Kavitha Chekuru for Al Jazeera America
Fault LinesSunday 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Kavitha Chekuru for Al Jazeera America

Missing students force Mexico’s forgotten crimes to surface

Families and human rights workers question if high profile disappearances will bring overdue investigations and answers

Men’s shirts and khaki pants, freshly ironed, hang over a small rod. But there is no one in the house to wear them.

For the past three years, Oralia Guadalupe Villaseñor Vázquez has taken care to keep these clothes fresh. They belonged to her husband, José Fortino Martínez Martínez.

“I know that one day he will come back,” she said.

The last time Villaseñor saw José was on a summer night in 2011 in their home in Nuevo Laredo, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just across the border with Texas. They were woken up by marines patrolling their neighborhood. Federal forces had arrived in the region a month earlier as the government attempted to control an escalating turf war between two drug cartels, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.

Standing in the room where she and her husband slept that night, Villaseñor recalled how eight marines came into their home claiming they had received a report they needed to investigate. After speaking to the couple and looking around the house, they gave Villaseñor some money for damaging the door on the way in, apologized and left.

The last time Oralia Guadalupe Villaseñor Vázquez’s saw her husband José Fortino Martínez Martínez was the middle of the night on June 5th, 2011.
Víctor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

But a few minutes later, they returned and said they needed to take José’s fingerprints. He complied and stepped outside. He would never set foot in his home again.

Villaseñor still doesn’t know if José is dead or alive. “This is the place where I cry, where I ask God to bring him back,” she told Fault Lines, while standing by the dresser where his photo is displayed next to pictures of their children.

José is one of tens of thousands that have disappeared in Mexico over the past few years, as the government struggles to battle cartels. Since assuming office in 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto has attempted to project an image to the world of a Mexico that has turned the page on its violent past. TIME even heralded him for “saving Mexico.”

But in the past month, Peña Nieto’s curtain has been pulled back after 43 young students were detained and then forcibly disappeared in Iguala, a town in the Mexican state of Guerrero. It might seem like the work of cartels, but as Mexican citizens told Fault Lines during the filming of the episode, “The Disappeared,” (which airs Saturday, November 1, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America), it is hardly ever that black and white.

Last week, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam stated that not only had police officers detained and then handed the students over to a cartel, but that they did so on orders from the town’s mayor and his wife.

“Iguala has been a surprise to people, and it shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, a prominent economic and judicial investigator in Mexico. “You have to start from the premise that there are dozens of thousands of forced disappearances, and 97 percent of those have not been judicially prosecuted.”

In the more than three years since Oralia Villaseñor’s husband Jose—along with at least five other men—went missing in Tamaulipas, no one has been prosecuted for their disappearances.

Unearthing answers

As the search for the 43 students continues, much of it has focused on finding mass graves in the region. Many have been discovered, but none of them, according to the federal government, contain the remains of the students.

Families with missing relatives often give genetic samples to become part of a federal database that compares their DNA with that of bodies found in the hundreds of mass graves discovered in recent years. It’s a thin and grim line of hope for desperate families after years of not finding any traces of their missing loved ones. All of the families that Fault Lines interviewed gave DNA samples to the database, though none have matched yet—with the exception of one.

A forensic team exhumes a box in a Nuevo Laredo cemetery that the government claims contains the remains of Juana Solis' daughter Damaris.
Kavitha Chekuru for Al Jazeera America

Fault Lines accompanied Juana Solis, whose daughter Damaris has been missing for more than three years, to a cemetery on the outskirts of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, last month as she stood and watched a team of independent forensic experts dig through the desert heat to exhume a small box containing human remains.The state says its contents are what’s left of her daughter. But Solis did not believe them.

Part of her skepticism, amid many irregularities in the investigation, stemmed from the fact that local police were the last people to see her daughter alive, immediately after she had been in a car accident.

“She called us, and the transit policeman was telling her to turn off her phone,” Solis said about the last time she spoke with Damaris. “And she was saying ‘I’m here, I’m here.’ My son called her back, and she didn’t pick up her phone anymore.”

A year and a half later, with no one held responsible for the disappearance, Solis wa given a black plastic bag of bones that officials said were the remains of Damaris. They recommended she cremate the bones immediately.

That suggestion, along with Solis’ suspicion about police involvement, led her instead to bury the bag of remains in a box in the public cemetery and not the family’s traditional plot. It also drove her to seek out an independent forensic team to exhume and study the remains the government had identified as belonging to her daughter.

The experts will compare DNA from the remains to samples from Solis and her husband to confirm if it is their daughter. The results are not expected until next year.

Hope for change

Human rights defenders are waiting to see if the mass disappearance of the students in Guerrero could force the government to address its judicial vacuum. But they also believe that purging the corruption that has wrought such a deep level of impunity will also require outside pressure, as was done in other countries. But that could be difficult to achieve.

Juana Solis looks through photos of her family, including her daughter Damaris, who disappeared more than three years ago.
Kavitha Chekuru for Al Jazeera America

“It’s pure economics. When the most powerful businesses in Germany, like Volkswagen; the most powerful mining companies in Canada; the most powerful car companies in the US are praising the Mexican system because they are obtaining rates of return that are three, four times the ones they obtain in their countries, the international pressure will never be exercised against Mexico,” Buscaglia said. “So there is a conflict of interest. there is an international complicity that explains why Mexico is not moving forward.”

Juana Solis and other families of the disappeared believe that the Mexican government’s economic policies have taken priority over the crimes against their loved ones. Just beyond the desert mountains that surround Solis's home is where the future of Mexico's economic goals lie. Deep shale gas reserves are expected to be tapped in the coming years as the government opens up its energy sector to private companies.

As Solis waited to give DNA samples, her friend Leticia Hidalgo expressed concern about the government’s plans. Despite the economic potential, the prospects of a drilling boom worry Hidalgo and many of the families of the disappeared in the region. The drilling could interfere with the search for more mass graves.

"We've asked the government to wait [to drill] but they don't listen,” said Hidalgo, whose 18-year-old son Roy Rivera, disappeared in January of 2011. "We know there are more bodies out there."

In "The Disappeared," Fault Lines examines the disappearances of thousands of citizens in Mexico, one of the worst humanitarian crises in Latin America. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, November 1, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, November 2, at 2 a.m. Eastern.   

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