynaldo Tapia Valadez told the national outlet La Jornada, “There are approximately 300 [victims], but it’s not out of the question that there are a few more.”
It wasn’t until January 2014 that the Coahuila government launched a formal investigation into the case. In December the state’s attorney general, Homero Ramos Gloria, said the investigation found evidence of only 28 disappearances, not 300. The state says it does not know the status of another 1,808 missing people.
But as with much of the violence in Mexico in recent years, police, military and civilian officials are often closely involved in the forced disappearances, kidnappings, torture and killing of thousands of citizens.
“There is no doubt that you could camouflage an attack by some politician as an assault by organized crime,” said Castilla. “And the blame was always going to be placed on the criminals.”
The official number of 1,808 disappeared in Coahuila is a hair-raising figure, more so because the majority of cases occurred in four years, since 2009. The real figure is unknown, but it likely far exceeds the official number, said Jorge Verástegui, founder of United Front for Coahuila’s Disappeared, or Fundec.
“What I can say with certainty is that, in all the cases, the disappearances occurred with the consent or participation of some element of the state,” said Verástegui.
Bishop Raúl Vera represents Coahuila’s strongest voice against corruption, which he railed against as bishop of Guerrero state — where the Ayotzinapa students went missing — until 1994. For years he has pointed to the collusion between government authorities and organized crime.
“These disappearances in Coahuila are committed by police,” he said. “I can’t explain exactly why people disappear here, but a lot of it has to do with money. But above all, it's due to police conspiracies.”
‘It’s great to see people express themselves, but here there are more than 2,000 disappeared, and nobody seems to be aware of it.’
founder, United Front for Coahuila’s Disappeared
During the first national march organized to protest the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, an estimated 2,000 people took to the streets of Saltillo — the biggest protest in the city’s history.
Verástegui thinks the large turnout is a result of the intense media scrutiny raised by the Ayotzinapa case.
“It’s great to see people express themselves, but here there are more than 2,000 disappeared, and nobody seems to be aware of it,” he said at a march in early December protesting the second anniversary of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s inauguration.
As students and rights activists called for the president’s resignation and for information on the whereabouts of the 43 missing students, not a single voice could be heard calling for justice for Coahuila’s disappeared or the governor’s resignation.
Vera agrees that an information vacuum helped keep the Coahuila disappearances hidden from the national consciousness, unlike the Iguala case. But he says there is another fundamental factor: The Iguala victims are students, and the government could not tie them to organized crime or guerrilla groups. In Coahuila that was a constant. Authorities not only were implicated in the disappearances but also discouraged any form of official complaint.
“If someone went to the public ministry to lodge a complaint, he was told, ‘Why the complaint? That probably happened because you were involved with organized crime,’” said Ariana García, a family counselor in Piedras Negras. “There was an implicit threat in that and a criminalization of the victim.”
In the restaurant, Anita said she was diagnosed with to breast cancer three months ago. Her doctor told her that the profound pain and anguish of losing her son may have contributed to her health woes.
Her son Luis Ángel was detained by police in July after being violently abducted from home and taken to a municipal jail, where he was tortured. This time, Anita immediately called a lawyer, which she believes saved his life.
“There was no investigation this time, just as there is no effort to find my younger son,” she said. “The government just hopes I die, that the cancer kills me, so as to bury my son’s case.”