Relatives of Missing People in Guadalajara, Mexico
Mexican mothers whose children are missing hold a banner with their pictures during a protest to demand government action on Mother's Day in the city of Guadalajara. AFP

"They told me that my brother is in there," said Nadia, pointing to an abandoned house located in one of Guadalajara's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Nadia, who agreed to speak only if her full name wouldn't be used for safety concerns, had been searching for her 35-year-old missing brother, Darío, for two years.

On a hot September day, she stands on the street with a group of Madres Buscadoras (Searching Mothers) from Jalisco, a collective of family members -- mostly women -- who search for their missing relatives across Mexico.

The street where the group is searching is flanked on both sides by Mexican National Guard patrols to ensure no one interrupts their work.

Donning masks to protect their identities from potentially dangerous onlookers, the group of 22 family members carrying shovels, rods, pickaxes, and a bottle of holy water, enters a dilapidated building, hoping to find the remains of their loved ones buried somewhere beneath the foundation.

Mexico's forced disappearance crisis

Forced disappearances have grown exponentially in Mexico, increasing by 4,000% over the past 16 years since former President Felipe Calderon declared a "War on Drugs." It is calculated that one person disappears every hour in the country.

According to government data, there are currently almost 111,000 missing or disappeared people across Mexico. (It is suspected that the number is much higher as many family members do not report disappearances for fear or reprisal).

What's more, cases of Mexico's missing are going largely uninvestigated. In October, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances raised alarms about the "almost absolute impunity" in cases of disappeared people in Mexico, estimating the impunity level at a staggering 98%. The government and organized crime are considered the main perpetrators of forced disappearances.

The committee highlighted Jalisco (where Guadalajara is the capital) as a state where investigations into disappearances were particularly difficult and dangerous to carry out.

Once a tourist hotspot, Jalisco now tops the country's list of states with the most disappeared people, with nearly 15,000 reported missing since the 1960s, when the government began to document disappearances in the country.

Frustrated by authorities' failure to act, groups such as the Searching Mothers have taken it upon themselves -- often risking their own lives -- to find their loved ones and bring them home.

"He never came back"

On December 23, 2021, Nadia's brother, Darío, left his home in Guadalajara where he lived with his parents to buy a pair of shoes. He never returned.

Christmas passed without news. So did New Year's Eve. Nadia's family waited for authorities to file their missing persons report request. She said it took over a week for them to do so -- critical days for the search lost. She said that the family also shared Darío's phone's last known location with the authorities, but that they went largely ignored.

Months went by without any results. It appeared as though Darío's case would end up as one of tens of thousands that go practically uninvestigated. Or worse, he could be one of 50,000 unidentified corpses that authorities take little effort to investigate.

Disillusioned with the response from police, Nadia's family turned to the Searching Mothers collective in 2022. They joined the group at rallies and helped comb abandoned buildings and suspected mass grave sites for the remains of missing relatives.

By the summer of 2022, the investigation into Darío's disappearance had stagnated.

In July, Nadia was attending a public demonstration against the wave of forced disappearances in Jalisco when she received a potential break.

A man in the crowd approached her after recognizing Darío's face on a banner Nadia was holding. "I want to tell you the truth. I don't like what they're doing to people," the man told her. "I have to tell you what happened."

In harrowing detail, the stranger narrated Darío's last moments -- how he was abducted, who was responsible, where he was taken, and how he was murdered.

"He wasn't a regular man or a conventional person," Nadia said of the stranger. "He was intimidating."

Nadia felt the man's story was believable. The information he shared about where his abductors took Darío corresponded with information the family had about his cell phone's last known location.

The site, deep in the heart of Guadalajara's Las Conchas neighborhood, was an enclave for drug cartel activity.

Nadia and the Searching Mothers of Jalisco would soon venture out to Las Conchas to see what they could find.

Las Madres Buscadoras de Jalisco

National Guard troops surrounded both sides of the quiet street in Las Conchas, where older ladies were taking in the fresh air on the sidewalk. The Searching Mothers stopped in front of two tumbledown structures where they believed Darío's cell phone last pinged its location.

Wearing face coverings to protect their identities and carrying tools for excavation, the Searching Mothers split into two groups and entered the buildings.

Sophisticated in the grim art of finding dead bodies, the Searching Mothers fanned out across the property looking for signs of burial sites. They beat the ground with rods and shovels. "It sounds hollow, doesn't it?" someone asked out loud.

Oftentimes, cartel hitmen, or sicarios, place dead animals or garbage on top of burial sites to mask the smell of rotting human flesh, members of the Searching Mothers said. They use lime to decompose bodies and soil coated in a white foam could mean that human remains were soaked in acid before burial.

One young searcher slammed the concrete floor with a sledgehammer, chipping it away to reveal the soil underneath. Another poked a three-foot metal rod into the dirt, rotating it in circles. A strong odor emanated from the hole.

"This one's positive!" someone yelled. Human remains began to appear as team members dug out the hole.

During the first seven months of 2023, the Searching Mothers of Jalisco uncovered 233 bodies using this process.

Santa Muerte and the empty lot

Outside of the house where the first body was discovered, a small group of Searching Mothers was approached by a resident who lives nearby. Discreetly, the female resident told the group that the whole neighborhood has been used for burials, and they should focus their efforts on an abandoned lot two houses down from where they were currently searching.

I followed the small group onto the lot with a broken down structure and a sign that read "Santa Muerte, si ojos tienen, que no me vean," ("Saint of Death, if you have eyes, I hope they don't see me.")

Garbage stacked high and fecal matter littered the ground. At the back of the lot, searchers found bags of lime.

Don Raul, a short but mighty old man with a candid smile, whose son has been missing for five years, pounded away at the concrete with a sledgehammer. Like the rest of the searchers, Don Raul lends a hand to help find the loved ones of others, although he is always prepared for the day when his son shows up in one of the holes.

Stopping only to pull a few drags from his cigarette, Don Raul chipped away at the concrete and earth for over an hour before something alerted him. He brushed dirt away to reveal a sneaker.

"I won't say anything until I'm sure," he said. Don Raul gently pulled the shoe, revealing bones of a foot and leg. The body appeared to have been buried headfirst into this shallow grave.

A group of searchers gathered around, and a woman stepped into the hole. "So where are you?" she asked. "Ay, there you are!" Gently, she removed dirt away from the leg, apologizing to the body when she accidentally hit it with her tools. "Ay! Forgive me. It's for your own good. You're almost home..."

Alerted of the discovery by her fellow searchers, Nadia arrived at the burial site. She took a look at the body, which had now been uncovered enough to reveal an American flag t-shirt.

"No, it's not him," she said, disappointment pouring over her face. Nadia's search wasn't over.

Don Raul and the other searchers gathered small bone fragments from the body into a bag. Suddenly, Don Raul halts the excavation, concerned that the frailty of the bones will hinder their attempts to preserve the body for investigation. "It's over," he said.

They call in the National Guard to secure the crime scene. But before they do, they splash the site with holy water and say a little prayer -- an impromptu funeral the person buried in this hole never had.

"The truth is that there is no such thing as fatigue," said Nadia. "You find someone and don't know if it's your loved one. It gives you pleasure or sadness, and you don't know what to do. But what is clear is that you have to go on."

"I don't know what exactly they did to those kids in that neighborhood so that they ended up buried there," said Nadia. "What I do know is that they probably screamed as much as they could, and nobody wanted to listen to them. Until we arrived."

Nadia didn't find Darío that day, but she did later on, on January 16.

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