For six years, Nancy Baladán has ridden her motorcycle along Uruguay’s country paths and urban highways in search of answers about the night that altered her life forever.
On 3 December 2016, her daughter Milagros Cuello received a phone call. It was already 11pm and the 16-year-old was in bed. But something about the call made her get up. “I’ll be back in five minutes,” Milagros told her father before setting off on foot to the main square of their town, Pando.
Those few minutes turned to hours. And then weeks, months and years. The family never saw Milagros again.
Before this tragedy, Baladán, now 53, lived a contented life running a kiosk in Pando, which is about 30 kilometres north of the capital, Montevideo, in the department of Canelones. Afterwards, she turned into a detective-cum-law-student, because no one in law enforcement cared that her daughter was missing.
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During her quest to find Milagros, the sixth of her nine children, she has followed rumours and clues, from slums and brothels to ditches and empty fields. She has swallowed her fear and travelled to all 19 departments of Uruguay, as well as to Argentina and Brazil.
Her detective work led to the arrest and conviction of three men, who were jailed in 2019 for sexually exploiting Milagros. “I fought for two years to get them to court, investigating. I crossed paths with them on the street,” she said of the perpetrators.
But she still hasn’t found the answer she desperately wants: where is her child?
The reason for this, Baladán says, is apathy from police and prosecutors. Uruguayan law enforcement never conducted a thorough forensic investigation. Neither they nor the prosecutor’s office were thorough in their search for Milagros; nor did they exhaust investigative hypotheses, such as the one proposed by the family's lawyer, who believes her disappearance is related to human trafficking.
No one followed up on threats made against Baladán, including when a man pointed a gun at her a few blocks from her house. “If you keep digging up shit, I’ll kill you,” the gunman told her.
Yet the grieving mother refused to stop her search, even after Uruguay’s national department of missing persons told her they couldn’t help.
Now, her tenacity has become the seed for a national feminist movement to support mothers of missing girls, ¿Dónde están nuestras gurisas? (Where are our girls?, known as DENG). It has also exposed a shameful, institutional bias against the estimated dozens of Uruguayan women from vulnerable backgrounds who are currently missing by those very agencies who should be protecting them.
openDemocracy has spent a year investigating the disappearance of Milagros and eight other women. We have interviewed more than 30 relatives and friends of those who are missing, as well a sex-trafficking survivor, prosecutors, judges, police, social workers, researchers, rights advocates and grassroots groups, and also reviewed investigative files and reports.
The apathy from officials – the judiciary, prosecutors and police – is extreme. It is impossible to glean reliable data from the poorly maintained registry opened in 2004 by the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Absent Persons.
Police units investigating organised crime and absent persons are supposed to investigate and notify the prosecutor’s office if they suspect someone has gone missing due to a crime.
But reports, evidence and testimonies are often lost, or never leave the local police precinct, or never reach the absent persons department or the prosecutor’s office. Cases are sometimes not opened until months after the disappearance. In many instances, hypotheses of sex trafficking are dismissed without proper investigation. In addition, authorities may engage in irregular procedures.
Uruguay adopted standardised practices for investigating missing persons in June 2020, according to Juan Rodríguez, who led both Uruguay’s Interpol unit fighting organised crime and its absent persons department between 2020 and March 2023. Police, however, still have not yet been trained in these procedures, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior admitted.
In the vacuum of proper police and prosecutorial work, mothers like Nancy Baladán are left to puzzle over their daughters’ fates – were they abducted, or ensnared in wider networks of sex or drug traffickers, or did they met a quieter, simple death?
“I keep going out. Today and always. I will keep looking, because, in short, if I don’t keep looking for her, they’re not going to look,” she said.
Absent persons department
Uruguay boasts a stable democracy and strong legal codes in a region where both are rare. The police are trusted by 73% of the population, and the country’s crime prevention programme, adopted in 2016, has been internationally recognised.
But this South American country is also home to a flourishing underworld of sex and drug trafficking – and young women, especially those from low-income or vulnerable backgrounds, are easily exploited by these criminal gangs.
And according to the families of missing women, lawyers and women’s rights and welfare advocates, the police routinely ignore these vulnerable people rather than proactively defending their safety – or spending time trying to discover their fate. And the government’s registry of absent persons does not add clarity or efficiency to such cases; rather, it obfuscates the scope of the problem in Uruguay.
