This story was produced in partnership between Slate and palabra. with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Amid a crisis of enforced disappearances in Mexico, thousands of relatives of the missing face mental health challenges too often neglected or inappropriately treated.
Jesús Ramón Martínez Delgado disappeared four years ago. He was 34 years old and the father of three children. His family remembers him as generous and kind, the guy in the neighborhood who could be counted on for a few pesos or a meal if you were down and out.
He likely understood what it meant to be down and out — he had long battled a meth addiction. Fight it with all your might, his mother had told him. And he had. He’d stayed sober for five years in Mexico City, where he worked for a cable TV company. But then his long-term relationship soured, and he lost his sobriety. He eventually moved back to Hermosillo, a desert city in Sonora, Mexico. There, he managed a family store that sold Corona beer, sodas, snacks, and cigarettes. It was across the street from a bike repair shop and a bakery in a working-class neighborhood. At the time of his disappearance, he was five months sober and pulling his life back together, his family says.
On the night of Dec. 2, 2018, Jesús planned a quiet evening at home and was locking up the store. But then his neighbor Francisco Moreno stopped by, hoping to buy cigarettes. A few minutes later, two strangers shoved Jesús and Francisco into a mysterious white truck and whisked them away.
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Jesús’ mother, Cecilia Delgado Grijalva, was vacationing in Arizona when she learned he had gone missing. In a state of high anxiety, she drove 353 miles through the night.
In the morning, she visited the office of Sonora state police because people in the neighborhood had told her that they’d seen state officers with Jesús and Francisco when the two men were abducted. The state police, who did not respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story, have repeatedly denied any involvement in the disappearance, according to law enforcement records I obtained.
‘I need a little truth, peace, and justice.’
In the days that followed, Cecilia searched for Jesús in every hospital, jail, prison, and police station in Hermosillo and nearby towns and cities. She interviewed his friends. She contacted Francisco’s mother and ended up vowing she’d search for both of their sons. And she frequently got in touch with the state police as well as the Sonora attorney general’s office, which was in charge of investigating disappearances. She fed them details as she got them, including the names of witnesses and the number of the state police Ram truck allegedly spotted on the street near the store. She hoped the authorities would launch a meaningful investigation and find her son alive.
Instead, she felt stonewalled.
After several months of searching for Jesús, she joined the grassroots Mexican buscadora movement, largely made up of women who search for the remains of their disappeared loved ones because authorities won’t. By broadcasting their searches on social media, marching in the streets, and confronting powerful public officials who enable impunity, buscadoras are forcing Mexico to not look away from its crisis of unsolved disappearances — now 108,928 and counting.
The disappearances have left in their wake tens of thousands of grief-stricken relatives, many of whom are struggling with mental health challenges that are either ignored or inappropriately treated. Their complicated grief is often exacerbated by institutional neglect, lack of justice, financial insecurity, living in fear, and social isolation, psychologists and human rights advocates say.
Gisela Torres Pinedo, a psychologist who works with relatives of the disappeared in Mexico’s Guanajuato state, told me in a written note that relatives “are defying a system where criminal impunity prevails.” In their “quest for truth and justice,” Torres Pinedo noted, relatives are “exposed to multiple traumatic experiences.”
As Cecilia searched for her son, she was frequently rebuffed by police and prosecutors and lived in danger of disappearing herself for demanding accountability from law enforcement officials. This, plus the uncertainty of what had happened to Jesús, challenged her mental health, she told me.
She couldn’t eat or sleep. She suffered panic attacks. She couldn’t be alone in the house without ugly intrusive thoughts. Her marriage to her second husband, a taxi driver and the father of her two remaining children, suffered. Because searching took up most of Cecilia’s time, she lost three of the four stores she owned, along with the income that went with them. She worried about her kids, whose lives were upended by their brother’s disappearance.
Cecilia knew she needed help, but like thousands of other relatives of the disappeared living with complicated, unending grief, her options for free mental health care were limited.
Like many small-business owners, she didn’t have private health insurance. And she didn’t apply for free government insurance because she viewed it as inadequate. Instead, she visited a psychologist on her own dime. There, she explained that searching with fellow buscadoras was the only thing that temporarily distracted her from almost unbearable grief. The psychologist told Cecilia to stop searching and get on with her life. But Cecilia knew that stopping wouldn’t help her.
Undeterred by the psychologist, she soon sought help from a Hermosillo psychiatrist recommended by a friend. The psychiatrist prescribed anti-anxiety medication that enabled her to eat and sleep.
Without the medication, Cecilia couldn’t get out of bed.
