In the U.S., milk cartons carrying smiling images of missing children once served as grim reminders of the unimaginable each morning around the breakfast table. Mexicans eat tortillas the way Americans drink milk; now tortilla wrappers are being used to drum up information on Mexico’s missing men, women and children. This month, three dozen tortilla mills in Ciudad Juárez’s bad barrios began wrapping their hot tortillas in paper ads pleading for information on the missing. Over the course of the drug wars, the border city has become notorious for brutal murders and disappearances. “The disappearances in Juárez have to disappear,” read the government-sponsored wrappers.
The scourge of disappearances there—once the murder capital of the hemisphere, but now calm enough to have recorded its first murder-free weekend in five years—dates back two decades, and has included hundreds of young women, whose cases have gone mostly unsolved. The tortilla industry seems anxious to be of assistance. “A friend of mine has been unable to find her daughter for a few years,” Esperanza Lozoya, a shop owner, told media. “We have to help out.”
The problem of missing persons in Mexico goes beyond Ciudad Juárez. New government data estimates a staggering 25,000 Mexicans have gone missing in the last six years. The government list, obtained by Maclean’s, collates physical characteristics—nose shape, tattoos and piercings—but often gives little more information than the missing person’s name, address and birthdate. “Went out to buy cigarettes, but never returned,” is the extent of information relating to a woman who went missing in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. Her case remains unresolved, like so many in Mexico, where the country’s human rights commission estimates that just one per cent of murders result in a conviction.
The missing-person problem is now the responsibility of new President Enrique Peña Nieto. He promises to focus on kidnapping and extortion—not just nabbing cartel kingpins. Analysts urge him not to forget the missing. “No one is looking for them,” says Alberto Islas, CEO of Risk Evaluation in Mexico City. “Most could be dead or in mass graves.” But, he adds, police need to start looking.