A member of Seekers for Peace gets into the high bushes after hearing small animals around in Los Mochis, Sinaloa state. (Alejandro Cegarra)

Juana Escalante, left, gets ready for a search near a farm where a horseman reported the smell of decomposition. Juana is looking for her 28-year-old son, Adrian. “In five minutes, they destroyed my life. They don’t know the damage they do to the mothers.” (Alejandro Cegarra)

MEXICO CITY — They look in Mexico’s loneliest corners, on hillsides and in woods and across empty fields. They look for the places others might have forgotten, in tight ravines and trash dumps and vacant lots, poking sticks into the soil and sniffing them for the scent of death.

The search for Mexico’s disappeared — people who have been killed but whose bodies have not been found — is one of the saddest rituals of the country’s decade-long drug war. Across Mexico, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, have banded together to search for their missing loved ones. These men and woman — one such group in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa is known as Seekers for Peace — often do this on their own because the government has failed to find their loved ones.

Mexico’s government says that more than 30,000 people are missing. But this number is notoriously unreliable and subject to change. Last month, authorities in Veracruz state found a new mass grave with at least 174 bodies. In the most high-profile disappearance in recent years, 43 students of a teachers college went missing in the state of Guerrero in 2014. They have still not been found.

In these images, photographer Alejandro Cegarra followed residents from Sinaloa, one of the centers of drug production and cartel operations, as they searched for missing relatives in September. Since forming in 2014, citizen groups have found more than 200 dead but have a list of more than 700 who remain missing. Some disappeared within the month; others have been gone for years.

Each Wednesday and Sunday, mothers and wives spend hours searching rural land outside Los Mochis for clandestine graves using metal rods to probe the earth for signs of decomposed bodies. They hold marches to protest the violence and to ask for more government support. And they hold funerals when they find unmarked remains.


Don Pancho is seen through the notices of missing people in El Fuerte, Sinaloa state. (Alejandro Cegarra)

A march for missing people in El Fuerte. (Alejandro Cegarra)

Family and friends at the burial of Luis Alfredo Chávez in Los Mochis. He disappeared Jan. 31 and was not found until May 30. (Alejandro Cegarra)

Two women cry during a march for missing people in El Fuerte. (Alejandro Cegarra)

Reina Rodriguez pinches the ground with a metal stick looking for buried bodies in Los Mochis. (Alejandro Cegarra)

Mirna Medina smells an iron stick after piercing the ground with it, hoping she can detect decomposition. (Alejandro Cegarra)

Miriam Reyes looks for her ex-husband, who has been missing since 2015. “My son needs a father, or at least bury him.” (Alejandro Cegarra)

Members of Seekers for Peace rest after several hours of looking for bodies. Nearby they found a skull. (Alejandro Cegarra)

An unidentified skull of a suspected murder victim, found by Seekers for Peace. (Alejandro Cegarra)

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