The night before her daughter disappeared, an ominous vision came to Josefina De León. She dreamed of a cradle, similar to the one her oldest child, Cinthya, had slept in when she was a baby, plummeting from the sky. Disturbed, she jolted awake and roused her partner, Cruz Sanchez, who was asleep at her side. He told her he was experiencing a disconcerting dream of his own—a black suitcase, suspended in air, slowly descending a staircase. De León would later come to identify these dreams as premonitions, but as the couple lay in the darkness, they could ascribe no meaning to them and eventually drifted back to sleep.
When De León awoke the following morning, she instinctively reached for her BlackBerry on the nightstand. She expected a message from Cinthya, who was then 25 years old and lived by herself in a different part of town, letting her know she’d made it home safely after going to a party with friends. But there was none. For the moment, De León put any concerns out of mind. As she did each Sunday, she prepared for a family gathering at her modest white stucco house, located beside an unpaved road on the southern outskirts of Ciudad Victoria, the capital of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which shares a 250-mile border with Texas. De León was a 44-year-old social worker in the state’s Integral Family Development office, assisting senior citizens and orphans. She has a toothy smile, dark reddish hair that she often wears in a ponytail, and a soothing voice deepened by years of smoking.
Around eleven that morning, she sat down to a spread of barbacoa tacos with Sanchez and her seven-year-old daughter. Soon, her seventeen-year-old son arrived with a friend. De León was mildly annoyed by Cinthya’s absence, but as the hours passed, her irritation turned to worry.
It was April 2012, and all across northern Mexico, drug cartels were waging a brutal war for control over smuggling routes into the U.S. The state of Tamaulipas, with its elongated border that stretches from Nuevo Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico, was one of the most embattled territories. Cartels had so thoroughly corrupted the municipal police in Tamaulipas that the Mexican government would soon purge the force’s ranks and shut down its offices, leaving the military to try and maintain some semblance of peace.
Cinthya had witnessed the violence up close. As a clerk in the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office, which investigated murders and disappearances, she had traveled to various towns along the Texas border in the aftermath of a massacre. She had comforted victims’ families. And when she returned, she’d told her mother about the historic villages decimated by the drug war. To De León, such stories had once sounded like something out of a movie. But now, in Victoria, two hours south of the border, cartel operations had become an ever-present threat. Before leaving their homes, residents checked social media for word of violent outbreaks, and few traveled anywhere after dark.
De León was surprised when, the evening before, Cinthya had told her she planned to go out with friends. They were sitting together on De León’s second-floor balcony, staring out at the city lights below. De León tried to dissuade her. She was just nineteen when Cinthya was born, and sometimes it felt as though they had grown up together. They were best friends. But Cinthya was also fiercely independent. She promised that she would be careful.
By 1 p.m. on Sunday, De León still hadn’t heard from Cinthya, so she began calling her daughter’s friends. The few who answered told De León that Cinthya had left the party at about 6 a.m. and dropped off a friend at a gas station northwest of town. Only one person had spoken with Cinthya after that. He told De León that Cinthya had called him that morning and told him she’d been in a fender bender. It wasn’t serious, she assured him, but she sounded rattled. She cut the conversation short, supposedly to call her mother. De León pressed for more details, but all he could offer was a vague suggestion that perhaps the accident had occurred on Highway 85, north of town.
De León dialed the highway patrol and hospitals across the city, but there was no sign of Cinthya. It was evening by then, and for the first time she allowed herself to consider the possibility that her daughter had had a run-in with the cartel. She didn’t sleep that night. She wouldn’t sleep again for days.
Among victims of the disappeared, there is a common refrain: all of Mexico is a clandestine grave. Since 2006, more than 37,000 disappearances have been reported across the country, though most experts believe the actual number is much higher. And there have been far more disappearances in Tamaulipas than in any other Mexican state. While it accounts for merely 3 percent of Mexico’s population, Tamaulipas has recorded nearly 20 percent of the country’s disappearances during that stretch. The state currently has roughly seven thousand cases on file, according to Irving Barrios Mojica, Tamaulipas’s attorney general, though he claims that number is imprecise. A proper accounting “is very difficult to assess,” he says, pointing to various obstacles. Many victims’ families file cases in multiple jurisdictions, while others don’t report the missing at all because they’re fearful of cartel retaliation or distrustful of police.
