A woman holds banners with the pictures of missing persons during a march to mark Mother’s Day in Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz, on May 10. (Photo: Yahir Ceballos/Reuters)

Jan-Albert Hootsen is the Mexico Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Mexico correspondent for Dutch newspaper Trouw.

Mother’s Day is a serious affair in Mexico. Since its official establishment on May 10, 1922, it has become the most important celebration of family in the country. In Mexico City, restaurants were packed to capacity on Thursday, while thousands flocked to the capital’s malls to buy last-minute gifts.

At the emblematic Angel of Independence monument in the city’s center, however, the atmosphere was hardly festive. Hundreds of women gathered there to protest violence and the forced disappearance of their children, in a gathering called the “March for the National Dignity.”

The march was a stark reminder of the human rights crisis plaguing Mexico, where in a little more than one decade, tens of thousands of people have been murdered in horrendous criminal violence  and thousands more have disappeared without a trace.

But the event was also a clear sign of the pivotal role Mexico’s mothers have assumed in the fight for justice and human rights. Where the Mexican justice state is failing, they have taken up the task of searching for their loved ones and demanding justice. They have set up collectives that do the work they say the authorities are unable or unwilling to do, pushing legislation to address their tragedy in the process.

According to statistics, more than 35,000 Mexicans have vanished without a trace over the past decade. The real number is believed by many to be much higher, given the country’s poor record of keeping accurate statistics on crime and violence.

Many thousands of the disappeared are presumed to have been killed and buried in countless clandestine graves that riddle the countryside, used by organized crime to dispose of their victims.

The disappearances occur in a context of the extreme violence and human rights violations of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since former president Felipe Calderón deployed the military in late 2006 to combat powerful drug cartels.

Among the protesters Thursday were hundreds of mothers who lost one or more children without knowing what happened to them. They feel abandoned by the authorities, who, at best, are ill-equipped or unwilling to solve the disappearances or, at worst, collude with organized crime.

Angered by that inaction, mothers have taken up the task to search for their loved ones themselves. Since the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, assumed office in 2012, dozens of so-called search brigades have been organized, often by women looking for their children.

The brigades scour the countryside, equipped with only rudimentary tools and forensic knowledge. Acting on anonymous tips, they hope to find mass graves where they may encounter human remains that can finally answer the chilling question of whether their children have been murdered.

“We need to find our children, alive or dead, but we need to find them,” said Rosa Ramírez of Córdoba in a text conversation from the eastern state of Veracruz. Her son Ricardo disappeared in 2013 in the town of Potrero Nuevo. Together with a small group of mothers from the region, she has been looking for him and others. “It’s difficult to find justice, because we’re governed by corruption.”

As such, the mothers have formed a tenacious vanguard of activists, but often at great peril. Some have paid with their lives. In December 2010, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz was gunned down in front of the gubernatorial palace in Chihuahua, capital of the state with same name in northern Mexico. She protested the absence of justice in the murder case of her daughter Rubí. Last year, Miriam Rodríguez, the organizer of a search party in San Fernando, in Tamaulipas state, was killed in her home on May 10 — Mother’s Day.

But despite the overwhelming grief, the sense of abandonment by the authorities and their vulnerability in the face of impunity and extreme violence, the mothers soldier on. Their activism has, in recent years, moved beyond search parties and street protests alone and into advocating legislation to improve Mexico’s weak justice system and abysmal human rights record.

Civil society groups in Mexico say victims’ groups such as the mothers’ collectives have been instrumental in the push for the Forced Disappearance Law, promulgated by Peña Nieto last year. The law, among other things, allows for public officials to be punished with up to 60 years in prison for their involvement in forced disappearance.

But while such legislation may, in theory, be an important step in the right direction, it has yet to translate into tangible results. Last year was one of the deadliest in recent memory, with more than 25,000 homicides. The vast majority of disappearances remain unsolved.

Mexico needs to strengthen the Forced Disappearance Law. The law should provide more clarity on how the newly established National Search Commission coordinates its efforts with state and local authorities. Moreover, the federal government should guarantee sufficient funding for the institutions the law created, as well as improve the way it gathers data on missing people.

Few have faith in the government’s willingness to address the staggering number of disappearances at all. Many of the women protesting in Mexico City Thursday accused Peña Nieto’s administration of only pretending to search for their children.

“We need to show strength for the future of the children, so that they enjoy life in country that claims to be free,” said Rosa Maria Ramírez. “And we want to have faith in the system again.”

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