To tell Cecilia’s story, I reported in Mexico and the United States over the course of several months. I interviewed Cecilia many times, and spoke with members of her family and relatives of others who had disappeared. I interviewed Mexican mental health professionals. I parsed academic research on violence and mental health, human rights reports, U.S. congressional reports, data from Mexico’s National Search Commission, and Mexican law enforcement and prosecutorial records pertaining to the disappearance of Jesús. For their protection, I do not name Cecilia’s family members or the witnesses and accused in the law enforcement records. With the exception of Cecilia, I use first names only for relatives of the disappeared in order to protect their identities.
Many of the unsolved disappearances in Mexico are “enforced disappearances,” which the United Nations classifies as those carried out by state agents and/or people or groups enabled by the state. They’re typically followed by an official cover-up. This year, the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances reported that “Organized crime has become a central perpetrator of disappearance in Mexico, with varying degrees of participation, acquiescence or omission by public servants.” Mexican disappearances were “facilitated by … almost absolute impunity,” according to the U.N. (In response, the Mexican government said it was committed to collaborating with human rights groups, had made improvements in laws and infrastructure, and supported families of disappeared people and search groups.)
Mexico has logged its disappearances since 1964, according to the country’s National Search Commission. But more than 97% of unsolved disappearances have occurred since 2006, the U.N. reported. That’s when Mexico unleashed its military on cartels, destabilizing some criminal groups while creating smaller, “often ultra-violent groups” battling for territory amid a “consistent demand for illegal drugs by U.S. and European drug users,” reports the Congressional Research Service.
Against this backdrop, Cecilia hunted for Jesús with a local buscadora group until May 2020, when she learned the group took money to search for disappeared loved ones. Outraged by what she viewed as exploitation, Cecilia founded her own group—Buscadoras Por La Paz Sonora, or “Searchers For The Peace Sonora,” which does not charge for its searches.
Chipping in money for gas and food — the local searches typically cost about $100 — Buscadoras Por La Paz Sonora followed up on anonymous tips, scouring mission towns and busy cities, cattle ranches, and vegetable farms. They grew physically fit scrambling up rocky desert hills and pounding the hard clay with pickaxes. In addition to Jesús and Francisco, Cecilia now searched for Moisés, a nephew who disappeared in July 2020.
In November 2020, Buscadoras Por La Paz Sonora found a cluster of seven burial pits hidden beneath thorny trees on the low slope of a hill a few miles south of Hermosillo. They summoned state forensic experts, who, according to Cecilia, transported the remains of two women and 16 men for forensic analysis. (The Sonora attorney general’s office had a different tally: eight men and two women.) One skeleton still wore pajamas. Other clothing found in the pits included a T-shirt imprinted with the words “Wall Street,” and a black bra with roses. The skeletons bore signs of torture and painful deaths — broken tibias, severely fractured skulls, rows of missing teeth, shattered ribs.
Jesús and Francisco were buried in one pit.
Cecilia recognized her son’s skeleton by the braces on his teeth, the camouflage jacket with orange lining, and the patches of hair still clinging to his skull. When she caressed his skull, a lock of hair slipped into her hand.
She’d suffered the trauma of Jesús’ disappearance for two years, but finding his remains was the worst trauma of all. The flashbacks of that terrible moment were, and still are, relentless.
The authorities told her he died of hypovolemic shock: blood and fluid loss. Two of Jesús’ ribs had been broken into pieces. His skeleton was intact otherwise, and there were no signs he’d been blindfolded, bound, or shot.
Although I’d talked to her many times on the phone, I first met Cecilia in late April, when I accompanied her and several members of Buscadoras Por La Paz Sonora on a two-day search in the copper mining and cattle ranching country of northern Sonora.
She’d called the trip off a couple of times for security reasons. With criminal groups vying for profitable smuggling corridors into the U.S., Sonora was becoming increasingly violent. In 2022, the number of unsolved disappearances in Sonora skyrocketed to 4,455 and counting. The state’s population is close to 3 million people.
Cecilia found it ironic that the very government accused of enabling disappearances and impunity accompanied relatives searching for disappeared loved ones. Even though she blamed state cops for having a role in her son’s disappearance, Cecilia learned to accept state officers who accompanied buscadoras to protect them during searches. And even though federal military personnel were implicated in violence in other states, she had complete confidence in the federal National Guard troops who protected the Buscadoras Por La Paz Sonora.
The Sonora State Commission for Disappeared Persons provided transportation and two staffers for our trip. Before sunup, a white van with the commission’s logo picked me up at my hotel. Aryel, the 30-year-old driver, said he began working for the commission after his father, Artemio, disappeared in 2021. Artemio owned a store, ranched, and purchased cattle from friends who were Indigenous Yaqui ranchers. He is still missing.
