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About 100,000 people are missing in Mexico. These mothers are trying to find them

Portrait of Cecilia Flores, member of the group "Searching Mothers of Sonora and Jalisco". She is looking for her sons Alejandro Guadalupe, missing since October 30, 2015 in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and Marco Antonio, missing since May 4, 2019 in Bahía de Kino, Sonora. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann for NPR
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for NPR
Portrait of Cecilia Flores, member of the group "Searching Mothers of Sonora and Jalisco". She is looking for her sons Alejandro Guadalupe, missing since October 30, 2015 in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and Marco Antonio, missing since May 4, 2019 in Bahía de Kino, Sonora. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.

Cecilia Flores has been searching for her two sons for nine years.

Alejandro Guadalupe Islas Flores went missing in 2015; then, Marco Antonio Sauceda Rocha went missing in 2019. After all this time, she hasn’t given up hope that she’ll find them.

She leads Madres Buscadoras in Sonora – a group of mothers and volunteers who go on searches all over Mexico looking for missing people. On a recent day in late May, the group searched near the base of the inactive Xaltepec Volcano, just on the outskirts of Mexico City.

They had been trying to search this area – a mound of dirt, red ash and gravel with trees sprouting from it – for about a month. They believe it’s a place where people might dispose of bodies. Ash and gravel cascade down regularly, so anything dumped here can quickly get covered up. Flores has done searches like this in triple-digit temps, across different terrains. On this day, thankfully, it’s only about 85.

“The satisfaction of finding a person is worth it,” said Flores, who wears a white scarf for protection against the sun and to partially conceal her face from the police. She knows if she’s spotted, they will force her to leave.

Cecilia Flores and a group of volunteers access a property near the Xaltepec volcano to continue their search for clandestine human graves. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann for NPR / for NPR
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for NPR
Cecilia Flores and a group of volunteers access a property near the Xaltepec volcano to continue their search for clandestine human graves. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Virginia Ponce searches around the Xaltepec volcano for any evidence of remains of human bodies that could have been buried there. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann for NPR /
Virginia Ponce searches around the Xaltepec volcano for any evidence of remains of human bodies that could have been buried there. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.

In 2023, Mexico surpassed more than 110,000 disappearances. Then, last December, outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ordered a recount from the National Search Commission, claiming the numbers were “manipulated.”

The new database of missing people was initially cut to around 12,000. Families and advocates objected to this new count and led them to say the president was making them relive the trauma. Eventually, the numbers of missing people were mostly reinstated, and as ofMarch, the number of missing people is 99,729. But this number is growing because people go missing in Mexico every day.

In 2014, 43 students from a teachers college in Ayotzinapa disappeared. The incident, involving local police, the military and organized crime, was described as a “crime of the state” by the government and put Mexico’s missing people epidemic in the international spotlight.

Searching for the missing can be intimidating. Flores said they sometimes have to ask the cartels for permission to search certain areas.

“I risk my life, but what won’t we do for our children?” Flores said.

Madres Buscadoras got an anonymous tip about human remains possibly being on land at the base of the volcano and allowed NPR to tag along.

A dozen people joined the search. Though this group tends to be mostly women, a handful of young men came to help.

A local police officer stopped the group as soon as it entered the area. The officer instructed them to park their cars and said they could only roam at a radius of about 30 feet. There wasn’t much around, except for some stray trash, a tent belonging to unhoused people and stray dogs.

Mexico City police arrive at the controlled area of ​​the Xaltepec volcano to prevent the entry of the group known as "The Mothers Searchers of Sonora and Jalisco) in Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2022. (Israel Fuguemann via NPR)
Israel Fuguemann for NPR / for NPR
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for NPR
Mexico City police arrive at the controlled area of ​​the Xaltepec volcano to prevent the entry of the group known as "The Mothers Searchers of Sonora and Jalisco) in Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2022. (Israel Fuguemann via NPR)

The area the group was trying to search, the officer said, is a clandestine crematorium for dogs.