The interior ministry did not respond to openDemocracy's repeated requests for information. Finally, after a six-month wait, in December 2022, we were allowed to interview Rodriguez. The police building where he works was once a site of espionage and torture during the Uruguayan dictatorship.
Rodríguez, a tidy, close-shaven man wearing cologne and a grey jacket and trousers, was the only high-ranking law enforcement official to agree to speak to openDemocracy about the issue of missing women.
He answered questions rapidly, occasionally cutting off our questions. He invited a second officer, María Noelia Ordeig from the absent persons department, to provide data on the magnitude of the problem.
But neither she nor anyone else could confirm how many of the cases on the absent persons registry were duplicate entries (“repeaters”, or people who go missing more than once in the department’s terminology) or how often and thoroughly the registry is updated.
Police guidelines established in 2020 standardised the procedure for reporting missing people. How and whether cases are followed up often stems from the way these standardised forms are filled in.
When a report is filed by someone who can provide the police with detailed information about the missing person’s appearance and habits, the report is categorised as that of an “absent person”, and automatically referred to the absent persons department for investigation.
But the bar is high, and when reported cases are less detailed, they are more likely to be classified by police as “runaways” or some other less serious category. Since being ‘absent’ is not itself a crime, a decision on whether an absence is potentially criminally linked is also key to whether it reaches the prosecutor’s office.
Between 2020 and 2022, the absent persons department received 14,402 reports of missing people, of whom 6,228 were classified as “absent persons”, according to data provided by the department to openDemocracy in June 2023. (In the region, the word ‘disappearance’ is more frequently used for political dissidents detained and disappeared during the country’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1985.)
The department said that 99.5% of all cases had been solved, and that none of the “absent persons” cases were linked to sex trafficking.
But women’s rights organisations and support groups for survivors of sex trafficking say these official numbers are inaccurate and wildly understate the dangers facing women, especially those who have been caught in the thriving criminal underworld. As openDemocracy’s investigation shows, a significant number of women officially listed as missing or absent did have connections to drug sellers, or to men suspected or convicted of sexually abusing them or other women.
A fundamental reason for the lack of clarity over the role sex or drug trafficking plays in the fate of Uruguay’s missing women is that neither prosecutors nor police are looking for the evidence.
“The state response to these cases is an absolute disaster,” said Andrea Tuana, director of the advocacy and outreach group El Paso, which delivers government-funded services for trafficking victims in Uruguay. “This is not a priority; it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t exist.”
According to the data provided to openDemocracy, the cases of 48 people who went missing more than a decade ago remain unsolved. Among them is Silvia Fregueiro, who vanished in 1994.
Another 34 cases have remained open for more than five years (including that of Milagros Cuello), and 74 cases have been open for more than a year. These include seven young women who disappeared between 2019 and 2022 in the area of western Montevideo and south-eastern San José.
Rodríguez declined to speak on record about any specific cases. But he confirmed that police didn’t have detailed files for these unsolved “absent persons” cases, and didn’t know how many of them had been victims of gender-based violence.
There are girls that nobody is looking for.
Organisations working in areas where girls, adolescents and women go missing try to keep their own figures. DENG recorded 280 such cases between the start of 2018, when the group was founded, and August 2022.
Of these, 243 girls disappeared intermittently or for short periods, 20 were found dead and 17 are still missing (including the seven young women in Montevideo and San José). Some of these cases are included in the ministry’s list of absent persons, but some are not.
DENG also says its own statistics are incomplete. “We can’t contact all [the families] or we don’t get the information. And there are girls that nobody is looking for,” said Delia Cúneo from DENG.
Authorities have also failed to investigate the murder of victims of sex exploitation and trafficking. In 2018, 14-year-old Rocío Duche was found murdered in a ditch in the city of Treinta y Tres, about 300 kilometres north-east of the capital. At the time of her murder, Rocío was living in a state-run children’s home and was being sexually exploited and trafficked, along with 19 other children and adolescents who were under state protection, according to a report filed by child welfare officials with the prosecutor. The perpetrators – of her murder and the sexual violence – have not yet been caught.
Seven women missing in Montevideo
Violence is as much part of the poverty-stricken neighbourhood of 19 de Abril as the roar of motorcycles with custom exhaust pipes. Some 2,000 people live here, in ramshackle shanty housing sandwiched between a national highway and a creek, on the western outskirts of Montevideo. Children die here after eating rotten food and garbage. Some are exploited to sell and transport drugs. Others are recruited to become hitmen for gang lords. Only a few are able to finish school.
