Crime is merciless against searching mothers in Guanajuato, Mexico

Activist Catalina Vargas disappeared one month after the execution of Teresa Magueyal. The UN has warned of the spiral of violence directed towards the searchers in the state

Beatriz Guillén
Madres buscadoras de Guanajuato
Catalina Vargas, Teresa Magueyal and María del Carmen Vázquez, searching mothers.

Missing: Catalina Vargas, a 60-year-old woman who used to spend her days looking for her son. She was last seen on July 17 in the city of León, in Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico that has become dangerous territory for those trying to find their missing relatives. In the last three years, two men and three women who were doing search work to locate their children have been murdered there. The most recent case is that of Teresa Magueyal, who was executed on May 2 in the city of Celaya while riding a bicycle in front of a school. The United Nations has demanded protection measures from the Mexican government for the victims who participate in the search efforts.

The file on Luis Antonio Rodríguez Vargas states that he is a 5′9″ tall, 30-year-old man that disappeared on January 1, 2020. It specifies that he has three tattoos, and in the image one can see a smiling young man with glasses. Now, three years later, the information that is being disseminated all throughout social media is that of his mother: Catalina Vargas is a petite woman with straight brown hair, some gray hair and brown eyes. She also wears glasses, and on her poster she looks serious. Last Monday, she was wearing a white blouse with blue flowers and jeans. The authorities warn that they fear “for her well-being, and that she may have been the victim of a crime.”

Vargas belonged to the United for the Disappeared of León collective. The members of the group spoke with her on Monday around 2:00 p.m. She was at her house. Now, these women who dig the earth to find clues and remains that can lead to their daughters, brothers and husbands, are also looking for their partner. Rocío del Carmen Gómez, spokesperson for the collective, stated that the authorities need to implement a “strategic and personalized” plan of action to find her alive.

This is not the first time that the attacks reach the search groups of Guanajuato. On May 2, two men on a motorcycle shot Teresa Magueyal at point-blank and fled. The searcher was left dead on the ground a few blocks from her house. Doña Tere — as she was known — had been looking for her 34-year-old son José Luis Apaseo Magueyal, who disappeared in the same town where she was murdered, since 2020.

On November 6, 2022, María del Carmen Vázquez was shot several times after opening the door of her home in Abasolo, Guanajuato. She was searching for her son Ósmar Zúñiga Vázquez, 21, who had disappeared five months earlier. In León, in October 2020, Rosario Zavala was killed in the same way. She had already notified that she was being threatened. She was searching for Yatziri, her 16-year-old son. Her other son, Ulises, was also killed two years after his mother. Javier Barajas was killed in a public square in Salvatierra, Guanajuato. He had successfully found his sister, Lupita.

“It is shocking to receive the news of another searching mother murdered in Guanajuato,” says Jesús Peña Palacios, representative in Mexico of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, regarding Teresa Magueyal. “Neither the disappearance of her son, nor the risks that she and her companions faced in their demand for an effective search, truth and justice, nor her murder, had to happen. Families deserve protection and justice, not death or the misfortune of dying without knowing where their loved one is. These murders must be stopped.”

This also happens in other states. In August of last year, activist Rosario Rodríguez was kidnapped by an armed commando after a mass in honor of her son, who disappeared in 2019. She was found murdered a day later in the municipality of La Cruz de Elota, in the state of Sinaloa, in northern Mexico. Two weeks earlier, she had denounced the inaction of the authorities. In October, Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo — who had been searching for her daughter Betzabé for a year — died after being shot seven times on the highway between Mexico City and Puebla. Cecilia Flores, who is searching for her two children, has warned authorities repeatedly: “There is a price on my head.” She says: “My only sin has been loving my children.”

A country of missing people and a Searcher Barbie

Since the day Luis Antonio Rodríguez disappeared, another 864 people have been added to the record of missing persons in Guanajuato. Since 1963, a total of 2,618 people have gone missing, according to figures from the Ministry of the Interior. A large part of these crimes are concentrated in Celaya and León, with 275 missing people in each city.

The state is going through a brutal security crisis. In November, a dog walking around the city of Irapuato with a human leg in its mouth led the collectives to find a large piece of land with 53 buried bags of human remains. The mass grave was next to a high school. In March, six women who were walking together on the outskirts of Celaya were kidnapped: they were all found burned a few days later. The situation is not unknown to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has declared: “That is what concerns us, Guanajuato.”

In a country that has already accumulated more than 110,000 missing persons and where the government is practically absent, it is up to the families to carry out the search work. The precariousness of the searchers, most of whom have to leave their jobs to go search in the field, has led them to survive, in many cases, thanks to donations from individuals and private aid. One of the latest efforts is the design of a Searcher Barbie: Delia Quiroa, leader of the 10 de marzo collective, presented the doll made with scraps of clothing from the searching mothers and a shirt with the image of Roberto, her brother, kidnapped in 2019 by the organized crime for not paying for “protection.” At the height of the promotion of the movie Barbie, the searchers make a plea for people to take a look at those who are still missing.

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