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Americans found quickly, but Mexico’s missing remains lost


MEXICO CITY — When four Americans were abducted in the border town of Matamoros, authorities rescued the survivors after three days, but thousands of Mexicans remain missing in the state long linked to cartel violence — some in cases stretching back more than a decade being old.

Mexican authorities quickly blamed the local Gulf Cartel for shooting down the Americans’ minivan after they crossed the border for cosmetic surgery on Friday. Authorities found the Americans — two dead, one injured and one apparently unharmed — early Tuesday after a massive search involving squads of Mexican soldiers and National Guard troops.

In contrast, more than 112,000 Mexicans are still missing nationwide, in many cases years or decades after they disappeared. Although a convoy of armored Mexican military trucks has taken the Americans away, the only ones looking for most of the missing Mexicans are their desperate relatives.

“If these people had been Mexicans, they might still have disappeared,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University.

The rescue of the Americans sparked a special kind of anger in Tamaulipas, a border state long dominated by the warring Gulf and Northeast cartels, where the activist group Network of Disappeared estimates that 12,537 people are still missing.

Delia Quiroa, from the nearby town of Reynosa, has been searching for her brother Roberto for nine years since he was abducted in March 2014 by gunmen – believed to belong to the Gulf Cartel, the same group responsible for kidnapping the Americans.

Despite conducting their own searches and pressuring authorities to investigate, the family knows nothing about his whereabouts.

Quiroa said the families of the missing “celebrate and thank God for finding these four American citizens,” but said “we wish the government would search for our missing with the same zeal and zeal.”

“We feel complete outrage, despair, fear, impotence and sadness,” Quiroa said, due to “the failure of the authorities to act when Mexican families suffer the disappearance of a relative.”

Volunteer search teams like Quiroa’s are often forced to walk the deserts of northern Mexico with iron bars and shovels, searching for clandestine graves where the relatives’ bodies may have been dumped.

Authorities lack the manpower, equipment and training – and many say the will – to investigate the kidnappings, let alone arrest or punish those responsible. Things are so bad that authorities cannot even identify the tens of thousands of bodies that have been found.

Like anything else, the fact that Americans were involved in the most recent kidnapping can guarantee that Mexican authorities are going after the killers. About two dozen suspects, most of them from the Juarez Cartel, have been arrested in connection with the 2019 murder of nine American citizens — women and children — in the western border state of Sonora.

It is unclear which faction of the Gulf Cartel kidnapped the Americans in Matamoros last week. The gangs have colorful nicknames like ‘The Scorpions’, ‘The Cyclones’ and ‘The Troops of Hell’. In Matamoros, Correa-Cabrera said, they are essentially all offshoots of the Cardenas clan, whose chief, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was arrested in 2003.

The gangs care little about innocent bystanders. In 2021, gunmen from Gulf Cartel factions rode the streets of Reynosa, randomly killing 15 passersby to intimidate their rivals.

The Mexican government claims its “hugs, not bullets” strategy — anti-poverty programs designed to reduce drug gang recruits — has worked. The number of officially recognized murders fell from 719 in 2020 to 707 in 2021 and 492 in 2022.

Of course, this does not apply to all disappeared people. But things are clearly not as bad as the dark days of 2010 and 2011 in Tamaulipas, when drug cartels slaughtered 72 migrants or dragged passengers from passing buses and killed hundreds of people who refused to fight each other to death with sledgehammers.

Correa-Cabrera said the drop in homicides and crimes in Matamoros in recent years may be due to the Cardenas clan regaining control.

“It was clear that the Cardenas family had control over the area and there was peace, a kind of mafia peace” in Matamoros, Correa-Cabrera said, until early this year when it seemed to fail.

“At the beginning of this year, reports of a lot more racketeering by the same group that controls the city started coming in,” said the professor, who previously taught at what was then the University of Texas-Brownsville, across the Rio Grande from Matamoros. .

It is clear that the events have upset US officials, who should exercise caution given the nationalistic slant of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration.

The United States depends on the Mexican government to control the influx of migrants from South and Central America, but also watches helplessly as Mexican-made fentanyl floods the border, causing about 70,000 overdose deaths each year in the United States.

In a rare critique, U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday that “we are particularly concerned about the control exercised by the Gulf Cartel over an area known as the frontera chica,” which is near Matamoros.

The Mexican government will likely feel pressured to at least investigate those involved in the US case.

“Cartel violence, of course, predated the government (López Obrador), but the ‘hugs, not bullets’ policy is not delivering the results promised, as evidenced by the rise in violence,” said Andrew Rudman, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

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