At dawn, we were joined by seven buscadoras, wearing jeans, hiking boots, and white long-sleeved T-shirts imprinted with the names and photos of their disappeared loved ones. They settled in among overnight bags and coolers filled with homemade burritos, bottled water, and sodas. Cecilia sat alone, tapping her long blue fingernails on her phone. Her thick black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore oversized dark glasses and bright red lipstick.
On the four-hour road trip, Natalia stared out the window. She didn’t want to talk much. Her two sons had disappeared three months before.
Paty had happily worked at a sushi restaurant in Hermosillo until she lost four loved ones in a matter of weeks in 2020. Her sister disappeared and has not been found. Her brother, father, and brother-in-law were murdered.
‘Love is stronger than fear, and we just want to bring them home.’
Francisca had buried the remains of her son Miguel four months earlier. He disappeared in 2020, when he was 21. “A lot of people tell me, ‘Thank God you have him back,’” she told me. “But maybe living with the hope that he’d be alive was better.”
On the van radio, the announcer spoke about disappearances and assassinated journalists in Sonora. Then, he switched over to Mexican pop, and the buscadoras sang along. One woman passed around a coffee cup shaped like a dildo. The buscadoras broke into laughter.
We arrived in Cananea, a copper mining town. We wound past small houses, sandwich shops, and preschools. It seemed unlikely that such a seemingly tranquil town would be plagued by grisly disappearances, but when we showed up at the police station, about 30 relatives were waiting.
“This is the first search in Cananea. We are happy to be here despite our grief,” Cecilia told the group. “We are here to find our treasures. We feared losing them, and we did. But love is stronger than fear, and we just want to bring them home.”
Eventually, we bounced down a primitive road — a caravan of white state police trucks filled with Cananea folks, our van crammed with six extra passengers and an enormous tub of macaroni salad, and the National Guard trucks toting young soldiers with automatic weapons at the ready. Since mine officials had refused to let the buscadoras search on mine property, we followed up on another anonymous tip and parked in a lonely landscape of drought-crisped hills — a cattle ranch.
Cecilia led a group of Cananea novices up a steep slope, explaining the proper techniques for searching for human remains. Look for disturbed dirt, look for flattened grasses, look for trees with clipped branches. With a tasseled shemagh scarf draped over her baseball cap for protection from the sun, Cecilia demonstrated how to shove a metal probe into the clay. She explained the odors to be identified when the probe was pulled out. A freshly rotting corpse smells strongly of rotten pork. The stink of burned grease hints of charred human flesh. And the odor of ammonia suggests human remains that have been buried for a longer time.
Picks and shovels clanged as they hit rocks. But at the end of the day, no bodies were found.
I shared a motel room with Cecilia, Paty, and Teo, whose 43-year-old daughter Azucena disappeared while walking to the gym in February 2021 and is still missing. Teo’s desperation made her an easy mark for extortionists. They promised to lead Teo to Azucena for about $2,500 — a fortune for Teo, but she paid it. The extortionists then demanded another $2,500. Teo didn’t have it. She felt alone and helpless. A psychiatrist suggested medication, but Teo wouldn’t take it. Only Cecilia and her fellow buscadoras understood what she felt. Searching was her therapy.
The next morning, acting on yet another anonymous tip, our caravan of cops, soldiers, locals, and buscadoras parked near a roadside chapel built to honor municipal police officers who were shot to death in 2007 amid a presumed war between two cartels.
Behind the shrine were two discarded blindfolds fashioned out of rolls of white bandages and brown strapping tape. A pair of men’s jeans, seemingly caked with dried blood, hung on a wire fence. On the trampled grass below were two pairs of men’s socks, remnants of two men’s shirts, a half-empty package of antibiotics, and a spilled bag of mints.
After several hours, the buscadoras once again came up with nothing. That’s how it goes, Cecilia later said. Sometimes you find nothing, other times the searches are positive.
Shortly before we left Cananea, Cecilia huddled with a woman who was bitterly discouraged by the fruitless searches. Cecilia told her about finding Jesús and the mental torment she lives with. But there is at least the comfort of knowing he had a lovely funeral and was buried with dignity in a beautiful tomb she could bring flowers to, she said. Form your own buscadoras group, she told the woman; it is a therapy unto itself.
Cecilia demanded — and in 2022, finally received — law enforcement and prosecutorial documents pertaining to her son’s disappearance and murder. After five pages, she could not read more. What sickened her was how authorities blamed her son for his own disappearance. The records include witness and police accounts that paint Jesús as a small-time drug dealer selling meth out of the store. The documents also refer to two cases in which Jesús had been accused of robbery but was never convicted.
Cecilia doesn’t believe her son was either a drug dealer or a thief.
