While the notion of “the disappeared” in Latin America has existed since at least the 1960s and 1970s, when military regimes kidnapped, murdered, and hid or destroyed the bodies of alleged “subversives,” victims of authoritarian regimes are not the only “disappeared” in the region, and the problem is not limited to the past (to say nothing of the long-term social effects that are still felt in places like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil today). Indeed, the problem continues to appear in the second decade in the 21st century, albeit in a new guise: that of missing migrants.
Even before the tour bus comes to a stop, the women rise from their seats and wait in the aisle to exit. In their arms rest rolled-up flags of the Central American countries they come from. Large laminated photographs of missing loved ones hang by lanyards from their necks.
They descend the stairs to a gaggle of waiting press photographers. This is their moment of hope, stirring once again the possibility of putting to rest years of uncertainty and desperation.
Maybe someone has seen a missing son or father making his way to the United States in search of work. Maybe someone knows a daughter is OK.
“The goal is to come to look for them,” said Virginia Olcot, 42, of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, who last heard from her husband in September 2009 when he arrived at the U.S. border in Sonora. “This is our intention: to not get tired, to persevere and get the government to help us.”
The group sponsoring the trip estimates that some 70,000 Central American migrants have disappeared in the past six years based on reports from nonprofit groups. Some of them have been found in the most brutal of circumstances: Hundreds of would-be migrants were discovered murdered in the community of San Fernando in the border state of Tamaulipas: first 72, most of them Central Americans, massacred on a farm in 2010, and nearly 200 people, some Mexicans, discovered in clandestine graves about six months later.
The US understanding of immigration and its regional and global processes is certainly limited (and not aided by the fact that, in a presidential debate ostensibly on foreign policy, neither the issue of immigration nor the region of continental Latin America ever came up). Based on US media metanarratives, migration all too often is an issue that begins once people have entered the US. Even the discussion of drug-related violence in Mexico rarely touches on the ways in which said violence affects the lives of migrants. And while there are certainly some differences between the “disappeared” of military regimes in the latter part of the 20th century, in many ways the impacts are all too familiar: uncertainty, the suffering of loved ones, the unknown fate of the victims. And in another familiar theme, it is the mothers who are at the forefront of the struggle to find these new “disappeared,” giving up their past livelihoods and devote themselves to finding their loved ones:
“We know your pain. We speak the same language,” said Irma Leticia Hidalgo, a mother from a Monterrey suburb whose son was kidnapped last year. “Your missing are our missing.”
Hidalgo said her 18-year-old son was taken from their home in the middle of the night by about 10 men, half of them wearing police vests from a nearby town, who went on to steal everything of value in the house. Although she paid a ransom and was told she’d have her son back in a few hours, he never returned.
She ultimately retired from her teaching job to look for him.
Again, the context of the 2010s and migration might superficially be different from that of the 1960s-1980s and military regimes, but the human suffering is painfully familiar and similar. It’s a powerful reminder that the issue of “the Disappeared” never goes away and takes a number of forms even today.