Conflict & Justice

Looking for Mexico's missing among the dead

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(Photo: Hernán Rozemberg)

By Hernán Rozemberg

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Jorge Ayala was watching the evening news at his home in Riverside, Calif., about two weeks ago when he saw a story about mass graves discovered in the quiet Mexican farming town of San Fernando. More than 180 corpses have been recovered from the graves; the victims are believed to be casualties of warring drug cartels.

When he heard the news, Ayala bolted off the sofa and grabbed his wife. They drove 26 hours to the city of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. That's where the bodies have been taken.

Ayala paces outside a government building in Matarmoros. He's waiting for his wife to come out with her elderly father, who flew in from North Carolina to give a DNA sample. Ayala's brother-in-law Guadalupe Torres disappeared three years ago in Nuevo Laredo, and the family hopes the DNA will match one of the many bodies brought to the morgue here.

"Hopefully we find something, you know, because my wife, all she wants, if he's dead, to at least have a body. Or part of the body," Ayala said.

The family is one of hundreds who've descended on Matamoros in the past three weeks to find out if the remains of their missing loved ones are there.

Families check in at various tents set up as a makeshift welcome center. After they register, they head into the building next door where they file formal reports. They can also sign up for free DNA tests.

Matilde Espinoza came out of the building in tears. Her son went missing 10 years ago in Matamoros. Now, she said, she'd settle for having his bones. She begged authorities to do more to find innocent victims of the drug war.
Pilgrimage

The unexpected pilgrimage has prompted officials and community organizers to set up the makeshift reception village. Matamoros Mayor Alfonso Sánchez said the least his city could do is make the families feel at home.

Arriving families are offered free food, medical care, lodging and religious services. Local criminal investigators have put aside current casework to focus on the morgue cases. And local activists have recruited volunteers to help support the families.

Lourdes Oviedo, who's in charge of a huge cauldron of rice and beans, serves up one heaping plate after another with a smile and a hug.

"There are so many people calling, wanting to help out," Oviedo said. "Critics have said that Matamoros is not a welcoming community but we're proving them wrong."

Jesús López, an off-duty firefighter and EMT, nodded in agreement. He volunteered to help register arriving families.

"We're not used to seeing this," López said, "but we're all victims of the violence and we can only hope that it will come to an end."

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