She told me she asked the witnesses why they would say such things about her son. They replied they feared being disappeared themselves if they didn’t say what police seemed to want to hear.
It is easy for the prosecutors not to investigate when the person who disappeared is depicted as a drug dealer or an addict, Cecilia said. “This is what kills me.”
Blaming the victim, along with falsifying evidence, refusing to initiate investigations, and intimidation of witnesses and victims cause “active impunity” in Mexico, OpenGlobalRights reported in 2021.
In the records, Sonora state police claimed the police vehicle that witnesses allegedly saw parked near the store during Jesús’ abduction was not drivable on the night of the disappearance. It was in the shop with transmission problems. The officers assigned to this vehicle were given other official duties.
But in a stinging 2021 report, the Sonora Human Rights Commission claimed the Sonora attorney general’s investigation of Jesús’ case was rife with omissions, deficiencies, and irregularities that violated the human rights of his relatives. The institutional neglect taxed the already fragile mental health of relatives, the commission said. It recommended that the state’s top prosecutor professionally reinvestigate the case so as not to facilitate impunity. The Sonora attorney general’s office has defended its handling of the case. (I reached out to the agency by phone and email multiple times over a period of weeks seeking comment on the commission’s letter, now a year old. I did not receive a response.)
‘Maybe living with the hope that he’d be alive was better.’
The human rights commission also rebuked the attorney general for not immediately adding Cecilia and her family to an “indirect victim” registry. This oversight meant Cecilia’s family had long been deprived of benefits available to relatives of the disappeared, including free legal advice, financial compensation, protection, and psychological services.
Cecilia was registered just a few days after the Sonora attorney general received the commission’s recommendations. She began an ongoing battle to get benefits. In the fall of 2022, the government began paying for her psychiatric medications. But she’s still fighting for reimbursement of burial expenses. Every week she visits a government-paid grief counselor, who tells her to focus on beautiful memories. She says this therapy is not working for her.
“I need a little truth, peace, and justice,” Cecilia told me. She needs it not only for herself, but to set a precedent for the other mothers she fights for. The mothers who are terrified and locked in their homes. The mothers who are lying in bed and can’t get up.
In September, I teleconferenced with three members of Tejedores, a group of psychologists who, among other things, research the impacts of disappearances on mental health and offer free therapy to relatives of the disappeared.
There seems to be no short-term solution for providing adequate mental health care on the scale at which it’s needed. But long term, psychologist David Márquez Verduzco suggested, the best solution would involve working with universities to develop specialized areas of study that deal with treating victims of violence, including the disappeared.
Of all the forms of violence, disappearances present the greatest challenges to mental health, clinical psychologist Michel Retama told me. An expert on the impact of violence on mental health, Retama says disappearances can’t be processed as regular grief. State actions like not investigating or prosecuting a case can be more retraumatizing than digging up human remains because institutional neglect causes people to disappear again and again, he said. They disappear when the state fails to keep them safe, find them alive, and deliver justice. They disappear yet again when their relatives are deprived of the benefits they’re eligible for, or when they’re given inadequate mental health care.
Daniel Zenteno, a psychologist specializing in group therapy, sometimes provides psychoanalysis to buscadoras in the field during their searches or in their communities. Psychologists would do well to “get off the pedestal,” he said, and listen carefully and respectfully. He’s not looking to cure the relatives; the damage is irreparable.
Instead, he accompanies them through all the “difficult situations.”
Now 53, Cecilia still gets flashbacks of the moment she found Jesús’ skeleton in the shallow pit, and still has intrusive thoughts imagining his death. She still takes medication that allows her to get through the day.
Her fears can be overwhelming. She fears her younger son will disappear next. She wants him to join her daughter, who is 25 and now lives in the U.S.
Cecilia’s daughter left Mexico to escape her own grief. But it only got worse. She feels isolated and alone. She feels guilty for leaving, and fears her mother will be killed. An American doctor prescribed a medication for anxiety and depression, but it numbed her, so she stopped taking it. She worried the meds would make her forget her brother. “And of all my fears, forgetting him is the worst,” she told me.
Cecilia hasn’t found her nephew Moisés. She still leads searches several times a week and broadcasts them on Facebook Live. She organizes highly visible marches in Hermosillo and attends workshops with other buscadoras in Mexico City.
The disappearances do not end. The government doesn’t stop them, and the government could stop them, or at least lower them, she often thinks.
So far, Buscadoras Por La Paz Sonora has discovered 333 bodies. To Cecilia’s knowledge, not a single case has been prosecuted.
These days, she almost always wears a pendant encasing two snippets of brown hair — one is a memento of toddler Jesús’ first haircut and the other slipped off his skull on that terrible day she found him. The pendant is designed in the shape of a perfect heart.