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Women in the search for missing persons in Mexico face multiple challenges

Leadership of the mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of missing persons in Mexico has been essential for the development of the truth and justice agenda in the country, as well as for the fight against impunity.

Melissa H. Jasso Camila Ruiz Segovia
2 September 2020
Relatives of the 43 missing students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, participate in a protest march, January 20, 2020. Mexico City. |
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Guillermo Gutiérrez/NurPhoto/PA Images

For women like Lucía, founding member of Colectivo Solecito, the search for human remains in clandestine graves represents an opportunity to fulfil a promise made to her son, who disappeared in 2013 in the coastal state of Veracruz, Mexico.

The promise is that of not giving up until she finds him. In a country where the dividing line between organized crime and the government is often blurred, she has been pushed to participate in this kind of grim activity, while also dealing with negligent authorities and putting her safety at risk. Lucía's story has unique nuances and at the same time, it is the story of hundreds of women throughout the country who dedicate their lives to the search for missing persons in the absence of effective State responses.

In light of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, commemorated on August 30, this article seeks to highlight the leadership of the mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of missing persons in Mexico. Such leadership has been essential for the development of the truth and justice agenda in the country, as well as for the fight against impunity. Using a feminist lens, our goal is to underline some of the specific challenges that women have faced while carrying out these efforts and to note some of the strategies that they have developed to respond to such challenges.

It is important to clarify that the leading role of women in the search for missing persons is not specific to the Mexican case and has important precedents throughout Latin America. This is particularly evident in countries that have implemented transitional justice measures, such as Argentina and Peru.

The Argentine case is perhaps one of the most iconic references in relation to the search for missing persons. The incessant efforts of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo were fundamental for the development of the right to the truth, which today resonates in the demands of all families in the region.

In Peru, Quechua women like Mamá Angélica led the searching efforts during the armed conflict, all while facing double discrimination, because of their identity as both women and indigenous people.

In Mexico, there is also an important precedent-- the Eureka Committee, founded by Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. The organization was established to search for the missing and to protect the rights of political prisoners and persecuted civilians in the context of the Dirty War.

The motto of the Committee, "Alive they took them, alive we want them" is still used by associations of families of missing persons that have risen in the context of the ongoing War on Drugs.

The search as care work

One possible explanation for the prominence of women in searching activities could simply be that this phenomenon affects men to a greater extent. According to the National Search Commission, as of August 28, there were a total of 75,084 missing persons, 74.5% of whom were men. Most of these disappearances were related to crimes committed by cartels, such as recruitment and forced labour, kidnapping, among others.

Although there is a predominance in the disappearance of men, it is important to highlight that more than 18,000 women have also been victims of this crime in the country and -- as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared in the case “Cotton Field” v. Mexico-- the causes of the disappearances and murders of women must be analysed using a gender perspective.

Although this data can help to clarify the leading role of women, we suggest that it is also worth approaching the phenomenon from a feminist perspective. In specific, we propose to emphasize the role of care work, which is predominant among women.

In Mexico, the care work carried out by women extends to the search for the missing in prisons, hospitals, and clandestine graves; to the carrying out of investigatory activities; and to exerting pressure on authorities.

Generally, this refers to unpaid work directed towards people whose well-being depends on others, such as caring for minors or the elderly. In the case of missing persons, the one who receives care is the absent relative, whose life, truth, and justice depend on other people to demand it.

In contexts of violence and impunity, such as Mexico, the care work carried out by women extends to the search for the missing in prisons, hospitals, and clandestine graves; to the carrying out of investigatory activities; and to exerting pressure on authorities to ensure that they fulfil their duties. It has also extended to the identification of human remains, which provide a dignified burial and end to their loved ones.

A feminist reading of the searching activities carried out by women has important consequences. First, it implies the recognition of yet another form of unpaid labor; one which is emotionally motivated and that should notably be performed by state authorities, both because it is their responsibility by law and because they receive monetary compensation for it. Second, it sheds light on a new challenge to women’s autonomy, as the search for the missing is a new burden that is imposed on them.

