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Violence in Mexican Border Towns Impedes Missing Persons Search

Mexican President Felipe Calderon's fight against drug trafficking cartels in his country has produced an unprecedented wave of violence, especially in Mexican border cities like Juarez, where more than 1,600 people were murdered last year. There are also many cases of people who have disappeared and, their friends and relatives fear they may never be found.

The violence in Juarez continues, despite government efforts to curb the power of the drug cartels. In recent days headless bodies have turned up on the streets and signs have been posted around town threatening local police who try to interfere with drug smuggling.

The climate of fear has complicated the work of El Paso resident Jaime Hervella, who helped found the cross-border Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons several years ago and now finds himself mostly on his own.

"Our people, the relatives of these people who disappeared, primarily between 1994 and 2002, are still afraid of the mafia," he said.

Hervella, who is 79 and somewhat disabled, still ventures across the border to Juarez on occasion, but he finds little support there. He says people who had once worked closely with him no longer communicate at all and that even some of his own relatives avoid him out of fear.

But Hervella says he and the people in his association pose no threat to drug gangs.

"We are not investigating anything, we simply want to locate whatever is left of them so that that mother and that wife and those relatives may stop wondering whatever happened to their loved one," he said.

Mexican authorities have discovered the remains of dozens of people in clandestine graves and are conducting DNA tests to identify them, but many families are reluctant to contact them out of fear or distrust of the officials who are supposed to be enforcing the law.

University of Texas at El Paso professor Howard Campbell says association members have often described abductors as being in police or military uniforms.

"The general assumption of people in that organization and social critics is that there are elements of the police and military that have been corrupted and, basically, have become a protection arm for drug cartels," he said. "But proving these things in specific cases is always very difficult."

While it is possible that kidnappers have obtained uniforms and can masquerade as police or soldiers, Campbell says Mexicans have good reason to be skeptical.

"The drug business has become so large and so extended; it is like this octopus with something like 50 tentacles that has infiltrated every aspect of Mexican society today," he said.

Jaime Hervella was recently disappointed to find that one of the police officials he trusted most was corrupt.

"The very chief of the people in charge of investigating criminal activity was himself jailed for connections with the mafia," said Hervella.

Hervella continues to seek informers who can provide information on missing persons, but the only reward he can offer is the moral satisfaction an informer would feel for having done the right thing. Despite the frustrations and the danger, Hervella still goes over to the Mexican side of the border now and then to further his cause.

"I have been afraid from day one, but you get used to it," he said. "You come to the point where you say 'what else am I going to do with my life?' Just talk about how things should be and what other people should do? Well, let us see what the hell am I doing?"