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Rosario Ibarra, champion of Mexico’s disappeared, dies at 95

Rosario Ibarra, a Mexican senator and human rights activist, in 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rosario Ibarra, whose decades-long struggle to uncover the fate of her disappeared son led her to become one of Mexico’s leading human rights activists and the country’s first female presidential candidate, died April 16 in Monterrey, Mexico. She was 95.

Her death was announced in a statement by the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, led by her daughter Rosario Piedra Ibarra. The statement did not give a cause.

Ms. Ibarra entered politics reluctantly after her 21-year-old son Jesús disappeared in April 1975, after he was arrested by security forces at an anti-government demonstration in Monterrey. A member of an armed communist group, he was accused of killing a police officer. Ms. Ibarra insisted on his innocence and never saw him again.

After searching for two years — in police stations, jails, hospitals and other locations where political prisoners were rumored to be held — she founded the Committee for the Defense of Prisoners, Persecuted Persons, Missing Persons and Political Exiles, which became known as the Eureka Committee.

Meeting with other relatives of the missing, she drew up a list of more than 500 people who had disappeared during the era of “dirty war” violence. The list included 33 women, three of whom were pregnant when they were taken away.

The Eureka Committee launched a campaign to demonstrate against government leaders, police and the Federal Security Directorate, the feared secret police. They protested in the streets and held hunger strikes, often with photos of their missing loved ones on their chests.

Ms. Ibarra also ran for office as a member of leftist opposition parties, winning two terms as a parliamentary deputy and one as a senator. In 1982, she became the first woman to run for the Mexican presidency; she received less than 2 percent of the vote and fared no better when she ran again in 1988. Still, she was credited with bringing human rights issues to the fore in Mexican politics, and with fueling left-wing activism that helped force the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from power in the 2000 presidential election.

Described by the Los Angeles Times in 1995 as “the reigning queen of the Mexican human rights movement,” she was rarely seen in public without a photo of her missing son, either on her necklace or pinned to her chest. Her work eventually bore fruit: In 1978, President José López Portillo signed an amnesty initiative that released around 150 of the missing people on Ms. Ibarra’s list from detention.

Her son was not among them. Under conservative President Vicente Fox, two senior police officers were arrested in 2005 on charges of abducting Ms. Ibarra’s son. But the charges were dropped the next year, and the case remains unsolved.

María del Rosario Ibarra de la Garza was born in Saltillo, capital of the northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila, on Feb. 24, 1927. Her father was an agricultural engineer who had volunteered to fight in the Mexican Revolution alongside Pancho Villa while her mother taught violin at home. Villa and fellow revolutionary Emiliano Zapata became her lifelong heroes.

After moving to Monterrey to study, she married Jesús Piedra Rosales, a physician.

“I was a happy girl, a happy mother, happily married, until the hammer blow of repression when they took my son, and I began to be the mother of a desaparecido,” a disappeared person, she said in a 2013 documentary, “Rosario.” “All the apathetic ones in this country share the blame — those who have not fought against this crime against humanity that is forced disappearances.”

Beginning in 1994, Ms. Ibarra was also a staunch supporter of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN, which demanded greater rights for the country’s Indigenous people, and health care, education and other opportunities for poor Mexicans.

Survivors include her three children, Carlos, Rosario and Claudia. When asked until her death who her children were, she always named her son Jesús, too.

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