Challenges in the search for the missing

For women, the search for missing persons comes with great challenges -- in terms of security, economic resources, and access to the justice system -- as well as gender discrimination and violence.

For many, the disappearance of their relative represents the loss of a source of income -- sometimes the only one. This creates an additional burden that adds to the pain of not knowing the whereabouts of their relative. Many women also report abandoning the search due to the lack of resources to cover the costs associated with it, such as transportation fees to go to the prosecutor's offices to report their cases, which are often far from their communities of origin.

Some women are not able to participate in protests or other actions to make their cases visible, because they must make up for the lack of income with extra hours of work or because they cannot afford to take a day off.

The search process also entails significant security risks, as it often takes place in territories controlled by criminal organizations. While this is a risk for both men and women, women are more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.

In a country marked by deep gender inequality, it is common for justice operators to reproduce discriminatory and revictimizing attitudes towards women who try to access the justice system.

Likewise, in some regions of the country, the fact that women go out to the streets and to the field to search for their relatives, and that they openly denounce the lack of justice, implies a break with traditional gender expectations. This might lead to stigmatization or even acts of violence against them. It is also true that women who play the role of caregivers in communities plagued by violence are limited in their ability to participate in searching efforts because they are required to stay home to take care of minors and elderly people.

Lastly, another fundamental challenge that women face relates to access to justice. For many, the disappearance of their relative marks their first interaction with the Mexican justice system, a system that systematically fails them.

In a country marked by deep gender inequality, it is common for justice operators to reproduce discriminatory and revictimizing attitudes towards women who try to access the justice system, many of whom are unaware of its complex technicalities. Discrimination within the justice system can even translate into the authorities' refusal to open up and follow up on reported cases, as many women have reported.

Collective strategies and resistance

Women with missing relatives share common experiences, emotions, and challenges that have allowed them to generate meaningful ties and support networks. Their motto “Looking for them, we find each other” captures this sense of connection. By sharing their pain, they have been able to support one another.

While participating in advocacy activities, like protests or media campaigns, they often emphasize their gender identity and shared experiences, particularly through the use of symbols that make reference to their domestic or caregiving work. This fact is interesting from a feminist point of view, because unlike other women's movements that question traditional gender norms, many women who search for missing persons have found a rebellious power in embracing their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters.

One activity that has gained popularity among these groups of women is to embroider the names of missing persons in pieces of fabric. In Mexico, this initiative was first developed by the Fuentes Rojas collective, under the name “Embroidering for peace and memory: A victim, a handkerchief, ” as part of the 2011 Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity.

Every Sunday, people gathered in a public square in Mexico City to embroider the names of victims of disappearances, murders or femicides on handkerchiefs. In addition to representing a statistical count, this activity created a space to share testimonies and knowledge. This exercise was replicated by other groups such as FUNDENL in Nuevo León.

Recognizing the role of women is therefore a means of denouncing the failure of Mexican authorities to meet their obligations.

Another recent example is the Recipe Book for Memory, an initiative of Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte, an association of mothers of missing persons from Sinaloa. The book seeks to build identity and memory through cooking, by telling the stories of the missing and by sharing the recipe of their favorited dishes.

In the words of Las Rastreadoras, the kitchen is memory and the kitchen is resistance. For them, this has also been a restorative activity, since for a long time cooking the dishes of their loved ones was devastating, and by sharing them they found a way to preserve their memory.

Lastly, there is also the March for National Dignity, which is symbolically held on May 10, Mother's Day in Mexico. This mobilization is possibly the only public demonstration led by women whose demands are not directly linked to the feminist movement. It is rather a demand for justice and a search for solidarity and empathy for what they experience through the figure of motherhood.

Women leading searching efforts face greater challenges because of their gender identity and their domestic and care duties. In the face of these challenges, they have developed various innovative measures and solidarity networks, which take inspiration from their shared experiences as women. And yet, it is urgent to remember that these efforts are, ultimately, of an extraordinary nature given that they are duties that correspond to the Mexican state.

Recognizing the role of women is therefore a means of denouncing the failure of Mexican authorities to meet their obligations. It is also an opportunity to join these groups of women in their calls for truth and justice for the missing persons in the country.

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