The state’s biggest blessing, its proximity to the U.S., is also its curse. Tamaulipas shares sixteen ports of entry with Texas, ranging from the industrial cities of Matamoros and Reynosa to the massive border crossing in Nuevo Laredo. More than $1.5 billion in legal trade—everything from car parts to avocados—crosses the U.S.-Mexico border every day, and roughly half of that goes through Tamaulipas. Much of the state’s economy is based on agriculture and manufacturing, but illicit trade has long been at least as profitable. During Prohibition, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, considered the godfather of the Gulf Cartel, smuggled whiskey into Texas. Over the following decades, he cultivated relationships with Mexican politicians to protect his criminal enterprise.
In the late eighties, when the Drug Enforcement Agency clamped down on Caribbean smuggling routes used to funnel cocaine from Colombia into the U.S., Mexico’s cartels, including the Gulf Cartel, seized on the opportunity, leveraging their marijuana smuggling networks and forging lucrative partnerships with their Colombian counterparts. As a result, cartels reaped unprecedented profits and began competing more fiercely with one another. To protect its turf in Tamaulipas, the Gulf Cartel created an enforcement arm in the late nineties made up of former members of Mexican Special Forces units. They called themselves Los Zetas.
In 2006, shortly after President Felipe Calderón took office, he kept a campaign promise by dispatching soldiers and federal police to take on the narcos. Meanwhile, the U.S. hired thousands of federal agents and built hundreds of miles of border wall to try and crack down on the drug trade. But these efforts did little to stem the flow of drugs and instead provoked the modern era of ultraviolent cartel warfare. In Tamaulipas, the Gulf Cartel turned to the back roads connecting the state’s ranches and farming villages to maintain their operations. Local residents and visitors using those same roads were unwittingly caught up in the fray. Many were tortured, killed, and disposed of in remote locations.
The problem grew even worse in 2010, when the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel, inciting a sort of civil war. To the average citizen like De León, the criminal underworld had been largely invisible up until that point. Now some of the worst atrocities were carried out in full view of the public. In one of the most notorious incidents, the 2011 San Fernando massacre, 193 people were kidnapped and killed while traveling on public buses on a federal highway in northern Tamaulipas. By the time Cinthya went missing, in 2012, the bloodshed had permeated the entire state, including Victoria, the capital.
The day after Cinthya’s disappearance, De León told her boss she would need the day off. She drove to see Cinthya’s colleagues at the attorney general’s office. She hoped they would be galvanized to help find one of their own. Instead, De León was directed to seek help from the poorly funded Attention to Victims office, where a staff of three was tasked with attending to the needs of thousands of victims. (De León’s experience was typical of other victims. According to Human Rights Watch, “Prosecutors and police routinely neglect to take basic investigative steps to identify those responsible for enforced disappearances.”) Exasperated, she decided to search for Cinthya herself. It wasn’t unusual for Cinthya to visit Barretal, a farming village roughly forty minutes north of Victoria. She went there sometimes to play in pickup soccer matches. With little else to go on, De León figured Barretal was as good a place as any to start looking.
She called Sanchez, who picked her up in a well-used Ford Ranger he’d borrowed from his job tending farms and ranches surrounding the city. De León then called her son and asked him to prepare supper for his little sister. The couple drove past the ranches and citrus groves north of Victoria. The Sierra Madre Oriental rose to the west. They stopped at every roadside gas station and town plaza on the way to Barretal, showing strangers a photograph of Cinthya and describing her Smurf-blue Chevy Monza. But no one had seen her. By the time they reached Barretal, it was past 8 p.m., and the streets were abandoned. De León and Cruz reluctantly decided to return home.
The next day De León called her employer and asked for a leave of absence; Sanchez did the same. They spent the afternoon preparing for several days on the road, packing clothes, hats, boots, gasoline canisters, shovels, machetes, water, and canned tuna and sardines into the borrowed truck. They were determined to scour the towns and ranches surrounding Victoria, hunting for any leads on Cinthya’s whereabouts.
The farther they traveled, the more devastation they saw. Burned-out cars littered highways and country roads. Entire villages and ranches, which cartel groups often seized in order to set up temporary camps, lay abandoned. In the rural stretches between towns, De León and Sanchez made frequent stops to sort through the detritus of abandoned narco camps: empty liquor bottles, soiled clothing, oil drums that had been used to burn victims to ash. So as not to raise suspicion, they pretended to forage for pequin peppers. They returned home only when their food and supplies ran low.
A month passed without any signs of Cinthya. De León took out a $500 loan from her employer, and that carried them for a few weeks. Then she got a second mortgage on her house and bought two used pickup trucks. Not long after, one of the trucks was stolen on the outskirts of a small village north of Victoria called Conejos. She and Sanchez stopped into a store to ask for directions. When they walked back outside, the truck was gone.