Virginia Ponce, one of the volunteers, said they were there to prove that bodies could be found there not animal remains. Ponce wore a white T-shirt with an imprinted photo of her missing son before the search began, but she removed it to not be easily identified as a searching mother.

Her son Víctor Hugo Meza Ponce disappeared at the age of 30 in 2020. She’s part of the Madres Buscadoras chapter in Jalisco but joined Flores on this search.

“I’m here to support the women of Mexico because we all feel the same pain and we’re here to help one another,” Ponce said.

She decided to begin searching for her son herself after waiting a year and 10 months for the attorney general to give her answers regarding his disappearance. It’s her belief that mothers across Mexico need to get the job done themselves, or else their loved ones will remain missing.

Unable to do much at all, the searchers get out their drone and fly it through the desert-like terrain and over the alleged grave site. Though not much is visible through this eye in the sky.

The local police chief Erika Estrella Omega arrived 30 minutes after the search group began its effort.

She was flanked by about a dozen other officers. The group couldn't go in, Omega said. This area had been under guard for the past month due to the mothers’ interest in searching.

"They came and were searching because they were told there were clandestine graves here, but there weren't any," she said. "What there are here are a lot of animal remains here, because a lot of people come to dump their dead dogs here."

The search ends. They’ll move on, hoping to find remains of the missing elsewhere.

view of the Xaltepec volcano, where a group of "Searching Mothers of Sonora and Jalisco" reported having found a clandestine crematorium where remains of human bodies illegally disappeared.on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann for NPR /
view of the Xaltepec volcano, where a group of "Searching Mothers of Sonora and Jalisco" reported having found a clandestine crematorium where remains of human bodies illegally disappeared.on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Virginia Ponce nails a metal piece of iron into a hole. She is looking to find any remains of a human body in it. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann for NPR / for NPR
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for NPR
Virginia Ponce nails a metal piece of iron into a hole. She is looking to find any remains of a human body in it. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.

The next site is only about half a mile away. The Madres Buscadoras believe three bodies were dumped there. They began digging as soon as they got there. They unearthed a tattered shirt, a belt and a sock from a six-foot-deep hole.

They can usually only dig so deep. They said they could use an excavator, but people are afraid to let them borrow one. Flores says people’s homes have been burned down in retaliation for sharing information to the group.

Mexico would elect its first woman president. These mothers believed little would change with the historic election.

Flores said she has felt what she calls apathy from the highest levels of the government. AMLO has derided her work as a “necrophilia delusion,” the Associated Press reported.

“I am not your enemy,” Flores responded in a videoon X.

Flores believes the authorities fear the mothers because they do the government’s work and expose its failures.

Flores said she has no hope that things will be different after the election of AMLO's successor and close ally, Claudia Sheinbaum, who won in a landslide and will serve for six years.

View of Mexican presidential propaganda, in the background the Xaltepec volcano, in Tlahuac, Mexico City, where the group of "Mothers searching for the disappeared Sonora and Jalisco" claim to have found a clandestine oven for cremation of human remains. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.
Israel Fuguemann for NPR / for NPR
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for NPR
View of Mexican presidential propaganda, in the background the Xaltepec volcano, in Tlahuac, Mexico City, where the group of "Mothers searching for the disappeared Sonora and Jalisco" claim to have found a clandestine oven for cremation of human remains. on Tlahuac, Mexico City, May 28, 2024.

“She's going to put her foot on our head and won’t let us accomplish anything,” Flores said.

While Flores dug at the second search, she got two calls in the span of four minutes. First, a woman called to inform the group that her son who was missing for four months was found alive. A second woman pleaded for more photos of a man whose remains were found in Hermosillo, Sonora.

Flores kept digging. More people would go missing around the country that day and the days that followed. She doesn't plan to stop trying to find them or her sons.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.