MEXICO CITY — Lisa Torres was glued to her phone, watching news reports on the kidnapping last week of four Americans in the Mexican city of Matamoros. She lived in the Houston suburbs, hundreds of miles away, but knew well the pain of having a relative snatched on the other side of the border. Her son, Robert, was just 21 when he vanished in 2017.
As Torres flicked through social media posts describing the Biden administration’s rapid response to the abductions, she grew increasingly upset. Finally, after the Americans were found on Tuesday — two alive, two dead — she took to Twitter.
“I’m so angry I couldn’t sleep, thinking about how my U.S. government acted in Matamoros with the kidnappings,” she wrote in Spanish. What happened to the Americans was sad, she wrote. But at least they were recovered. “This only confirms that my U.S. government can help, and it didn’t in the case of my son. WHY?”
More than 550 Americans are reported as missing in Mexico, a little-known facet of a broader tragedy that has honeycombed this country with mass graves. Soaring violence and government dysfunction have fueled a crisis that’s left at least 112,150 people missing, according to government records here.
Americans make up a small part of that ghastly toll. And they are a tiny percentage of the millions of U.S. citizens who travel to Mexico every year for tourism, work and family visits. But just as there’s been an uproar in Mexico over the government’s all-out effort to find the four Americans, compared with its far more limited search for its own abducted citizens, relatives of the Americans still missing are asking why their loved ones haven’t been a higher priority for Washington.
“We see that when the U.S. government makes strong statements, there are results,” said Geovanni Barrios, a lawyer whose 17-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, was abducted in the border city of Reynosa in 2008. “But there aren’t only four Americans disappeared in Mexico. We don’t see [the U.S. government] making these statements about the hundreds of other missing Americans.”
The kidnappings on March 3 in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Tex., drew attention in part because a passerby recorded men in bulletproof vests dragging three of the victims into a truck a few blocks from the Rio Grande in broad daylight. The video quickly went viral, and the abductions were swept up in a turbocharged American political debate. Lawmakers in Washington were already expressing alarm about Mexican cartels’ exports of fentanyl, which accounts for two-thirds of overdose deaths in the United States. Some Republicans have called for military strikes on the armed gangs.
The four Americans had reportedly traveled in a vehicle with North Carolina plates so one could have cosmetic surgery in Matamoros, one of several border cities that offer low-cost services to medical tourists. Authorities suspect gunmen from the powerful Gulf Cartel attacked their rented minivan after confusing them with someone else.
As the story began to dominate American TV newscasts, the U.S. government swung into high gear: The White House pledged an aggressive effort to find the victims and see that the perpetrators were brought to justice; the FBI offered a $50,000 reward. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, met with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to press for action.
The Americans were found in an abandoned house on the outskirts of Matamoros, which is in Tamaulipas state.
Torres said the response contrasted sharply with her family’s experience when her son disappeared in July 2017 during a trip to visit his father’s family in the state of Nuevo Leon.
The 21-year-old mechanic was traveling from the Texas border crossing at Los Indios toward the Mexican city of Reynosa when he and a friend disappeared, his mother said. Torres believes the young men may have run into a cartel roadblock.
She and her husband received a call demanding ransom for their son. They paid it, she said, but Robert never appeared.
Torres said she reported the case to the Mexican authorities and to the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros. “There was no movement,” she said. “There was just diplomatic paperwork.” She also contacted the FBI, she said, but they made no progress on the case.
Barrios is similarly frustrated over the response to the disappearance of his teenage son, Geovanni Jr., in 2008. The son, who had been attending high school in Texas, was visiting Barrios in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Tex., when he was dragged out of a convenience store by a group of armed men.
Barrios said he reported the kidnapping to U.S. consular officials. “They said they couldn’t do absolutely anything; they don’t intervene in Mexican issues,” he said. “Now we realize this is a terrible lie.”
The State Department, when asked for comment, said that when U.S. citizens go missing, “we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts, and we share information with families however we can.”
If it’s confirmed that an American citizen is being held captive, the department said in a statement, “we work aggressively to bring them home, using all of the tools at our disposal — diplomatic, intelligence, and military — to secure their release.”
The FBI said it “relentlessly pursues all options when it comes to protecting the American people, and this doesn’t change when they are endangered across our border. We pursue all of our cases with the same vigor and commitment to process.”
Still, U.S. authorities face complications in tackling missing persons cases abroad. The FBI generally can’t lead criminal investigations in foreign countries; local authorities are in charge. And the underfunded, corruption-riddled Mexican justice and law-enforcement system has a poor record in solving crimes.
The U.S. government appears to face a growing challenge in Mexico. The number of Americans reported disappeared and still missing rose from 324 in 2020 to 558 now, according to Mexican records — and that’s almost certainly an undercount.
Torres helps run the Facebook site Americans Missing in Mexico. It has about 500 followers. She has learned details of many cases involving families like hers, with cross-border ties. “We’re common people,” she said. “We don’t cause any trouble; we don’t have any issues with police.”
Disappearances of people of all nationalities have surged in Mexico as a phenomenon once associated with the drug war has expanded. Victims include journalists, human rights defenders, people kidnapped for ransom and innocent bystanders.
Graciela Pérez Rodríguez said the Mexican government has made some improvements in searching for victims since her 13-year-old daughter Milynali Piña Pérez, a U.S. citizen, disappeared in 2012. The girl was returning to Mexico from a trip to Texas with an uncle and three cousins when they all vanished somewhere near Ciudad Mante, around 2½ hours’ drive from their hometown in San Luis Potosí state.
“The [Mexican] administration I dealt with, in 2012, was in complete denial” about the crisis of the disappeared, she said. The López Obrador government has expanded a national commission to coordinate searches for the missing and funded state-level offices, including a respected commission in Tamaulipas.
Still, such offices have limited funding and staffing, given the scale of the problem. And Mexico’s justice system solves few cases.
Pérez Rodríguez now heads an organization of families searching for their relatives. Watching the swift recovery of the four Americans in Matamoros, she said, was frustrating.
“You’d like them to find your own family members in the same way,” she said.
Gabriela Martínez contributed to this report.
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