Each of the 18 blocks in the neighbourhood is believed to have at least one ‘trap house’ – a place where illegal drugs are sold.
In February 2021, the bodies of two women were found buried in plastic containers in the courtyard of a trap house. Stefhany Rodríguez, 32, was one of them. Her family had reported her missing to the police the previous July. Nobody was looking for the other woman, Karina Díaz, aged 24.
Seven other young women who frequented the trap houses were also reported missing. In 2019, Florencia Barrales (19 years old) vanished in March and Gina Rodríguez (27) in September. In 2020, Yamila Estévez (20) disappeared in January, Jennifer Gómez (19) and Daniela Virginia Bera (22) in February, and Micaela Ramírez (21) in December. Tatiana Pintos (35) went missing in January 2022.
Their families went to their nearest police stations when the women stopped their sporadic visits and communications with home. “She’s a drug addict” or “she must have gone off with her boyfriend” were the most common responses from the police, the mothers told openDemocracy.
The authorities’ refusal to provide information makes it impossible to know how the women’s names eventually made it onto the official register of the absent persons department. Two families said they personally brought their cases to the department after realising the investigators there had no knowledge of their loved ones.
DENG began advising the families, and soon they learned of each other’s shared plight. Some of the young women knew each other. Some had run away from their families before. At least two had been locked up in trap houses for several weeks and then released, according to their families. One mother even knew her daughter was being held in a trap house and reported her kidnapping to the police, but they made no attempt to rescue her.
In September 2021, the mothers of the six women who had gone missing in 2019 and 2020 were fed up with the lack of police action. With the support of DENG, they filed a joint complaint at the prosecutor's office, alleging that their daughters had been trafficked, and demanded an investigation.
“Their disappearances have to be investigated taking into account what they have in common, but also because we have all encountered the same obstacles and irregularities in our search for justice,” said Florencia Barrales’s mother, Elizabeth Techera, after filing the complaint.
An investigation was opened, but months later one of the mothers learned that the prosecutor’s office was about to close it. To prevent this, they extended the complaint in March 2022 to include Tatiana's disappearance.
When asked about these cases by openDemocracy, superintendent Rodríguez, former director of the organised crime and Interpol unit, was dismissive of the mothers’ efforts. He said police had developed other hypotheses, unrelated to trafficking, to explain each of the seven disappearances, though he declined to share specifics with openDemocracy.
According to him, the mothers’ joint complaint was an emotional response to what he called the “shocking” discovery of the two bodies buried in the 19 de Abril neighbourhood.
“I guess they connected the dots… their daughters hanging around the same places, having similar habits, so they developed the idea that this could be a trafficking case,” Rodríguez said. But there are no clues in the mothers’ complaint that indicate trafficking, he claimed. This is reason enough, according to Rodríguez, for prosecutors and police not to pursue the hypothesis of trafficking.
“These cases were mostly due to a complex situation of [lack of] family support, of their lifestyles, linked to substance abuse and sex work,” he suggested. In Uruguay, sex work has been legal since 2002.
I don't know if the police actually looked for my daughter. But we know that no one just vanishes.
Meanwhile, the families of the missing women continue to leave no stone unturned in their search for their daughters and sisters. They post flyers on the streets, hold protests, ask for information and advice from anyone they think might be able to help.
"I don't know if the police actually looked for my daughter. But we know that no one just vanishes. With pain in our souls, we hope to find a solution, some news, someone to tell us something,” said Yamila Estévez’s mother Beatriz.
In June 2022, the mothers thought their luck had turned when Alicia Ghione was appointed prosecutor for sexual crimes, domestic violence and gender-based violence in the same Montevideo office that was handling their collective complaint. Ghione, a gender-based violence expert, has been working on human trafficking since 2008 when Uruguay first began to develop a policy on trafficking.
Ghione told openDemocracy that trafficking should not be dismissed as a potential motive for the disappearance and possible deaths of the women until it had been thoroughly investigated.
The circumstances in which the women went missing make it likely, Ghione said, that “those who sell them drugs end up becoming their sexual exploiters, because they make a business offering [the young women] to a friend, to a neighbour... they end up choosing a group of these girls to offer to clients, and take them out of the country”.
As a result, they “end up in a network of exploitation and trafficking rather than sex work, because [although] they are not under age, it’s not that they have any choice or rights,” she said.