A few weeks later, they were driving a barren stretch of road near the tiny hamlet of San Carlos, about seventy miles north of Victoria, when they were stopped and surrounded by a group of heavily armed men who searched the vehicle and demanded to know what had brought them to such a remote location. The couple claimed to be lost. “One man fired his rifle at the ground and we ran,” De León said. Thorns tore at their skin as they fled through the dense scrub. “All we could hear was laughing that sounded like screaming hyenas.”
They spent the night hiding amid mesquite trees. The next morning, they followed a column of smoke on the horizon to the burned husk that had been their truck.
There were other close calls. While trying to search the northern reaches of the Sierra Madre Oriental, where De León had heard a cartel maintained several hideouts, they were almost caught in a gunfight between the military and a gang known as Columna Armada General Pedro José Méndez, which had recently infiltrated the area. De León and Sanchez sped back toward Victoria, and they were nearly run off the road as a caravan of pickup trucks and sedans spilled onto the highway from surrounding ranches. Men with rifles protruding from open windows were racing to join the fight. According to social media, scores died in the ensuing fracas.
“To walk through this door, you enter a world you never imagined existed,” De León said. “I realized that my daughter might become one more number among thousands.”
The anxiety took a toll on her. De León rarely ate, and she’d become gaunt. But she refused to give up searching.
For nearly two years, De León continued in this way. She quit her job to commit to the search full time, and she increasingly turned to social media, a useful channel by which to monitor the pulse of organized crime, yet one fraught with rumors and conspiracy theories. She also monitored various websites maintained by cartel members who sometimes spoke in coded language but were just as often brazen when describing misdeeds.
On February 8, 2014, she received a direct message on Twitter from someone claiming to be a friend of Cinthya’s former boyfriend. He said he’d heard that Cinthya had been snatched off the street by mistake and taken to a ranch along with other young women abducted by the cartel. He promised to use his friendship with a low-ranking gang member at the ranch to find out whatever he could. But when he responded a few days later, his message was abrupt: Cinthya had been “eliminated,” he wrote, and her remains had been scattered. De León pleaded for information about the ranch, but he was evasive about its name, location, and anything else she could trace. He then cut off communication entirely.
De León had known that Cinthya’s survival was unlikely, but she’d harbored some hope of finding her. Now she fell into a deep depression. For weeks she refused to leave the house. She rarely changed clothes. She cried often and barely spoke to anyone. She couldn’t be certain that the Twitter messages were credible, but she often reread them for hidden meaning. “I abandoned myself,” she said. “I wanted to die.”
That spring she unexpectedly got a call from Mariana Rodríguez Mier, then the undersecretary of the Tamaulipas office of human rights. Mier offered her a job as a social worker at the Attention to Victims office. Because of De León’s courage in searching for her daughter, she had become well-known among other victims’ families, and Mier told her that those experiences would make her a stronger advocate.
De León was unconvinced. She felt that she had lost the capacity to attend to the needs of others. She was also acquainted with the state’s office of human rights through her former job, and she had little patience for its inefficiencies. Sanchez, though, convinced her that the best way to help other victims was from inside the government. Eventually, in June 2014, she agreed. On a typical day, she would interview victims’ families (they were often still dazed and thus struggled to recall pertinent details) and take inventory of their needs. She would then explain their legal right to government assistance. For some, that meant help finding work. For others, it meant medical attention, legal assistance, or scholarships for children of the deceased.
Exposure to the pain of other victims was sometimes unbearable. “I had to be strong to keep from crying,” she said. And though all of the cases were traumatic, she found the disappearances especially unsettling. For those families, like hers, the unknown meant that any sense of closure was elusive.
Yet she also discovered a support network in the form of other families that had taken it upon themselves to search for loved ones. One day at the office she met and struck up a friendship with Miriam Rodríguez, whose fourteen-year-old daughter, Karen, had been kidnapped in 2012. Afterward, Rodríguez became a vocal critic of government inaction and a prominent activist who organized other victims’ families to help look for the disappeared. She formed a group called San Fernando Collective for the Disappeared. In 2014, somewhat miraculously, she unearthed human remains in a clandestine grave in San Fernando, and DNA testing later confirmed that it belonged to Karen. She also fed information to investigators that helped lead to the arrest of nine people linked to Karen’s murder.
By early 2015, several other women across Tamaulipas had begun organizing victims’ collectives. They were each made up of dozens of members, many of whom had met while visiting De León’s office. One such collective was started by Graciela Pérez Rodríguez. In 2012 her thirteen-year-old daughter (a U.S. citizen) was traveling home from Houston with her uncle and three cousins when they vanished in southern Tamaulipas. Pérez named her collective Milynali, after her daughter.
