As any mother would, Esperanza Gmez de Ontiveros remembers the day her son disappeared from the streets of Ciudad Jurez as if it were yesterday.
She can still picture Victor Hugo, an armaments specialist with the Chihuahua state judicial police, stopping by after work on Sept. 2, 1996, to celebrate the start of his vacation.
"He was happy about his time off when he left for his house," says the retired teacher, whose middle-class neighborhood sits just a few miles from the Texas border. "Then three blocks from here, neighbors saw his car surrounded by other cars with heavily armed men in dark clothing. They said Victor tried to escape," she adds, "but the men shoved him into one of their cars, and they sped away. We never saw him or heard a word about him again."
The Ontiveros' nightmare is not theirs alone. The disappearance of a loved one is something dozens of families in Ciudad Jurez have faced over the past decade. What makes matters worse, family members say, are circumstances often indicating police involvement - making their experience reminiscent of the worst of the military dictatorships of Chile or Argentina in the 1970s, when hundreds of people were rounded up by authorities and disappeared without a trace.
The more than 200 disappearances that Jurez family groups and human rights organizations have documented since 1993 received fresh attention in December when Mexican and US authorities dug up nine bodies on ranches outside Jurez. Acting on tips from informants or recently arrested drug traffickers, Mexican police and FBI agents invaded ranches owned by individuals with close contact to drug traffickers or Mexican antinarcotics police - or both.
At one point, some US officials said the objective of the diggings was more than 100 bodies - a figure reflecting the lists of "disappeared" persons kept by area groups. Eventually only the nine bodies were found.
But the horror of disappeared persons in Mexico is much larger than the "narcograves" case and reaches well beyond Jurez, say local human rights leaders and activists in organizations for the relatives of the disappeared.
"This is a national problem, but one that remains covered up because of the fear in Mexico that going to the authorities or speaking up is not safe," says Ernesto Ontiveros, father of the disappeared Victor and Jurez representative of AFADEM, a national group representing the families of the disappeared.
Rights groups like AFADEM, which works with a federation of similar organizations across Latin America, count as many as 900 cases in Mexico, with the majority of them concentrated in a few states.
In Mexico the disappearances tend to be divided between political cases focused in such states as Guerrero and Oaxaca, Mr. Ontiveros says, and others related to the drug trade. The latter are concentrated along the border and in drug-producing and drug-trading states like Sinaloa on the Pacific coast and Quintana Roo on the Gulf.
"But you don't hear as much about Quintana Roo's disappeared, because they don't have the United States next door," says Jaime Hervella, president of the Association of the Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons in El Paso, Texas. "That's the only reason our association is still alive."
The families and friends of the disappeared in Ciudad Jurez say authorities have told them that their relatives must have been involved in drugs or other illicit activities.
"The authorities always give that excuse [drug involvement] to explain every disappearance," says Leticia Lucero de Medina, whose husband, a Jurez criminal lawyer, disappeared in July 1997. "It just makes you feel like they ... are covering something up."
It may in fact be true that many of the Jurez disappearances were connected one way or another to the drug trade that boomed in this gritty border town in the '90s. Most of the Jurez disappeared fall into three groups, Mr. Hervella says: people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, people very likely involved with rising drug traffickers who posed a threat to the larger cartels, and people who worked with one of Mexico's police branches.
This last group includes people like his godson, Saul Sanchez Jr., an American citizen who was developing a system for the federal attorney general's office in Jurez to monitor conversations between airplane pilots and ground receivers. Mr. Sanchez and his wife Abigail disappeared in May 1994 on a night they were invited to a Jurez theater by a state police official.
It is chillingly possible - because of the known involvement of Mexican officials in the drug trade - that a number of the disappeared were honest individuals with jobs or specific talents that made them targets of corrupt officials.
It's a scenario especially plausible to families of the disappeared in Jurez, which served as the base of one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels, built up by Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
Before he died in July 1997 during plastic surgery, Mr. Carrillo became known as the "lord of the skies" for developing a cocaine skytrain, using jumbo jets to ferry cocaine to the US-Mexico border for shipment into the US. His powers were so extensive that he was able to corrupt an Army general in charge of Mexico's drug war, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, and keep him on his payroll.
Knowing this, family members suspect that the Mexican military or former military officials, working for either the attorney general's antidrug squads or state police, were involved in the disappearances. The method of kidnapping and "disappearing" people also makes the military and law enforcement agencies suspect that the Mexican military or former military officials, working for either the attorney general's antidrug squads or state police, were involved in the disappearances.
Often people were seen being taken away in one or more white Suburbans, full of heavily armed men in dark clothing, as in the Ontiveros case. "It's not a coincidence that the time of Guttierez Rebollo is when many of the disappear ances took place," says Lorenza Benavides de Magaa, director of the Jurez association of the family and friends of the disappeared. Gutierrez Rebollo was arrested and imprisoned in February 1997, but Mrs. Magaa's list includes disappearances through 1999.
Federal investigators told the local association's leaders in a meeting last October that all of the cases they are investigating involve either federal or state police, Hervella says.
Recent developments concerning the Jurez disappeared have both raised and dashed hopes, family members say. They were encouraged by Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cullar's words before the Mexican Senate Jan. 20, when he said, "I can affirm that less than half of the registered disappeared persons had ties to the drug trade."
Most disturbing for many is the fact that the attorney general's special investigator of the Jurez disappearances, Enrique Cocina Martnez, has been out of touch with association leaders since December. The Monitor's efforts to contact Mr. Cocina also went unanswered.
Magaa has recently received phone calls from a federal official calling from a pay phone to reassure her that the Jurez investigation team, including Cocina, is continuing its work. "We'd like to think that the investigation has become so delicate and is getting so close to big names that it has to be carried out hermetically," she says.
Although the government has given little information on the identity of the nine bodies found, association members say they have enough information to deduce that it is unlikely any of the bodies are those of their relatives.
One of the most disheartening realities, Magaa says, is that none of her group's 200 disappearance cases has ever been cleared up. Yet since publicity swirled around the "narcograves" case, 18 more Jurez families have reported missing relatives, she says.
Frustration over scant results has prompted people to take their cases to international human rights organizations to increase pressure on Mexico to take the disappearances seriously.
"I call what we've encountered a black hole," says Hervella. "You enter it and disappear forever, and no one is sure that you ever existed."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society