However, since taking over the case in 2022, Ghione’s team have not made any breakthroughs.
Sex trafficking in Uruguay
Sex trafficking is well established in South America, with the vast majority of victims being women (87%) and girls (11%), according to the latest report (2022) from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. UN Women has warned that “bribery of officials and political corruption reaching up to the highest levels of the executive, legislative and judiciary... is crucial for the success of human traffickers”.
A US state department report on human rights, from 2022, declared Uruguay falls into all three categories for trafficking – as a home, transit, and destination country – and said it has not fully complied with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking.
Uruguay’s poor record on combating trafficking is recognised by law enforcement agencies throughout the Americas. Officially, the county has robust legislation to protect children and adolescents and to combat and prevent gender violence, exploitation and trafficking. However, “there is a big gap between how the public policies are written and what happens on the ground,” said Sandra Perroni, who works for El Paso, the organisation providing public assistance to trafficking survivors.
El Paso has supported trafficking victims for more than a decade. In 2022, 210 people were under the service’s care, of whom 69 were new cases. In the same period, only two trafficking investigations (involving nine victims) led to any convictions, and 20 were shelved, the state prosecutor’s office told openDemocracy.
Uruguay receives considerable criticism in the region for its low numbers on trafficking convictions.
This anaemic response by law enforcement is part of a long-established pattern. From November 2017 to December 2021, only eight trafficking cases resulted in convictions, and 29 cases were shelved. In the first two months of 2023, there were no prosecutions.
“Uruguay receives considerable criticism in the region for its low numbers on trafficking convictions,” said prosecutor Ghione, who is a member of the Ibero-American Network of Prosecutors against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants.
Uruguayan anti-trafficking activist and survivor Sandra Ferrinni told openDemocracy: “The state knows a lot, and the state remains silent a lot.”
The families of the seven missing women feel the same way. Gladys Reimundo, mother of Jennifer Gómez, said: “The police and the courts have done nothing. I gave them a lot of information, names, places – they have not even interrogated these people.”
Elizabeth Techera, mother of Florencia Barrales, added: “The burden is tremendous, and you are alone.”
Missing for 30 years
Silvia Fregueiro was 28 and the mother of a 12-year-old son, Santiago Canet, when she was last seen on 21 December 1994 in Punta del Este, an upmarket tourist destination on the Atlantic Ocean. She had arrived a week earlier from her home city of Treinta y Tres, 200 kilometres to the north, to work as a housekeeper for a prosperous family so she could save money to buy a house.
She left her employer’s house in the afternoon to “go for a walk”, leaving behind all her belongings, including ID and money, according to the case file reviewed by openDemocracy. Shortly afterwards, she was seen with a man known for his links to the sex trade.
Two days later, her employer reported her disappearance to the police and notified her family. On Christmas Day, her mother Ana Yacobazzo and one of her brothers travelled to Punta del Este and confirmed the report to the police.
Case files seen by openDemocracy appear to show shoddy procedure and a lack of attention and care.
The omissions in Silvia’s case are so extreme that in 2021 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) agreed to investigate a complaint made by the family about potential violations by Uruguay of Silvia’s rights to life, liberty, personal integrity, equality before the law, judicial guarantees and legal protection.
In the days and months following her disappearance, Silvia Fregueiro's family toured Punta del Este, put up posters and asked locals and tourists about her. They also presented information to the police, who had failed to contact them or ask them for basic details.
Ana Yacobazzo had already reported her daughter’s disappearance to the police twice. By February 1995, troubled by the lack of answers, she resorted to an uncommon method at that time: enlisting the help of a lawyer to file a third complaint with a court of justice.
The move forced the court to open a case, but the case file was misplaced for four months without explanation. (openDemocracy’s analysis of the other eight cases of missing women who are possible victims of sexual trafficking revealed that losing or misplacing reports or case files, either wholly or in part, still occurs frequently.)
The testimonies of Silvia’s employer and the man linked to the sex trade taken by the police in 1995 were never added to the court file. They were lost and no longer exist, according to the petition made to the IACHR. The employer’s house, where Silvia had lived and worked in the days before going missing, was never searched. Other residents were not questioned. The petition also states that the court did not hear testimony from Silvia’s employer, nor the man linked to the sex trade, until she had been missing for ten years.
The police took a decade to write an official report – which openDemocracy has seen – outlining the possible causes of Silvia’s disappearance. This is when they first considered a “high likelihood” of “an involuntary absence due to seduction or manipulation”, says the report, dated 2004.