Each collective had its own priorities, depending on its leader. Some led search parties, but most focused on lobbying the government to more aggressively investigate and prosecute disappearances. Members also assisted each other in smaller ways—offering emotional support and delivering meals during especially difficult times.
At the end of 2016, De León was fired from her job at the Attention to Victims office. She was told that it was unhealthy to allow the trauma of others to perpetuate her own suffering, though she suspects she was being punished for backing the collectives, which frequently protested the failings of the government. (Officials at the victims office did not respond to a request for comment.)
De León wasted no time in launching her own group, a nonprofit called the Network of the Disappeared, and opened a small office in Victoria. Because of her experience in the victims office, she knew how to help other victims navigate government bureaucracy. Word spread, and soon her client list numbered in the hundreds. She partnered with a team of psychologists, a social worker, and an attorney. “Being able to help allowed me to continue living,” De León said.
A few months later, though, she received devastating news. On May 10, 2017, Miriam Rodríguez left her office around 10 p.m. and drove home. After she stepped out of her car, a team of assassins approached from across the street and shot her multiple times from close range. Her husband was upstairs in their apartment, and by the time he raced outside, the gunmen were gone. Her death made international headlines. Amnesty International released a statement saying that Mexico had become “a very dangerous place for those who are bravely dedicating their lives to the search for the disappeared. The nightmare which they face not knowing the fate or whereabouts of their relatives and the dangers they face while carrying out their work, which they undertake due to the negligent response from the authorities, are alarming.”
Federal officials in Mexico faced mounting outrage from the public. Fearing that other leaders of the collectives were also being targeted by cartels, officials whisked De León and others to Mexico City, where they were placed in hiding for several months. Some members of the collectives, consumed by paranoia and fear, abandoned the cause; for others, the loss of Rodríguez strengthened their resolve. De León never wavered. When she returned to Victoria, she did as she had always done. She kept searching.
One of the biggest achievements of the collectives came at the close of that year, when the General Law on Disappearance entered into force. In addition to establishing a special prosecutor on disappearances, this new legislation created a commission responsible for developing a national forensics mechanism, a DNA database, and a plan to search for the missing. De León herself was chosen by the state congress to advise the commission. The obstacles to this endeavor, however, remain formidable. Few are actually willing to challenge the cartels, and there are insufficient resources to effectively respond to the sheer volume of cases.
Meanwhile, the violence in Mexico has only escalated. There were 33,000 homicides in Mexico in 2018, the highest number since the government began publishing the data, in 1997, and a 15 percent increase from the year prior. When he took office in December 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a truth commission to investigate the 2014 disappearance of 43 students at a teachers’ college in southwestern Mexico—one of the country’s most infamous unsolved crimes. Yet De León and other members of the collectives are skeptical. After decades of corruption, distrust of the government remains high.
De León continues to gather information about the missing from her clients and her network of sources sprinkled across Tamaulipas, including many anonymous tipsters she’s cultivated over the years. She then shares her findings with investigators. Since founding her nonprofit, she has collaborated with authorities to help unearth some two dozen clandestine graves, each containing multiple victims. Many of those searches have been conducted in partnership with a team from the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office, consisting of forensic experts, a pair of search dogs and their handlers, and a few armed guards.
Yet each April 22, the anniversary of Cinthya’s disappearance, De León searches alone. This year, after escorting a client to the victim services office and wrapping up a few clerical duties at her office, she drove her 2008 Nissan Sentra outside of the city around 3 p.m. The temperature was in the mid-nineties, which passes for spring in this part of Tamaulipas. When she reached a bus stop near the area where she suspected Cinthya had gotten into a fender bender the morning of her disappearance, she pulled over and strolled through the surrounding scrub, her gaze fixed on the ground. “You need to look at the surroundings, pay close attention to the smells, the vegetation,” De León said. “If a body is at the point of bursting, the ground rises. If a lot of time has passed, the ground sinks.”
She paced the area for hours. She still has yet to find any evidence of Cinthya.
De León arrived back home just past 8 p.m. She had dinner with Sanchez and her younger daughter, who’s now a teenager. She didn’t say much. And then she retreated to her second-floor balcony, where she last spoke with Cinthya. She often sits there after dark, staring out at the city lights, dreaming that her daughter will somehow find her way home. This night was no different. She stayed there for hours, smoking Pall Mall Lights and listening to the cars in the distance, their muffled sounds fading into the night.
Aaron Nelsen is a freelance writer and former border correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Patron Saint of the Disappeared.” Subscribe today.