Border Report: 'Disappearance Is Worse than Death'

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Border Report: 'Disappearance Is Worse than Death'

More than 1,200 people have vanished in Baja California, President Trump is sending troops to meet another migrant caravan and more in our biweekly roundup of border news.

A family from Honduras, center, waits to be received at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico in April. The couple said they planned to seek asylum in the United States because of increased violence in Central America. / Photo by David Maung

In addition to homicides — which have been reaching record rates this year — in Mexico, there are the disappeared.

The disappeared are precisely what they sound like: people who didn’t come home, who suddenly didn’t show up for school one day. Their families often never find out what happened to them. Often, no bodies or identifiable remains surface.

There have been roughly 37,485 disappeared people in Mexico by official counts. Of these, only 340 have been declared dead. And the official counts are likely conservative because people are often scared to report cases to the police, since many of their relatives disappeared after receiving threats, and because the Mexican government doesn’t always include certain groups of people, like migrants making the journey from Central American to the U.S.-Mexico border.

About 1,275 of the disappeared are in Baja California, and roughly eight out of every 10 of the disappearances occurred in Tijuana. Baja California has the seventh highest number of disappeared of the 31 states in Mexico and Mexico City, which is a separate federal district.

On Friday, the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, which has been collecting testimonies, shared the stories of several families whose loved ones had vanished in Baja California.

“When talking about the disappeared, it’s very hard to not fall into clichés,” Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border institute, told an audience inside the Mamut Brewery Co. in Tijuana. “Limbo is hell. Disappearance is worse than death. But the truth is, that’s the reality in all of this.”

Often, Meade said, officials will tell families of the disappeared that their missing family members were somehow delinquents, taking part in criminal activity and therefore deserving of their fate. That needs to change, he said.

In hearing all the stories of the disappeared from family members throughout Mexico, he said, something stood out: Nearly all disappeared after they or another family member had received threats.

Students read aloud from redacted testimonies and one man, Fernando Ortigoza, a member of the United Association for the Disappeared in Baja California, shared his own experience with his son’s unsolved disappearance. His son’s case is a bit unique, he said. It happened on the U.S. side of the border, just a short distance from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry.

Ortigoza’s son, Jose Alberto Ortigoza, was last seen on Jan. 24, 2014, crossing the Otay Mesa border checkpoint. He had crossed into the United States to conduct business on behalf of his employer — something he did regularly. When his boss dropped him off at the port of entry, that was the last anyone saw or heard from him.

“I don’t know if my son is alive or dead,” Ortigoza said. He and many other parents have given up hope that authorities will help them, especially those in Tijuana and Baja California.

When they do lobby, he said, they go straight to the federal government in Mexico City, and very often, they’re forced to search for their children by themselves, even if it means putting themselves in danger.

“The love of a parent has no fear,” he said.

Trump Zeroes in on Another Caravan

If for some bizarre reason you haven’t heard, a group of thousands of Central Americans, mostly from Honduras, have been making their way north the past couple weeks. President Donald Trump has had a strong reaction to them, tweeting about how dangerous they are and deciding to send troops to the border to meet them.

The administration has also been drafting a proposal more broadly to deny asylum to Central Americans who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Migrant caravans aren’t new, though the two we’ve heard about this year in the press were larger than those that have traditionally come each year for roughly the past decade. But even though the groups have been larger, they don’t signify an imminent crisis at the border. The number of border apprehensions is still historically low. Even if thousands of caravan members make it all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, they’ll still represent just a fraction of the number of people apprehended at the border in a given month. As one Homeland Security official told the Washington Post, “We get a caravan every day.”

The members of the latest caravan are people who would have made the journey anyway — they have decided to do in a group because it is safer, cheaper and because they want to draw attention to the reasons they are leaving their countries and the difficulty of the journey they are making. Thousands of Central Americans have died and disappeared on these trips, or been beaten, extorted, raped and robbed along the way.

The main difference now is that increasingly high numbers of families and children are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. The United Nations estimated last week that roughly 2,300 of those making the journey are children.

Estimates of the group’s size range from 7,000 at its peak to 3,000 over the past couple of weeks, neither of which is an alarming number when considered in context, and it’s already been whittled down. Some members have applied for asylum in Mexico. Some have already been deported by Mexican authorities. Some have been discouraged by disease, fear and injury.

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