The court denied Yacobazzo access to the results of a DNA test done by a private lab, which she herself had commissioned and paid for, to check whether some bone remains found in 2007 were those of her daughter. They weren’t, but Yacobazzo had to wait a year to officially learn this.
Silvia’s son Santiago wrote to the IACHR: “It is very difficult to think beyond today because we never know if tomorrow will be with her or still without her. It is impossible to project beyond the present, and this is a wound that never heals.”
Documents submitted by the family to the IACHR claim that between 1990 and 2000 at least six women disappeared in or near Punta del Este. These include María Concepción Franco Quiroga, who went missing on 23 June 1994, at the age of 25, six months before Silvia. Her case is still open.
In a television interview in 2012, Yacobazzo said she wanted to know “what happened and, above all, the truth”. She died in 2015, without knowing what happened to her daughter. A feminist group in Treinta y Tres bears her name.
What happened to Milagros?
Sixteen-year-old Milagros Cuello left home late on Saturday 3 December 2016, heading for Pando’s main square, less than a kilometre away. Her family never saw her again.
Her mother, Nancy Baladán, notified the police the following morning, just a few hours later. But no prosecutor worked on the case for six months, because the introduction of a new criminal code caused a gridlock in the poorly resourced prosecutor’s office and judiciary. Footage from security cameras in the town square was lost. No identikit or psychological profile of any suspects were made, despite them being specifically requested by the family’s lawyer.
Baladán refused to be deterred by the apathy and contempt she says police showed her and her daughter. In the following weeks and months, she travelled to all 30 police stations in Canelones with a photo of her daughter, because local officers had not passed on the information.
During the first police interrogations, made shortly after Milagros went missing, three men confessed of their own accord to having sexually exploited her. But the authorities only prosecuted and convicted them for the crime three years later, in 2019, after repeated complaints and reports by her mother and collectives to Uruguay’s National Human Rights Institution.
After the judge passed the sentence, a relative of one of the defendants threatened to kill Baladán. She reported the threat to the prosecutor’s office. “They provided me with police protection for a week, [with an agent] checking on me once a day.”
There was no investigation into whether Milagros’s disappearance was connected to sexual exploitation, ignoring international protocols and recommendations by the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women. These guidelines make clear that the disappearance of women is frequently linked to “other forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual violence, trafficking or femicide”.
Prosecutors continued to dismiss this hypothesis even years later, when an examination of Milagros’ mobile phone revealed that one of the three men had called her the night she went missing, the family’s lawyer Natalia Suárez told openDemocracy.
Alicia Ghione, who was deputy prosecutor on the 2019 investigation and indicted the three suspected sex exploiters, told openDemocracy: “It is very likely that her disappearance was directly related with that circuit of sexual exploitation.”
Ghione added: “I can’t say whether Milagros is alive or was taken out of the country, but I can say that some witnesses saw her that night in the square getting into a car and leaving… So it may well have been a trafficking organisation.”
In 2017, the interior ministry’s absent persons department asked Nancy Baladán to go to a prison to collect the testimony of an inmate who supposedly had information on her daughter’s whereabouts. Effectively, they were outsourcing the investigation to the mother of the victim.
She decided to do it. She wrote down everything the inmate told her on a piece of paper, which she later took to the police.
The day after her prison visit, a man approached her in her neighbourhood and held a gun to her chest. “If you keep stirring shit, I’ll blow your head off,” he said.
"I went to the absent persons department and told them the information had leaked from them. They and my husband were the only ones who knew I was visiting the prison. In the middle of the discussion, they said: ‘This is as far as we can go. Do what we can’t do’,” Baladán said.
Former commissioner general Julio Sena, who was at the time in charge of the local Interpol unit fighting organised crime, denied any knowledge of the incident at the absent persons department that was ultimately under his care.
“I dare say that, if this happened, it was entirely improper," he told openDemocracy. "It’s not the way the police should function. It is the police duty to gather evidence, proofs and testimonies, not to ask relatives to do so.”
For Baladán, one of the worst insults came later that year when she went to the magistrate to demand progress in the case. Court officials asked her to produce her daughter’s birth certificate to prove she was Milagros’s mother even though they knew exactly who she was – yet more delays.
For the authorities, she says, “it’s just another number. One more disappearance”.
But for her, “it’s a backpack that weighs more and more every day”.
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