Sunday, May 12, 2024

By Karla Martínez and Verónica Durán Lara, members of the collective Hasta Encontrarte, based in Guanajuato, Mexico *

Following the disappearance of a family member, life changes completely. There’s a pain in our hearts that drives us to do things we would never have imagined, like dedicating our lives to searching for the loved ones we miss. We realised that if we don’t look for them, no one will. It’s ironic, suddenly you’re getting excited about finding a body, a bag of remains. This doesn’t make sense, but it’s fulfilling, it makes us happy, because even though we haven’t found our own disappeared relatives, we have been able to help many other buscadoras[1] find their loved ones.

We don’t get paid, we don’t have the right tools or equipment to carry out a search, very often we don’t even have sunscreen or water. In the end, this is a labour of love. And it’s very dangerous work. Some of our colleagues have been murdered or disappeared; threatening signs have been left for us; we’ve had our tyres slashed; we get threats through the collective’s website; we’ve even had to run away from armed groups during our searches.

The response from the authorities has been disappointing. They’re not searching for our relatives properly, they don’t protect us, and they have even taken legal action against us. On 10 July 2020, 40 families gathered to protest the appointment of a new search commissioner in Guanajuato. This official had no search experience, he was a business administrator, and we knew that he would not help us. So we went out, banners in hand, shouting that we needed to find our family members, because they were taken alive, and we want them back alive.

Most of the protesters were women, there were older people, pregnant women, and children, and all we wanted to do was yell. We might look brave in the videos, but facing down 40 state police officers with their helmets and equipment, the truth is we were really very scared. Then the cowards started to slap us, even an old lady searching for her son. People were crying. We were arrested by the state police because we raised our voices in the middle of all the commotion, because we told them we didn’t think it was right to snatch up the banners of our disappeared relatives and trample on them, because we told them to tone down their violence. They surrounded us, yanked us away and put us in a van. It was so ridiculous that they even detained the representative of the National Human Rights Commission, who they released as soon as they realised where he worked.

What crime were we committing? Looking for our relatives? Is it a crime to go around shouting in the street? They took us to a cell, we were crying because we were powerless, in pain, full of rage. They didn’t tell us where they were taking us and we thought that maybe they were going to make us disappear, too. We were detained for at least seven hours, they took photographs of us without explaining anything, not even our rights. They also failed to mention that they’d taken legal action against us. We later found out that we were accused of wounding police officers, because we’d hit them – which never happened.

Some of us even came to believe that the protest was wrong. Much later, we found out that it is our right, and that our act of shouting in the street is also the right of our disappeared relatives. They still can’t silence us. Not long after these events, we heard the statements by the Secretary of Public Security, who said: “Guanajuato cannot become a ‘protest zone”. It infuriated us, the truth is that we wouldn’t need to be out there shouting if they were doing things right, if there was no uncertainty, if there were no disappearances, no femicides.

We weren’t prosecuted, thanks to all the pressure that was put on our case, but now we want justice, and for no one else to experience what we have gone through. We made complaints against the police officers who arrested us, criminally and to the Human Rights Ombudsman for the State of Guanajuato (PRODHEG), but as we know, the justice system was not on our side. The judge who heard our case, decided not to punish the police officers, and even said that it was acceptable to break up protests in that way. We are now in appeal proceedings, seeking to reverse that decision. PRODHEG let us know that they had closed our complaint about human rights violations on the grounds that the authorities have already complied.

We disagree, they haven’t complied with anything. We would like at least an acknowledgement, an apology. A “You know what, I screwed up, I shouldn’t have told you that you can’t protest”. It’s hard knowing that no one is searching for the people who have disappeared, and there won’t be any proceedings to find out what happened to our relatives, and that they are going after us instead. The legal action really scared us, we couldn’t go on searches in Guanajuato because we thought they were going to arrest us. If we saw a patrol car, we’d run away, and we were looking around the whole time. We both lost our jobs because the court case made us look bad.

In spite of everything, love is greater than fear. We’re still here, and we won’t stop searching, we need to find them. We will never forget that it is our right and our obligation to speak up when things are not right. If they wanted to silence us, their plan failed. We’re stronger than ever and we will call out the names of the disappeared whenever we need to, to make sure they are never forgotten.

* Karla Martínez is searching for her brother, Juan Valentín Martínez Jiménez, who disappeared on 18 February 2020. Verónica Durán Lara, is searching for her son, Iván Arturo Silva Durán, who disappeared on 24 November 2019. Their testimonies were given to Amnesty International as part of an investigation into human rights violations against buscadoras (women searching for their disappeared loved ones).  

Originally published in Spanish in El País México

Tags: Mexico, Human Rights, Freedom of expression.